If you haven’t heard already, One Day at a Time is a new, fun and refreshing family sitcom on Netflix. It’s a modern-day reboot of Norman Lear’s beloved 1975 sitcom of the same name but this time the story centers around a Cuban-American family living in LA. Justina Machado plays Penelope Alvarez, an Army veteran and nurse, who is recently separated from her husband. Her mother, Lydia, played by the legendary Rita Moreno, moves in to help raise Penelope’s 14-year-old daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) and 12-year-old son, Alex (Marcel Ruiz). We loved it not only because it name-drops Autostraddle but because of its honest depictions of a gay teenager.
Writer-producers Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon Kellet headed a diverse, talented writing team that included lesbian writers Becky Mann and Michelle Badillo. They both came to work for the show through Calderon Kellet. Mann, who has written for TV comedies like Modern Family, Rules of Engagement and The Real O’ Neals, has known and worked with Calderon Kellet for years while Badillo attended Calderon Kellet’s TV sitcom writing class in college, where Calderon Kellet became her mentor. As it turns out, when you have gay writers telling our stories, you get hilarious and authentic TV. Mann and Badillo’s perspectives and experiences were vital to shaping Elena’s character and to how Penelope approached her coming out.
I had the opportunity to speak with them both. We talked about gay representation on TV, how Autostraddle came to be in the script, their queer TV roots, what kind of LGBT stories are missing from TV and what’s in store for Elena in a potential next season.
Yvonne: Becky, I know you mentioned you worked for other TV comedies, mostly with gay storylines focused on men. So how is it for you working on a show focused on a young woman’s coming out storyline? Was there a difference for you?
Becky: I’m thrilled. I had the best time writing this with everyone, but particularly Michelle. It was so cool because I’m 39. Michelle and I are from two different lesbian generations, so it was really cool to just be able to not translate my experience. Just to write from the heart and from my own experiences without having to think “Oh, how would this be for a guy? How would this be for a straight woman?” That was really, really cool: just being able to really write strongly from my own experience. It was very new. I would imagine that’s how our Latina/o writers felt writing for a family that… you’re not taking your particular experiences and applying them to a white family. You’re writing yourself. You’re writing what you know. You don’t have to translate. That was really exciting.
Yvonne: You talked about these generational differences between lesbians. What was something that was different, or something that was common, that you found out through writing this?
Becky: I think that there’s good and bad. We’re both from the coasts — Michelle’s East Coast, I’m West Coast — so there were some similarities in that, I think. I wish it was more different for Michelle than it was for me, just because you want things to improve faster than they do. I think Michelle’s a lot more in tune and in touch with the youth, with the young lesbians these days. You’re the youth. But I think we understood each other very well, and understood each other’s experiences very well. What do you think?
Michelle: I think what was so cool for me was realizing — what you said, good and bad — it was cool for me that I felt like our experiences had been fairly similar. But then also you’re like, “OK, it happened 10, 15 years apart,” you wish that it was a little bit different. But it was an interesting thing for both of us, because I guess I am closer to being somebody in high school. Gay marriage was just starting to be a national conversation when I was in high school. Over the last five years, things have exponentially changed. So I would also freak out. I know Becky and I are on the same page about a lot of things, but I don’t know if any of our experiences are still relatable to a 15- or 16-year-old today, in this sort of post-national gay rights movement.
Becky: That’s true.
Michelle: So I also had to reach out to the two teenage actresses on our show. I panic-texted them at one in the morning, like “Guys. Is this still relevant? Did I become a hundred years old overnight? Does this make sense?”
Becky: How does it feel, Michelle?
Michelle: Uh, not great.
Becky: Oh, you’re gonna feel so old someday.
Yvonne: I totally feel that. Things have changed within the last five years, for sure. I’m sure LGBT youth have different experiences now than five or 10 years ago, when it was more similar because it wasn’t a thing that you talked about. There weren’t TV shows like One Day at a Time to talk about, you know?
Becky: And there weren’t TV shows like One Day at a Time to talk about until a month ago. Things have sped up so much faster than I ever — if you had asked me in high school if in my lifetime gay marriage would be legal, it would have been ridiculous. “No. Of course not. Maybe someday. Maybe, I don’t know. Maybe interplanetary gay marriage someday, but not on Earth. The Earth will be gone by then!”
Yvonne: For sure. So how did you decide to make Elena’s character gay? Was that an organic thing, or a story that you definitely wanted to tell?
