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'One Day at a Time': On CBS, A Happy Return

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; Page C01

"It was the show that redefined the American family" and "changed television one episode at a time," a thrilled announcer trills. Of course it was no such thing. But "One Day at a Time" was a breakthrough in that it depicted for the first time in a hit sitcom the tribulations of a single mom raising two daughters on her own.

Like many of the daring departures of TV's 1970s, the series carried the credit "Developed by Norman Lear," whatever "developed by" entails. The proverbial chord was struck with the great American audience, and "One Day" was a medium-size hit for CBS from 1975 until its demise in 1984.

Then: Pat Harrington Jr., left, Valerie Bertinelli, Bonnie Franklin and Mackenzie Phillips. (Cbs)

The network welcomes it back for "The 'One Day at a Time' Reunion Special" at 9 tonight on Channel 9, and this reunion is unusual in that the traumatic backstage woes of one of the show's stars are addressed in a fairly straightforward if abbreviated way. Mackenzie Phillips, who beguilingly played daughter Julie, suffered through substance abuse problems so severe that her character was written out of the show not once but twice (in 1979 and 1982, though that's not mentioned tonight) so that she could seek professional help.

Fairly early in the hour tonight, Phillips touchingly tells co-stars Bonnie Franklin, the solid and sparkling pro who played single mom Ann Romano, and the irresistible Valerie Bertinelli, who played daughter Barbara, that she wished she'd had as healthful a home life as Julie did, even though Julie had only one parent to guide her.

"I grew up in a place where there were no rules . . . which did not serve me well," Phillips recalls, "and everybody, I think, knew that, but it was almost in a way comforting to have a mother to tell me what to do" -- even if the mother was a make-believe one. Unfortunately, Phillips doesn't go into more detail about her real family life, and when the subject of her substance abuse and firing comes up again late in the show, it's insufficiently explored.

"Mack," as she was called around the set, was "sick," Franklin recalls, and Phillips says, after watching an array of clips from the series, "I cannot reconcile the woman I am today with the person I was back then." Franklin says, "It's just so lovely that you're so well" and, beyond a montage of newspaper headlines that float cloudlike across the screen, little more is said.

Lear's shows were known back in their day for their invigorating candor and relative realism -- Archie and Edith Bunker's was the first sitcom household in which the bathroom fixtures actually included a toilet -- so it's a pity Phillips does not go into more cautionary detail about her ordeals.

Anyway, the special is pleasant enough, and the three women, seated casually on a lush living room set, act happy to have reunited. Their segments appear to have been "shot through gauze," as the saying goes, so they look little-changed by the intervening decades.

Those decades don't really seem to have passed one year at a time, and many viewers are bound to empathize with Phillips when she asks, "It's not quite 30 years, is it?" When reminded that the show debuted in 1975 (though late in the year, for what it's worth), she gasps, "Oh, my God!" The comedy writing, to judge from clips and from memories of the series, was not A-plus, but it doesn't really seem very dated, and the show had the kind of heart and soul utterly absent from most of today's sitcoms.

The three stars are joined in the second half-hour by Pat Harrington Jr., who played Schneider, the lecherous janitor in the Indianapolis apartment building where Ann and her daughters lived. Harrington sounds as excessively self-absorbed as his character was, but then actors tend to be like that. Popping up in brief, separately taped pieces are such guest stars as Nanette Fabray, who played Ann's mother; Shelley Fabares, as snoot-bag Francine Webster; Michael Lembeck (later to become a very busy TV director) who played Julie's boyfriend Max, and Glenn Scarpelli, as a little boy befriended by Schneider.

Joseph Campanella isn't mentioned even though he made several appearances as Ann's ex-husband, nor is the ageless Robby Benson, seen briefly as a young man smitten with Ann and delighted to hear she's divorced. It should be mentioned, though, that CBS didn't send the entire program to this critic. An announcer says that there'll be "outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage never seen until today" after the commercial break, but there's nothing after the commercial break. In the '70s, when "One Day" was made, something like that could have been chalked up to incompetence. Today, it's more likely someone did it just to be mean.

For many of those who tuned in weekly for "One Day at a Time," the big attraction was Bertinelli, who certainly had the cutest nose in television (eat your heart out, Tom Brokaw) and was just sensationally lovable. As Franklin notes, Bertinelli is now living somewhat the life that Ann Romano did, a single mother, after her divorce from rock star Eddie Van Halen. But Valerie and Ann aren't in quite the same economic bracket.

The "One Day at a Time" reunion is one of those shows that may sound off-putting but prove surprisingly worth on-putting.

The "One Day at a Time" Reunion Special (one hour) airs tonight at 9 on Channel 9.

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