Emmy spotlight: Rita Moreno only gets better with age in season 3 of ‘One Day at a Time’

Rita Moreno is an acting legend, a member of the exclusive EGOT club, and an all-around national treasure. At age 87, she has all the reason in the world to sit back and let her legacy speak for itself. But she has extended that legacy on one of Netflix‘s best shows, “One Day at a Time,” in which she plays Lydia, the boisterous, devoutly religious mother of single mom Penelope (Justina Machado), and grandmother to Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz). Season three, which just dropped on Netflix in February, was another showcase of Moreno’s talent. But while she gives one of the best comedic performances on television, she has yet to earn an Emmy nomination for her scene-stealing work on this series.

Lydia had quite a journey through the first two seasons, coming to accept Elena as gay, grappling with Penelope going to therapy, and finally becoming a US citizen. The season two finale was a crucial turning point when Lydia suffered a stroke, causing the family to reflect on her importance in their lives. The season three premiere picks up from there with an excellent performance by Moreno as Lydia comes together with her estranged sister (Gloria Estefan) and their extended family for a funeral, where old grudges resurface. Their “anything you can do, I can do better” duet on “Ave Maria” is a particular comedic highlight.

Perhaps the most fascinating relationship to watch evolve through three seasons has been between Lydia and Penelope. In season three, when Penelope finds out that one of the items on Lydia’s “bouquet list” is to “fix” her (aka teach her how to keep a man), they have a passionate argument about the way Lydia disparages her daughter. But they eventually reconcile in a poignant moment in which Lydia tells Penelope, “You are more than enough.”

Moreno also plays wonderfully off the men on the show, whether she’s flirting with Schneider (Todd Grinnell) or being hilariously aloof with her “non-sexual platonic companion” Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky). But it is her relationship with grandson Alex that is one of the most heartfelt emotional connections on the show. Lydia has a pattern of favoring boys in her family over girls, as explored in the “Hermanos” episode, but that doesn’t make her relationship with her “papito” any less endearing. Moreno has strong chemistry with each member of the show’s cast, but the way she beams with pride as Alex grows and matures is a joy to watch.

Liz Shannon Miller (IndieWire) calls Moreno “the show’s vibrantly beating heart,” and Lili Loofbourow (Slate) says she’s “a party unto herself,” so what will it take for Moreno to get that Emmy nomination already? “One Day at a Time” was criminally overlooked by the Emmys in its first two seasons, earning a lone Best Multi-Camera Picture Editing nomination for each season. This lack of recognition suggests it just may not be on voters’ radar. Moreno plays a classic supporting mom who often gets the biggest laugh-out-loud moments on the show (like Estelle Getty in “The Golden Girls” or Doris Roberts in “Everybody Loves Raymond”), so it really is a performance that should resonate with the television academy.

It’s possible that voters may be hung up on the multi-camera format of “One Day at a Time” in an era when single-camera shows like “Veep” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” have taken over. But Moreno puts in such a hilarious, complex performance that it really shouldn’t matter what the format is, even if it’s old-fashioned. As Melanie McFarland (Salon) writes, “Anyone who still thinks old-school multi-camera comedies lack profundity and appeal are invited to drink in Moreno’s on-screen presence.” Lydia is a larger-than-life character who lives for the spotlight, so why not put that spotlight right where it belongs, Emmy voters?

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