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Friday, May 17, 2013

One Day at a Time

Even though Mother's Day was just a few days ago, I'm still continuing with the idea to have every Friday in May focus on a fictional sitcom mom. After all, every sitcom mother may have a different way of raising their children, and what might work for one mother might not necessarily work for another.

But one thing that I think that most of us can agree on is that the sitcom mothers did love their sitcom children with all of their hearts, and the sitcom kids all grew up to be well-adjusted young adults (even if the actors who portrayed them didn't necessarily follow suit).

Today's featured spotlight deals with the struggles of a single mother with two teenage daughters, trying to prove to herself and everyone else around her that she didn't necessarily need a man to live her life and be a good mother.

Sadly, on March 1, 2013, the actress who played this mother lost her life after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. At the time of her death, she had just wrapped up a role on the soap opera, “The Young and the Restless”. She was just 68 years old.

But a soap opera was far from the only thing that late actress Bonnie Franklin starred in. In what was perhaps her most famous role, she played single mother Ann Romano for nine seasons. During those nine years, she had to deal with the fact that her two daughters, Barbara and Julie, were growing up into womanhood, and sometimes the two did not make it easy on her. It would be tough enough to deal with in itself, but imagine being a single mom on top of that?

Not only did Ann Romano succeed, but she thrived in her role. And, you want to know how she did it?

One Day At A Time.

And, what a coincidence...that also happens to be the name of the television show that featured Bonnie Franklin as Ann Romano! The series ran on CBS between December 16, 1975 and May 28, 1984, and in addition to Franklin, the series also made household names of Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips (who played Barbara and Julie Cooper respectively).

The show was created by Whitney Blake and Alan Manings, and the show was loosely based on Whitney's own experience as a single mother raising three children. The show was produced by Norman Lear, who was also responsible for the shows “All in the Family”, “Maude”, and “The Jeffersons”.

Now, “One Day at a Time” differed from many popular sitcoms at the time. On one hand, the show was as funny as funny could be, as most Lear produced sitcoms of the day were. But there were also elements of drama mixed in as well, and it wasn't uncommon for the show to present topics that were considered taboo for the time period.

Now, I'm guessing that you want some examples of this in action. Well, unfortunately, I don't have many video clips to provide, but I do have an episode guide posted on Wikipedia that I can take my information from.

For instance, did you know that “One Day at a Time” was one of the first sitcoms to tackle the issue of suicide? Normally, you wouldn't expect to even hear the word uttered in a sitcom, but the way the show presented it really hit home for a lot of people. In the episode, a new girl at school tries desperately to become friends with anyone, clinging to Barbara every chance she got. But when Barbara gets annoyed and tells her so, the girl attempts to kill herself via drug overdose. The girl survived, but the audience soon learned that the girl's problems were more than just being accepted by a friend. I've watched the episode, and it's really well done.

Another topic that was touched on was the issue of premarital sex, and Julie's struggle to determine whether she should go all the way with her boyfriend Chuck. She decided against it after weighing the pros and cons.

And, since we're on the topic of Julie and Chuck, they were also at the center of a plotline which ran for an unprecedented four episodes at the beginning of the second season. Julie was fed up with living under her mother's roof, and she and Ann got into a huge argument over Julie's desire to become more independent. Julie and Chuck ran away from home, attempting to show Ann that they could make it on their own without any help from anyone. But when the two end up in dire straits, they're forced to come to the conclusion that maybe they aren't ready for adulthood after all.

I think one of the reasons why “One Day at a Time” succeeded was the fact that the show did present issues and topics realistically. The comedy was always there, but each script was penned so brilliantly. There truly was no show quite like it, and I doubt that there will ever be again. And, that's part of the charm of Bonnie Franklin's portrayal of Ann Romano.

Yes, Ann Romano was a single mom, and yes, she had undergone some hard times in her life. After all, when the show first began she was written as someone who had lost her identity. She had always been someone's wife, mother, or daughter, and she wanted more than anything to break out of that. She divorced her husband and moved with her daughters to Indianapolis for a fresh start.