Becky: That came from Mike and Gloria, the showrunners. They came in knowing that they wanted the daughter to come out. So as much as we like to push our lesbian agenda, that came up before we were even attached. It wasn’t even our fault!
Michelle: Mike, one of the showrunners — his daughter had just come out right before they started the show. So that was something he was going through with his daughter, and I think he really wanted to draw from that. He wanted his daughter to have the best possible life and best possible experience, and so I think he felt responsible to use his platform to make that possible for other kids.
Yvonne: That’s really wonderful to hear. That’s awesome.
Becky: And it is. We’ve already heard so much. There’s my other show, The Real O’Neals, which is a gay boy coming out and we also have a lesbian character — you get kind of jaded and whatever…but it’s really been touching and heartening to hear that people are affected by just seeing themselves on TV. And being able to watch with their families is great.
Michelle: I remember when I just realized I was gay in high school, I tried to get my mom to watch a sweeps week episode of the new 90210 where one of the characters was gay for like three episodes. I was like, “Why don’t you watch this with me and let me gauge your reaction?”
Becky: How’d it go?
Michelle: It was weird and I wish I hadn’t done it. But it was real slim pickings in those days. I think if there had been a show like One Day at a Time orThe Real O’Neals where you get to see this kid talking to their parents and having conversations and they’re still loved and accepted and normal — that’s so important.
Yvonne: That was one of my other questions: You talked about the 90210 episode, which is probably not the best depiction of a queer character. What are some of the most refreshing depictions of queer characters that you’ve seen on TV, besides your own writing?
Becky: Gosh, I just think ours is so refreshing. I was a big Buffy fan so I got excited about Willow. Well, I guess Willow was the carrot and then I got excited that they didn’t turn her back to being straight. I think dramas have been probably a better source for gay characters than comedies, for some reason. I’m trying to think — I know there are, and I’m completely blanking. Michelle?
Michelle: That’s a tough question! At the time — and I was already old for it — at the time when Glee came out, that did feel refreshing. Because it was very campy, it felt very gay. And it was on Fox, so that was really cool.
Becky: I’d also mention Lost Girl, if anyone’s familiar.
Michelle: Oh yeah!
Becky: The Canadian sexual succubus…
Michelle: The Canadians do a lot more gay stuff, I feel like.
Becky: Yeah! It’s great. Like — Bomb Girls, what was that one?
Yvonne: Yes, Bomb Girls.
Michelle: Oh, I didn’t even know that one.
Yvonne: I only watched a few episodes — I didn’t follow through with it. But that was more a reflection on myself, I just didn’t finish it.
Becky: There’s so much!
Michelle: Like we just mentioned, there wasn’t too many for a while.
Yvonne: Maybe a better question is: What queer TV impacted you while growing up, or up until now?
Michelle: I know she’s gay in real life and she wasn’t gay on the show, but I always felt like Darlene from Roseanne. That’s my gay icon, for sure.
Yvonne: That’s pretty valid, yeah.
Becky: And Jo on Facts of Life, for me. Which you two probably never watched…
Yvonne: I’m sorry!
Becky: Jo on Facts of Life was my everything. If we do the Netflix reboot of Facts of Life, she’ll be gay. But back then it was… it’s like why people write fan fiction, because you want to rewrite these characters to be who you see them as, because there’s not really anyone out there like that.
Yvonne: Was Elena’s coming out a reflection of your own experiences? How did your own coming out experiences and experiences as a queer woman shape the way you told Elena’s story and the other characters’ stories on the show?
Becky: I think — Michelle has talked about this before in an interview — we both had experiences where there’s a boy who you would like, and you want to like, but you just don’t. And that’s the moment where you’re like, “well if not him, then no one.” And as much as you don’t want to make a lesbian coming out story have anything to do with boys, it just is something that happened that kind of felt real. To me, it was a great way for Elena to explain to her mom how she knew. She was trying to speak in Penelope’s language, almost. Like, here’s this thing that you would love and Grandma would love and I feel like I would love, but I don’t. I love someone else in that way.
So when we were writing that scene, to me it was almost like she was using him to translate, if that makes any sense.
Yvonne: I get that.
