March 02, 2013 09:00 AM

When certain television stars pass away, they don’t leave the stage – they leave your life. They played ordinary people so perfectly, you almost imagine that once their series concluded they went on living a plain existence parallel to yours as you worked, shopped, ate dinner, watched TV.

Actress Bonnie Franklin, who died of pancreatic cancer Friday at age 69, was for nine seasons America’s most contemporary everymom on CBS’s One Day at a Time (1975-1984). Franklin played Ann Romano, a divorced mother of two daughters (Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips) living in an apartment in Indianapolis.

Ann was cute but not pretty, youthful but not young, reasonable but not wise, optimistic but not deluded. You could have summed her up as pixieish, except she seemed too worn out to leap. Or maybe she’d need a minute to rev herself up.

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Raising the girls and hoping for love, she seemed to understand that victories, as the title suggested, were achieved only incrementally.

There aren’t many other sitcom performances that live on in the memory for such frank, simple concreteness. The show, for me, can be reduced almost entirely to close-ups of Franklin’s watchful face, framed by her red page cut – and her expression is more anxious than amused.

Over the course of the show, there was plenty to be anxious about. One Day was developed by the legendary Norman Lear, who with All in the Family reformed the pastel-colored American sitcom into something not only set in a recognizably drab world but willing to grapple with hot-button topics like birth control and teen suicide. One Day dealt with both, and many more.

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It’s hard to be believe now, when TV sitcoms have become almost astonishingly inventive in constructing their comic situations, how essentially anguished such a show could be.

Which is why it’s that face that I still see. That struggling but deserving woman, for whom everything is one day at a time.

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