(NOTE: Contrary to what was reported, Ann Romano was NOT the first divorcee to be presented in a television sitcom. Vivian Vance's character on “The Lucy Show” was actually the first. But perhaps Ann was the most famous divorcee.)

Even though Ann dates men throughout the whole series (and eventually ended up getting remarried towards the end of the serial), she is still fiercely protective of her independent streak, insisting that she could raise her children on her own.

Hmmm...maybe that's where Julie and Barbara got their personality from...

Of course, when Ann moved her daughters into their new apartment, she did have to get some assistance from a few people. After all, building superintendent Schneider (Pat Harrington) was always at the Romano family apartment fixing things and offering advice. Mind you, in the early seasons, Schneider was only there to hit on Ann (which she rebuffed every time). Over time, he popped over so much that he became an unofficial member of the Romano family.

The show also went through an unusual amount of cast changes over the years. Of all of the characters that were on the series, only Franklin, Harrington, and Bertinelli lasted the entire run of the show. Mackenzie Phillips was fired from the program at least twice for excessive drug use (which reportedly was so frequent that Phillips actually collapsed on set). Though, given the allegations that she was sexually abused by her own father, I suppose her personal traumas involving her drug use make sense. At any rate, I haven't heard of any more relapses since she appeared on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, so here's hoping that she stays on the right track.

Another cast member who was booted off the show in a rather abrupt way was actress Mary Louise Wilson, who played the role of neighbour Ginny Wrobliki. She was on the show for one season, and seemed to garner positive reaction from the audience. Unfortunately, if the rumours are to be believed, it appeared as though Franklin felt that Wilson was a little bit too popular, and she lobbied to have Wilson fired from the program! I can't say whether this is fact or fiction, as I have no evidence to confirm nor deny it...but it does make one wonder why a popular character left after one season.

And, of course, as Barbara and Julie grew into young women, and married and had families of their own, the original premise of a single mom raising two girls was lost after a few years. So the decision was made to have Ann get romantically involved with a man named Nick Handris (Ron Rifkin). Tragically, Nick was killed off after a drunk driver smashed into his car, leaving Ann to raise his now orphaned teenage son, Alex (Glenn Scarpelli).

TRIVIA: Glenn Scarpelli is the son of late Archie Comics artist Henry Scarpelli. If you pick up some old issues of Laugh Comics right around the same year that “One Day at a Time” was still airing in syndication, you can read the comic book adaptation of Glenn's life as a Hollywood heartthrob!

Of course, all good things do come to an end. And, with Bonnie Franklin and Valerie Bertinelli both deciding not to renew their contracts at the end of the ninth season (in addition to Mackenzie Phillips no longer appearing as a cast member), the decision was made to cancel the show in 1984. Fortunately, almost everybody ended up with a happy conclusion. Ann remarried and moved to London after taking the job opportunity of a lifetime, Barbara settled in to life with her new husband, and Schneider ventured off to Florida to take care of his orphaned niece and nephew (which was meant to be a backdoor pilot for a new series that didn't get greenlit). As for Julie...well, she just disappeared without a trace. I suppose the production staff were still a little bit frosty towards her at the time of the show's conclusion.

However, one thing that I want to note is that despite the personal problems that each cast member went through, they made it a point to reunite whenever possible. The four main cast members got together in 2005 to talk about their time on the show in a reunion special on CBS, which attracted some nice ratings. And most of the cast reunited in April 2012 to accept the TV Land Innovation Award.

Sadly, that would be one of the last times the whole cast would get together, as less than a year later, Franklin would succumb to pancreatic cancer. Still, the memories and laughter that she, Bertinelli, Phillips, and Harrington brought to families for nine years will never truly be forgotten.

Oh...and keep an eye out on this space one week from today.  I mentioned that creator Whitney Blake was a single mother of three and she used her experiences to create "One Day at a Time".  What if I told you that one of her children grew up to become an iconic television mom herself?  That's next week in The Pop Culture Addict's Guide To Life".

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