TV: One Day at a Time (season one)
Other: The Room and The Room Two (video games)
One Day at a Time (season one)
This is the first season of the 2017 reboot of the classic Norman Lear sitcom. This version focuses on a Cuban-American family in modern-day Echo Park, LA. (It was just revived from cancellation by PopTV who picked it up for a fourth season.)
It's weird, living this long.
I have early memories of the original One Day at a Time, maybe in syndication? And at that point, it fit in pretty neatly into its environment. It felt like most sitcoms were about low-to-middle class people scraping by. Most of them felt like little plays, with the jokes smoothing over a simple story about some contemporary social issue. I'm sure if I ran the numbers, most late-70s/early-80s sitcoms would be pointless, Three's Company style wackiness, but it felt like your All in the Familys and your M*A*S*Hs dominated the cultural conversation, at least as far as sitcoms went. And even your lesser sitcoms like Perfect Strangers had the same rhythm — wacky mounting comedy, then some heartfelt "aww" moment towards the end.
But then we decided, collectively, that we were sick of that. Which made sense — sitcoms were becoming a boring monoculture, and the attempts at pulling the audience's heartstrings were usually clumsy, to the point that the phrase "very special episode" would make you roll your eyes. That sort of format looks effortless and slight — oh, it's just some wacky misunderstandings and then a heartfelt moment at the end — but to lay out silly comedy and then *earn* an emotional conclusion is hard for everyone involved (writers, directors, everybody). It's easy to do badly; many shows *did* do it badly.²
So comedies turned back from that. They became light and disconnected — maybe sardonic, like Just Shoot Me, or surreal, like NewsRadio. And gradually, it felt like they got more and more 'aspirational' — to the point that now, sitcoms are notable when they *aren't* about rich people.²
Then it felt like we got tired of that, and got tired of multi-camera sitcoms in general. You still had the Chuck Lorre juggernauts — Two and a Half Men, then The Big Bang Theory — dominating the ratings, but nobody ever talked about those shows, except to establish their critical bona fides by detailing how much they hated them. Or you'd talk about how How I Met Your Mother wasn't like those *other* sitcoms.³ Multi-camera sitcoms, as a medium, didn't matter.
And now we cycle around to the remake of One Day at a Time. And it's remarkably true to its Normal-Lear roots: it features a Cuban-American family scraping by in LA. It is unabashedly similar to the 1975 original, with its single-mom household in Indianapolis. But now, that *style* of comedy sits in stark contrast to everything around it. It's weird to watch a sitcom and finally perceive the format for the first time, instead of just accepting it.
To like this show, you have to be on-board for how it tells jokes. And personally, I'm never really blown away by traditional sitcom joke-writing — the usual setup, setup, punchline, laugh track. You don't get, say, the elaborate callbacks of Arrested Development or the dark humor of the Fargo series or the rapid-fire over-the-top quality of The Simpsons at their (long-passed) apex.
I find myself appreciating, not the jokes themselves, but more the delivery. Both Rita Moreno and Stephen Tobolowsky are just insanely good, to the point that it seems a damned disgrace we've had years where neither one was in a sitcom. You're snickering politely at the joke, but you're mainly watching them embody these characters. The humor is more in how the reactions play out — almost akin to the humor you see in drama, where it isn't so much *jokes* as the humor of watching characters be exactly themselves.
And the direction backs them up. It reminds me of that principle from clowning of "no wasted steps" — you don't suddenly get excited about going to a mailbox and immediately run to it. You remember you might have mail; you look to the mailbox; you see that they've delivered; you react emotionally; you run to the mailbox. Likewise, they shoot this with a patient rhythm that lets you see each step of the conversation. Elena delivers a speech; Elena finishes; cut to Penelope's reaction; beat; Penelope delivers a punch line. You're always looking where you need to look, and taking in each individual step.
And the emotional content of the episodes is cathartic. It's weird how, when there's an issue in the news, and a story engages with that issue, you find yourself letting go of a sigh that you didn't know you were holding on to. You feel the relief that somebody *sees* this. And you can feel like that even when it's an issue that's all over the news — because frankly the news coverage will be either a dry rundown of dismal facts, or white guys shouting at each other on panel shows.⁴ There's something deep and visceral about seeing characters deal with it directly, feeling the emotions, and finding some way through it.
And they do not pull punches about engaging with the world we live in. Simply put, they make most modern dramas look like goddamn cowards. Yes, you can have a show that "doesn't pull punches" by making its gritty male antihero superviolent, and they can show how fearless they are by including rape as a plot device, and they can have bad guys who do as much gory mayhem as Standards & Practices will allow, but then... got forbid people get into an argument about politics. Oh dear heavens no, nobody will mention ICE deportations, or talk about how mental illness is pervasive and hard to bear.
Every 'edgy' show has to serve its corporate masters well, so it usually just rolls around in a sort of fetishized nihilism, because engaging meaningfully in the world is Not Cool.
All of which is to say that the lead is an Afghanistan vet dealing with PTSD and nursing injuries sustained on duty, and for that alone I'm looking at prestige dramas and saying "HA HA COWARDS". So again, it's a relief to see this show earnestly and honestly handle topics that nobody else will touch.
Artistically, it's refreshing to see a show strip things way down. There is one standing set. There are six central characters. There are no genre elements to draw on. There is no spectacle. There is no flashy directing, no subverting the format, no mystery boxes to play with. It's all just down to "what's the best twenty-minute, black-box-theater, one-act family drama we can do?" It's all just core storytelling skills: setups and payoffs, emotional heightening, sharp characters reacting in different ways to the same events (and then arguing)⁵. They don't even use the cheap sitcom moves of, say, making someone mishear someone else and then wacky misunderstandings ensue. They do everything the hard way, and if they ever misstep even slightly in the storytelling, there is nothing flashy that can save them.
