Bonnie Franklin, who played a divorced mother on a long-running CBS situation comedy, died of cancer yesterday. She was 69. Though Franklin had an established career and had been nominated for a Tony Award, her portrayal for nine seasons of a liberated woman named Ann Romano, who memorably insisted on going by Ms., which the building superintendent pronounced “em-ess Romano”, leaves a lasting impression.
Though a popular program, Norman Lear‘s One Day at a Time certainly never achieved the vaunted commercial or critical success of its Lear-produced cousins, All in the Family, Maude and The Jeffersons, and Ms. Romano had a tendency to explode with histrionics as Bonnie Franklin overacted at least some of the time. But as a dramatic comedy about real, daily middle class life, the show – and Franklin’s character – holds up.
In the premiere, which aired in 1975, Ms. Romano had packed her teenaged kids in the car after divorce and moved to an apartment in Indianapolis. She struggled to find work, make a living, overcome sexist standards, raise children, have meaningful relationships, deal with her ex-husband, though the most interesting and humorous episodes involved dealing with her conservative mother (Nanette Fabray). Her daughters, played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli, agonized over adolescent problems ranging from skin conditions and homework to sex, drugs and suicide. Before Modern Family, an excellent show that owes much of its dynamic to shows such as One Day at a Time, particularly with the personality contrast between sisters and the harried, overwhelmed mom, One Day at a Time took a hot-headed single mother, her two kids, a handyman named Schneider (Pat Harrington) and various friends, boyfriends, spouses, ex-spouses, grandchildren and co-workers over the course of its run (1975-1984) and managed to explore deep, serious topics and depict a strong, virtuous mid-American family.
Bonnie Franklin’s Ann Romano was at the center, obsessing over the newest social media – citizens’ band radio – confronting predators, chasing after her wayward, self-destructive daughter Julie and trying to make the best of everything. The program delivered thought-provoking naturalism, such as whether Julie (Phillips) would make better choices, how Ann would get ahead without compromising, why Barbara felt punished for being talented and responsible. There were more potent episodes, such as when Julie’s friend Melanie became suicidal, and less melodramatic teleplays, with Ann struggling to get work projects done while parenting her kids.
If they seemed overdone at the time, with red-haired Ms. Romano flying into a self-righteous rage, now we know – some of us knew then – that One Day at a Time reflected reality and that the culture and country were on the wrong track. One Day at a Time raised crucial, pressing questions: about whether a woman’s selfish liberation meant being a feminist – whether proper parenting meant unconditional tolerance for exploration or having conditional boundaries to protect a child’s life from the spreading drug subculture and hedonism – and whether the burdens of being a voice of reason, an intelligent child, and of living for the long term, not for the range of the moment, can be balanced. Bonnie Franklin brought us neither another high-pitched moron like Edith Bunker or Mrs. Cunningham nor a bitter shrew or harridan like Maude Findlay or Gladys Kravitz ; hers was an attempt to achieve a parent’s delicate balance between her own goals and her childrens’ interests. Ann Romano’s were real problems, then and now, but they seemed more acute then as traditional roles for men, women and children were being questioned, challenged and changed, whether for better or worse.
As the cliched title suggests, One Day at a Time, unlike its dumbed-down, ABC superhit counterparts such as Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, delivered a dose of realism with thoughtfully embedded, if at times heavy-handed, themes of productiveness, independence, pride, honesty, integrity and self-interest shaped by a mother’s love. That Ms. Romano was a serious, not a silly or sarcastic, character that refused to compromise her ego for her children – or vice versa – puts One Day at a Time ahead of its time. That was the work of Bonnie Franklin.