A worthy TV adaptation of a bestselling novel that’ll leave you a mess.
A 14-part series based on the bestseller from David Nicholls, One Day tracks the 20-year friendship between Emma and Dexter, who meet at their university graduation party and immediately hit it off. The series revisits the pair every year on July 15, an innocuous day that just so happens to be the day after their first meeting.
Emma (Ambika Mod) is bookish and intelligent, with modest dreams of changing her little corner of the world. Dexter (Leon Woodall) is handsome and rich, and dreams of being rich and famous. The two are chalk and cheese but, like any good romcom, work to balance each other out.
One Day (the book) was a smash holiday read back in 2009, and two years later a huge flop of a film adaptation starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. The show has come at the perfect time, with angsty, will-they-won’t-they romances being all the rage (see: Normal People).
The chemistry! From the beginning, the two friends have something. They’ve got distinctive personalities and perspectives, often at odds with each other, but they work as a pair. And that’s 80% of the work to keep you returning, even as the frustrations set in.
Where the film ultimately failed was in its attempt to cram two decades of character development into 100 minutes. That’s five minutes per year and it showed in the complete lack of character development. The show allows the actors to grow into their characters over nearly seven hours. They’re both great (Woodall does some of the best drunk acting I’ve seen in a while) but Mod is exceptional. Emma is not an easy character to pull off. She’s incredibly smart, independent, self-assured and full of complete yearning for her best friend for years. It’s the yearning that Anne Hathaway never quite nailed in the movie, probably because she didn’t have time to sink into it. But Mod manages to have you cheering her on in her yearning while also wondering if perhaps she should set her sights higher (a b-plot of the whole series).
Not every year features the two characters interacting, and the best episodes are when they do, but there’s a cleverness in having us watch them reconnect having witnessed their individual lives more intimately than they themselves did. It’s those moments – when they are in conflict for understandable but frustrating reasons – that pull you in as the only one who knows the full story.
For anyone who’s been missing their angst-ridden hit since Normal People, this is for you.
The not so good
The show spans 20 years, which is a very long time and proves a single movie was never going to do it justice, but I’m not sure it needed 14 episodes. It’s a will-they-won’t-they story which means inevitably there’ll be early episodes of missed opportunities and frustrating misunderstandings. Even so, at about the fourth episode, with 10 more to go, I found myself wishing they’d hurry up a little. Fourteen is quite a strange number of episodes for a limited series, and I think condensing a couple of years into single episodes in the middle would’ve helped move the relationship along without losing any of the tension. In saying that, perhaps I only felt this way because I watched seven hours in one sitting.
On an entirely different and more complicated note: Emma. Emma is Indian and poor. In the book and the movie, she’s white and poor. I loved Mod as Emma and the story was all the better for it, but aside from a very brief mention in the first episode (when Dexter asks her if she’s celibate and if it’s for religious reasons), Emma’s ethnicity or cultural background is never commented on. Her parents never make an appearance and Dexter’s wealthy family and friends in 90s England never allude to it. It’s not necessarily a criticism, as a fictional romance series is hardly the place for cutting class and cultural commentary, but it did feel at times that Emma existed outside of her skin colour in a way that sadly would not have been the case in real life. Sometimes progress requires a bit more thought than simply casting a brown actor to play a role written for a white person.
The same goes for class. Dexter and Emma’s relationship revolves heavily around their different life experiences due to wealth (a lot for Dex, none for Emma). But while their different lives are juxtaposed effectively, there’s never any real acknowledgement of the tension in that dynamic or Emma’s experience of it. Instead, the closest we get to the discomfort many feel when interacting with the lives of their wealthy friends is when Dexter meets someone even richer than him. Those scenes serve as an ironic lesson for Dexter but I’d much rather have seen Emma allowed to show her version of that through Dexter’s family.
Which brings me to my main gripe – a biggie despite me enjoying the show. The ending is not good once you think about it for more than five minutes. It’s powerful, yes. It’ll probably trigger some existential crisis, yes. But it’s abrupt (and was in the book too) and jarring. And in terms of the characters, the ending wholly serves just one, in a way that makes you wonder whether it ever really was a show about two equal people.
There are so few good romcoms these days that I have to recommend this rollercoaster of a show. Should you watch One Day in one day? I’d say yes. Start early in the afternoon to give yourself ample time to feel things before you go to sleep. It’s a show that proves chemistry goes a long, long way. Just be prepared to kind of hate it by the end.