Bringing Culture to the Small Screens
In an industry where sitcoms are predominantly white, sometimes all it takes is a little
diversity and heart to make something groundbreaking. One Day at a Time is a modern
reboot that changes the story of a struggling single white mother into the story of a
single Latina mother who struggles with depression and anxiety after returning from a
military tour. Not only is this a funny show, One Day at a Time has so much heart that it
is emotionally overwhelming at times. The success of this diverse writing room and
their tactile and creative approaches to controversial topics such as deportation,
mental illness, the LGBTQ+ community, and more is detailed in this article below.
"How One Day at a Time Captures a Community Most TV Ignores"
JANUARY 26, 2018
Have you ever heard of Bibaporrú? To most Americans, it goes by a different name: Vicks VapoRub, that ointment you might apply when you have a cold. But the writers of Netflix’s One Day at a Time—half of whom are Latino—know that to Cubans, “Bix” is a miracle salve, something with the power to cure whatever ails you.
When I tell lead actress Justina Machado that the new season’s running Vicks gag reminded me of my own Cuban upbringing, she laughs. Her family, which is Puerto Rican, is also all about the Bix: “Vicks VapoRub was everything,” Machado says. “I’m from Chicago, so Vicks VapoRub is like water.”
The original One Day at a Time, which premiered in 1975, centered on a white family. In Norman Lear’s modern rework, viewers get to know the Alvarez family—a Cuban brood whose matriarch, larger-than-life Lydia, is played by larger-than-life EGOT winner Rita Moreno. Lydia lives with her divorced daughter, Penelope (Machado), a military veteran and mother of two herself. The Alvarez clan faces the same struggles many sitcom families confront—family strife, petty fights, health scares—but does so from a vantage point that even now is rarely seen on television. In the first episode of Season 2, for example, Penelope’s son, Alex (Marcel Ruiz), is embarrassed by his family—a common enough trope—but specifically, it’s because a stranger told him to “go back to Mexico” after he heard Alex speaking Spanish. Though moments like these could easily be preachy, One Day at a Time makes them feel human instead—and it also manages to deftly weave specific Latino cultural references into universal humor.
“I wanted to just tell Latino stories,” says co-creator and show-runner Gloria Calderón Kellett. But in doing so, she found that families from various ethnic backgrounds were able to relate to her work. “There’s so many people that the story resonates with, about just being the ‘other.’”
Perhaps that’s why even more Latino-focused TV series are on the horizon, set to debut in the very near future: in a very One Day at a Time-like move, Freeform’s upcoming Party of Five reboot will reimagine the original series to be about Mexican-American children whose parents get deported. Eva Longoria is developing an English-language remake of the Spanish series Gran Hotel, set in Miami, for ABC. And Calderón Kellett herself has another series in the works at CBS, a multicultural romantic comedy titled History of Them.
One Day at a Time will be a model for all of them—one that is up to that challenge. As Machado puts it, “The specificity of [the series] is what makes it so wonderful—and then the storytelling is what makes it universal.”
One Day at a Time’s first season focused frequently on the preparations for Penelope’s daughter, Elena’s, quinceañera. This season’s most consistent through-line involves a central character’s journey toward American citizenship as the family deals with a swath of personal and political issues—with several oblique references to the current presidential administration. Although a few of these topical elements occasionally play for a beat too long, the series continues to move seamlessly between the modes of comedy and political poignancy; this is, after all, not the first rodeo for Lear or the series’s two show-runners, Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce.
Rita Moreno is, unsurprisingly, still the series’s most colorful presence; Lydia has a flair for the dramatic, as does the woman who plays her. (When she accepted the role, Moreno told the team she had just one demand: “I want Lydia to be sexual. Just because she’s old, or older, does not mean that all of that good stuff goes away.”) But each Alvarez finds their own moment to seize the spotlight. Isabella Gomez, who plays Elena, nails the role of over-enthusiastic activist teen. Marcel Ruiz, as her younger brother, was born to play the lovable ham. And then there’s Machado, who has mastered the role of the family’s slightly cracked rock—and whose stellar season-finale monologue doubles as a built-in Emmy reel.