Michelle: I think that’s right. And as Becky said, we don’t necessarily want to have men anywhere near our lesbian storylines. But I think it’s true for a lot of people, or at least it’s true for me. When you’re a teenager and figuring stuff out, you don’t really want to be gay. It’s not advertised as the easiest life. And also you have a hard time figuring out what your feelings are. You’re like “I don’t think I like boys quite the way I’m supposed to, but I don’t really know any girls that I know if I….” You just don’t really know what any of your feelings mean. And sometimes you do the thing that’s the normal path because that’s what’s easiest or that’s what’s in front of you, and then only by doing that are you able to, at least in yourself, concretely be like, “OK, I gave it the ol’ college try and it’s not for me.”
Becky: I think that’s some of the benefit of having out gay characters on TV and in movies living their lives. When we were coming out, there just was nothing to look at and be like “Oh! That’s me.” You’re sort of groping in the dark. You know you’re not like everybody else. But being gay is such an unfamiliar thing that you’re like, “Well that’s not me, that’s a bad thing. That’s a bad person, a fucked-up person, and that’s not me.” So it takes longer to sort of be like, “Oh wait, no. I’m what that is.”
Michelle: Yes. When there’s no context. And you’re like “Well I don’t feel exactly like Ellen DeGeneres, or like Rosie… I don’t know if I identify with these people necessarily, so I don’t know what I am.”
Yvonne: What about the interactions that Elena had with her mom and her grandma? Was that also a reflection of your own experiences of telling your parents and loved ones and being accepted, or did y’all struggle with that in real life?
Becky: Mine was kind of weird because — I didn’t know this at the time I came out to my parents — but it turns out my dad is gay.
Michelle: This is my favorite story, by the way.
Becky: It’s a great one. My parents were married and I came out to them, and it was super uncomfortable but they were cool about it. And then a month later my dad sat me down and said, “You were honest with us, I want to be honest with you.” At the time, he felt he was bisexual. He had told my mom before they got married, but he wanted a family — this was the early ’70s — he wanted a family and they loved each other. They still do. He couldn’t have both back then (and it’s lucky for me this happened!).
So their response was definitely colored by their knowledge of that. Now my dad has been married for 11 years to a lovely man, and they own a dog grooming business together. So that ended well for all of us.
Yvonne: That’s so cute!
Becky: Yeah. They’re adorable. So that’s a long way of saying that I had as good an experience as a person can have with my parents.
Michelle: Let me not speak for you, but when we were figuring out what Penelope’s reaction would be, there was something really interesting and helpful you said about the way you reacted to your dad.
Becky: Oh yeah, that’s right. When my dad came out to me, on paper, in theory you’d think I’d be like “Great! I accept you, I love you, this is wonderful, be who you are!” But it freaked me out at first. I felt like I didn’t know him, and I was very uncomfortable with it for a while. I’d forgotten this — but that did start a conversation about Penelope. Even if you want to be okay with it and you have every reason to be okay with it, you’re learning something new about someone you thought you knew everything about and it takes a while to integrate that. And that started a conversation that led to what we did with Penelope being so distraught over the fact that she felt weird about Elena, and having to go through that journey. I think it’s good to show that, to give people a little breathing room. They’re not horrible people if they’re not immediately joining PFLAG. It’s okay, and it’s a process, and you’re learning new things about someone.
Michelle: I think my mother’s reaction was similar to Penelope’s. Especially with mothers and daughters — and with fathers and sons too, I guess — you think you know them better than anyone. They are of you, you know —
Becky: Yeah. You made them.
Michelle: And you have so many ideas about what their life is going to be like. And it’s usually when they’re teenagers so they’re already becoming their own people, and then they come out with this thing that is just so them and it’s not you. And I think it can take some time for parents to merge the two: This is a gay person and it’s my daughter, and it’s the same person. That can take parents, and anybody really close to a person, some time. We also thought it was good to show the coming out person that this doesn’t mean this person doesn’t love you, and it doesn’t mean they’re not gonna come around. It just means they might need a minute to digest this information.
Becky: Yes. Absolutely.
Yvonne: I appreciate that depiction because it resonated with me too in my own experiences with my mom. She was really loving and accepting of everything but of course she had some questions. I know she asked my sister some questions and was unsure how to deal with it for a while. So I appreciate that. It didn’t mean she didn’t love me or wasn’t there to support me.
Becky: Correct. Right, that’s cool.
Yvonne: Obviously we heard about One Day at a Time through Autostraddle. A reader told us on Twitter, Autostraddle is on One Day at a Time! We’re like WHATT OMG. I was wondering how did that come up in the script?
