clock menu more-arrow no yes

One Day at a Time’s showrunners hope their sitcom about a Latino family changes the world

“There's still so many misperceptions about what a Latino family looks like and sounds like”

One Day at a Time
One Day at a Time’s showrunners Mike Royce (from left) and Gloria Calderon Kellett pose for a photo with executive producer Norman Lear and cast members Justina Machado and Rita Moreno.
Netflix

The original version of One Day at a Time — the sitcom that debuted in 1975 and starred Bonnie Franklin as a recently divorced woman who moves to a new city with her two daughters — was important in its time as one of the first shows to truly examine how America dealt with divorce. But over 40 years later, the story of a single mother is much less of a draw all on its own.

Yet Norman Lear, the legendary TV producer who brought the original series to the screen, singled it out as the item on his resume that would best lend itself to a present-day update. (Lear, 94, is still active in the industry. I talked to him in 2015.)

He handed the reins to sitcom vets Gloria Calderon Kellett (of How I Met Your Mother and Rules of Engagement fame) and Mike Royce (who’s worked on everything from Everybody Loves Raymond to Enlisted), and together with Netflix the three have created a series that hits dead center of the conversations we’re having in 2017.

The streaming site’s just-launched remake of One Day at a Time is the first pleasant surprise of the year in TV. The show is still centered on a single mother (played by Justina Machado), but it’s now also about the everyday experience of being Latina in the US, about how feminism has developed and changed over the past century, about LGBTQ identities, and about issues concerning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, particularly PTSD.

Despite its grab bag of serious subject matter, like the best of Lear’s work, the new One Day at a Time never feels preachy or didactic — it’s always funny, first and foremost, thanks to deft writing and skilled performers like Machado and Rita Moreno (who plays her mother). When the studio audience laughs, you’ll probably laugh, too, which is all too rare in this day and age.

Calderon Kellett and Royce spoke with me recently about updating the series for 2017, having their show hit the air right before Donald Trump becomes president, and the challenge of finding non-annoying child actors.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

One Day at a Time Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff

As you were producing this, the 2016 election was entering its death throes. Did you ever have the feeling while you were working on it that One Day at a Time was even more relevant than you first thought?

Mike Royce

I feel like it's good to see these faces on television and maybe it's even something that people need. I don't know. I don't want to be pretentious, but I feel good that these faces are getting on television.

Gloria Calderon Kellett

Well, I love being pretentious!

I'm first generation Latina. My parents literally came off of a plane when they were 15, not knowing a word of English. So it's strange to me that's there's still so many misperceptions about what a Latino family looks like, sounds like, et cetera. To be able to have this family out there and invited into people's homes, I'm really grateful that we get to have that in this time when I think that there is a lot of misperception about who Latinos are and what Latino families care about.

Hopefully, people will see that they care about the same things [other families] care about — feeding my kids and making sure the world is safe and good and all of those basic human needs. I hate to be pretentious and say I hope it changes the world, but, I mean, I do.

Todd VanDerWerff

The thing everybody remembers about the original One Day at a Time is it's about a single mother. In 2016, that's about the seventh least interesting thing about the show. When you were thinking about updating it for the present, what came to mind?

Gloria Calderon Kellett

There haven't really been a lot of Latina single moms on television. We have Jane the Virgin, but that's one show. We were really talking about what are things that really affect the Latina family and families in general, and what can we say about them in 2016?

Some ideas came from that, and then the veteran stuff came in because Norman is a veteran and very big on talking about veteran’s issues. Mike had just come off of Enlisted, so he was very entrenched in the world.

Mike Royce

I forget the exact statistic, but it's huge how many families in America have been touched by military service, whether they have a family member or friend [who is a veteran]. Because of our approach to warfare in the last 15 years, this is a giant category of Americans, and there's so many stories to tell.

There's still many details in there that don't get told often. Our main character and her ex-husband, they have two completely different situations, and they fall into those categories that are the real people of the Army, as opposed to the two extremes of hero or crazy guy.

One Day at a Time
Norman Lear (center) is a sitcom legend.
Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff

How closely did you guys work with Lear in updating the show? Did he offer any advice you took to heart?

