One of Norman Lear’s classic beloved TV sitcoms has new lives breathed into it, as One Day at a Time debuts today on Netflix complete with 13 episodes featuring a new cast in a new setting. Justina Machado stars as Penelope, a newly single mother and military veteran raising her two kids in a Los Angeles apartment along with her Cuban-born mother, played by EGOT winner Rita Moreno. Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz play Penelope’s kids, Todd Grinnell plays the new Schneider, and Stephen Tobolowsky plays Penelope’s boss.
The early reviews from TV critics across America have been overwhelmingly positive, heralding the show as the first major success for a multi-cam sitcom in the streaming arena.
Now I’ve gotten his new One Day at a Time co-writers and showrunners, Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce, to talk about bringing the show back for your binging pleasure. They’re pictured above with Lear and stars Machado and Moreno.
So the expectations of remaking a Norman Lear classic probably come with different and extra weight than say, a sequel to Full House. Did you feel more pressure doing One Day at a Time than previous sitcoms and dramas? And what were your initial interactions with Lear himself like?
MIKE: I certainly was daunted! But the great part was that Norman and Brent Miller (Norman’s producing partner) didn’t want to remake it but to reimagine the show. So Gloria and I were really allowed to create a new show under an existing premise. And then it became fantastic because under Norman’s umbrella you’re allowed to go for it. If Gloria and I had gone out pitching a Cuban-American family single mom sitcom with all the emotion and issues that we wanted to deal with, I don’t know that anybody would have understood what we were trying to do, but since it’s a Norman show people go “Oh, of course!” He and his body of work gave us the freedom to do the show we wanted to do.
As far as those great early reviews, at least one I read compared the new One Day as a Carmichael Show meets Cristela. Would you call that fair?
MIKE: Both great shows! I think Carmichael does more “issue of the week” and really looks at them from all angles in a tremendously hilariously and insightful and relevant way. And Cristela was groundbreaking as it was being created by and starring a Latina so we have some of that too. Cristela has been so supportive of us, by the way. So we are a little of both probably which is a big compliment but hopefully also our own thing.
How did you come to terms with what would be most important to the 2017 reboot — in terms of what kind of Latina heritage to go with, where to set the show (LA vs. Miami or Indianapolis or anywhere else), and having the mother be a military veteran — versus what needed to be kept intact from the original?
MIKE: We always knew we wanted to keep Schneider. We went through a few versions of him and finally landed on what felt best for our world: a privileged guy who comes from money and stands in contrast to our blue collar working class family.
Norman was very big on dealing with military issues on the show and I was also attracted to that to after my experience working with Kevin Biegel on Enlisted. At first it was just going to be her husband but Gloria and I quickly realized that making Penelope a veteran too lent a much richer backstory to her character and set us up to tackle more important stuff on the show.
On that note, how in the world did you convince EGOT legend Rita Moreno to do TV/Netflix?
MIKE: Norman called her! Norman can get you anything. : ) Well she did read the script first of course. She loved it and signed on.
After casting Moreno and then Justina Machado as the principal leads, did you consider having the family be Puerto Rican instead of Cuban? How important was the refugee/immigrant experience in that regard, since PR doesn’t have that?
GLORIA: The Cuban part came first. I am Cuban and in order to have the specificity that we have on the show I had to keep the family Cuban. And Mike and Norman fought to make sure that was the case. It’s who I am and the experience that I can best write to. I am the daughter of exiles. But Latinos are different. I know that better than anyone. So, I knew we would probably hire a Caribbean, as Cuba and Puerto Rico are neighbors. Ultimately, the part went to the best Latina actress. And that was hands down Justina. And she happens to be Caribbean. There is a beautiful poem by Lola Rodríguez de Tió that says: Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas,. Meaning Cuba and Puerto Rico are as two wings of the same bird. There are a lot of similarities.
Have you already talked about going to Cuba for season two? Would you want to film there?
GLORIA: That is a very heavy question for me. The Cuban people are still under the government’s thumb. They can’t even go into fancy hotels in Cuba unless they work there. Isn’t that awful? The people aren’t free. There is still a lot that needs to change before I can wrap my brain around “filming there.” To me it is a beautiful grave that I may never visit.
How is making a multi-cam different for a binge-worthy season than it is when you’re working week-to-week with audience reactions during a season’s production? Is that why season one has a more singular focus/arc about Elena’s quinceanera?
MIKE: The fact that there’s an audience means you have to tell a self-contained story that is satisfying, in addition to doing any elements that serve an overall arc. It’s not wildly different from sitcoms in the past which would usually have season arcs, but in our case we could put the episodes right in a row the way we wanted without fear of seeing them out of order. And doing 13 is more manageable to serialize than 22. And it was fun to set up things that would pay off in later episodes, as long as they also worked within each individual episode. Elena’s friend Carmen is mostly there for joke purposes in episode 3 but then we’ve gotten to know her when she becomes more important in episode 5, for example.
What did you learn from your previous shows that served you best here?
MIKE: Certain lessons I learned from Phil Rosenthal and Ray Romano and all of those writers, I always try to carry forward on any show I’m doing, but on ODAAT they were probably the most applicable. For instance, it’s a real art form to camouflage a setup that’s going to pay off later, and the best way to do it is if you can make that setup so funny that people think it’s not a setup! This is something I constantly obsess about because if you get it right, you’re taking people on a great story ride.
Then there’s the art of the treacle-cutter, which again Phil and Ray excelled at constructing. There’s nothing more satisfying than playing the hell out of a really earned dramatic moment, and then have it undercut by a really earned joke. An example from the ODAAT pilot is where Penelope finally unburdens herself in her monologue about how much she misses her husband even though she doesn’t want to get back together with him. Justina Machado played the hell out of that speech and had everybody in tears by the end. “Sometimes you just want someone to give you a hug and say ‘I got you.’” Long emotional beat. Then Lydia (Rita Moreno) opens her arms in a sincere offer of a hug. Sweet moment as this hangs in the air. Then Penelope with the treacle-cutter: “I meant a man.” It just let the air out of the balloon and made the sweet moment even sweeter by being funny.
I spend 99% of my time worrying that we haven’t done a good enough job with any of this.
GLORIA: This is my first time being a showrunner. And I know that I performed best when the showrunner knew what they wanted and was kind and supportive of the room. So, I try to be very clear about what Mike and I want and I try to deliver it with a hug. Sometimes literally. Luckily, Mike and I share a brain and mostly always have the same taste. Which is sheer luck.
I spend 1% of the time worrying that we haven’t done a good enough job and 99% of the time feeling so grateful that we have the opportunity to tell the story of a strong woman, who is Latina and a Veteran. That in this moment of division we can offer up something warm, and hopefully funny and something that can, we hope, lead to greater understanding of one another. See, that’s why Mike and I are good partners. We even each other out.
And here is Gloria Estefan with her take on the One Day at a Time theme song to get you in the mood!