Michelle: I will never forget the moment. It was the week we all had off writing episodes and Andy who is one of the writers of episode 11, he called me on my office phone which never happened. I was so excited and I picked it up and Andy’s like “Lesbian website? Go!” and I was like “Aaauuutostraddle.” And he was like, “Is this a real thing?” And I was like “Yup, look it up right now!” And he spent an hour I think just on the website going through articles and that’s how it came to be.
Yvonne: That’s amazing! Is that also how he learned about monocles and Eleanor Roosevelt?
Michelle: It must be?!
Becky: I’m certain it is! He knows some weird stuff but I’m sure he found it in an article. He would want to be very authentic.
Yvonne: That’s so funny!
Becky: You’re educating all kinds of people!
Yvonne: The show’s arc follows Elena’s quince. And I know, Michelle, you’re Latina, so I wanted to know if you had a quince and if it was anything like Elena’s?
Michelle: I didn’t have one. My grandma wanted my sister and I to have it at the same time and we were both like no, not interested. We’re not interested in this dress, it feels embarrassing with the whole court and it’s too much. it seemed too much. and we were like no we don’t want that. and it was actually fine. But I went to plenty in high school. It’s bigger than most weddings. it’s insane, like the cake topper dress. I didn’t have one and it was fine.
Becky: Gloria didn’t either, right?
Michelle: Yeah, Gloria’s story is that everyone in her family had one and she had just discovered feminism and was like, no it’s misogynist. I’m not gonna have one. And she didn’t end up having one so the beginning of that storyline from the show is from Gloria’s real life.
Yvonne: That’s amazing! I had one. And I had a whole pouffy dress and everything.
Michelle: Did you love it?
Yvonne: I did love it at the time. It was really awesome. I’m a shy person and an introvert but i dug it.
Michelle: It’s a party and everyone’s there to love you, so it’s not that bad.
Yvonne: Yeah, it was fun. What was your favorite scene to write for the show?
Becky: I did love writing Elena’s coming out scene but my favorite scene to write was the scene where Lydia comes in with no makeup on. The coming out scenes — as much as I loved it and it was very honest and real — it’s sorta been seen before. [The no makeup scene] just meant a lot to me. In a way, it’s a coming out scene but about Lydia accepting who Elena is and really trying to understand each other and making that grand gesture. It still gets me a little when I watch it. That scene just felt very personal to me and was just beautifully acted.
Yvonne: I agree. That was wonderful.
Becky: Rita [Moreno] killed me! Every time!
Michelle: I’m trying to think of my favorite scene. One of them — I wasn’t the main writer of this episode — but episode five, the immigration episode. There’s that huge long scene in the middle which is the bulk of it which is the party scene which goes into Carmen on the fire escape, and we’re talking about so many huge issues. It was such a beast to work on because we were trying to get everybody’s view points and it had to be funny and it had to feel real. It was one of the only late late nights on the show and everyone was in the trenches trying to figure out how to do this thing right and not having any idea if we pulled it off until we saw it and everyone is in tears. It was one of the hardest days and one of the most rewarding days.
Becky: That was a tough episode but it came out just great! I’m so happy with it. I’m happy with the whole thing. I’m so proud of it.
Yvonne: That was a really great episode too, mostly because it was personal. I feel for Latinos that’s really personal. It don’t think it really gets a lot of discussion on TV.
Michelle: Certainly not on sitcoms. What was so crazy is that we were writing it and thinking the idea of a Trump presidency was a joke.
Michelle: It’s not so freaking funny anymore.
Michelle: It was an important story to tell before Trump took office but definitely now after it happened. I think we were all really happy we took the time to do that story which was hard to do.
Yvonne: So everything about the story felt so fresh and like nothing we’ve seen on TV before. I was wondering if that was deliberate because y’all knew of what was out there — especially with queer characters — and so you made a conscience choice to sidestep those pitfalls of queer tv or if y’all were trying to write something organic and the results were sidestepping those pitfalls?
Michelle: I think it was a little bit of both and I think it came really organically. I think there were a couple times there was something that was like “oh wait that was exactly what happened on xyz” and so we would pivot a little bit but really it came from our experiences collectively.
