One Day at a Time’s Season Three Is Its Funniest and Gayest Yet

I thought a lot about how to write this review. Would I rank the Top 10 Gayest Moments of One Day at a Time’s third season (with Stephanie Beatriz’s stunningly hilarious portrayal of Elena’s older gay cousin Pilar obviously ranking as #1)? Would I start with a discussion of the second episode’s brutally honest and necessarily complicated discussion of rape culture, consent, and sexual assault that’s already gone viral on Twitter? For a near-perfect sitcom that only grows bolder with each passing year, what’s the proper way to pay tribute in a review?

I still don’t know the right answer, but I do know this: Three years in, there are still few television shows on air that know how to construct stories as well as One Day at a Time. Their writers’ room breaks down arcs into not only 30 minute chunks, but also call backs that reach across episodes (or years) in ways that could be a master class. They carefully place emotional gut punches at the moments when they will be most effective, and do so without ever sacrificing laughs.

Their take on a traditional multi-cam sitcom continues to refresh a genre that many have written off as stale or from a bygone era. No one this side of Shonda Rhimes is more committed to honoring and writing the totality of women of color characters with such loving attention paid not only to their race or gender, but also sexuality, age, class, mental illness or disability. One Day at a Time’s goals are lofty, and even though I’d argue there are a few more stumbles in the third season than the previous two, presented as a whole this show is so good at what it does that it makes the entire production look laughably easy. As if anyone could walk this tightrope without breaking a sweat, if only they tried.

If you’re somehow still not watching One Day at a Time, the first thing I want you to do is close this tab on your computer, fire up your Netflix, and come back to visit me in a few hours. In its first two seasons the show set itself apart as a traditional, multi-camera family sitcom that unapologetically played close to the legendary Norman Lear’s playbook at a time when most television comedies leaned themselves towards sarcasm or experimental humor for awards bait. It’s filmed in front of a live studio audience, just like every other TGIF or Nick at Night classic.

The series uses these tropes to their advantage, lulling its audience into comfort as it explored PTSD, depression, gay abandonment, Trump-era racism, and struggles of working class family life from the viewpoint of three generations of Alvarezes. There’s the matriarch, Lydia (played by EGOT winner Rita Moreno, who at this point needs a new word for perfection), the main protagonist Army vet and single mom Penelope (Lupita to her family, continuing Justina Machado’s run as the most underappreciated work on television right now), and Penelope’s two children — Alex and Elena (Isabella Gomez starring as the gay we’re all here for).

In Season Three, showrunners Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce use their well-traveled formula to delve into gentrification and white privilege, addiction, Penelope’s continued struggle with depression and anxiety — and yes, Elena’s first time having sex. All of which are handled with nuance and the show’s trademark earnestness. With One Day at a Time each small moment can be quietly breathtaking between the laughs, so it’s hard to unravel them one-by-one. That said, looking back on the six hours I spent this weekend gleefully binging all 13 episodes, nothing stands on its own quite like Elena’s first time.

Episode 7 “The First Time” is handled with humor and the utmost care. Elena Alvarez and her Syd, her non-binary romantic partner (or rather her Sydnificant Other, get it?) are some of the few queer teenagers on television, and I couldn’t think of a single other example where the first time having sex between two gay teenagers was treated with such importance and from a balanced, sex-positive perspective. Without a doubt, it’s going to change the face of how we think about queer sex on television and queer adolescence. I’m still blown away.

Really, this entire season is so gay its nearly unquantifiable.

There are throwaway jokes about dykes in Portland; there are thoughtful meditations on what gender neutral terms to call your non-binary partner. I’d have to go back as far as the last season of Ellen itself (praise the mothership) to find another sitcom that took queer and lesbian points of view this seriously as its comedic blueprint. It’s a marvel. Stephanie Beatriz outright nails it as the aforementioned gay cousin, but also Judy Reyes returns as Penelope’s lesbian friend Ramona. It’s been a while since we first spent significant time with Ramona, in the interim Reyes has crafted an entire other lesbian character as Quiet Ann on TNT’s Claws. She’s building an entire new chapter of her career playing gays, and I really love the depth she’s finding in these otherwise incredibly different roles. Another member of Penelope’s therapy group is played by Nicky Endres, and transfemme genderqueer actor who’s character Cynthia is a necessary and subtle commentary on the important roles that trans service members have played in our military and the upcoming Trump-endorsed Trans Military ban. That means that some episodes have more than four or five trans, non-binary or queer characters in them — the vast majority of whom are played by women of color, and each with their own fully formed personality and worldview.

And that entire list I just laid out? It barely scratches the surface. Out writer Michelle Badillo was promoted to Executive Story Editor this year, and her delightful thumbprint, along with out writers Becky Mann and Janine Brito, is felt all over the place. The entire show, along with Elena and Syd in particular, is stronger for their efforts.

