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‘One Day,’ and then another, all the way into adulthood

The rewarding Netflix series traces a friendship between a pair of opposites over 19 years

Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in a scene from the Netflix limited series "One Day."Netflix via AP

The structure of “One Day” is simple, but it’s rich, gesturing out toward questions about the passing of time, fate and freedom, and personal evolution. Basically, the British Netflix miniseries catches up with Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley every year on the same day, July 15, St. Swithin’s Day, beginning with their first meeting on graduation eve in 1988. Some things have stayed the same when we reach the end of the story arc in 2007, and others have changed for the better and, alas, for the worse. Together, all 14 episodes provide a time-lapse tour of a complex relationship that’s both finely detailed and sweeping.

I don’t mean to make too much of the show, which premieres in its entirety on Thursday. It is a rom-com, more or less — I suppose it’s a rom-dram, too — and it is a portrait of a friendship, but it’s not an existential meditation on anything. It’s pleasing, easy viewing, helped by having a pair of effective lead performances, a solid source in the 2009 novel by David Nicholls (though not in the disappointing 2011 movie), and a carefully achieved bittersweet tone. Dexter and Emma are destined to be a romantic couple — or are they? As in the current movie “Past Lives,” that question hovers over everything, important and yet secondary to the randomness of daily life.


In college in Edinburgh, Dexter is a carefree, handsome rich boy with no goals except to travel and party more, while Emma is a self-conscious, educationally engaged student from a modest background. At graduation, with the class system embedded in campus life no longer relevant, they connect, an attraction of opposites. They spend a night together bonding, a sort-of kind-of hook-up, their rapport brand new and yet somehow familiar. Dexter is accustomed to getting away with everything, so he is drawn to Emma’s cool willingness to call him on his privilege and his arrogance. He sees and likes her opinionated manner, barely hidden behind her awkwardness. She is drawn to his charm and his unrealized intelligence, and early on, she feels lucky to be in the orbit of such a campus star, “Normal People”-like.

Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in Netflix's "One Day."Ludovic Robert/Netflix

As we check in on them every year, we watch them navigate their love lives — he gets involved with Eleanor Tomlinson’s Sylvie, she with Jonny Weldon’s Ian — as well as their careers. As Dexter’s substance abuse begins to limit his professional options, Emma finally finds an occupation that suits her gifts and brings her to Paris. Throughout, sometimes together on July 15 and other times not, they fall out of friendship, fall together again, bicker at each other, console each other, and generally define themselves in relation to the other. As the time periods play out on the soundtrack, Dexter and Emma essentially grow up, stumbling through their 20s into something like adulthood.


I was afraid, at first, that the same-time-next-year approach might become tiresome in a miniseries format. Another episode, another year, another episode, another year. . . . But the show’s twists and turns along the way bring enough surprises and character development to entertain. Some episodes are better than others, or more distinct — they’re a half-hour or so apiece — but ultimately they blend together into something whose strength comes from its breadth. This is one of the times when binging a series might benefit it, rather than robbing it of impact.


Mod, whose supporting turn as a doctor in training in “This Is Going to Hurt” was devastating, is also impressive as a lead. She has a face that invites you to search it for Emma’s true feelings, which are often unique blends of insecurity and humor, impatience and compassion, ambition and contentedness. Emma sees Dexter’s beauty, and admires it, but Mod makes it clear that Emma is not blinded by it. Woodall, last seen in “The White Lotus,” brings more depth and fragility to Dexter than you might expect, and he makes it clear that, underneath all of his magnetism, Dexter knows Emma is a rare gem. When they don’t have sex on their first night together, something he is not accustomed to, he knows right away that he’s in the presence of something real.


Starring: Leo Woodall, Ambika Mod, Eleanor Tomlinson, Toby Stephens, Joely Richardson, Essie Davis

On: Netflix. Streams Thursday.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him @MatthewGilbert.