As I queued up the first episode of Netflix’s “One Day,” I was reminded of the words of a great man: “I am ready to get hurt again.”
“One Day” of course shares its title and source material with David Nicholls’ 2009 novel and Lone Scherfig’s 2011 film — but in Nicole Taylor’s episodic version (executive produced by Nicholls) starring Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall, the story finds its wings, telling the story of Emma (Mod) and Dexter (Woodall) over decades with a snapshot of just one day in the year.
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The episodic structure lends itself beautifully to Nicholls’ premise, letting each year breathe and allowing viewers to settle into Emma and Dex’s shifting dynamics — and by extension, the wider world of nebulous relationships. There is the night they (almost) slept together, the day they miss each other’s calls, the trip to Europe (with one bed), the catastrophic argument — all of which feel both earned and earnest, a tour through the viewer’s personal life as much as the characters’.
It’s all sold hook, line, and sinker by “White Lotus” breakout Woodall and Mod, a rising comedian and writer, who are convincing as friends, lovers, estranged, and everything in between. Woodall is especially devastating, a tornado of charisma with a permanent yet never smug smirk and a romcom smolder that should send his forbears cowering at the notion. To be fair, he has an advantage; the series skews toward Dexter’s POV, with more access to his inner life and emotions, his family and career (as well as some slight character modifications that keep him from skewing too drastically unsympathetic). Mod and Taylor’s writers Anna Jordan, Vinay Patel, and Bijan Sheibani save Emma from lacking in dimension despite the blind spots in her character, turning what could easily be a cardboard quirky romantic heroine into someone with palpable drive, passion, and kindness.
On paper, 14 episodes feels excessive for a made-to-binge series in the era of the six, eight, or 10-episode season standard, and the early ones might have benefited from being condensed. Though “One Day” starts out slow, it grows stronger over the course of the series (the Europe outings are particularly potent, as is Episode 7’s dinner), eventually finding an appropriate pace. First-time showrunner Taylor comes to the series after previous work on series including “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” and the BAFTA-winning “Three Girls.” Molly Manners, Luke Snellin, John Hardwick, and Kate Hewitt direct 3-4 episode blocks that get to include more of Nicholls’ original scenes and dialogue, rather than being forced to jettison them for a shorter runtime, and also allow for three-dimensional performances from Amber Grappy as Emma’s best friend Tilly, Eleanor Tomlinson as Dexter’s beau Sylvie, Jonny Weldon as Ian, a recurring man in Emma’s life.
Even though I recalled major twists from the film adaptation, “One Day” didn’t cut me open with any specific plot point, but more as it laid bare the raw vulnerability of an undefined relationship, one surrounded by bonds that fit into boxes. The story struck chords that it didn’t 13 years ago, in a world without the word “situationship” or the show and novel “Normal People” and when many others who will now revisit the story hadn’t worked out those chords in the first place. The people around Emma and Dex are mothers and fathers, friends and partners, but the two of them are something else entirely, all of it and none of it but inextricably linked.
And through 14 episodes and 20 years and all those shades of something, “One Day” as a limited series leaves a much stronger impression than it ever could have as a film, minting Mod and Woodall’s chemistry, charm, and adaptability. Though key moments in the narrative may stick with new viewers, even those well-versed in the tale will agree the central relationship has never been more powerful or memorable.
“One Day” is now streaming on Netflix.
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