One Day at a Time remains the only television show that every single person on our TV Team watches (and the only show that we universally adore). We were so relieved when Pop TV saved it for a fourth season, overcome with joy when it brought us some emotional respite during our current global pandemic, and now feeling a little sad that it’s going on hiatus again so soon because only six episodes were filmed before the COVID-19 crisis shut down Hollywood. Tonight is the last episode we’ll have for a while, so I sat down with creator/ showrunner/director Gloria Calderón Kellett to chat about our beloved series, what it’s been like to experience watching it during this time, and what’s next for the Alvarez family.
Heather Hogan: One of the things viewers of One Day at a Time have always talked about is the freedom to laugh with the Alvarez family even when things in the real world don’t feel funny, because the adversity the Alvarezs are individually and collectively overcoming resonates, and if they’re finding ways to laugh, we’re okay to laugh. Can you talk a little bit about watching that play out during this pandemic, after the show itself has overcome so much adversity to be here for a fourth season?
Gloria Calderón Kellett: Making this show has been such a gift for so many reasons. We wrote season one in a vacuum where we thought Hillary was going to win. She didn’t, and then so many of our episodes — our deportation episode, especially — took on a whole new level of meaning. This family, I think, is a good slice of your average American family — just the basic struggles of trying to live their life and trying to get their kids to be decent human beings out in this world and dealing with elderly parents who are aging.
Watching season four episodes now is similar — the feeling of normalcy, of connection, of being able to laugh. I’m so grateful to be with our fans and live-tweet. It’s almost like Tuesdays are the only time I know what day of the week it is! I put lipstick on for Instagram live. I feel like a real person, just to sit in the before for just a second.
Heather: I guess in a weird way it’s kind of a blessing that the show’s been rolling out on a weekly basis for the first time.
Gloria Calderón Kellett: Absolutely. We usually shoot on Tuesday nights, so if we’d still been shooting, we wouldn’t be able to interact with the fans live the way we are right now. It’s been nice for us to feel the response, to laugh along with everyone, to see the memes. I’m a big Brooklyn Nine-Nine fan and last week I was texting with Stephanie Beatriz and Melissa Fumero, and they were like, “This week’s the last episode.” And I was like, “WHAT! It’s the only thing that’s getting me through.” So, I also understand what a gift it is to have entertainment in this moment.
Everybody seeks out different stuff during this time, right? A lot of people were into that lion and tiger show. Me? Nope. If I want to see crazy white people, I’ll watch our president.
Heather: [Laughs] You must be balancing a lot of different emotions after having season four cut short.
Gloria Calderón Kellett: Oh my gosh, for sure. We wrote all 13 episodes. Everything is ready. And we have so many really great episodes coming up. We have a great episode about LGBTQ community and church, and Justina Machado directed it, and Wilson Cruz plays a priest. That was the episode we were supposed to film next.
Heather: Are you hopeful you might be able to finish filming season four this year?
Gloria Calderón Kellett: I’ve had a lot of conversations about how we reopen Hollywood. No one has presented a plan yet to me that feels safe. A lot of great minds are thinking about this, and I hope they’re able to figure it out, but it has to be safe for all of our cast and crew, and the audience. We’re very fortunate because the episode that airs tonight, episode six, does feel a little like a mid-season finale. But of course we want to shoot the other seven episodes. And we want to shoot a season five, a season six, a season seven!
Heather: We all want that too! I want to talk a little bit about Elena, who has become one of the most universally beloved and relatable lesbian TV characters ever — which, now that I’m saying that, might also speak to the fact that I am surrounded by lovable, anxious, over-achieving activists — and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about her evolution over the series, and especially this season. She’s growing up!
Gloria Calderón Kellett: We love that. Initially when Mike Royce and I started the show, Elena was a version of me when I was fourteen. Quinceañeras, debutante balls, they were all so steeped in patriarchy, so very, “Here she is, men of the village!” — And I was like, “No thank you, I’d rather have a car, please, so I can go to work.” It was Mike’s idea to make Elena queer, and at first, I was like, “Ah, but I want to see a character like myself that I didn’t get to see at that age,” and immediately realized that Elena is still that character; she’s just queer now.
