Tackling authentic queer adolescence one episode at a time

In a television landscape of outdated tropes and lesbian stereotypes, One Day at a Time sets the bar for queer storytelling and subverts expectations of the sitcom format. (Image source:One Day at a Time IMDb)

By Helen Karakulak |@Helen_Karakulak

In a world of limitless scrolling through constantly updating political and social narratives, television needs to keep up or risk feeling outdated or avoidant of topics audiences increasingly care about. 

Boasting diverse representation and innovative comedic practice is the Netflix original sitcom, One Day at a Time, running from 2017 and currently airing its fourth season on the CBS owned American television channel, Pop TV

One Day at a Time secures itself as a product of popular culture as it is widely accessible, adhering to a well-known format of the multi-camera sitcom. 

This format is known to produce shows such as Friends, or The Big Bang Theory that, while successful, are still considered a lower piece of culture, criticised for their laugh tracksand insensitive plotlines

However, One Day at a Time re-establishes the format as a means to assist authentic storytelling and stimulate discourse around topics such as coming out and how it affects pre-disposed family dynamics. 

The remake of Norman Lear’s 1975 series of the same name, One Day at a Time follows single mother Penelope Alvarez, played by Justina Machado, as she navigates raising her two children and running a household with the help of her old-school mother. This Cuban American family enthusiastically reclaims the multi-camera sitcom format with its spirited storytelling. 

The show’s success is echoed by its passionate fanbase which rallied around it when Netflix decided to not renew the show for a fourth season in March of 2019.

Pleas for the show’s revival spread through Twitter, earning plenty of media coverage on how it was morethan justa sitcom

Thankfully, the show was picked up not long after, given new life by Pop TV, allowing it to continue to prove that television format lends itself well to producing quality narrative arcs for queer characters that aren’t reductive. 

If you haven’t seen One Day at a Time, crawl out from that rock you must be living under, and allow yourself to empathise with the Alvarez family and the hilarious and heart-warming altercations they face. 

Central to the show is the coming out narrative that spans the first season as Penelope’s 15-year-old, self-proclaimed social justice warrior daughter, Elena, played by Isabella Gomez, grapples with her sexuality in the lead up to her Quinceañera. 

Elena’s Quinceañera provides the overarching storyline that opens the pilot episode as she argues the inherently misogynistic tradition of the ritual with her mother and grandmother. After resolving the argument, adapting to celebrate her coming of age spans the rest of the season, intertwined with discovering her sexuality and sharing it with her family. 

While some episodes feature alternative plots or complications that are autonomous, they collectively contribute to character and plot development that achieve its goal of throwing a Quinceañera at which Elena feels comfortable being herself in the season one finale. 

However, where One Day at a Time thrives beyond other shows characteristically of the sitcom format is that it doesn’t feel a need to simplify its conflict resolution. 

In the season one finale, despite Elena emerging in a suit at her Quinceañera, which her homophobic father considers a lesbian debut, her sexuality doesn’t dominate the episode. 

Rather, it exists meaningfully as a now undertone to her character that allowed her to be comfortable in a public space. Her coming out is never positioned as a solution, and conflict around sexuality beyond coming out is addressed consistently, making it a realistic portrayal. 

The format of a series has the luxury of exploring narrative in greater depth than a feature film, and yet when it comes to stories of sexuality, many series still seek simplified resolutions to avoid exploring queer narratives further

Fortunately, this isn’t the case with One Day at a Time, which successfully uses its medium to delve into Elena’s sexuality and how vocalising it affects those around her, subverting melodrama traditionally associated with coming out narratives and using sitcom staple humour. 

Having a coming out narrative dominate the series’ first season adheres to a heteronormative concept that sexuality is easily identified. This can be seen in traits like Elena’s infatuation with Buffy the Vampire Slayerand admitting she’s more comfortable in suits than dresses. 

However, usually these traits are a product of melodramatic campaigns that do not sufficiently confront the difficulties of coming out. This is a pitfall One Day at a Timenarrowly avoids, which is a testament to showrunners Gloria Calderón Kellet and Mike Royce and their diverse writers’ room behind the series.

This diversity among creators is another way in which One Day at a Timecan be assessed as political, or in this case politically correct, as it has a larger chance of appropriately representing the queer community. 

Knowing the writers behind the coming out narrative are members of the queer community that value queer representation makes a difference in the way the coming out narrative is presented and viewed by audiences. 

While merely having Elena ‘come out’ can be seen as adhering to this dichotomy of sexuality, she does so at her own pace on multiple occasions to various family members, in a way that feels authentic to the character rather than abrasive or rushed. 

This acts as an insight both queer and straight audiences can enjoy as the sitcom format stabilises the plot as digestible and important to take in while utilising humour. 

One Day at a Time thrives in its sitcom format as it uses humour to humanise its characters which are endlessly relatable due to their flawed dialogue. 

In season one, episode 11, “Pride & Prejudice” Penelope speaks to her landlord and friend, Schneider, about Elena’s sexuality. 

“When she [my mother] finds out, you’ll know because she’ll be on the roof with a bat signal shaped like the pope’s hat!” 

Dialogue such as this thrives in the multi-camera sitcom format, as the laugh track assists its delivery, and in this case reassures that it is okay to laugh at a joke that’s rooted in a religious assumption of homophobia. 

Unrestricted by the confines of film and supported by a diverse team passionate about such storytelling, One Day at a Time is an expression of how popular culture can be political and not just take on queer representation but explore it in the depth queer audiences deserve. 

It exists in a place that reflects and recognises queer tropes and theory that came before it, while providing a benchmark for how shows can successfully intertwine the personal and political. 

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