Mike Royce

He was very supervisory, and he wasn't in the room every day. But in our meetings, he's got something he wants to talk about. That's where he comes from creatively. First meeting, “I want to talk about the VA. These poor veterans are not getting the care they need, and we've got to do something about it.”

As we talked about it, it made those characters much richer so that's the kind of thing that he comes in with. That's one way we take advice from him.

Todd VanDerWerff

I’m impressed with how deftly this show talks about political and social issues without feeling stilted, which is something TV has struggled with since the heyday of Lear’s shows in the ‘70s. The live studio audience seems to give this sort of sitcom an advantage in that regard. Do you have any theories as to why?

Mike Royce

First of all, we try to make sure any "issue" or any time the show turns dramatic, you have to make sure to earn it. We're not setting out to do an issue a week. We're setting out to do stories about these characters, and the issues that fit into their lives that they would be living through, so that it feels organic to what the family's doing. When you get to the heavy part, it's something that had been worth talking about.

We don't always have a treacle-cutter [a joke designed to provide a laugh during a more dramatic moment] in the show, but it's a valuable tool. It's a super powerful thing to be able to hit this really dramatic moment and then have a joke that is not flip or a stupid throw-away thing, but a real laugh that lets the air out, lets the audience exhale. The treacle-cutter helps you a lot if you can really build to a good one.

Gloria Calderon Kellett

It starts from our room. We're really proud of our writers’ room.

It's [age] 24 to 94 when Norman's in the room. Half of our room is women, and half of our room is Latinx. We've got Puerto Ricans and Cubans and Mexicans and El Salvadorians, and we've got white guys, too because we like white guys. We have an LGBTQ component, and the stuff that we talk about and are educating each other about is stuff that we use a lot. I didn't know about microaggressions until Mike told me about that, because his daughter had informed him about them. It’s great to have stuff come up and then hear everybody's point of view on it.

We've had veterans come to the room and talk to us, so we've also had this very intimate experience where people are literally telling their war stories and the room is weeping. We have this shared experience of being vulnerable with one another, and it lends to great story and great conversations. We know we're making a sitcom, and we want people to laugh a lot, but we try to make it as organic to what we're talking about.

Often on TV, an issue comes up, people fight about it, and then somebody's mind gets changed at the end. But there are many episodes we have where people don't change their minds. I think that's more real — we don't [change our minds], but maybe we see the world a little differently or we understand each other a little bit more.

That's an important conversation to be having. I have relatives that voted for Trump that think I'm crazy, and I think they're crazy, but gosh, I still love them. I still want them to have good and interesting and productive lives. We don't necessarily have to change each other's minds, but let's have a conversation and try to understand each other a little bit more. The fact that we get to do that with TV and then hopefully people get to do that in their own homes or be inspired to do that, is really empowering.

Mike Royce

It's also the performers that we have. They're not only hilarious, but they really dive into that stuff, so it doesn't feel preachy, because they're really living it. They get hold of the material and they really make it soar.

One Day at a Time
The cast of One Day at a Time
Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff

You’ve both worked on broadcast network sitcoms that I’ve loved, but one thing that’s nice about Netflix is having more time to tell your story, because you get the extra five minutes per episode that sitcoms used to have before losing the time to ads. Have you welcomed that?

Mike Royce

It's fantastic. I have anxiety about pretty much everything when it comes to shows, so now my great fear is, “Oh my God, [this episode] won't be long enough!” Which is a weird fear, and we never had that problem.

But it's great to have the length. Of course, you can abuse it. We try to make sure our shows are tight. We're not just, like, “Oh, let's leave everything in.” We do plenty of editing and make sure we have the best show no matter what the length is, but it's also nice not to have the commercial breaks and to be able to tell a story from beginning to end. We played around with the structure a little bit [in a few episodes]. Not to be cool, but just because that's what the story called for.

Gloria Calderon Kellett

A lot of times [on a network sitcom], you get into the editing room, and you have to cut for time. So you have to cut things you really love. “Oh no, I love that joke, or I love that moment, or I love that silence.” We didn't really have to do that. We would cut something we wanted to cut because it made the show flow better, as opposed to cutting for time. We get to keep some of those moments and some of those jokes that we know we would have had to cut if it were network.

