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Norman Lear’s Quiet Netflix Revolution

‘One Day at a Time’ brings experimentation to the stodgy multicamera sitcom

(Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer illustration)

No name comes up more often in conjunction with the current state of a certain kind of TV comedy — the one with actual jokes and without fancy camerawork — than Norman Lear. What Louis C.K. is to comedy’s auteurified new school, Lear is to the traditional sitcom. He’s the manufacturer of the prototype from which a number of contemporary network shows unafraid to touch the third rails of sex, religion, and politics (Mom, The Carmichael Show, Black-ish) draw. And Lear made a lot of prototypes: His productions All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Good Times are all essential to modern TV’s DNA.

That doesn’t mean Lear’s humor necessarily translates neatly to the present day, nor to a broadcaster like Netflix, the bleeding edge of present-day viewing habits. So, in the process of updating his late ’70s–early ’80s hit One Day at a Time for 2017, Lear and his collaborators had to conform to the platform, not just the sensibility, favored by contemporary TV fans. Luckily, One Day at a Time isn’t the first show to have made the attempt. Fuller House is Netflix’s most high-profile sitcom to make use of multiple cameras, prefab sets, and studio audiences. But The Ranch, Ashton Kutcher’s red-state affinity project that launched last spring, is One Day at a Time’s closer companion. In bringing TV’s stodgiest template to its most newfangled provider, The Ranch tackles a similar challenge, and it’s the show One Day at a Time has taken as its lead.

Beyond Lear’s own involvement, One Day at a Time adds something extra to the social-issue sitcom revival. The series isn’t a straight remake of one of television comedy’s classical forms — it’s a collision of that form with one of the genre’s newest. The combination is more seamless, and more natural, than it sounds. And it’s helped to create a new species of show altogether, one that initially sounds like a paradox: the multicamera dramedy.

The rebooted Netflix version of One Day at a Time premiered last Friday. Developed by Lear along with fellow executive producers Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon Kellett, the new One Day at a Time retains few details of the original beyond a name, a landlord named Schneider, and a theme song (though this version comes to us via Gloria Estefan). Rather than following a single mother and her two daughters in Indianapolis, the reboot transplants the action to Los Angeles, where it makes the central family unit Cuban American, and adds a matriarch in the form of Rita Moreno’s Lydia Alvarez.

“This is a brand-new show that uses the same title,” Lear told Vulture in a joint interview with Kellett. But if the details are insistently contemporary — in the 2017 version, Justina Machado’s single mother Penelope is an Afghanistan veteran whose estranged husband is still serving there — the ethos is unchanged. Lear has long been credited with inventing the so-called social-issues sitcom, in which television didn’t sanitize its fictional world of serious problems. Instead, Lear’s shows faced them head-on, albeit in a wrapped-up-in-21-minutes way: Conservative dad Archie Bunker squared off with his liberal son-in-law over the topics dividing the country in real life; the title character of Maude went to therapy and got an abortion; the characters of Good Times lived in Chicago housing projects modeled from the city’s famous Cabrini-Green complex. Lear’s artistic descendants have carried on that tradition with episode-long dissections of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault allegations (The Carmichael Show, “Fallen Heroes”), naturalization (Fresh Off the Boat, “Citizen Jessica”), and police brutality (Black-ish, “Hope”).

Here, Lear himself takes back the reins with the help of Kellett, Royce, and an exceptional cast. In just a handful of episodes, One Day at a Time takes on veterans’ mental health, workplace sexism, religious observance, and undocumented immigrants, incorporated on the strength of a warm and instantly natural family dynamic. Moreno’s flamboyant yet conservative grandmother, Machado’s determined single mom, Isabella Gomez’s woke teen, and Marcel Ruiz’s conceited tween are immediately distinct without lapsing into stereotype, creating a believable yet animated group of personalities and achieving that rarest of feats — a comedy that takes fewer than a dozen episodes to establish its rapport, both within the cast and with an audience. It’s been 20 years since Lear’s last new sitcom, 1994’s 704 Hauser; still, One Day at a Time immediately feels of a piece with its ancestry, even as it feels very much a product of 2017.

