The phrase “one day at a time” is employed in a number of twelve step programs, because it encompasses the continuing, sometimes lifelong struggle with addiction; it soothes and calms in the face of what may seem like incredible odds. It’s an empowering mantra because it gives its user the confidence to take charge of his or her situation.
It’s also the ideal title for a ‘70s sitcom about a newly divorced single mother trying to raise two teenage daughters while being on her own for the first time at the ripe “old” age of 34. It’s ideal because, despite whatever plans one might have, the pressures of the world—work, sex, doing right by your children—can only be tackled as they come, and this provides the general premise of One Day at a Time.
One Day at a Time was the first successful sitcom to reflect the reality of single parent families in the US in the ‘70s, and it’s frank discussion of the issues such families faced—along with others such as teenage sex, sexism and women’s liberation—made it one of the most original shows in TV history. But here in the 21st century, where divorce is commonplace and sex is trumped on every billboard and internet banner ad, does this show hold up? Surprisingly, yes.
One Day at a Time is the story of Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) and her two young daughters Julie (Mackenzie Phillips) and Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli). After her divorce, Ann moves into an Indianapolis apartment building where she is pursued by a young attorney David (Richard Masur) and hounded by lecherous building superintendent, Duane Schneider (Pat Harrington, Jr.)
Setting the show in Indianapolis versus New York or Los Angeles was a wise decision because it puts the story in America’s heartland, letting the viewer know that Ann is everywoman, landlocked in the heartland and a liberated woman of her time. From the show’s opening credit’s, when Ann is shown leaving her husband’s home and jumping for joy at being away, the show is defiant of the typical Ozzie and Harriet model of the TV family, typified by Barbara becoming the only female on her school’s basketball team. This is no surprise, though, coming from the show’s producer, Norman Lear. His work on All in the Family, Maude and The Jeffersons broke new ground for race, sex and politics in the ‘70s, creating not only some of TV’s funniest shows, but also its most poignant.
Like its Lear-bred cousins, One Day at a Timewas as funny as it was smart. When Ann refuses to use her “feminine charms” to get a job, she tells her daughters, “We don’t need to use sex anymore,” leading Barbara, the youngest daughter, to say, “Great, just when I’m getting there it goes out of style.”
In another episode, Julie’s boyfriend is pressuring her to have sex. When she refuses, she declares she’s found out what being a woman really means and that she’ll do it when she’s ready, “maybe in five years, or maybe tomorrow.” These scenes are not preachy or didactic. Instead they’re genuine portrayals of issues that real people face. As such, it feels completely different from anything on TV today, where there is only literal preaching or tongue-in-cheek moralizing.
One Day at a Timecomes from an era that may have been TV’s finest. Despite the gaudy game shows and cheesy variety shows we might associate with the ‘70s it was also a time when shows had a conscience and generated conversation on important issues.
Indeed, its groundbreaking approach to the issues of the day are still relevant today.
To add a bit of levity, the show also featured a wonderful take on the “wacky neighbor” archetype in the form of Schneider. Looking like a cross between a Village Person and John Waters, Schneider is an omnipresent character who pops in and out of scenes courtesy of a building pass key. Attired in a denim best and tool belt, he is at times zany like a live action cartoon, proclaiming, “the women in this building don’t call me ‘super’ for nothing,” and often speaking random bits of Spanish while fixing the toilet. Pat
Harrington’s portrayal is equally campy, sleazy, and heartwarming, all the things that make the wacky neighbor great.
Included in this first season set is a 2004 reunion special featuring a conversation between the show’s stars and clips from the series’ nine-year run. Listening to Bertinelli, Phillips, and Franklin discuss their time on the show, one gets the sense they really were a family. Their closeness during filming, particularly during Phillips’ struggles with drugs and alcohol abuse, clearly added to the show’s authenticity, and in 2004, their genuine fondness for that time in their lives is clear.
One Day at a Time may have a dated look, but the issues raised and the reality of life for a single mom is still the same, which makes this show as relevant today, and as fun to watch, as it was over 30 years ago.