One Day at a Time

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.

Hot in Cleveland

It’s a pretty safe bet if a series opens on a plane, the plane is going down. This one goes down in Cleveland. Three beautiful middle-aged women, all familiar faces from earlier sitcoms, are headed to Paris for some gal pal time. The very first line speaks to the theme of body image insecurity. “Airplane mirrors aren’t accurate, are they?” asks Valerie Bertinelli’s character, Melanie. Her loyal friends are quick to assure here that they most definitely are not.

The in-air conversation doesn’t get much more complex than that, but gives us a taste for each character. Melanie has written a book listing things a woman should do before she dies. She is going through a divorce, and hasn’t abandoned hope of a reunion, until finding out her ex is already engaged. Joy (Frasier’s Jane Leeves) is an eyebrow… um, stylist? And Victoria (Wendie Malick) is a longtime soap opera actress who loves being recognized. She’s basically her character from Just Shoot Me so we don’t have to work hard there.

The joke is pretty simple. Women who feel old, fat, and ugly in L.A. can feel gorgeous in Cleveland. It’s a set-up for a million jokes, particularly biting if you happen to have traded a Midwest life for one filled with palm trees (and there are a lot of us). You know what’s coming; the women are amazed at real estate costs, at the attention they receive from men, at the fact that there are museums in Ohio!

The pilot is brimming with funny—if not completely unpredictable—lines, like “Friends don’t let friends move to Cleveland,” and “That price has got to missing a zero.” Personally, and again perhaps it’s personal experience talking, I about fell on the floor when one of the women exclaimed, “Plumbers in Ohio can afford boats?”

It’s easy to believe that Melanie instantly wants to set up home and hearth in the Buckeye state, especially when she points out that a month in the large 2-story house she’s renting costs the same as a night in a Paris hotel. What’s harder to buy is that her friends want to stay, too, and that the creators are going to stretch out that stay long enough to make a whole series.

Surely a key to the show’s success (Season 2 starts January 19) is Betty White. She plays Elka, the 80-year-old caretaker who lives on the premises. Granted, Betty White is amazing, but these jokes, too, are low-hanging fruit. You can’t go wrong with an elderly-person-smoking-weed bit. Elka is delightfully bitter and wry and particularly hates Joy. She can wither even these hardened L.A. babes with a look, and she dispenses wisdom like, “When you’re 80 you dress for the bathroom.”

Basically, Hot in Cleveland doesn’t ask much of its audience but the situation in the pilot has built-in humor. I watched a couple other episodes, and it seems to evolve into just another show about single people trying to get dates. The pilot may have been the high point.