LAST NIGHT I finished One Day, Netflix’s poignant, whimsical, sometimes heart-wrenching adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2009 novel. The story follows the trajectory of a friendship, and later a romance (spoiler), between an unlikely couple, Emma (Ambika Mod) and Dexter (The White Lotus’ Leo Woodall). On the same day for 20 years—that day being July 15—the story checks back in with the protagonists, to see how they’ve grown and changed, what they’ve lost and gained.

The book was a phenomenon, selling over five million copies, which led to a poorly received movie adaptation starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in 2011. The new Netflix series is the work of screenwriter Nicole Taylor; it unfolds over 14 episodes, allowing for a deeper, more nuanced and very affecting drama that explores the nature of friendship, soul mates, missed opportunities and ultimately the way the passage of time defines and shapes our lives. 

The most notable difference between both the book and the film is the casting of Indian-British actress Mod in the role of Emma. At face value, Mod’s casting is a clear case of the producers making an effort to update a narrative—the story begins in 1988—to reflect the diverse world we now live in.

As a person of mixed race myself (Mauritian father, British mother), I’m particularly attuned, and supportive, of diverse couples on screen. For so long, particularly in Australia, representation for ethnic minorities on our TV screens was sorely lacking.

But occasionally, I can’t help but look at the casting of racially diverse protagonists, particularly on algorithm-led streaming channels like Netflix, and wonder if there might be other, more base motivations at play.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction to diverse casting choices, for me anyway, is to applaud it. You can’t be what you can’t see. If Netflix and other streamers are able to do their part in normalising mixed-race relationships through the sheer volume, breadth and accessibility of their content, then it could go a long way to promoting greater acceptance of diversity in the community at large. This could be particularly helpful in areas or communities that lack racial diversity and where mixed-raced coupling might still be considered abnormal or even frowned upon—some rural areas perhaps.

You could also argue that such casting is genuinely reflective of the world we live in, particularly if that world is an inner-city progressive community, where an on-street eye test confirms that mixed raced couples abound.

But sometimes it can feel like stunt casting and become a distraction to the story. There have been plenty of times where my wife (who hails from South Africa’s coloured community) and I have turned to each other and said something to the effect of There’s no way those two would be together.

This was the case when we watched the opening scenes of One Day, which finds Emma and Dexter graduating from university in Edinburgh in 1988. Would the posh, golden-haired, campus lothario, Dexter, really fall for a spunky but resolutely nerdy Indian girl? My wife didn’t think so. It’s certainly difficult to see it happening back in 1988, though not impossible, as my very existence proves—I am very glad my white English mother chose to follow her heart and receive the overtures of a shy Mauritian guy in the late ’60s. But the fact is, if the show had been set in 2018, for example, Dexter and Em’s relationship would probably appear to be a more likely one from a narrative perspective.


The Guardian’s Chitra Ramaswamy had a similar reaction: “My initial reaction to seeing Mod play Emma was complicated. I was thrilled: I’ve never seen someone who looks like me, living the life I lived around the time I lived it, on screen before. But this is also why it didn’t ring true. Because race (and class, for that matter) didn’t work like that back then. By which I mean—I’ll just say it—white boys like Dex didn’t fancy brown girls like Em. I know because I was one, although I went to Glasgow. In the first few episodes, the unmentionability of Emma’s race got to me. The truth is, Dex (and his parents) would have made unintentionally racist blunders. And Em would have forgiven him.”

The possibility that Mod’s casting is a box-ticking exercise rather than a genuine effort to promote representation is further enforced by the fact that her Indian family doesn’t appear in the show at all—though they are used for comic effect in phone calls. Dexter’s family feature heavily and while that is faithful to the book, it underlines the question of what exactly Mod is doing here, if her character is not going to be fully fleshed out. Emma’s identity as Indian is almost completely subsumed by her ‘Northerness’—she speaks in a strong Leeds accent and while Dexter, a southerner, makes repeated references to her sardonic if spiky Northern sensibilities, he completely overlooks her Indian background. While you would love it if that was the world we live in, it’s just not the case and certainly wasn’t, as Ramaswamy point outs, in 1988.

At this point, we probably need to draw a distinction between a show like One Day and one like Bridgerton, where the casting of actors of colour in Regency-era London is a deliberate narrative device and creative choice. In the case of One Day, the suspicion is that Mod’s casting, rather than being reflective of the times, or an effort to promote diversity, is actually a product of Netflix’s mysterious, all-seeing algorithm. Diverse casting allows you to machine gun-fire at a broader range of demographics and capture wider audiences. The advertising industry wised up to this years ago. If it makes dollars, the saying goes, it makes sense. Watch a commercial for any major telco today and you will see mixed-race couples and diverse rainbow families.

It’s hardly a surprise then, that Netflix and other streamers are also driven by demos and dollars. Sadly, the same probably still can’t be said of mainstream free-to-air TV in Australia, which remains a largely white landscape, with token ethnic characters, rather than the meaty, main-character roles afforded to diverse actors on streamers. Given free-to-air demos generally skew older and more conservative, perhaps an algorithm is at work again, with shows featuring largely white casts reflecting the tastes of commercial TV audiences. Indeed, it can be jarring to watch a predominantly white group of characters on a scripted drama on free-to-air TV, only to break for a commercial where a diverse family is navigating a natural disaster in a health insurance ad. You can find yourself wondering what world you actually live in.

It is for that reason that despite my misgivings I ultimately welcome the diversity that’s now built into scripted shows on streaming channels. It may be conspicuous, clunky or even virtue signalling at times, but it carries with it the potential to be a force for good and even an agent for change, regardless of where motivations actually lie.

The conclusion to be reached is that TV, still an immensely powerful medium, does not necessarily reflect who we are as a society, but rather shows us an X-ray of ourselves that reveals both our aspirations and our biases. It’s not just skin deep in other words.  


‘One Love’: Bob Marley is getting the biopic treatment

This awards season, subtitles will save you