Since I recently wrote about Hot in Cleveland, I thought it would be fun to look back at an earlier Valerie Bertinelli vehicle, One Day at a Time. She was just 15 when she started playing Barbara Cooper in 1975.
The pilot gives a slice-of-life picture of the Romano/Cooper family of Indianapolis. It’s not their first day in town, it’s no one’s first day on the job, and no characters are meeting for the first time. The writers could have chosen to start the story with Ann leaving her husband, or with her breaking the news to the girls that they were moving, or with their first day in the apartment. But since that transitional period is behind us, we have more opportunity to see the relationships among the characters as they function on a relatively normal day.
We open with a typical family discussion, in which older daughter Julie (Mackenzie Phillips), tries to manipulate her mother into letting her go on a co-ed camping trip. Like most teenage girls, she considers her social engagements the highest household priority and can storm out of a room as well as any modern day reality “star.”
While Julie is stomping around in self-pity, younger sister Barbara has just become the first girl on the school basketball team. Her tomboyish attitude stands in stark contrast to Julie’s girlishness, setting up for plenty of future conflicts. Valerie doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but her snarky strength here is little like what she displays in Hot in Cleveland.
The show finds its edge in exploring the age of the liberated woman. Ann jokes about—and struggles with—wearing the mantle of both mother and father to two headstrong teenage girls. She’s a strong woman and lets her daughters be strong women, too. Independent though she may be, Ann is pursued by two men; her younger, charming divorce lawyer, David (Richard Masur), and the smarmy, married building superintendent, Schneider (Pat Harrington, Jr.).
The show was taped in front of a live audience, so we get our cues when to laugh and how hard. However, the jokes arise naturalistically out of the dialogue. The only time the jokes get ham-handed is in the banter between the two sisters. Barbara calls Julie “the pits,” like that’s the worst insult ever. Was that a thing in the 70s?
Importantly, in addition to laughs, the show has heart. At the mid-point we finally learn what is the “first” that makes this day pilot-worthy. Ann makes her first crucial solo parenting decision , calling Julie’s bluff on a threat to move out. As Julie disappears down the hall, Ann makes the speech on which the pilot rests: “For the first 17 years of my life, my father made the decisions. For the next 17, my husband the decisions. The first time in my life I make a decision on my own, I blew it.” Bonnie Franklin gives an versatile performance, moving easily from glib to passionate, from funny to moving. Her face when Julie returns speaks volumes.
Other feminist ideas are woven in, like when Ann ponders whether God is a woman, and when she mentions that she has returned to using her maiden name. Though they were probably uncommon at the time, such ideas are treated as matter-of-fact. Today, in contrast, “feminism” is often treated as a dirty word and such ideas are lampooned—my, how far we’ve come. Unfortunately the Julies on television seem to have outnumbered the Barbaras; just look at the women on Hot in Cleveland.