Earlier this year, Netflix’s One Day at a Time became one of television’s best, warmest, and smartest series on air—and it certainly helps that it puts diversity at the forefront. A loose remake of Norman Lear’s sitcom of the same name, the 2017 version was updated to focus on a Cuban American single mother and Army veteran (Justina Machado) raising her two children (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz)—one of whom comes out as a lesbian—with help from her own mother (Rita Moreno!). The result was 13 memorable (and seriously affecting) episodes that featured a range of topics: post-traumatic stress disorder, microaggressions, immigration policy, and even the problems with a white man wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.
On Monday, during the Television Critics Association press tour, the cast and crew (including executive producer Norman Lear, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday) gathered to discuss the show’s impact. Though they were mostly tight-lipped about season two, they were all more than happy to discuss the past season.
“It’s been really, really amazing feedback from mostly everyone,” said Isabella Gomez. She noted that she’s gotten “a lot of young girls coming up to me and being like, ‘Because of Elena, I feel normal, and I feel like I can come out.’ But what’s really crazy is getting adults coming up to me and being like, ‘I wish I would have had Elena Alvarez when I was 15.’ And so it’s so much bigger than me.”
Justina Machado, who plays mother Penelope, echoed Gomez’s sentiment: “I have had people thanking me for telling their story and a lot of women reaching out to me and saying, ‘This is me. This is my story. It’s like you followed me around’… I’ve had a lot of young gay women say, ‘I wish you were my mom.'”
Those powerful reactions demonstrate what can be unlocked when a show has diverse characters and storylines—and for that, you need to have diverse people behind the scenes. As Rita Moreno said, “Our writers room is really united nations of just about everything,” meaning not just racial diversity but younger and LGBTQ writers.
The cast also talked about season one’s “Hold, Please,” in which Penelope spends the whole episode frustratedly on the phone with Veterans Affairs. According to co-showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett, that came from the experience of one of the show’s military consultants, who struggled for weeks to get an appointment with the VA.
But the series also deftly balances these serious affairs with more light-hearted warmth, creating a wonderful mix of storylines that appeal to everyone. One highlight is the romance between two older characters, Penelope’s boss Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky) and Penelope’s mother. “It’s enormously profound, because at our age we’ve had our hearts broken—and maybe more than once. The fact that we still look for love and for a relationship says there’s something that is bigger,” explained Tobolowsky.
“Love is an enormous thing in our lives that transcends age. It transcends almost anything, which is enormously optimistic.” Moreno added, of course, that Tobolowsky “cannot take his hands off me!”
Norman Lear in a production still. Photo by Michael Yarish/Netflix
Later in the panel, attention also turned to Norman Lear, a Kennedy Center honoree (alongside Rita Moreno, a 2015 honoree), who has decided to skip the White House reception in protest of Donald Trump and his proposed massive cuts to arts funding. “I think of it as a very simple decision,” said Lear. “The Kennedy Center is about the arts and humanities. I’m somebody who believes, when the world is safe for everybody, the arts will play a large part in that. And a presidency that doesn’t—that turns its back on the arts and refuses to fund the arts and humanities—I can’t imagine wishing to go there.”
“I understand everything else that’s going on, and you can imagine how I feel about the individual,” Lear continued. “But it’s the turning of the presidency’s back on the arts and humanities that I can’t honor that with a visit.”
One Day at a Time avoided timely political commentary in season one largely because of the filming schedule and will have to continue to do so—they are currently shooting now but won’t premiere until 2018. The show can’t avoid politics altogether, of course; as Kellett noted, “there’s not a world where a Latino family is not dealing with the aftermath of 45 [a.k.a. Trump] being president. It’s just a different country.” So although season two won’t deal with “specific things in the news,” there will still be an “overall feeling and demeanor and change that this family feels.”
Although One Day at a Time can be a universal comedy with universal sitcom-esque storylines, it still maintains its Latino roots. That’s definitely not going to change. “I don’t want to leave out our Latinoness because I think we bring the sauce and the passion that is very peculiarly and specifically Latino,” said Moreno. “I think [our writers] have found a gorgeous, gorgeous balance.”
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