Mike Royce

It’s an interesting creative challenge, because it's up to you. You really have to look at: okay, it's a good joke, but does it slow down the story or not? There's never the network going, “Well, first of all, it has to be a certain length.”

Gloria Calderon Kellett

If people hate it, it's our fault, Royce.

Todd VanDerWerff

One Day at a Time has more standalone episodes than a typical Netflix show, but it’s also more serialized than something like Everybody Loves Raymond. Did you alter the way you thought about story because you knew every episode was dropping on the same day?

Gloria Calderon Kellett

We had arced that first season around the [daughter Elena’s] quinceañera, so we knew we were heading toward that. We think of the episodes as standalone, but then there's some that really organically fed into the next one. The serialization aspect certainly is something that Netflix likes, so we were happy to have that element there for the person who is watching them all. But it wasn't a mandate. For season one, anyway, it just flowed that way.

Mike Royce

It was really important to us to tell a self contained story, no matter what serialized elements were also in there. You have this studio audience sitting there. They don't know what happened in episode three.

From a structural standpoint for sitcoms where there's an audience there, you want to make it like a little play. It's a triumph if we can make this great story that really pays off at the end [of the episode] that also then sets up something for the next show. So we couldn't purely put in some scene that was literally just setup. Creatively, it's a good thing to have as a challenge.

One Day at a Time
Justina Machado (left) and Rita Moreno star in One Day at a Time.
Netflix

Todd VanDerWerff

So far as I can tell, you two had never worked together before. Sometimes, having that kind of forced partnership running a show can be rough. How did you navigate that?

Gloria Calderon Kellett

We had never met! Really, Norman forced us to marry each other for this show. [Laughs.] That’s kind of what happened! He blessed both of us, and then said, “Okay, you two do it.”

I had heard very good things [about Mike], but I had no idea what an absolute joy... [Royce tries to cut in.] Just deal with it, Royce!

He's unbelievable. He sat down with me on the first day, and I was worried that it was going to be somebody else sort of taking the reins. But he was, like, “Listen. I just want you to know we're partners, and this is us doing this together. I expect that from you and I'm going to turn you into a showrunner.” He's been so incredible, really teaching me and guiding me and is a great partner. I wish everyone could have a Mike Royce. I don't know how I would do anything without him.

Mike Royce

First of all, I'm glad we transitioned into the puff piece about me. Second, I don't if you caught the coded language there: She's trying to say, “I work with an old guy, and I wish he would get out of the way.” Obviously, I am older than her and I have had more experience running shows, but it was going to be an equal partnership right from the get-go because she's super talented.

Gloria Calderon Kellett

I'm much younger, though.

Mike Royce

She's a playwright. I read her play and got very excited because it was like, this is kind of what we're doing. We're doing a play. Her plays are so character-based, and there's a hook in there, something funny in there. It's very heartfelt. It was like, yeah, as long as we get along creatively, we're definitely going to get along. I think we bring sometimes complementary and sometimes the same skills to this endeavor.

Todd VanDerWerff

The history of sitcoms is littered with annoying child actors, but the two main child actors are good on this show and so are the guest kids. What’s your secret? Just waiting for the right people?

Gloria Calderon Kellett

With the main kids, we spent some time. Both of them needed specific skillsets. Alex [the son] has to be charming. Charm is not something you can teach somebody, and there's so many great actors that felt like actors. We wanted the kid to feel like he wasn’t acting.

For Elena, we had a girl who's spouting off lots of jargon that she's reading on the internet and needs to sound like it's coming out of this girl's mouth because she reads this stuff all the time, not because she's reciting a script.

We had quite a time. Nobody could have played these roles. Had these two kids [Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz] not come along, we would have been like [groans]. They also happen to be only children, and they both have fallen in love with each other as siblings, so that ended up being really sweet as well.

Mike Royce

We have offices across the hall from each other, and because of the way the doors open, we can't quite see each other [watching audition tapes]. So you just hear, almost out of a movie, “Oh my God,” and then five seconds later, “Oh my God,” singing out, from across the hall.

One Day at a Time is streaming on Netflix.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.