“Don’t Quit Before the Miracle Happens” – Mental Health in Netflix’s One Day At A Time

For reasons unbeknown even to me, I settled in to watch the third season of Netflix’s comedy series reboot One Day At A Time (ODAAT) on a long-haul flight earlier this year.

As someone who has an impressively bad track record for not crying at most of the media I watch, I’m not entirely sure why that environment was the one I deemed suitable for watching a show like ODAAT.

Mostly, this show makes me laugh, but just as often it makes me cry.

A Netflix-original sitcom, ODAAT is based on the 1975 sitcom of the same name. Both versions follow the life of a single mother raising two kids. However, for the 2017 remake, writer and producer Norman Lear – who developed the original series – came up with the idea that the family at the heart of the show should be Latino. This resulted in the remake centering around Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machedo) and her two children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz).

Over a run of three seasons, ODAAT has built up a dedicated fanbase, as it tells stories about what binds a family – both conventional and extended – together, in a way that has won laughs from its audience just as much as it has set lumps in the throats of its viewers. Along with storylines including the difficult relationship between Elena and her father, as well as a health scare for Penelope’s mother Lydia (portrayed by the venerable Rita Moreno), mental health has been a key theme explored within ODAAT.  

Both Penelope and her estranged ex-husband, the father to Elena and Alex, are army veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Very quickly, ODAAT establishes this fact and from thereon in, mental health is put at the forefront of the show. Moreover, it is examined in an open, honest, and unapologetic way. Conditions are named, symptoms are shown, and the effects of mental illness are discussed. In a world where shows and films often present an imbalanced look at life with a mental illness – often portraying only the darker sides of certain conditions or oversimplifying the concept of recovery – ODAAT manages to show its audience many different views of life with a mental illness. In particular, Penelope attends a regular therapy group for female veterans, and she takes medication to manage her depression and anxiety.

Mental health informs many of the character arcs in ODAAT and sometimes forms the centrepiece of specific episodes. However, it is just as often subtly weaved into the narrative; a thread running through much of the show. The consistency and detail of the way mental health is presented is one of the things that sets ODAAT apart. That being said, however, there are particular episodes and moments within the show that stand out as bastions of how to handle the topic of mental health. I would like to highlight two episodes in particular:  

‘Hello, Penelope’

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This, the ninth episode of ODAAT’s second season, opens with Penelope introducing her new boyfriend to her mother and kids. Things seem to be going great for Penelope: she and Max are going strong, her family accept her partner, and she is on top of her work and other commitments.

When she goes to her next group therapy session, she has nothing much to report by way of negative symptoms. It is then that she decides that she is ready to go it alone, and no longer needs to go to therapy or take her medication. Most other people display an element of hesitation at the decision, but Penelope simply feels it is time. However, very quickly, the cracks start to appear. She gives a talk at her kids’ school, and as she leaves she immediately settles into a pattern of unfair self-criticism. She pulls apart her presentation and chastises herself for small mistakes. She also refuses to go to dinner with the rest of the family. Instead she heads home and bumps into the family’s friend and landlord Schneider, who is a recurring character throughout the show. Not a stranger to struggles of his own – Schneider is a recovering addict – he expresses his concern for Penelope. Feeling defensive, she lashes out and proceeds to spend the following days in bed, her bedroom unlit in a way that makes it feel small. Like Penelope, the audience loses sense of how long she stays there.

As time goes on, Penelope refuses her mother’s offers of help and cannot bring herself to get up and face the day. In one conversation, she tells her mother that she has bought a new dress and wishes she hadn’t; she spent too much money and doesn’t deserve to have this new, expensive thing.

Eventually, she follows past advice from her therapy group leader and she records her thoughts. She cannot bear to play them back alone, and she calls on Schneider in the dead of night to listen with her. They sit together as Penelope’s voice plays back at them, as she asks herself how she can possibly set an example to her kids of how to live a full, happy life when she doesn’t know herself how to achieve that. She states that she is failing her children and that she feels ‘like garbage’ when other people remind her of just how good a life she has. ‘Because I know [that she has a good life]. But what’s wrong with me,’ she asks, ‘that I can’t appreciate that, that I can’t feel it? What’s the point of living if you can’t feel anything?’

Afterwards, she and Schneider dissect what they have heard. Gently, Schneider tells her ‘I think you know that healthy brains don’t go to that place’, and he urges her to start taking her medication again. Penelope resists, stating that she doesn’t want to be on antidepressants for the rest of her life and that she shouldn’t need to be. Schneider simply points to his glasses and states that he shouldn’t need those either, but they help him to see. When Penelope protests that this is something different, he takes the glasses off and asks if she wants to go for a drive.

Not only is this comparison powerful in itself, comparing mental health needs directly to those related to physical health, but it comes with an important underlying message too. No one would expect someone with vision impairment to drive a car without something that helps them to see better, and no one should expect someone with depression to try and drive forward without something that helps them to think more clearly. ODAAT explicitly tells its viewers that there is no shame in taking medication to help your mental health, and that it should be as normalised as wearing glasses.

In particular, Penelope’s stages of self-loathing (the presentation and the dress), her inability to stop lashing out, and her self-isolation have hit home hard with myself and many other viewers. Machedo delivers an impressive performance as someone who is hitting a trough in their mental health journey; she delivers everything in a way that is raw, vulnerable, and moving. This is no different at the end of the episode, when Penelope tells new boyfriend Max about her conditions. She had stated that once he had heard her out he would need to decide if he still wanted to be with her. In the show’s trademark gentle, soft way, he simply replies: ‘okay. So what’s the thing that would make me not want to be with you?’