And that, especially after Westworld's barrage of spectacle, is lovely to watch. One Day at a Time is confident and self-assured. It reminds us of the elements that are always at the core of a show that works.
I enjoyed the show. I'm very happy it's gotten at least one "Lazarus season". I reckon it's not for everybody — you have to be open to the standard sitcom format, and up for its uncool emotional earnestness — but if you're at all obsessive about TV, you owe it to yourself to watch this. And even if not, it's likely worth your while. There's nothing wrong with a show giving you a hug, reminding you that you have friends, and telling you that things are going to be okay.
The Room and The Room Two (video games)
The Room was an indie puzzle game released by Fireproof Games in 2012. Its sequel, The Room Two, was released the following year. Both are essentially single-room environments in which players use a variety of mechanics to open a series of intricate puzzle boxes.
Viewed from one angle, The Room is perfect. It has tone for days, perfectly nailing down its tone of Lovecraft-tinged Victoriana in everything from lighting to sound effects to its intricate clockwork boxes. Everything is the right type of creepy, and you stumble across notes from a mysterious "A. S." that sound like dispatches from a Lovecraft short story.⁶
The physical designs of the puzzles are lovely to look at, and constantly give you the feeling like this is an object that could really exist — you see where all the gears interconnect, you see where all the latches and hinges are. Even when the game introduces overtly magical elements, you still sense an internal consistency to it. You find an eyepiece that reveals hidden messages early on, for example, and you quickly accept the rules that govern its behavior.
They also do a fine job of ratcheting up the creepiness over the course of the game. And part of this comes from how well they establish their setting as physically credible. Eventually, when they start introducing aspects of the world that don't quite make physical sense, it's nicely unnerving.
And the puzzles themselves are nicely done. They're definitely more like King's Quest than like (say) Portal — it's more "hunt around to find a thing that goes with the other thing" than it is "you have all the info you need; now solve this intricate system". There's nothing like, say, the majestic "two paths" puzzle from The Witness. The Room is all about that moment of "Oh! This bit goes with that lock over there" — if you find yourself solving a difficult logic puzzle, you're likely on the wrong track.
And that's okay. The game knows what it's going for, and it does it.
Still, viewed from other angles, you might find it wanting. For instance, I come at this game from a background in text adventures, where especially today the whole art form is about seamlessly working puzzles into a story. They even had a pet name for a clumsily-shoehorned in puzzle: 'soup cans'. This was named after a particularly egregious bit of The 7ᵗʰ Guest where you had to solve a puzzle by rearranging soup cans in the villain's pantry.⁷ You want the opposite of this: you're at a friend's house, you want coffee, so, okay, gotta figure out how the coffee machine works. This is a terrible example, but it at least demonstrates a non-arbitrary puzzle.
All the puzzles in The Room are soup cans. And the in-story justification is... that there's a guy you know who decided to leave you puzzles to solve.
This leads to the related point: there's no storytelling here. I'm getting to a point where I never want to see a puzzle game try to tell a story again. The Venn-diagram intersection of "people who are good at making puzzles" and "people who tell good stories" is distressingly thin. Usually, you can describe these attempts like this: imagine a teacher gives their middle-school students an assignment to write about some philosophical topic. Say, "prisons are morally wrong".⁸ And one of the kids, who is probably 13-year-old me, decides, "Yeah, I'll write this essay. In the form of an AWESOME SCIENCE FICTION STORY!"
Now imagine that not only do you have to read this story, you have to pretend to take it seriously. And, you'll experience the story via the kid reading you a paragraph every hour or two. *shudder* That's what the storytelling in puzzle games is like: clumsy, on the nose, and unengaging. Writing stories is hard. Writing stories in the form of found documents is harder. Writing stories in the form of found documents when your real passion and purpose is making cute mechanical puzzles is pretty much impossible.
But criticizing The Room for iffy storytelling is, as the joke goes, like kicking a dog for not being good at calculus. This game is all about working weird little contraptions in a spooky house, and at that, it succeeds.
There's not much else to say about the sequel, except that it's more ambitious, plays with different themes for each level (including a kind of cringey-in-2019 "Mayan temple" level), and has better graphics.
I'm sure I'll have fun plugging throgh the second two games in this series.
For next week: Stalker is my next DVD, and I'm watching season three of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. (And those two properties set some sort of record for "similar titles/not-at-all-similar content.) I'm reading some Spanish-language Marvel comics and listening to another audiocourse about medicine.
¹ Think about it: Alf tried to be relevant.
² ... or people in that mysterious Friends-like middle class where you can be, say, a paleontologist but have no money problems in New York City.
³ Until its finale, shortly after which we all seemed to agree we would never speak of HIMYM again.
⁴ Or it's FOX News, and it's all crazy funhouse distorted into a paean to Dear Leader.
⁵ Which works out really naturally, with Lydia often representing the conservative side of an issue, and Elena way out on the progressive edge instead.
⁶ ... only with the vocabulary a little stripped-down and modernized, thankfully.
⁷ "I mean, what the hell kind of villain thwarts the hero's progress with soup cans in the kitchen pantry?" — Russ Bryan
⁸ And probably half the class has to write about how they're "morally right", or the parents twig to the fact that we're TRAINING THEM TO BE PART OF THE REVOLUTION MU HU HA HA.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none