Last year, One Day at a Time was renewed in what felt like a frustratingly close, down-to-the-wire negotiation. Watching Season 3, I couldn’t help but wonder if that history weighed on some of the storytelling choices made by Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce. Certainly, the finale episode (and its pitch perfect mirror image of the first season’s iconic tear-jerker moment) would serve well as a bookend to the series. No one knows how to craft a third act quite like One Day at a Time, and even though this season is decidedly lighter than its previous outings, I still couldn’t make it through the season closer without ugly snot crying into my fists. It’s a return to form for Isabella Gomez, who first brought out my tears at Eleana’s quinceañera years ago. I also couldn’t help but be impressed by Marcel Ruiz’s turn as Alex. He’s found such maturity in a teenage boy character that any other show would have been happy to write for dumb jokes. Somehow, when everyone least expected it, Alex grew into the steadying rock of the Alvarez family tree.

That doesn’t mean that I’m prepared for One Day at a Time to end its journey any time soon. I have a lot of love left with this family that reminds me so much of my own. In fact, when Season Three dropped on Friday, I was in the middle of having my own Puerto Rican relatives descend upon me (don’t worry; unlike the Alvarezes, there was no family funeral). Coming back to my apartment after spending time with my larger than life, full of laughter, always willing to hug and love on me cousins, I was thankful to have the Alvarezes with me to dull the ache of their absence. They may be a fictional family — but they feel like home. What could be higher compliment than that?

Carmen is Autostraddle's Associate Editor and a black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but has left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow at night. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 114 articles for us.

38 Comments

  1. Everyone who wants a season 4, please watch the show NOW (in the next 2 weeks) as opposed to waiting.

    The word on Twitter from Mike Royce, one of the showrunners, is that Netflix makes renewal decisions based on viewership in the first two weeks after releasing a show. Rewatching helps, too.

    Thank you for your great review, Carmen!

  2. I didn’t know of Nicky Endres before this article. That is awesome they hired a non-binary trans-feminine actress to play a military vet!!

    I loved so much about this season. It was really amazing how they handled Syd & Elena’s sex storyline and Penelope’s support, emphasizing the importance of feeling safe and good. I especially loved how Syd said they didn’t ever have to have sex if Elena didn’t want to. That provides a lot of hope for asexual teens, wlw, and others who are afraid they won’t be able to find love unless they are willing to have sex. I do wish they had discussed safer sex being important even for two people with vaginas.

    I am so glad for the non-binary representation and discussion on this show (I am non-binary myself). *AND* I am confused about who is writing some of the parts that really don’t seem aligned with what most non-binary people would say. For example, “identifies as they” is not a thing that I have heard any non-binary people say in the last few years. And last season’s “some people are gender non-conforming and thus have certain preferred pronouns” missed the mark, because everyone of every gender (including cis people) have pronouns. All in all, it is still pretty great representation, though. And “Syd-nificant Other” is a perfect example of the punny brilliance I love from this show

    At last year’s ODAAT ClexaCon panel, disabled YouTuber and activist Annie Elainey moderated and asked if we would ever hear Elena discuss ableism on screen. I am disappointed that they didn’t seem to do that this season. They had a GREAT opportunity to discuss ableism and disability with Lydia’s post-stroke storyline about how she was mourning and adjusting to her changing abilities. As a disabled fan of the show, I would love to hear a disabled character talk with her about how life can still be rich and wonderful when you become disabled, how mobility devices can be liberating, and how changing your activities due to disability is not the end of the world.

    The only show I have ever heard use the word “ableism” and discuss it was The Fosters in season 5 episodes 11 and 12. And that was only after strong pushback from disabled viewers due to how they were handling Jesús’s TBI storyline. If ODAAT gets a season 4, I would love if they hired a disabled activist to write some parts (perhaps even Annie).

    I would love some more nuance around the discussion of causes of depression and anxiety. A chemical imbalance can definitely be a part of these issues, *and* also living in an oppressive (racist, sexist, anti-gay, classist, capitalist, etc) and violent society definitely contributes a LOT. Also, I know from personal experience that abandonment from a parental figure due to your gayness can cause life-long trauma and mental health issues.

    I will stop there, lol. I love this show!!!

  3. I loved most of the season, but I am super concerned about the scene where Penelope and Ramona were discussing safe lesbian sex (as they referred to it on the show). Ramona said there’s “almost no chance” of contracting an STD, which isn’t exactly accurate. Like yes, there’s a lower chance depending on positions and whether or not you use toys and a whole lot of other factors, but it’s pretty irresponsible to broach the topic of safe sex and then brush it off so quickly. Considering there’s already next to no discussion of queer sex practices on TV, I was disappointed by how they handled that conversation.

    Otherwise, let me just say that every single one of Syd’s lines makes my day and I fully cried during this season’s finale. Twice. This show is really quite special.

    • Agreed. I wished Ramona would have mentionnée dental dams at least, and then maybe acknowledged how bad a lot of queer women (myself included) are at practicing safe sex.

      Also Penelope at that point is studying to become a nurse practitioner, you’re gonna tell me she doesn’t know which stds can be transmitted between two people with vulvas?

    • It would totally fit Elena’s character to know all about safe lesbian sex so I was disappointed with that too. Apart from anything else it was completely irresponsible of them to say that there’s almost no chance of catching anything.