We wrote the pilot with just Mike and I, but then when we got picked up, we got to populate the writers room. Elena feels so great and so authentic because we have amazing queer writers on staff that make it so. Which of course speaks to the importance of representation in the room. Having personally been the only woman in some rooms, the only Latina in some rooms, definitely the only person of color in most rooms, I sure as hell was not going to put one queer person in our writers room. We brought in three or four queer writers, gay writers, lesbian writers — and then we defer to them, and say, “How does this really feel to you?” Our queer writers have been so generous with their own stories, their own journeys, their own relationships with their parents as a result of their sexuality, and that is all infused into Elena. I think that’s why people respond to her the way they do. She’s authentic because they’re authentic. That is all them.
Heather: One of the things our TV Team talks about a lot is this is one of the only — if not the only — show where we can relax the entire time we’re watching it because we know no one’s going to be punching down at us, regardless of the intersection of our identities. We’re going to be in on the jokes, so it’s okay to drop our guard and just enjoy ourselves.
Gloria Calderón Kellett: That’s so good to hear. That’s what we’re always trying to do.
Heather: Can we talk a little bit about Elena and Syd’s relationship? I’m wondering how you balance how perfect they are together with the fact that it’s a story and you’re going to have to put them through some adversity?
Gloria Calderón Kellett: What’s so great about them is, Elena started out having a crush on another character. At the time, I was doing a lot of advocacy and going to a lot of events and I went to one hosted by America Ferrera’s organization, Harness, that brings together a bunch of intersectional community leaders. At one of those events, several teenagers from GLSEN were talking and they blew my mindhole with how articulate and funny and smart they were. I could never have spoken that way when I was 16! They introduced themselves with their pronouns like it was nothing. I was so moved by how much they care about the earth, the environment, their communities. They have been forced into advocacy because they need to protect the planet they’re growing up on.
I came away and started asking about non-binary identities, who do we know that’s non-binary, how do we introduce a non-binary queer character to the show. Billions was the only other show I knew about with a non-binary character, so this was the first time we were going to get to see a non-binary character in a comedy. Sheridan Pierce is so funny and winning and quirky, and we love that Elena and Syd are just two nerds in love!
Heather: They’re so sweet and stable in a way that we hardly ever get to see on TV, even with fully adult queer couples.
Gloria Calderón Kellett: Exactly. I feel like most of the queer couples I see on TV are still filmed in such a male gaze-y way, and I asked our writers, you know, how do we write and film Elena and Syd in a way that’s authentic and not replicating the pattern of existing on-screen to turn on dudes. We have made such a point to be true to who they are, to keep them sweet. Even their sex scene was awkward and nerdy. They communicate! If I had seen these two when I was a teenager, even as a straight person, it would have changed the game for me. I would have been like, “Wait, that’s how you’re supposed to talk to each other? That’s the level of respect you’re supposed to show to each other?” These two teenagers talked about sex in a very adult way before having it. They’re modeling what’s healthy and they’re also just a joy in my heart.
Of course, in episode six, we’re starting to lay in some ground work for some challenges they’re going to have. Because it’s TV! We have to do that!
Heather: Of course! One last question, because I know even now, you’re a very busy woman! The Alvarez’s in a quarantine. What would that look like?
Gloria Calderón Kellett: At this point they’re going to be podding, because Schneider is going to find a way to get down there. The issue is going to be Penelope because Penelope is a healthcare worker. I think Alex, Abeula, and Elena are hanging out. I think Penelope drops her clothes at the door, holds her breath, goes into her bedroom. As many healthcare workers are sacrificing time with their families, I think she’d be doing the same, because she wants to protect her patients and she wants to protect her mother.
You can catch all of One Day at a Time’s fourth season on Pop TV. The mid-season finale airs tonight!