The heart-breaking Netflix adaptation of 'One Day' is a crucial milestone for diverse casting

one day
'One Day' is a milestone for diverse castingOne Day/Netflix

I remember the day I finished David Nicholls’ best-selling novel, One Day. It was the summer of my second year of university and the tail end of a family holiday to Spain. I had soaked up the majority of the book’s romantic drama under the sun, internally screaming at the protagonists, Dexter and Emma, willing them to confess their feelings for one other. I completed the final chapters on the flight home (a terrible idea) and spent every minute sobbing to such effect that my mum was one step away from extracting the oxygen mask to calm me down.

So you can imagine my sense of heightened anticipation when I found out that One Day would be coming to Netflix as a 10-part series. A journalist friend of mine, who had previewed the show, told me to brace for impact for the introduction of Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod as Dexter and Emma. When I watched it on Sunday evening (I scoffed the entire show in one sitting and cried myself to sleep at 3am) it was immediately obvious that the casting is perfection, shifting the barometer for representation in a really positive way, resulting in a One Day retelling that hit me square in the chest.

one day
One Day/Netflix

Growing up, the only time I saw myself reflected as the main character on screen was in Bend It Like Beckham. My brown skin was almost always seen on supporting roles – the best friend or the sidekick, but never the one who got the man at the end. The job of protagonist belonged to a white, often thin, often traditionally ‘beautiful’ woman.

But things have come a long way since then. When Shonda Rhimes debuted season two of Bridgerton last year, it wasn’t just the object of affection that was of South Asian descent – it was half the cast, and it was brilliant (if not somewhat emotional, at the age of 32) to see my culture, and therefore myself, celebrated on TV as something desirable. However, the costume design, the plot and the obviously fictional setting still held it at a distance from something to which I could wholeheartedly relate.

a person sitting on a chair
Ludovic Robert/Netflix

One Day has changed that. Mod is very obviously of South Asian descent and while there are two very small mentions of Emma’s heritage – one off-hand comment from Dexter in episode one, asking whether it’s religion that stopped her from having sex with him, and a smart nod to Emma’s background in the name of the main character (Nisha Halliday) in her children’s book – nothing more is made of it. The truth is that Mod is the essence of Emma: smart, funny, witty, talented and beautiful, she encapsulates the spirit of the character in a way that gripped me from the minute she stepped on screen.

In turn, Dexter’s love for Emma isn’t a fetish or a fixation; it isn’t rooted in her heritage or the colour of her skin. It’s the most simple of plot lines: boy meets girl and falls in love (via a few agonising twists and turns). That girl just happens to have the same skin colour as mine – and that’s why it matters. So rarely do women who look like Mod get to be the lead, and even more rarely are they treated as the right person for the role, rather than a diversity hire.

a man and woman standing outside

Naturally, the internet has had a lot to say about the casting of this series. So much of it has been positive, but of course, there was doubt thrown in there, too. Many of the comments I read questioned how Dexter could fall for this version of Emma, complained that the casting was unrealistic, or remarked that the couple's pairing felt “off”. It’s exactly this response that highlights the importance of Mod’s casting in the first place. Interestingly, she actually passed on the role multiple times, citing One Day as one of her favourite books, and her consequent worry that her love of the character meant that she wouldn’t be right for the part. As the casting director, Rachel Sheridan, said in a recent interview, “she couldn’t have been more wrong”.

The essence of Dexter and Emma’s ‘will they won’t they’ saga, played out over the course of 20 years, is a feeling so many of us will have encountered (or desperately wished to). It is the book’s universality that had me enthralled all those years ago – something which had nothing do with what I thought Dexter and Emma might look like, and everything to do with how they made me feel.

a man and woman kissing

The colour of Emma’s skin similarly has no consequence in the Netflix series, as it has little relevance to her character. But to the people watching the show – brown-skinned or not – it stands as an important reminder that love does not discriminate. In order to have progress you need to see it; in order to feel part of a story you have to feel represented; and in order to move past comments that say race defines your success, you have to know your worth as a person.

One Day is beautiful, funny, moving and honest (too honest – I’m still recovering). It does, truly, do the book and the characters their fair justice, while being a shining example of diverse casting and representation in the process.

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