Arts and Entertainment

“One Day at a Time”: Representation or Ratings?

A thinkpiece on the impact of the hit show “One Day at a Time” and an examination of larger problems in the media industry.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Iris Lin

“One Day at a Time” (ODAAT) has been canceled by Pop TV. This cancellation is not the first that the show has faced—Netflix dropped the show in 2019 due to low viewership. For many, including myself, ODAAT being canceled twice is not reflective of the show’s quality. In fact, just hours after the cancellation was announced, numerous petitions advocating for its continuation began circulating online, garnering hundreds of thousands of signatures in a matter of days. When the show was revived by ViacomCBS owned Pop TV, fans of the show—myself included—rejoiced. Sadly, the show has been dropped once again and is currently seeking a new network. In fact, after the cancellation was announced, co-showrunner Mike Royce tweeted, “What if #ODAAT was the first show ever on three networks?” This may seem like a tough feat, but it certainly wouldn't the first time ODAAT accomplished the impossible.

“One Day at a Time” is a family sitcom that follows the Alvarezes, a Cuban-American family living in Echo Park, Los Angeles. The family consists of Penelope (Justina Machado), a single mother and veteran; Lydia (the legendary Rita Moreno), the larger-than-life, albeit traditional grandmother; Elena (Isabella Gomez), the budding teen activist; and Alex (Marcel Ruiz), the charming little brother. In addition to the Alvarezes, the main cast features Schneider (Todd Grinnell), their wealthy, slightly clueless landlord and Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky), Penelope’s hilariously awkward boss and Lydia’s “exclusive nonsexual platonic companion.” ODAAT includes the typical sitcom tropes but goes so much deeper than any other show.

“One Day at a Time” is such a stand out amongst family sitcoms because it tackles contentious issues in a natural way and with the nuance they deserve. The show’s main cast is composed of characters of different ages, backgrounds, and experiences, thus creating a breeding ground for misunderstandings and disagreements. In classic sitcom fashion, the family resolves these arguments by the end of the episode, giving us a neatly packaged lesson in just thirty minutes. For most sitcoms, the lesson is a cliche message about family, love, life, or all of the above. For ODAAT, these lessons are a blend of wholesome entertainment and topical content. Early in the first season, for example, the family has an in-depth discussion about illegal immigration. Everyone involved has a distinct take on the issue, but they manage to share their thoughts respectfully and productively. This format is evident in many of the episodes and applied to a multitude of topics including the LGBTQ+ community, xenophobia, racism, colorism, sexism, substance abuse, mental health, and veterans’ issues, just to name a few. In fact, ODAAT’s most recent episode, aptly named “The Politics Episode,” is dedicated to educating the audience about modern politics and how to approach conversations about polarizing topics. The show strikes a happy medium between education and entertainment, which keeps it from coming across as preachy. In addition, ODAAT delves into the intersectionality of these topics. On top of the big conversations the family has, the show also explores the relationship between race and wealth inequality, the struggles of being gay as a Latina, the stigma of mental health in communities of color, the impact of race on civic engagement, and so much more. ODAAT examines not just one family, but the world that they live in.

“One Day at a Time” puts groups that have been historically underrepresented in the media as front-and-center. ODAAT is mostly successful in portraying a well-rounded view of Cuban-American culture and, for the most part, avoiding stereotypes. Whether it’s through the subtle references to Latinx culture; short, light-hearted exchanges; or long, emotional scenes, the show captures the story of a Cuban family and explores the multiplicity of the Latinx experience. Though equal representation has and always will be necessary, Latinx representation has become especially important in the last few years. After President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the U.S. entered an era of extreme polarization. Trump’s ascent to the highest office in America has had a profound impact on minorities, specifically Hispanic and Latinx communities. Trump’s blatant racism against and villainization of the Latinx community has led to the normalization of racism and xenophobia, which were already all too prominent in our country. Several episodes are inspired by the tense political climate, which keeps the show topical and encourages viewers to confront that tension. A major theme of season two is Lydia’s path to citizenship, further complicated by immigration laws and the national dialogue about civic duty following the 2016 election.

Along with shedding light on the Latinx community, ODAAT offers representation for many other groups. In Penelope’s support group, we see several female veterans—primarily women of color—with various sexual orientations, backgrounds, and personalities. In addition, Elena’s partner, Syd (Sheridan Pierce), identifies as non-binary, a gender identity we almost never see in television. Though Syd is not a main character, the way they are incorporated into ODAAT is proof that a little detail goes a long way. The use of they/them pronouns in casual conversation normalizes the use of gender-neutral pronouns and makes it easier for viewers to do the same. The intricacies of the characters and their distinct perspectives allow the audience to see diverse representation from many communities on ODAAT.

For these reasons, among many others, the cancellation of ODAAT was met with extreme backlash. The disappointment viewers expressed is indicative of a much larger issue with streaming services like Netflix: how they cancel shows. These companies are unabashedly data-driven; if a season doesn’t get enough views, it is quickly given the ax. Netflix has even reduced the episode count for all new first seasons from 13 to 10 or less. Though it claims to value underrepresented voices, Netflix’s actions say otherwise. In a Twitter thread announcing the cancellation of the show in 2019, Netflix addressed those who “felt seen or represented… by ODAAT” telling them not to “take this as an indication their story is not important.” The responses are varied, ranging from hilarious GIFs of Lydia to essays about the problems at Netflix, but they all echo the same sentiment: disappointment.

For a while now, Netflix has tried to recreate the success of its smash hits like “Stranger Things” (2016-present), “Orange Is the New Black” (2013-2019), “House of Cards” (2013-2018), etc. They, however, wind up shooting themselves in the foot almost every time for one simple reason: they value quantity over quality. Because its main metric of success is views and clicks, Netflix often cancels promising new shows or older shows with a stagnant fanbase. After canceling many shows with LGBTQ+ and minority representation, Netflix rightfully received a lot of criticism.

ODAAT’s cancellation by Pop TV for a second time is further proof that most media companies do not value representation. Media should reflect multiple cultures, creeds, and perspectives in order to tell stories that make everyone feel seen. Focusing solely on viewership is a flawed approach, one that’s likely doing streaming services more harm than good. After recent cancellations, such as that of “GLOW” (2017-2019), “AJ and the Queen” (2020-2020), and “Patriot Act” (2018-2020), coupled with the release of the highly controversial film “Cuties” (2020), Netflix’s unsubscription rate has nearly doubled. Though movies that represent minorities like “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), “Moonlight” (2016), and “Black Panther” (2018) make millions upon millions of dollars—with “Black Panther” breaking into the billions—companies, like Netflix, have not yet realized the importance and practicality of representation. Right now, companies are being tested by their audiences, and Netflix seems to be falling behind. The media industry is in dire need of meaningful change. Without it, the industry will never evolve, and millions of voices will be left unheard.