This is something ODAAT has always done so well: it always leaves it viewers with the feeling that even if if things aren’t okay right now, then at some point soon they’re going to be.

‘Anxiety’

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I had heard talk about this episode of the show’s third season long before I actually got the plane time to watch it. As someone who has displayed symptoms of anxiety for as long as I can remember, the stakes on this one felt pretty high for me on a personal level.

In this episode, we first see Penelope get anxious after giving a patient a diagnosis at work. She starts to worry that symptoms she connects to something very mundane (gas) might have been something much worse (a ruptured appendix). As soon as the anxiety descends, the scene changes from full colour to greyscale, and we watch as the action plays out along the lines of Penelope’s imaginings of the worst case scenario. She gets in trouble with her colleague, a recurring character who we rarely see as anything but placid but who, in the throes of Penelope’s anxiety, turns angry and cruel. The patient returns and there is a dramatic, unrealistic spurt of blood as, presumably, her appendix violently ruptures. So much of what happens on screen seems ridiculous to the audience, because those of us not currently having a panic attack can look to the rational and see that Penelope has done a good job, that even is she had done something wrong it is unlikely that it would ever have lead to such a worst-case outcome.

But that is the thing about anxiety. It is not rational at all.

Only when Penelope’s anxiety attack gradually lifts does the colour return to the scene. Only when the fog and panic lifts do we return to her reality. None of what we have seen actually happens, but it is easy to see that Penelope had believed it was real. The greyscale sense of panic is repeated throughout the episode, including a moment when Penelope worries she is going to fail her exams and will not qualify. When she visits her support group about it, they all share stories about their own anxiety conditions, and about their coping mechanisms. One woman even states that she does not get anxiety. In disbelief the group leader recounts a list of symptoms and the woman realises ‘oh yeah, I get those all the time’. It is an important thing to highlight: that we might suffer from a mental health condition without even knowing it. This is why more shows like ODAAT are needed, because the more we talk the more good we can do.  

Penelope is keen to hide her anxiety from her kids, feeling that as a mother she should let them see that she has things under control and is a ‘stable person’. Others are quick to reassure her that ‘having anxiety and depression does not make you an unstable person’. This is a message that not only Penelope needs to hear: many of the audience might need to hear it too. Talk turns to how some mental illnesses are hereditary and later in the episode we see Elena, Penelope’s daughter, having an anxiety attack about her exams and college application. In truth, Elena had already been coded as having anxiety, but the show does important work in committing to exploring this further. By talking with her mother, Elena can be reassured that ‘there is nothing wrong’ with her, and anybody watching most likely finds similar reassurance.

For many, watching episodes such as these might be a powerful, overwhelming experience as much as it is a source of comfort and reassurance. It is only in recent years becoming more common to hear characters discuss specific conditions and the way they go about managing them.

The fact that ODAAT doesn’t just name the illnesses, but also goes out of its way to guide viewers to possible sources of support floors me every time. We are repeatedly shown that Penelope uses her support group to talk about her anxiety, depression, and PTSD. But as shown in both ‘Hello, Penelope’, and ‘Anxiety’, she turns to Schneider too. They have a pre-arranged discussion about what they each need when they have a relapse, and by the end of the third season it is Schneider who needs help when his alcoholism overwhelms him again for the first time in years.

It is rare to see something like that portrayed in the media. It is imperative that we see more of it. It is particularly important that we widen the scope of just who we portray as having a mental illness. There is no demographic which constantly has enough support and representation, but I would argue that some are done an even greater disservice than others. Suicide remains the greatest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. LGBTQ people are more likely to experience a range of mental illnesses, and there are countless stereotypes surrounding the myth of the ‘resiliency’ of people of colour, who are often at risk of sub-par healthcare both for their physical and mental health. The stigma for people of colour who wish to talk about their mental health is something ODAAT also brings up, by juxtaposing how Penelope is open about her conditions and how her mother calls it ‘the great shame’. More than this, ODAAT unapologetically shows the ways in which women of colour and men both suffer with their illnesses and triumph as they adapt to them.

In ODAAT mental health is connected to the day-to-day in a way that feels incredibly important. Life with mental health conditions is often portrayed alongside all of the other normal, daily experiences a twenty-first century family might face. Elena is trying to get into Yale. Alex always wants the latest pair of Yeezys. Lydia eventually creates a bucket (or ‘bouquet’) list which includes passing on the family recipes and painting a masterpiece. Penelope wants to start dating again. She also wants to get back to school to further her professional qualifications. All of these ups and downs are portrayed in ODAAT, often back-to-back with storylines about mental health. Mental health is a part of everyday life in this show, and that is key to normalising it.

It is common to hear characters in ODAAT stating that actually, they’re not okay. When shows do this, when they put mental health out there as a topic for conversation, when they handle it sensibly and sensitively at the same time, they are telling their viewers that it is okay to struggle.

Earlier in 2019, after a strong season with a large focus on mental health, Netflix announced that it would not be renewing the show for a fourth season. For many fans, it feels very much as though the life of this show was cut disappointingly short. It undeniably felt like a show that had another season, if not many more seasons, left in it. However, despite a fate that seems somewhat unfair, ODAAT’’s glowing record speaks for itself. It’s hard for me to think of a show that I have connected with so deeply in terms of its mental health representation.

If there is one thing (of many) that the show has taught us, it is embodied in Schneider’s advice to Penelope after she has an anxiety attack:

Don’t quit before the miracle happens.