Each episode of Netflix‘s One Day takes place on July 15 of successive years, from 1988 through 2007. Each year, we check in on the evolving relationship between idle rich boy Dexter Mayhew (Leo Woodall) and the more serious-minded Emma Morley (Ambika Mod), who start out as would-be lovers, instead become friends, and gradually begin to wonder if they had things right the first time.
This structure was introduced in David Nicholls’ 2009 novel of the same name, which has already been adapted into a 2011 film with Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway as Dexter and Emma. It’s an interesting approach to what could otherwise be a very familiar will-they-or-won’t-they story. But its execution, at least in this version (primarily written by Nicole Taylor), makes the time-skipping gimmick feel more like a bug than a feature.
We begin on graduation night for Dexter and Emma from the University of Edinburgh. He’s a popular, easygoing guy who has apparently slept with half their class, while she’s bookish and passionate and has entirely escaped his notice until they bump into each other at a raucous party on the campus lawn. They spend the night together, but in the most literal sense. Each time it seems as if sex is only moments away, Emma instead opts to talk, trying to get to know this boy she’s only watched from afar over the past few years. He’s confused, but intrigued enough by her to play along, even if many of her questions baffle him. When she asks what he wants to be when he’s 40, for instance, he replies, “I don’t know. Not 40?” Still, they make enough of a connection that they decide to stay in touch, and they soon become closer with each other than with the other people who mattered so much to them in school.
The 14-episode season takes Dexter past 40, stopping at each year’s St. Swithin’s Day to see how he and Emma are doing, both as individuals and as friends who may want to be more than that. His good looks and relaxed manner make him an instant hit as a host of game shows and reality TV, while she struggles to find a niche as an actor, a teacher, and a writer, among other potential careers. (She spends several episodes working in what’s described as the second-worst Mexican restaurant in London.) Sometimes, they are together on the 15th, sometimes apart but in communication, and sometimes completely cut off from one another. There are episodes where one of them only appears briefly, and a few that focus entirely on either Dexter or Emma.
But where their attempted coupling doesn’t work out back in 1988, One Day peaks with that very first episode. There are palpable sparks between Woodall (last seen helping his “uncle” try to murder Jennifer Coolidge in The White Lotus Season Two) and Mod (from the great BBC medical drama This Is Going to Hurt), and enough appealing twists and turns in the power dynamic between the duo, to make the prospect of following them for years seem very exciting.
Instead, their dynamic largely remains the same, regardless of their separate and combined circumstances. Each experiences tremendous success and painful loss at different times. But Dexter remains a very nice but shallow guy, whose most admirable moments are usually inspired by his best friend. And Emma remains a spitfire who thinks a little too deeply about everything, and who usually needs Dexter’s help to relax and enjoy life. He always very clearly wants to be in a relationship with her, even when he’s seeing other people, while she keeps putting him off, perhaps out of fear of the intensity of her own feelings for him. Even as the characters get deeper into adulthood, and even as some episodes take place in other locales (Greece, Paris, Dexter’s family estate in the country), it all quickly becomes repetitive. And several of the middle episodes feel wholly unnecessary, other than to stick with the format. Meanwhile, several of the most eventful years in our heroes’ lives are compressed into the two final episodes, which keep jumping ahead toward the final day.
The blanks can be mentally filled in, but the emotional weight isn’t there.
The need to stick to July 15 also means that we miss a lot of important parts of the story, including one of the most significant developments between them. The blanks can be mentally filled in, but the emotional weight isn’t there.
And while Emma is given a chance or two to acknowledge how each passing year makes their dynamic more dysfunctional, not less, the show wants you to largely ignore that and keep hoping things can work out for these two crazy no-longer-kids — which in turn makes a number of the choices in the last two episodes feel particularly unsatisfying.
Again, Woodall and Mod are excellent, together and alone. It looks and sounds great (the array of Eighties, Nineties, and Aughts music is killer), and there are some fine moments and even whole episodes. But Dexter and Emma each wonder at different points why it’s taken so long for anything to happen between them, and the structure of One Day will likely leave you just as confused and impatient.
All 14 episodes of One Day are now streaming on Netflix. I’ve seen the whole season.