Oh, the multi-camera sitcom. It’s one of our oldest television structures, and as a result, one of our most derided — a format that signals if not guarantees predictable beats, centrally located couches and canned laugh tracks. For a long time, the multi-camera sitcom was television, in both its best and worst connotations: formulaic, democratic, stagey, and relatively cheap. Broadly sketched and broadly appealing, multi-camera sitcoms frequently borrow not just an old format but frustratingly dated prejudices and stereotypes, making them relics in an increasingly cutting-edge landscape.
And yet. Whatever reservations one might have about the multi-cam, it is difficult to hold on to them when watching legend Rita Moreno sing, in a hammy Cuban accent, a “sexy” happy birthday for her daughter’s boss, played by Stephen Tobolowsky. The audience, unseen, is cracking up hysterically; Moreno, hearing it, throws even more weight into the performance. She has them eating out of her hand for the final bars, shimmying and crooning over the grocery store sheet cake bought at the last minute, making the most of every hip thrust and drawled-out note. You don’t have to know who Moreno is or what’s happening to stop and marvel, transfixed, at her confidence, at the audience’s enthusiasm, at the game face of Tobolowsky, who is clearly having the time of his life. It’s rapturous — the kind of audience-performance-camera synergy that is electric even through the mediation of time and space and a screen. It’s a reminder that whatever there is to be said about multi-camera television, this medium’s foundation, if not its core tenet, is about watching to be a part of something bigger. Moreno, seemingly effortlessly, delivers that inclusion.
The multi-cam sitcom is raw, awkward, and intimate — a stage play recorded live, with an audience sitting around waiting to laugh, harassed crew members running several cameras simultaneously, and performers working multiple angles at once. As ubiquitous as the format is, it’s not easy to master; indeed, one of the reasons this structure is commonly dismissed is because a lot of shows can’t bear the weight of the multi-cam, with its ponderous rhythms and tentative pauses. The format carries itself, to a point; when you expect a deadpan remark, a punchline, and then laughter, you can follow along even when you’re too young to understand it or too old to care.
“One Day at a Time,” a new Netflix comedy that reboots and refreshes Norman Lear’s 1975 sitcom of the same name, is an object lesson in how to use the multi-camera format to advantage. The new show, which updates the original’s single-mom plotline to follow a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles, is fresh, funny, and smart. Justina Machado plays lead Penelope Alvarez, a recently separated mother of two who juggles raising two adolescents, avoiding her mother’s well-meaning scoldings, and making a living as an assistant in a doctor’s office. Oh yeah: She’s also a veteran, having served in the army in Afghanistan. Moreno, as larger-than-life matriarch Lydia, is an obvious draw, but Machado holds the show together with a natural ebullience tinged with just a bit of desperation.
And with various moods, levels of seriousness, and mutual good humor, the Alvarez family fights — constantly. “One Day at a Time” is what would happen if NBC’s “Carmichael Show” and “Cristela” were mashed together; a talky, female-centric sitcom about a Latin-American family that loves each other very much and disagrees on a lot, but finds a way back to each other each time. It’s also a show that just would not work in any other format; its concern is with the mechanics of this family’s mutual existence, with the slow and repetitive paces of intimacy.
There’s a ceaseless repetition to the multi-camera format that can inspire existential angst, both for viewers and creators. The pilot episode of NBC’s new drama “This Is Us” includes a scene where actor Kevin (Justin Hartley) is humiliated when he is asked to perform a scene again with his shirt off. Similarly, in “BoJack Horseman” and “The Comeback,” the leads spend all of their time trying to escape the weird and double-edged reputation they have for being a sitcom stars from the ‘90s. In all three shows, there’s a sense of entrapment, of being stuck going through the motions for the rest of time. But perhaps the reason sitcoms are repetitive is the same reason they are so often about, and reliably appeal to, working-class people; it’s a week-to-week depiction of the daily grind, whether that is picking up after your kids or making rent.
The pilot episode alone is an exercise in using sitcom rhythms to further, not just flatten, the themes of the show. The characters are introduced to the audience with the story that Elena (Isabella Gomez), 15, does not want to have the traditional “quinces,” or quinceañera, because she has discovered it has “misogynistic” roots. Lydia does not have time for Elena’s nascent feminism; Penelope can’t see why they can’t all just have a good time. Elena, who just became president of the debate club, holds her own through several discussions — each of which has their own tenor and rhythm, a different kind of energy for each mood and setting. It is, undeniably, a bit strained and painful — we’ve just met these people, and now we have to see them fight about different interpretations of an antiquated tradition. But it’s vibrant, and vital, too; with delicate precision, Machado, Gomez, and Moreno balance the tones between them to hover right at the fulcrum between commentary and comedy. The episode settles into a rhythm, partly because the family settles into a rhythm, too; it’s using the awkwardness of the format to say something about the dynamics of intimacy, as they play out in this living room every minute of every day.
Given the show’s pedigree, “One Day at a Time’s” skill is hardly surprising. Lear — who helmed some of the most influential and intimate sitcoms of the ‘70s — reviewed every script, attended run-throughs, and even warmed up the audience before tapings. In the legendary producer’s worldview is a warmth and enthusiasm for humanity — both the specific differences and shared commonalities that make people people. “One Day at a Time” fits right into Lear’s oeuvre, in that it remarkably does not sit comfortably with either a red state or a blue state audience. It does not fit into the category of either prestige or lowbrow television, too. It’s insistently idiosyncratic and just as insistently broadly pitched; to use several buzzwords from the 2016 election, it is a mash-up of both identity politics and economic anxieties. And most importantly, it is a vehicle of discomfort and closeness — and an examination how those feelings are necessary steps towards greater unity and understanding. Of course “One Day at a Time” is a multi-cam; it feeds off of that feverish electricity of awkwardness, to do what television does best — bring people together, unwilling but starry-eyed, into a single shared moment.