One Day at a Time, a series that centers on a Cuban-American family as they deal with the everyday ups and downs of life, is no stranger to addressing difficult topics with an openness that is quite unlike any other traditional sitcom. It follows Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), an army veteran and nurse living with her mother Lydia (Rita Moreno) and two teenage children, Elena and Alex. “Anxiety”, an episode directed by Kimberly McCullough, exemplifies how the show carefully approaches sensitive subjects, including one that is still quite stigmatized: mental illness.
In the midst of the pressure of studying for her nurse practitioner board exam, Penelope begins to experience rather intense anxiety attacks. As she explains her symptoms to her veterans support group, the events that Penelope recalls are partially shown in black and white to differentiate the audience from what actually happened (in color) versus what was amplified by the anxiety she was feeling (in black and white). We are able to see the weight that these stressful situations are placing on Penelope, and how they are dramatized in her mind.
With the help of her support group, Penelope recognizes that her anxiety is brought on by a number of triggering factors around her, including problems her family members are dealing with individually.
There is one scene in particular when Penelope does poorly on a practice test and begins to spiral. The color fades on screen as she sends a series of panicked texts to her friend Schneider. When he stops what he’s doing and responds with a serious inquiry of how she’s doing along with numerous funny dog pictures, Penelope focuses on that act of support, and the color returns to the screen. Their interaction reminded me of the kind I have with my best friend when I’m experiencing anxiety attacks of my own, and I believe Penelope’s worried texts would feel equally familiar to anyone who has experienced symptoms of anxiety.
One Day at a Time is a celebration of resilience and overcoming everyday struggles. Through the lens of Kimberly McCullough’s “Anxiety”, we are reminded that women like Penelope shouldn’t have to figure everything out all on their own.
Paige Kiser is a culture writer, production artist, and cat lady with a degree in Mass Media. Her work can be found on Reel Honey, I Am That Girl, and her blog, Barest Bones of Film.