||ONE DAY AT A TIME
Sitcom about a divorced woman and her two teenage daughters.
209 episodes of 30 minute duration. CBS. 1975-1984
Nobody expected this sitcom about a divorced woman and her two teenage daughters to be a hit, even though it was produced by Norman Lear—the king of the “reality” sitcoms with such hits as All In The Family; The Jeffersons and Maude. But with more couples going their separate ways in the 1970’s, One Day At A Time became a surprise success and enjoyed a nine-season run on CBS, the network that aired most of Lear’s groundbreaking comedies.
"One Day" was co-created by actress Whitney Blake and her husband, writer Allan Manings. Blake, who died in 2002, was the mother of future sitcom star Meredith Baxter and a frequent guest on many television series of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Ironically, her best-known screen role was that of housewife and mother Dorothy Baxter, opposite Shirley Booth on the comedy Hazel from 1961 until 1965. It was a tribute to Blake’s talent that “One Day” was as far removed from Hazel as one could get.
Actress and singer Bonnie Franklin played Ann Romano, a woman who decided that she needed to start a new life away from her smothering, domineering husband Ed. So she packed up her old station wagon with her two teenage girls, older Julie Cooper (Mackenzie Phillips, the daughter of singer-songwriter John Phillips of “The Mamas And The Papas”) and younger Barbara (played by fresh-faced newcomer Valerie Bertinelli). The three moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Indianapolis, Indiana, as Ann began looking for work. What helped make “One Day” a success is that Ann and the girls were shown struggling, trying to make enough money for the rent, food and other necessities. (She often fought with her ex-husband Ed—played by character actor Joseph Campanella—over child support and other matters).
The show’s comic relief came from veteran funnyman Pat Harrington, Junior, who played apartment superintendent Dwayne Schneider (known to one and all as just “Schneider”). A middle-aged handyman who fancied himself a Romeo, he tried to woo and bed Ann, with no success. Schneider eventually settled down (at least with Ms. Romano) and became a sounding board for Ann and a surrogate dad to her daughters. When the show began in December 1975, Ann was dating a younger man, David Kane (Richard Masur), who in his own way tried to control Ann much as ex-husband Ed did. Ann finally broke up with David in the fall of 1976, after the two nearly married.
Besides her own romantic and career challenges (she eventually became an account executive for an ad agency), Ann had to deal with the problems facing 17-year-old Julie and 15-year-old Barbara. And the plots weren’t just about “that boy won’t even notice me” or “I didn’t make the cheerleading squad”: There was serious discussion about birth control, teenage sex, alcohol use and other real-life issues. Julie seemed to cause the most problems in that regard; Barbara eventually decided to stay a virgin until marriage, a refreshing development in an increasingly sexual television world. (As she grew up, Bertinelli blossomed into a beautiful young woman and was the subject of many a crush by teenage boys who happened to watch the show.)
Ann listened to her daughters and tried to help them with their problems, but there were limits. In a two-part episode, Julie ran away with her boyfriend, and wouldn’t come back unless Ann met her demands for more freedom. Ann didn’t budge: She told Julie either follow the rules at home or don’t come back. Julie returned home.
With a fine balance between independence and feminism (it was not as strident as Lear’s much more feminist Maude nor as wimpy as such purported “women’s power” shows such as Charlie’s Angels), One Day At A Time soared into the top ten and remained a top-25 series for much of its run.
The show did undergo changes over the years. Phillips developed a serious drug problem during the 1978-79 season; the producers had her marry flight steward Max Horvath (Michael Lembeck, who would become a future director of such television comedies as Friends) and wrote her out of the show so she could go into rehab. Phillips later returned to the series, but was written out again because of health problems. Also by that time, Ann fell in love with commercial artist Nick Handris (Ron Rifkin); the two divorcees began dating. Nick’s son, Alex (Glen Scarpelli) was a factor in many storylines.
By 1981, Nick was written out of the series (the producers had him die in a car crash), and Ann agreed to care for Alex. Ann’s mother, Katherine (played by veteran comedienne Nanette Fabray) became a cast regular, while Julie and Max returned to Indianapolis, where Max became a travel agent and writer. Ann also became a partner in an ad agency with a former nemesis, Francine Webster (Shelley Fabares).
A year later, love finally came for Barbara in the form of dental student Mark Royer (Boyd Gaines); the two wed in the fall of 1982, when Julie had a daughter, Annie. To save money, Barbara and Mark shared a house with Max and Julie; their adventures became the focus of many episodes.
Ann herself found love with Mark’s divorced father, architect Sam Royer (Howard Hessman); the two soon got married while Alex moved back with his mother in Chicago.
With ratings starting to drop, both Franklin and Bertinelli wanted to leave the series after the 1983-84 season. The final episode had Ann and Sam move to London (she was offered a lucrative job) while Schneider moved to Florida to raise the children of his late brother. (The plot device was supposed to be a spin-off series for Harrington, but CBS passed on it).
One Day At A Time was not the first American series to star a divorced woman. There was Vivian Bagley (Vivian Vance) on The Lucy Show from 1962 to 1965. Of course, there was thrice divorced Maude, along with 1973’s Diana with Diana Rigg. And the short-lived Lee Grant comedy Fay aired just months before “One Day” made its debut. But hands down, One Day At A Time was the best and most realistic portrayal of divorce in a series up to its time.
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