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Cultural Review: One Day At A Time turns a cynical instinct into a culturally-specific triumph

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Michael Yarish / Netflix

On Friday, Netflix debuts a new series from Norman Lear, but I don’t want to talk about either the streaming service or the iconic producer.

This is, admittedly, somewhat counterproductive. One Day At A Time is part of a growing collection of multi-camera projects for Netflix, and thus part of their larger programming narrative—the service continues to expand its profile in the TV industry seemingly every week, and its investment in this “traditional” genre is undoubtedly part of this. And as for Lear, my disinterest in discussing his involvement in this reboot of his 1975 sitcom is not meant as a slight on his legacy or his contributions to this series, which are all deserving of praise.

However, in both cases, I struggle overemphasizing these parties when discussing the myriad strengths of One Day At A Time, a show that thrives in its specificity despite being a product of a culture of reproduction. While Netflix will get kudos for distributing the series, and Lear deserves recognition for his pioneering of a sitcom model imagining television as what Newcomb and Hirsch dubbed “the cultural forum,” One Day At A Time succeeds because it finds purpose and meaning where none was guaranteed, or even likely.

The origins of the series, as presented by Vulture, can be read two ways:

When legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear kicked off the book tour for his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, the head of production and development at his company, Act III Productions, had a thought. “I wanted to get him back into TV to show people how relevant he still is,” said Brent Miller, the Act III executive. “It’s something people miss.” The idea to revive one of Lear’s legacy properties — the 1975 CBS sitcom One Day at a Time — was floated, but with one crucial difference, driven by the results of a marketing survey showing that single Latina mothers are a desirable target demographic: This time, it would center on a Latino family.

The first way is to focus on Miller’s goal of bringing Lear—a television icon—back to the industry, a timely one given the debut of NBC’s The Carmichael Show and the increased focus of ABC’s Blackish into cultural issues during this same period. That goal is admirable, and no one would be upset at the idea of Lear coming back to television.

The second way, however, is to focus on Miller’s actual strategy. Instead of having Lear work on a new series, perhaps partnering with a young writer similar to Carmichael‘s Jerrod Carmichael to develop a new property, the immediate instinct is to remake one of his existing series. Moreover, the choice to focus on a Latino family wasn’t motivated by a perceived lack of representation: it was motivated by a marketing survey, chosen to make the concept more desirable to Sony (the studio that held the rights, and would go on to produce the show) and Netflix (the distributor who would eventually purchase it).

This is not, ideally, how creativity is supposed to work, although it’s typical in the television industry. There’s a suggestion here that Miller—perhaps from past experience—did not believe that an original project from Lear would find a home, and that’s unfortunate if true. But the idea that this had to exist as a reboot of an existing property, and that its focus on a Latino family originated with a marketing study, points to the television industry’s unwillingness to abandon traditional profit motives, even when creating something that can—and, considering the final product, should—be framed as a step forward for representations of Latino families on television, and even when Netflix theoretically should be able to function outside of those logics as a self-proclaimed “disruptor.”

And so the fact that One Day At A Time is a great and meaningful television show is in spite of—rather than as a result of—its origins. Some of this credit goes to Lear, certainly, but it has much more to do with those who came on to run the series managed to turn it into something far beyond what its origins required. There is a version of One Day At A Time that barely goes beyond its initial pitch, telling generic family sitcom stories but with Latino actors, and living up to its promise for Netflix (interested in targeting niche audiences as a subscription-based service) and, on a basic level, to Miller’s initial goal of reviving Lear’s production company. However, what debuts on Netflix Friday is far from generic, and it has everything to do with what happened after the show was initially conceived.

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