“One Day at a Time” recently escaped a brush with cancellation, so it’s appropriate that the new season begins with a head count to make sure that everyone’s OK.
The occasion is the 2020 census. A government worker (a cameo by Ray Romano) knocks on the apartment door of the Alvarezes, the Cuban-American family that resided for three seasons on Netflix until the streaming service dropped the deeply loved but (we’re told) insufficiently watched sitcom.
The scene serves a practical function for the show, which was saved by the Pop TV network and begins its fourth season Tuesday. For the benefit of a new cable audience, Romano’s character walks us through a thumbnail introduction of everyone: Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), a single mother and military veteran; Lydia (Rita Moreno), Penelope’s irrepressible mother; and the Alvarez kids and hangers-on.
As for the longtime fans, you can relax. “One Day at a Time,” in three episodes screened for critics, is fully intact in personnel, laughs and creative mission. The only things missing are a concession to the shorter run times of ad-supported TV: a few minutes off the average episode and, sadly, a sharply truncated version of the addictive theme song. (“This is it,” indeed.)
What’s not diminished is the show’s commitment to its theme of representation, as the opening also makes plain. A census, after all, is more than simply counting; it also sorts the population by demography and identity.
This is something a little more fraught for a family like the Alvarezes in 2020, as Penelope says after she answers the door: “A guy wanting a list of Latinos in my house? No, thanks!” But it is also — like having a family sitcom on prime-time TV — a chance to stand up and be counted.
And “One Day at a Time” is still about identity, in many forms. The census bit reintroduces us, for instance, to Penelope’s teenage daughter, Elena (Isabella Gomez), who came out as gay in the show’s first season, and her gender-nonbinary significant other, Syd (Sheridan Pierce). Schneider (Todd Grinnell), the family’s hipster landlord and needy friend, introduces himself as “cis white-male ally, privileged but super woke.”
The comedy, adapted by Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce from the 1970s classic (whose producer Norman Lear executive produces here), works within the decades-old sitcom format while staking out room in it for a broader America.
This is still the sort of show in which the audience gives a big “whoo!” every time Moreno enters dramatically through the curtains of Lydia’s apartment alcove. It’s a delight to see Moreno, given a plum late-career role, glory in the audience’s energy and feel her comedic powers. One of the show’s theatrical pleasures is seeing a top-notch cast put a spin on its familiar rhythms, from Machado as its anchor to Stephen Tobolowsky as Dr. Leslie Berkowitz, Penelope’s boss and Lydia’s resignedly platonic companion.
But within its format of zingers and comic misunderstandings, the new “One Day” has a lot to say. Penelope’s veterans’ support group, for instance, recurs frequently as a sounding board, one of the rare instances of a sitcom’s paying close attention to the emotional and practical challenges of vets. The show is money-conscious, race-conscious, gender-conscious, but too funny and heartfelt to feel self-conscious.
Where past seasons have taken on immigration, mortality and intra-family homophobia, the new season focuses on the characters’ romantic relationships (or for Penelope, the lack thereof) and on the stresses of having a close — sometimes too close — extended family. Penelope’s son, Alex (Marcel Ruiz), is getting older and now has a girlfriend, while Penelope, having broken things off with her boyfriend Max (Ed Quinn), is dealing with regrets and pent-up physical energy.
“One Day at a Time” is not too proud to handle these story lines with awkward jokes and double-entendres. But it grounds its sitcom premises with real stakes and character history — in this case, Penelope’s being torn between loneliness and wanting to keep the sense of self she has regained since her divorce.
None of this blows open the sitcom format, and with this level of execution, the show doesn’t need to. Likewise, the move from streaming to a more traditional form — cable TV with ad breaks — doesn’t much change “One Day at a Time,” which is all to the good. This is it, and it’s enough.