Why Netflix's One Day At A Time Is More Than A "Latino Reboot"

Photo: Michael Yarish.
In the iconic words of Zoolander: Reboots are so hot right now.

From Fuller House to Gilmore Girls, streaming giant Netflix appears to be committed to squeezing every last drop of nostalgic attachment out of the shows you love. Sometimes, this does not turn out so hot. Other times, it's the answer to your pop cultural prayers.

One Day at a Time
is a perfect example of the latter — as well as what a reboot done right looks like. The original elements of the Norman Lear-produced 1970s sitcom are all there: a single mom raising her kids with the help of a live-in grandmother and regular pop-ins from the charming (if emotionally) needy landlord.

But in this case, it's the departures from the original that make the new One Day at a Time worth watching. The show stars Justina Machado as Penelope Alvarez, a 38-year-old Cuban-American Afghanistan war veteran, living with her family in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her kids — 14-year-old Elena (Isabella Gomez) and 12-year-old Alex (Marcel Ruiz) — attend Catholic school while Penelope works as a nurse in the office of the goofy Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky). When Penelope leaves her husband, who re-enlisted for another tour after refusing to seek treatment for substance abuse and PTSD, her mother, Lydia, moves in to help. (And by help, I mean meddle, in the way only matriarchs can.)

The best part? Grandma Lydia is portrayed by Rita Moreno. From the moment Lydia dramatically parts the curtain separating her bed from the rest of the living room, she dances to her own salsa-inspired beat. She's amazing in her role, and thankfully the rest of the cast is just as good. Penelope is funny and touching as a mom struggling to make ends meet while still spending time with her kids. Elena, her smart and fiercely feminist daughter, is grounded and earnest as she questions her sexuality. Alex, the baby of the family who could so easily have fallen into the trap of flat TV sons (*cough* Bobby Draper) reminded me so much of my own brother that I couldn't help but applaud his gigantic (but oh-so-charming) ego and sneakerhead ways. Scheider (Todd Grinnell), the bougie landlord in Warby Parker glasses who spends more time in the Alvarez apartment than he does his own, is useless as a handyman but a refreshing fatherly presence, if in a man-child, GenX way.

But despite the fact that One Day at a Time deals with universal issues, almost every headline announcing its comeback qualified the show as Latino. And while calling it out as the "Latino One Day at a Time" isn't technically wrong — the Alvarez family is proudly Cuban-American and don't anyone forget it — that label overshadows the series' shine, and wrongly curbs its mass market appeal. Refinery29 spoke to series executive producer Gloria Calderón Kellett and leading lady Justina Machado about why One Day at a Time is so much more than a "Latino reboot" — and what it took to seamlessly translate this iconic classic into the new Golden Age of Television.

This was one of the first shows to portray a single mom on TV, something that (thankfully) seems like the norm today. How do you update that story for 2017?

Gloria Calderón Kellett:
“We've now heard the single mom story. But what we haven't really seen is an authentic portrayal of Latinos on television in a multi-cam space. To be able to do that with that Norman Lear pedigree, with these long scenes, and to be able to really be able to shoot a play in front of an audience — that's what we're doing. It's really a play.”

Justina Machado:
“To see a Cuban-American family in this kind of show, I think is great. Because so many times we're portrayed in ways that we don't want to be portrayed, in ways that make us seem so ridiculous.

What do you think of people calling it the "Latino
One Day at a Time"?

GDK:
“Coming out of the gate, we will know we're successful when people just talk about us as a show.”

JM:
“We're proud to be Latino. We'll take it. But I think the show's out there: It's universal. And, you know, it's just gonna be a story and we're just gonna be actors that happen to be Latinos telling these stories.”
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Photo: Michael Yarish.
Justina Machado and Rita Moreno as Penelope and Lydia Alvarez.
Do you think that we're at a place in time where we can have a Cuban-American family on TV without them being the Cuban-American family on TV?

JM: “I don't know, but I hope so. Because, right now that's what they're going to say."

GDK: “In my first meeting with Norman I remember he was like: 'So, tell me about what it is to be Latina?" I said: 'You know, I don't think about it that much. It's the truth. I wake up in the morning and I don't go: Today I start another day, a Latina woman! Here we go, world. Get ready for this Latina woman!

"I don't think about it. I don't. You just wake up and you're like, 'Oh shit, I'm hungry, I gotta eat, I gotta go grocery shopping.' You don't think about it unless somebody else reflects it to you. So often it's reflected to me."