The cast has impeccable chemistry; Moreno herself calls it “astonishing,” noting that during the cast’s first-ever table read, “the writers, their jaws dropped. Norman’s jaw dropped. The director’s jaw dropped.” She compliments Machado in particular, calling her “the best acting partner” she’s ever had—although, Moreno admits, Machado’s gift for quick memorization can be intimidating. After a particularly hard rehearsal, “I was in the car on the way back to my flat and I was thinking, Man, I don’t know how she does it. And then I suddenly said to myself, ‘Well, fuck! She’s 40 years younger. Of course she can do it!’” According to Machado, Moreno’s enthusiasm is contagious as well.
Over her two decades in Hollywood, Machado herself has appeared in almost every recent American TV series centered around Latino characters. She’s got a recurring role on Jane the Virgin; she voiced the character Carmen in Disney’s groundbreaking children’s series Elena of Avalor, which introduced the studio’s first Latina princess; she also appeared in USA’s narco-drama Queen of the South. To Machado, conversations surrounding Latino representation on screen have been vital, and increased awareness has made things better. “But,” she says, “we still have a very long way to go”—particularly when it comes to awards wins and nominations.
It would help, of course, to have more Latino writers working in the industry—and on that front, One Day at a Time is leading by example. Calderón Kellett is Cuban, and half of her writing staff is Latino. They’re responsible for touches of verisimilitude, like the Alvarezes using recycled Country Crock containers as makeshift Tupperware and Lydia’s devotion to Agua de Violetas, a drugstore perfume with which many Cuban mothers douse their babies from infancy. (Try it; it smells divine.)
To Machado, the show’s attention to detail is precisely what makes it so special. “That’s a big tribute to Gloria Calderón Kellett,” Machado says. “A huge, huge tribute to her, because she was steadfast about the specificity. She was steadfast about la cafetera, steadfast about Café Bustelo . . . You notice those things.”
Nods to Latino culture, both big and small, are a crucial component of the show’s delicate high-wire act: at all times, the series must tuck the specific into the general, straddle the topical and the traditional, and perhaps above all, make sure that its most serious moments never overshadow its comedy. As Moreno puts it, “They’ve really pulled off something that’s extremely difficult. It has a balance that is very hard to achieve. Even the business of speaking too much Spanish, because then you leave out the people who don’t speak it, and that’s at least most of the world . . . It’s a very, very thin line that you have to observe, and they pull it off.”
This season tackles issues that didn’t make it into Season 1, particularly in a story line close to Calderón Kellett’s own heart about Elena’s appearance, which allows her to “pass” as white. The writers also wanted to continue developing the fraught relationship between Elena and her father (James Martinez), who cut ties with her in Season 1 after she came out. “There was a lot of discussion about how to treat that, and how to make that feel like forward momentum but not that everything is just all O.K. now,” Calderón Kellett says, “so that we could honor all of the young people out there that are not supported.”
Though the show does shed light on tough subjects, “the constant conversation is, we don’t want to feel like a Very Special Episode,” Calderón Kellett says. “We don’t want to feel like we’re hitting issues too hard, but we want to talk about all the stuff we want to talk about.” Two words the series never uses? Donald Trump. Calderón Kellett jokes that her writers use this strategy partially because they have no way of knowing if Trump will still be in office by the time their show airs. But more seriously, she notes that given how quickly the news cycle moves, it’s impossible for their Netflix production to respond to anything immediately—which vexes Norman Lear.
“His whole life he was able to see something in the news and comment on it within a week, and it would be out there,” she says. “He was so used to being super, super topical, whereas with Netflix, we stopped shooting the show four months ago. As we were conceiving of this, we had to be a little bit more cognizant of, O.K., what is generally the feeling? . . . Those were the conversations we had. What is the overall feeling? The truth is, it’s not super different for Latinos.”
Laura Bradley is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.