Netflix’s One Day contains two literary quotes that, in combination, spell out the entire premise of the project. One is too much a spoiler to recount here. The other is from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations: “Imagine one selected day struck out of your life, and think how different its course would have been. Think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on that memorable day.”
Though the line is read as a toast to a minor character’s wedding, there is no mistaking that for our purposes, it’s really about our two leads, Emma (Ambika Mod, This Is Going to Hurt) and Dexter (Leo Woodall, The White Lotus). And the chain between them is long indeed: The series spans nearly two decades over 14 meandering episodes, before tripping over one last iffy twist on its way out. But the spark between Emma and Dexter burns bright enough throughout to make the ride more enjoyable than not.
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Adapted by Nicole Taylor from the 2009 bestseller by David Nicholls, One Day boasts a structure so tidy it borders on gimmicky. On the very last day of university in 1988 (and the very first episode of the series), Emma and Dexter meet at a party and flirt their way into what he presumes will be a one-night stand, but that she turns into one of those heady late-night collegiate chats about hopes and dreams. Pleasant though the evening is, there’s no sense that either assumes it to be the start of a defining, life-changing relationship; we know better only because it’s the premise of the show. One Day aims for a balance between epic fated romance and grounded quarter-life drama, and for a while pulls it off quite well.
Each installment of One Day thereafter checks in with the pair once a year on that same date, July 15. Sometimes they’re together, bickering in a trendy restaurant or sharing a bottle of cheap wine in the park. Just as often they’re not, connected only via phone calls or letters or, during a particularly icy spell, not at all. As their early 20s give way to their 30s and beyond, golden boy Dex discovers that money, charm and good looks can only protect him so long from life’s disappointments and tragedies. Meanwhile, idealistic intellectual Em struggles to find her footing in a world that’s far less invested than she is in her ambitions as an artist and activist.
Of the two heroes, Emma is the more fascinating. She’s sharp in a way that might almost seem mean — during that fateful first chat, she mocks his travel plans and imagines him at 40, driving around in a sports car with a third wife who’s “thick as mince” — were it not for Mod’s dry but playful wit. As she blossoms from the anxiety of her 20s to the quiet confidence of her 30s, she becomes only more winsome still. Dexter, by contrast, is given fewer opportunities to break out of the privileged-playboy type he presents himself as from the start. But Woodell grants him enough good humor that Dexter’s ease becomes a natural foil to Emma’s prickliness. As different as they are, they just fit.
As Dex and Em insist they’re just friends — as they convince themselves of it, even — the camera sees the way they see each other. Director Molly Manners, Kate Hewitt and others linger on Em’s fingertips as they trace the rim of a wineglass, on Dex’s back as water pours between his shoulder blades in the shower, on each character’s eyes as they notice these intimate details.
At the same time, the scripts make equally clear that attraction can only take them so far until each has developed into the person they need to be for themselves and for each other. At its very best, the drama suspends us in the delicious agony of wanting desperately for Em and Dex to get together while understanding they should not. When they finally do, Dexter sums up their saga in four words: “We grew up together.” One Day is the story not so much of how two people fell for each other, but of how they finally became right for each other.
Ironically, given the show’s emphasis on the importance of good timing, its biggest challenge turns out to be its pacing. On one hand, spreading the pair’s story over 14 unhurried episodes allows for a romance that feels organic, or as organic as any can be when the entire conceit of the series suggests it’s one preordained in some way by fate. Em and Dex are allowed to evolve not as fictional characters do, in dramatic and irreversible leaps, but the way real people do, in bits and pieces with lots of swerves and reversals along the way.
At the same time, there’s no getting around the fact that 14 is simply a lot of episodes, even if each only runs about half an hour. Around episode seven, I found myself more tired than excited by the prospect of seven more episodes to go. True, television has frequently stretched will-they-won’t-theys for much longer; it took Jim and Pam nearly 30 episodes to smooch on The Office. But Dex and Em aren’t a single plot thread in a larger ensemble. They are the only focus of One Day, and even the most starry-eyed romantic is bound to wonder if their journeys could not have been condensed down to eight episodes, or six, or heck, into a single feature-length film. (Then again, given how the 2011 movie version with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess turned out, maybe not.)
And then, just when One Day finally starts to pay off all that waiting and longing, the series has the audacity to end. Em and Dex’s story has to stop somewhere, but the specific exit ramp chosen by Taylor (or more accurately by Nicholls, since it was lifted from his novel) is sure to be divisive. It’s reaching, I think, for something profound about the mysteries of time — to treasure whatever we have of it, whether we’re gazing back into some golden past or looking ahead toward an uncertain future. But it lands like a cop-out, or perhaps a missed opportunity. For all the loving detail lavished on the couple’s courtship, the series is evidently far less interested in the intimacies of long-term love. By that point we’ve seen Dex and Em evolve beyond childish crushes or romantic fantasies, and Woodall and Mod have certainly demonstrated the chemistry to go the distance. It’s One Day that, in the end, loses its nerve.
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