Justina Machado is doing excellent work on Netflix’s Norman Lear reboot and it’s time the TV world took notice.
Pardon me for a moment while I scream this from the rooftops, “Justina Machado is an outstanding actress and it’s time we all paid more attention!”
With that out of my system, let me explain why I’m wailing at the TV world.
Machado has been in more of the shows you love than you probably remember (“Six Feet Under,” “Jane the Virgin”), and right now, she’s leading her own with Netflix’s “One Day at a Time.”
The reboot of the classic Norman Lear sitcom debuted its hard-fought third season last week, a triumphant outing that retained the spirit of the first two seasons while maturing in tone and voice as any family should. Seriously, this show is a gift that so many are still sleeping on.
Machado, of course, plays Penelope, the matriarch of the Cuban-American Alvarez family, who is raising two teens - a proud lesbian feminist (Isabella Gómez) and a womanizing, yet kind-hearted son (Marcel Ruiz) - while leaning on her wise-cracking, Salsa-dancing, unfiltered mother, played by the incomparable Rita Moreno.
Penelope is a single parent, a nurse and an Army veteran living with the lingering effects of her service and the country’s often deficient handling of its servicemen and women.
It’s a complex character to apply to the sitcom format, but a challenge that Machado has, for three seasons now, risen to with grace and vulnerability when often asked to bear her soul and nail a joke in the same breath.
Penelope ended season two by exhaling a sigh of relief. Not only did she deeply struggle with the societal pressures of using antidepressants and broke up with her boyfriend because he wanted more kids, it all culminated in a tearful plea with her comatose mother that it was not yet her time to go. It was a stunningly powerful moment that I can’t imagine having to watch in front of other humans without looking like I was melting.
Although season three marked a comparatively quieter season for her, I found myself struck by how important Machado’s consistent greatness is to this show. As she wrestled with her future, reckoned with her son’s (and her own) views on consent, and processed the mounting pressure (and social stigma) of anxiety, Machado’s talent for volleying between Penelope’s celebration and crisis reinforced the fact there’s never been a TV mom quite like her.
Conscious of a society still steeped in prejudice, Penelope has to not only impart what’s she’s learned as a woman, a minority and a veteran on her children, but also prepare them for a changing world that might not be as progressive as she’d hoped.
Penelope’s driving story in season three was the culmination of her decision to get her nurse practitioner license, a journey paved with stress that ultimately paid off in personal growth.
In the Alavrez family, strength starts at the top, and though Penelope struggles, doubts herself and even questions her parenting, Machado’s fortitude steadies her as the pillar that grounds the people around her.
Penelope’s resolve to do better and be better has trickled down to the other members of her family - Lydia’s growing inclusiveness, Elena’s burgeoning feminist spirit, Alex’s evolving understanding of appropriate behavior, and even her landlord and confidante Schneider’s battle with sobriety.
She’s their true north, their lynchpin, the emotional magnet to which the show’s ultimate message of inclusivity and family gravitates. She’s everything the writers and this fictional (but still relatable) family needs her to be and she never disappoints. It’s a tall order to bear the brunt of a family’s stability, but it’s one real moms know all too well.
It’s time to enter Machado and Penelope into the exclusive club of great 21st century TV moms alongside the likes of Tami Taylor (“Friday Night Lights”), Kristina Braverman (“Parenthood”) and Rainbow Johnson (“Black-ish”).
I’m ready to go back on the rooftop and shout about it more if I have to.
Hunter Ingram can be reached at Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com. Hunter is a member of the Television Critics Association.