  4. This. Show!!!! I just love it so much, it’s such a charming show with the best characters.

    My wife and I are only a few episodes in but so far my favorite moments have been the “non-binary heart” card she gave to Syd and the Way Haight reference (that was misspelled on closed caption, heh). Pleaaaaasse get a 4th season!

  5. ive basically been crying all day because of this show / i can’t believe that its been three years???? im a mess

    “They may be a fictional family — but they feel like home. What could be higher compliment than that?” YES !!!!!

  6. It’s back! I’m so excited! I forgot how much One Day at a Time made me laugh/cry/feel everything last year. I’m four episodes into the new season and I adore it, and you’re so right, the Alvarezes feel like home.

  7. I love this season a lot. This was a great write up as I learned a few things like trans actress Nicky Endres. I’ve been told the writers room is diverse and queer, which is great. Only criticism and it was from a friends partner(Mexican guy) who said for a show based on LA the lack of Mexican representation in that part of L.A. was the only unbelievable part. Vida does that better in that respect. I didn’t think about it until he mentioned it.

  8. This show makes me so happy! It really helps with my anxiety and feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket. I think this is my favorite season yet. Just consistently excellent the whole way through. Oh and I just want to say that I love the apartment so much and wish I could live in one like it. *sigh*

  9. I ugly sobbed quite a few times, especially during the hotel scene where Syd tells Elena that if she never wants to have sex they’re totally cool with that.

    That said I though a few times the show was beating us over the head with its wokeness/attempts at educating the viewers (whenever they fall into ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’) but I’ll forgive them because the rest was a masterpiece.

  10. I loved so much about this series! Elena and Syd’s relationship and how sensitively sex was handled, Pilar <3, Alex growing up and maturing, Penelope and Elena's anxiety attacks, the way Schneider's relapse was treated and his relationship with his father.

    The finale was wonderful with the father-daughter dance and made me cry. I was really disappointed that Syd wasn't at the wedding though. They've been with Elena for over a year, they love each other, if they were a straight couple then Syd would've been there without question. Schneider and Dr B were there and it's not like Victor has any real connection with either of them! I wouldn't have minded if Elena had said she was uncomfortable with Syd being there because of family homophobia so hadn't asked them but to just ignore their existence frustrated me. For a show that does so well with queerness I feel let down by that.

    • I had the same complaint, and one of few complaints on the season. I can understand that there may have been a logistical reason for Syd not being present — she’s a recurring character, not a regular (upgrade her, please?), and maybe Pierce simply wasn’t available. But they should have at least addressed her absence with a line of dialogue.

      I’d love an eventual spinoff where Elena and Syd go off to college together. 🙂

  11. The minute I saw that Michelle Badillo co-wrote the episode with Elena’s first time, I knew we would be in good hands.

    There is no show that makes me laugh so hard one minute and cry so hard the next. The “She Drives Me Crazy” episode where Penelope tells Elena “You are enough” because Lydia never told her that…UGH, just so many tears.

    Everyone please watch this show!!! I need a season 4!!!

  12. Just finish binging the whole season, and oh my god, it was so wonderful. Especially the last few episodes just hit me so hard – Penelope talking to the kids about her panic attacks, Schneider in the laundry room with Alex, and Elena giving her speech to her brother, all made me cry. I’m just so so grateful that this show exists.

  13. So much of this show is brilliant, I wish it wasn’t so insistent on making every episode a ‘very special episode’. I’d take less lecturing and more of the family (or Elena/Syd) just hanging out and doing normal family stuff.

  14. I love this post and I appreciate all that Autostraddle authors do but I was really hoping we could get recaps. At least for the gayer episodes? I also had such a strong reaction to the First Time episode, and I would love to see a writer dive deeper into it, and perhaps the Valentine’s Day one too. Any chance that might happen 🙂 ?

  15. I love this show sooo much! I really love Syd, I wish their character was included more or at least mentioned in the second half of the season. I was surprised that after the first time episode they pretty much aren’t around. I just really want more Syd!!!
    Also a Syd Style Thief would be wonderful!!! Their clothes are always so incredibly gay and perfect

  16. I know I am way late to this party but we just finished the season last night and I need to say that Justina Machado’s face acting when she finds out Elena and Syd are having sex was utterly hilarious and brilliant, and deserves an Emmy in its own right. You could follow her train of thought perfectly: “WHAT?!… Wait what do they even… Wait I don’t want to know… Oh shit I have to give “the talk” now… But hey I guess this means she can’t get pregnant… Ok I have no clue what I’m supposed to do here”

  17. I love this show and am so grateful for it. This season! Ugh. Elena’s first time, Alex maturing and learning how to be an ally, Schneider’s whole arc, and our girl Penelope’s happy ending being this big professional achievement! so much to love, so many cathartic tears…

  18. oh and i LOVED the fact that two of the show’s queer writers had cameos on the show!! michelle badillo was steph beatriz’s partner; janine brito was a friend of nicole’s (or maybe nicole’s sister, mia)

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