Netflix Canceled ‘One Day at a Time’ in the Most Frustrating Way Possible (Column)

A month after dropping the third season of “One Day at a Time,” Netflix announced that it won’t be renewing the acclaimed series for a fourth. It wasn’t a huge surprise; the scrappy family sitcom has been fighting for its life since day one, doing its best to stand out amidst Netflix’s increasingly enormous tidal waves of content. And yet every season found the show up against the wall, forced to justify its own existence by pointing out just how groundbreaking its heartfelt depiction of a Latinx family truly is and could continue to be, if Netflix would keep putting its money where its mouth is.

Canceling its own shows is Netflix’s right (and not for nothing, “One Day at a Time” being produced by Sony and not Netflix proper certainly had to be a factor, whether the streamer will admit it or not). But the way in which this particular cancellation unfolded in light of Netflix’s recent push to tout its commitment to diversity represented the company at its most frustrating.

There’s so much to be frustrated about with this cancellation. First, there’s the basic fact of its singularity in the vast (and vastly repetitive) TV landscape, now snuffed out unless Sony can successfully shop the series to another network. (For what it’s worth, the odds of this seem low; Netflix exclusively owns the licensing rights to the first three seasons and is unlikely to give those up.) Based on Norman Lear’s 1970’s sitcom of the same name, and boasting the legendary producer as an integral creative voice, “One Day at a Time” is smart, funny, and, most crucially, empathetic toward people who rarely get such attention and consideration.

Justina Machado’s Penelope, an army veteran struggling with anxiety and depression while single-handedly supporting her family, is a mother figure that TV rarely represents. Her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) came out as gay in the first season, and subsequently became one of the most realistic and grounded teen lesbians to ever grace TV. And if all that doesn’t convince you of the show’s worth, perhaps Rita “EGOT” Moreno will, since her every flamboyant entrance has more spark than most comedies are lucky to find within an entire season.

Over three seasons, “One Day at a Time” tackled racism, addiction, citizenship, mental health, and the evolution of LGBTQ acceptance with astonishing nuance — and it did so while centering working class Latinx characters who almost never get to be the stars of their own stories. At a time when racist dog whistles dominate political debate and demonizing Latinx people is par for the course, “One Day at a Time” provided a respite that isn’t just a relief, but a necessity.

Netflix understood the cultural significance of the show. As co-showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett tweeted shortly after the third season premiered in February, the company “made clear that they love the show, love how it serves underrepresented audiences, love its heart & humor, but…we need more viewers.”

From there, Calderon Kellet, her co-showrunner Mike Royce, and the cast embarked on an earnest social media campaign to drum up attention for the show. The swell of support was heartwarming, but it was startling and frankly depressing to watch them take Netflix’s job into their own hands. They were, in essence, forced to beg the internet for their jobs while Netflix keeps trumpeting its diverse bonafides in order to prove the platform’s power.

But as per Netflix, that campaign was unsuccessful, and the show’s apparently soft numbers ultimately led to its definitive cancellation. Both chief content officer Ted Sarandos and the main Netflix Twitter account emphasized the relative lack of viewers in their statements on the cancellation, concluding that “simply not enough people watched to justify another season.” Of course, we’ll probably never know what “not enough people” means, since Netflix never releases specific numbers to the public unless it’s to say that a show or movie is “on track” to garner 40 million viewers. But every network is well within its rights to cancel or renew a show based on its ratings, and if “One Day at a Time” didn’t make the grade, that is sadly that.

Still: even while canceling the show, Netflix tried to have its cake and eat it, too. Its overly familiar Twitter thread breaking the news to its millions of followers waxed poetic about how heartbroken viewers shouldn’t “take this as an indication your story is not important.” It even insisted that “the outpouring of love for this show is a firm reminder to us that we must continue finding ways to tell these stories” in the same breath in which it was shutting those stories down. 

I don’t doubt that there are many Netflix employees who are “One Day at a Time” fans who are just as upset about the cancellation as the rest of us, and I’m genuinely thrilled at how many non-white and LGBTQ creators the company has lifted up over the years. But in trying to couch this cancellation in saccharine rhetoric about how important “One Day at a Time” truly is, Netflix comes off more condescending and disingenuous than anything else. No matter what its Twitter accounts would have us believe, Netflix can’t “yas, werk diversity!” its way out of being a corporation that puts numbers (whatever they are) first. 

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