Warning: Spoilers ahead. 

Credit: Matthew Towers/Netflix

Emma Morley is supposed to be white. She’s white in the book. She’s white in the movie. 

But in Netflix’s serialized remake of “One Day,” Emma Morley is South Asian, the product of a Hindu mother and a Catholic father, as she explains. And so she and Dexter Mayhew embark on a 14-episode “will-they-won’t they” romance that not only crosses class lines but racial ones, too. 

Except you would hardly know because the series pays scant attention to this massive detail. On the one hand, that’s progress. We get to be the love interest—at last! Some hail the casting as a sign of South Asian women “finally getting their flowers as romantic leads.” But the lack of delving into Emma’s back story, her family’s immigration, her hardscrabble rearing, her parents’ interreligious marriage, constitutes not just a form of erasure but also a missed opportunity. 

The actor portraying Emma, Ambika Mod, almost didn’t try out for the part, confessing she had loved the book and the movie, and thought, “I can’t do this, I shouldn’t do this, I’m not Emma.” In a podcast interview, she goes on to say she was bullied and called ugly as a teen; “Seeing yourself on screen feeds into insecurities about how you look and how valued you are in society, how beautiful you feel — do people fall in love with someone who looks like me?” 

While Hollywood might not consider Mod classically beautiful (whatever that means), she’s gorgeous on the series and the chemistry between her and the wealthier, more connected Dexter (played by Leo Woodall) is undeniable. You fall in love with these characters, and are really rooting for them. 

Credit: Matthew Towers/Netflix

And yet… whereas Dex’s family issues are dissected and reconciled, from his mother’s cancer to his father’s judgment, the lack of equal treatment for Emma’s are glaring. Given the racial dynamics, it seems even more suspect for the white family to be given so much airtime and the brown one to get, well, none. Emma’s mother “appears” in the form of a few phone calls. What Indian bride gets away with 50 people at her wedding? On Emma’s eventual death anniversary, her ex-boyfriend Ian can drive three hours to mourn but her parents cannot make the four-hour trek from Leeds? 
The inclusive casting of Netflix’s “One Day” is to be lauded. Besides Emma, the friends’ circle is also diverse, a chipper and dependable best friend Tilly masterfully played by Amber Grappy. But unlike other series such as “Never Have I Ever” or “Bridgerton,” one South Asian actor does not open the doors for more. There’s no family, community or ecosystem developed. Here, it feels like the creators substituted Emma Morley but failed to fully reinvent or reimagine what that meant. And so our brown and beautiful Emma Morley stands alone, with an outstanding performance despite a storyline skimping on the multitudes she deserved. We viewers who see ourselves, and yet long to see more, are only left to imagine what could have been.

S. Mitra Kalita a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra has also recently co-founded a new media company called URL Media, a network of Black and Brown owned media organizations that share content, distribution, and revenues to increase their long-term sustainability. She’s on the board of the Philadelphia Inquirer and writes a weekly column for TIME Magazine and Charter. Mitra was most recently SVP at CNN Digital, overseeing the national news, breaking news, programming, opinion, and features teams.