Becky: I think so too. I think it was largely just really organic. Like I said before, people didn’t have to translate their experiences so it really was organic in a beautiful way. In the room we just talked and talked about everything. We had people come in, veterans come in — in every aspect of the show we really tried to be as honest as we could be and that shows. There were definitely things that we consciously didn’t want to do and we policed ourselves, making sure we were clear on what we were gonna say.
Michelle: I think that’s what happens when you have a show run by people who care about diversity. You get fresh stories that you feel are personal and feel real and different when you let real people tell their real stories or however that becomes translated into TV. But when you’re not trying to piece together what you think something would be like, when you’re actually drawing from the Latinos from the room, the gay people in the room, or bringing in veterans or talking to Gloria’s parents about coming over from Cuba — when you have real people tell their real stories, it can’t not feel fresh.
Becky: It’s true. When you’re writing the same old straight white guy stories, it’s like yeah I know that one, I’ve seen that one before. But when you’re writing about a Cuban teenager coming out to her single mom, it’s gonna feel fresh because when does that happen?
Yvonne: What kinds of LGBT stories do you want to see more of on TV?
Michelle: All of them, every kind.
There’s every kind of straight character and I would like to get to a place where we can have every kind of gay character because we have enough that we can have a gay bad guy or a lesbian serial killer besides Aileen Wuornos. So they can be full complex characters that are multifaceted without having to make sure we’re not shitting on every lesbian.
Becky: Because the character is gay that we’re not worried that they’ll have a fault. Because there’s only one gay and we have to show people that the gays are good.
I’d like to see more funny lesbians.
Michelle: Always more funny lesbians!
Becky: I would like to see more funny lesbians because I think we’re funnier than we’re given credit for.
Michelle: I would like to see more not heteronormatively hot lesbians. I want other types of lesbians to be sexualized.
We can teach people what hot can be or what people are allowed to be sexualized. I think when you put that into people’s minds, oh yeah I was always attracted to large women and now I realize it’s ok to be. I think we can do that.
Yvonne: In general, where do y’all draw your inspiration for writing?
Michelle: The absurdity that is just every day normal interactions.
Becky: That’s true. Absurdity — that’s a really good word, especially these days. I always want to understand things and sometimes I don’t understand why people act the way they do. My sort of social difficulties are helpful to me. Just trying to navigate the world, sometimes it leads to comedy whether I want it to or not.
Michelle: Or it has to, just to stop crying.
Becky: That’s probably it. The motivation for writing is not crying.
Michelle: I think that’s it!
Becky: That’s a powerful motivator.
Yvonne: I really like that answer personally, as a writer… Are we going to see a second season for One Day at a Time?
Becky: It’s sure looking like it. We don’t have an official word yet but it’s been really well-received and Netflix is really happy and Sony is really happy so fingers crossed.
Yvonne: And if y’all do get a next season, what’s the next level of gayness for One Day at a Time?
Michelle and Becky (in unison): The “next level of gayness”??
Becky: I wanna know.
Michelle: Well, Elena is gonna get a tool box. That’s second level gay. Maybe a tool belt.
Becky: She should get a pick up truck.
Michelle: Oh yeah, like yours!
Becky: Yeah, like mine. Lean into it.
It’s interesting. We all have thoughts of where we want to go. But until the room gets together and really puts our weird hive brains at it, it’s hard to say. I can speak for myself, I want to get her dating or see what’s that like and what it’s like to have a dating gay teenager.
Michelle: At a catholic school.
Becky: At a catholic school, oh my god, so good.
Yvonne: I’m excited for what y’all cook up!
Becky: I’m curious what kind of girls she likes, I’m not sure yet.
Michelle: I wish we can ask her.
Becky: We’ll light some candles and summon her.
Yvonne: I see Elena being into someone who is her competitor. It seems like she’s not into her but she’s totally into her.
Becky: Like a worthy adversary.
Yvonne: Yeah, but you guys are the writers so we’ll see what you come up with.
Michelle: I can see her having the worst flirt style. All she knows how to do would be to intellectually battle people and everyone is like, what is that? Why are you being mean to me?
She’s just screaming to them about bell hooks. Why isn’t it working?
Yvonne: Haha, yes. Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Becky: I was really excited when Autostraddle — you in particular — wrote about our show because I felt the excitement that we felt writing it and it made me feel really happy and gratified that what we were trying to do felt like it really came across, so thank you!
Yvonne: You’re welcome. Thank you!
Michelle: Yes, thank you! You want everybody to like it but you really want your people to like it.