Thank you, Netflix, for heeding the arguments of One Day at a Time fans and bringing it back for a necessary third season. I say “necessary” not because season two ended on a cliffhanger (it didn’t, but, boy, it was touch-and-go there for a while), but because we need ODAAT’s expertise in reflecting this crucial moment in our country’s history without resorting to preachiness.
We already know that this reimagining of the Norman Lear sitcom is a master class in pathos: Look no further than season two’s “Hello, Penelope,” which took an unvarnished look at mental illness, or its pitch-perfect finale, “Not Yet,” where viewers were confronted with the very real possibility of losing Rita Moreno’s family matriarch character, Lydia Riera, for good. (Hey, showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce? Don’t ever do that to us again.) But season three’s premiere, “The Funeral,” buries much of its pathos beneath a steady stream of genius one-liners and the red herring of a decades-long conflict, so the episode’s real poignancy may not even hit you until midway through your binge-watch.
It’s not clear how much time has passed between “Not Yet” and “The Funeral,” but Lydia’s health scare is still fresh in everyone’s minds. And, in true Lydia fashion, she refuses to come clean to her extended family: “I would not be caught dead having a stroke!” she asserts to her daughter, Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado, whose character needs to be on all “best TV moms” lists going forward).
The episode revolves around, surprise!, a funeral, for one of the innumerable aunts who make up this close-knit Cuban-American family. Except no one can remember who exactly Tía Ofelia was, save for “Tío Handsome Gringo” Schneider (Todd Grinnell), barging into the Alvarez apartment just in time to identify the mystery auntie he met at Elena’s quinceañera.
But poor “Tía Jack Sparrow” (she wore a bejeweled eyepatch) is forgotten as quickly as she’s remembered, as “The Funeral” switches gears to the overarching themes of the episode. Which isn’t Penelope’s hope-filled “Familia Para Siempre” speech, but rather (1) “Family” shouldn’t be given a free pass for bad behavior and (2) “Family” doesn’t always have to mean blood.
Ofelia’s funeral means that Lydia must interact with her estranged baby sister, Mirtha, with whom she’s been engaged in a 20-year dispute over a bridal mantilla. This nonsensical feud is only made tolerable by the fact that it involves Moreno, Machado, and the guest-star triumvirate of Gloria Estefan (who sings the reworked ODAAT theme song that, since its inception, has made a watertight case against hitting “Skip Intro”) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Melissa Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz.
As Mirtha, Estefan is a worthy adversary to Moreno’s Lydia. The two living legends gift the ODAAT audience with an all-too-brief “Ave Maria” duet, dueling salsa moves, and competing near-death experiences. But as captivating as Moreno and Estefan are together, it’s the subplot between Machado and Fumero, as well as the one featuring Beatriz and Isabella Gomez’s Elena, that are far more likely to linger in your subconscious.
There was a time when Penelope and Mirtha’s daughter, Estrellita (Fumero), were BFFs. But when “Mantilla-gate” happened, they became the Romeo and Juliet of cousins, with only the memories of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” dance moves to sustain them. Penelope, determined to reinstate family harmony, makes it her mission to quash Lydia and Mirtha’s beef so she can reboot her friendship with Estrellita.
What Penelope didn’t count on was how “Mantilla-gate” brought out her cousin’s unsettling true colors. Estrellita balks at the idea that Elena, who is gay, would ever need the mantilla for her own wedding. Then she shames Penelope for her inability to keep her ex-husband Victor “tied down” and demands that their names be removed from the family heirloom all together. By the time Estrellita delivers her episode-closing toast praising the president for “making America great again,” her ultra-conservative message has been received loud and clear.
After two seasons, we have been to hell and back with Penelope. We’ve bore witness to her depression, anxiety, and PTSD, not to mention Victor’s homophobic treatment of Elena. So we’re right there with her in our fury when Estrellita dares to pass judgment. Estrellita may be “family” to Penelope, but the truth is, Schneider has been a more vital member of the Alvarez clan than her cousin ever was. It wasn’t Estrellita who sat with Penelope in the middle of the night and helped her come to terms with her need for antidepressants. Nope, that was Schneider, because we take our support system where we can find it.
While Penelope is learning the hard truth about her once-adored cousin, Elena’s on the receiving end of some important life lessons herself from Tía Pilar (Beatriz). Now that the teenager is out and proud, she’s made it her mission to drag Pilar, known to the family as the “eccentric” one, out of the closet, kicking and screaming. After several awkward exchanges in which Elena acts like the equivalent of a neon “I’m Gay!” sign, Pilar, for lack of a better term, sets the girl straight: She’s been out to the family for a while, but, she says matter-of-factly, “It just does not stick.”
Pilar admits that there was a time when she was just like her niece, basing her existence around being gay. “But eventually,” she says, “you realize you’re just a person, and it’s really empowering not to have to be defined by who you want to make out with.”
The thing about this subplot that leaves such an enduring sadness is that Pilar hits on the uncomfortable reality about a lot of extended families and their unwillingness to fully embrace LBGTQ members. The episode has a running gag about how no one could remember that they attended Pilar’s wedding to her “longtime roommate, Susan.” (Susan is played by ODAAT executive story editor Michelle Badillo.) Lydia, who demonstrated better gaydar than Elena last season, even thought it was just “a very affectionate barbecue.” It’s great that Elena has found a new role model in her cool, lesbian tía, but Pilar and Susan’s story also suggests that she still has a tough road ahead of her when it comes to family members not named Penelope, Alex (Marcel Ruiz), Lydia, and Schneider.
And I can’t wait to see what ODAAT does with it.
This Is The Rest!
• “Tía Bitchy,” who reminds me of my late Puerto Rican mother-in-law in the way she observes Penelope is “still enjoying [her] mother’s tostones,” is played by Liz Torres, a.k.a. Miss Patty from Gilmore Girls.
• I am fully on Team Schneider, even when he asks Elena borderline-offensive questions like, “So what’s a mantilla? Is that like a ‘trans-tía’?”
• Someone needs to make a supercut of all of Lydia’s gasps.
• There should also be one of all the variations of Schneider crossing himself.
• Other than Schneider, Alex, and Estrellita’s son Flavio, this episode was all women. More, please.
• Mirtha talks about how God told her that instead of resting on the seventh day, he was actually creating her hair. It must be true, because Estefan’s locks are luscious.
• Every joke in “The Funeral” is a winner, though I have to give the line-delivery award to Grinnell for Schneider’s offer to get Elena the “goss, or chisme, as we fluents call it,” out of Pilar.
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