The latest episode of One Day at a Time, “Perfect,” begins with some classic Alvarez family antics. Attempting to call out Elena on her fight for gender equality, Alex cheekily suggests that he should be honored with a quinceañera for his upcoming birthday. The Alvarez ladies, of course, run with it, picturing a grand “quinceañero” with dancing, evening wear, and all eyes on Penelope: “You think it’s a special day for you, but really, it’s about what a great mom I am,” Penelope says. Then Alex reveals the kicker: he just wants the party so guests will give him money, because he desperately needs five hundred dollars.
Like Penelope, my mind immediately went to some of the nefarious situations Alex may have gotten into: Does he need to pay off a classmate for weed, a habit he developed and allegedly kicked last season? Is he in trouble with a bully or in debt for sneakers? Did he tell Nora he has five hundred dollars to spare? Even when Alex came clean with the reason he wants the money—tuition for a fashion design class—I was sure it had to be more scandalous. And after politely refusing Lydia’s free help with streetwear design, Alex comes home with a pair of shorts he’s made that I was sure were a cover up. When Lydia finds a “Made in China” label inside them, I feared I was vindicated.
But the real reason for Alex’s sneaky behavior is much more emotionally troubling than rebellious or dangerous. He didn’t succeed at making the shorts in class, and bought a pair to impress Penelope and make it look like he was a star student. In the background of Alex’s insecurities about not being good enough for his family, Elena debates which of her accomplishments she should write about for her Yale admissions essay: her academic achievements, or her environmentalism? Coming to terms with her sexuality, or repairing her relationship with her dad? Elena is basically a walking Common App resume, and growing up in her shadow has taken a toll on Alex—so much so that he can’t face his mom after failing one fashion design class.
“Everyone here is ‘killing it,’ and a ‘badass,’ and a ‘strong independent woman,’” Alex laments, flashing the “Single Ladies” hand. “If I’m not gonna be great, it’s better not to do it, right?”
“You think I’m gonna love you any less because you’re not perfect?” Penelope asks after Alex admits that he really wants to pursue fashion design.
“I mean, I’d rather not find out,” he says. It’s a pretty heartbreaking line to hear from a fifteen-year-old, and Ruiz and Machado balance the scene with comedy and a dramatic tension that makes the Alvarez family all the more relatable.
Meanwhile, in another apartment, Avery and Schneider have their first fight as a couple when Dr. Berkowitz gifts them a creepy clown statue as a baby present before admitting that having children caused the dissolution of his marriage. (I don’t think obstetricians are supposed to do either of those things, but I digress) Avery thinks the statue is as weird as the man who left it at her door, but Schneider, who grew up a neglected only child, thinks it could be a cute companion for their baby. This leads the couple to start fighting about trivial things, like whether or not almond butter is superior to peanut butter, before the sound of their unborn baby’s heartbeat brings them back together. It’s a bit of a sitcom cliché, but it’s made more endearing by the fact that Grinnell and de Beaufort are a real couple with a real child.
This subplot is a tad unrealistic—there’s no way even someone as aloof as Dr. B could think that donating a giant smiling statue of a clown named Ruckus to expecting parents could be seen as anything other than horrifying. But by the time of Avery’s ultrasound, when Dr. B confesses that his marriage actually broke down because his wife slept with her podiatrist, it’s implied that he gave away Ruckus just to stir the pot. I’m not sure why Leslie felt the need to insert himself in Avery and Schneider’s relationship, regardless of his intentions, but the image of Ruckus sitting at Penelope’s desk the next day will both haunt and entertain me for days to come. And fear not, coulrophobics—the episode doesn’t end with Dr. B carrying off his blue-haired bud bridal-style. Instead, we close with Elena figuring out her Yale essay topic as Penelope persuades Alex to indulge her in a mother-son dance before putting the quinceañero idea to bed. It would’ve been a pretty cute follow up to Elena’s season one quinceañera, but Lydia’s twist is just as sweet: she tells Penelope that she’s getting a parking ticket so she can steal the birthday boy for one last dance.
Amelia Merrill is a New York-based journalist and theatre artist. Her writing can be seen on Shondaland, American Theatre magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @Miajmerrill.