But just as the Norman Lear–social-issue sitcom has its conventions, so does the Netflix comedy. The defining trait of the Netflix show is looseness, both in behind-the-scenes supervision and, perhaps as a result, on-camera structure. At first glance, that trademark is fundamentally at odds with the Lear-style comedy, with its formal and stylistic signatures. Those characteristics are a direct outgrowth of its native habitat of network TV: tightly structured acts hewn around commercial breaks and tightly structured jokes to match, all handled in self-contained installments to stand on their own week to week.

Compare that to Netflix’s elastic episode lengths, entire-season-as-storytelling-unit philosophy, and concomitant sprawl. These are features that have brought its shows under some critical fire but also given rise to its own distinct form of humor. It’s a difference best illustrated by the contrast between the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, originally produced for NBC, and the second, produced with the knowledge it would air on Netflix. The jokes are longer, weirder, and less plot-driven, a shift Vulture’s Jesse David Fox illustrated with a single, tripartite bit about two characters’ taste in men. One Day at a Time has no trouble assimilating Netflix’s new rhythms into its well-worn framework. One episode begins and ends with different women — first Moreno, then Machado — making breakfast. Music plays. The music gets louder, which is when the dance moves start. Lydia uses her nightgown as a flamenco skirt. The whole morning routine takes about 90 seconds longer than it would on a traditional network, and they’re 90 seconds well spent. We’re getting to watch these people live their lives before we watch them fire off the jokes.

One Day at a Time is a remarkable achievement, though not entirely without precedent. Cocreated by Blossom impresario Don Reo and Mike and Molly alum Jim Patterson, Netflix’s The Ranch has the log line of a 2010s CBS sitcom, the deceptively thoughtful approach of a Lear one, and a melancholy execution all its own. The show follows Ashton Kutcher’s failed professional football player as he returns home to his Ron Swanson–meets–Cliven-Bundy father’s Colorado ranch. One might expect a torrent of Budweiser and NFL jokes to follow, and there are certainly some, but there’s something different about The Ranch. It’s comfortable with silence and seriousness, and it deals directly with heavy themes like aging, divorce, economic hardship, and the loss of identity. The Ranch goes without laughs for minutes on end, and because it’s a Netflix show, it can afford to — it has those extra minutes. It feels like something new: Call it the multicam dramedy.

For its first 20 episodes, The Ranch was an oddity; with the arrival of One Day at a Time, it’s now part of a trend. Neither series limits individual episodes to a single, laser-focused topic of the week. The Ranch prefers a serialized, long-game narrative, while One Day at a Time’s 30-minute installments have room for immigration debates and a silly subplot about someone’s birthday party. Eight minutes isn’t much time in the real world, but when the default is 22, it’s an eternity. The structure allows for a tonal diversity that compliments One Day at a Time’s — and Lear’s — ultimate goal of placing a sweet, supportive family and the issues that affect them side by side. Unlike prestige streaming shows that balloon in run time without adding much besides length, the streaming multicam can deploy extra length to its advantage.

One Day at a Time is unafraid to end episodes on the sort of downer note its heavier subject matter occasionally produces, since it knows viewers won’t have to sit with that sadness for a full week: One episode ends with three women crying and embracing after an emotional talk about deportation. More often, the show simply goes quiet, ending on scenes of simple domesticity rather than a traditional button joke to send viewers on their way. The effect is to amp up the naturalism an intimate family show needs to work.

Netflix and Norman Lear still make for an odd couple. (Ninety-four-year-old Norman Lear! On Netflix!) But the growing evidence that a 20th-century format can thrive on a 21st-century medium means only good things for both sides of the equation. A humanistic ethos badly needed in today’s cultural climate survives into a new era, and audiences continue to benefit from entertainment that manages to distract us from our problems by acknowledging them. Liberated from a need to be diamond-sharp from credits to closing, the socially conscious multicam has shown it can adapt to television’s new ecosystem and even develop into something genuinely new.