JM: “Oh, it's always reflected. And it's not even done maliciously. It's just something that comes up in the conversation. Somebody will be like, 'Oh my god, Just, I love the way you talk.' And I'm like, 'Really, I sound like that?' I think that's the perfect thing. It's what we are. We don't know any better.”

GDK: “It's funny, I had breakfast with America Ferrera, [and] we were talking about how she's married to a quote-unquote 'white guy,' as am I. And I remember somebody was like, 'So what is it to be like in an interracial relationship?' I was like, 'What? What are you talking about?' Never for one minute am I like, 'My husband, the white man, and our biracial children.' I never think about it. So then, when we are reflected in a way that is not true to us, we're like, 'What? That's not who we are.' If the way in is, Latina family, Cuban family, and that's how they are introduced to us. Cool, we'll take it. Because we hope on the other side of it, they'll forget about that. Not because it doesn't matter but —”

JM: “Because we want it to matter, but we don't it to matter so much that they're like: 'I don't wanna watch that, that's a Cuban show.' We want them to know this is an American story. This is what it is.”
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We're in a moment in time where we're really ready for this show, because people want to laugh, but I think people wanna talk about stuff, in a way that maybe they weren't ready to a few years ago.

Gloria Calderón Kellett
One of the things I love about the show is that it tackles these really dark and important issues, but in a funny way. One that immediately comes to mind is immigration. How do you balance the laughs with the message?

GDK: “We try to talk about it in a way that you would really talk about it in life. I mean, some of the funniest moments I've had have been like, at a funeral. Somebody says something and everyone's laughing because you have so much pain, but you need that moment of levity. And I think that's why we feel like this format is so accessible to these types of issues. Because within the framework of something very dramatic, funny things happen. Organically, from them. We really wanted to do an immigration story. In America, sometimes people think all Latinos can be deported, and we can't. You know, I can't be deported.

"We wanted to make that differentiation, too. And about caring for someone who has come to this country, and is working hard. And to bring that a little bit [closer] to home. Because I think some of these issues feel so far away to people. They feel like they can't access them. So, we try to bring it to the viewer sitting at home, in a way that they can relate to. They can say: Oh, I do know somebody like that.

"There's certainly moments where we feel like we should be a little bit more dramatic. We listen to the actors a lot. I remember in Episode 9, Rita talks about coming to America and Operation Peter Pan, which is how my parents came here. And there was a joke we had in the middle of the monologue, and she said, "I just don't feel like she's funny in this moment." And so we respect that. We really love the collaboration.We can just carry on that beautiful moment and not have a laugh. That's ok, too. Because that's life, too.”

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Photo: Michael Yarish.
Marcel Ruiz and Isabella Gomez as Alex and Elena Alvarez.
It feels like we're living in the age of the reboot. Do you have a secret recipe?

GDK: "I think people want to feel stuff right now. We're in a moment in time where we're really ready for this show, because people want to laugh, but I think people wanna talk about stuff, in a way that maybe they weren't ready to a few years ago. So, I think if somebody's true to their artistic vision, and really tries to make something from their heart. This isn't just a show for us. We are very aware of the impact that television has on people, in changing perceptions. I grew up with families that didn't look like my family. I grew up with, you know Family Ties, and The Cosby Show.”

JM:
“And we thought that was the norm, until you got older, and you're like: 'This is not normal.' Everybody looks like that, nobody looks like me. So, hopefully we're changing that. And you know, we also have a responsibility. we really do. I feel responsible to my people to portray them the way we should be. And so we take that very seriously. Without being obnoxious.
There's already a big fan base for this show, but a lot of people who watch and binge Netflix probably have never heard of or seen it. Is it a struggle to stay true to those who really love it, but also make it new?

GDK: “We were very fortunate. Our [writers'] rooms span from 22 years old to like 52, and it's half women and half Latino, so it really started a lot with the conversations in the room. What matters to us? What is important to us? What have we not seen told? What do we want out there? And from those conversations, came the stories."

What do you hope people take away from the series?


JM: "I hope that they take away human experiences and I hope that they can relate to the experiences, or to somebody on the show. And I hope that they can see that it's an amazing show, that we just happen to be Latina. That is the theme of our show.”

GDK: "I hope they laugh. By the way. I hope they laugh. I hope they cry, and I hope it makes people more united. There's a lot of talk about division right now in this country, and we really want to unite people and go like: 'Those are my problems, too, I feel that, too."
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