“Honestly, I was a little bit terrified,” Isabella Gomez admits over the phone to Refinery29. The Netflix star, who plays Elena Alvarez in cult favourite comedy One Day At A Time, is talking about the period between receiving the script for season 3 episode “First Time” and actually wrapping the intense instalment, which centres around her character’s first time having sex. Gomez had to get over that fear eventually, right? Wrong. “I didn’t get over that bump,” the actress says with a laugh.
However, Gomez’s anxieties around “First Time” likely only made the episode better. It’s a vulnerable and funny half our of television that really digs deep into virginity: How people talk about it and why we even “loose it” in the first place. While the likes of Riverdale and Elite are exponentially more explicit than One Day will ever be, “First Time,” which was penned by queer writer Michelle Badillo, is one of the most honest TV investigations into teen sex yet.
While Gomez “wasn’t told a whole bunch” about 17-year-old Elena’s season 3 journey before filming, the One Day team did mention the possibility of a virginity storyline months ahead of production. “Then I was told maybe not because we didn’t know with Elena’s age,” Gomez continues. But by the time filming was in full swing, “First Time” was a sure thing. “This is something that teenagers do,” Gomez, who just celebrated her 21st birthday over the weekend, explained. “There’s definitely a way to do it safely not only physically, but mentally … It was just about making sure that we were having the conversation we all would have wanted to have before our first time.”
That thematic blueprint is exactly what we see play out on-screen. In the cold open, Elena’s mom Penelope (Justina Machado) finds out her daughter used her emergency credit card at a random hotel. Penny quickly realizes there’s only one reason a teen and her girlfriend (Sheridan Pierce) get a room (it’s for sex). After Penelope processes the fact her nerdier child is also her sexually active child, she sits Elena down and asks her if she’s okay. “Sex is not a dirty thing that you should hide. But it’s also not something you should take lightly,” Pen says in one of the most important lines of the episode.
That is when a series of flashbacks begin, which unravel why Elena decided to have sex. After months of dating, she and her “Sydnificant other” Syd want to do more than sneak kisses when Penelope is too busy in the bathroom to watch them. So they get a hotel room. However, when Elena learns Syd has already had sex before, she gets nervous. She worries she’s not ready. She worries about showing her naked body to another person. She worries sex will change everything — and “not in a good way.”
“I mean listen, people want to have casual sex and they’re okay with that? That’s amazing,” Gomez says. “But there’s also so many people who put a lot of value on sex and they’re not as represented in the media.” Elena, understandably panicked Elena, is one of those people reeling over what sharing your body with another person might mean.
However, Syd takes very empathetic control of the situation. She assures Elena they don’t have to have sex in that moment. There’s always next week, or next year, or never. “No matter what happens, I love you,” she promises. Those words make Elena comfortable enough to kiss Syd and lead her back to the bed. Although the scene flashes back to the present before Syd and Elena have sex, it’s suggested the former did enjoy “a really wonderful first time,” as Gomez says, away from fans' prying eyes.
“Making it just about love and comfort instead of being like, ‘And now I get to see them make out on a bed and take their clothes off,’ was such a lovely choice,” Gomez continues. “[It] also sheds so much light for Elena on being a lesbian because those relationships on TV are so sexualized. This really didn’t have much to do with it being a ‘sexy’ thing or anything like that.”
That’s why One Day At A Time actually left “First Time’s” sexiest prospective scene on the cutting room floor: Elena and Syd in bed together after sex, which was filmed. “Even that was removed, which I loved because it again made this about just their connection,” Gomez added.
While Syd and Elena’s relationship is the heart of “First Time,” Penelope’s response to learning about her daughter’s sexual evolution leads to one of One Day At A Time's most enlightening chats. After the title sequence, Penny has drinks with her queer friend Ramona (Judy Reyes). This is when viewers realize just how heavily our conversations about virginity rest on heterosexuality and fear. “I know what I would say to Elena if she were straight,” Penelope laments, “Use a condom. Take the pill. Don’t have sex … What about STDs?” Later Penny reveals the harrowing story of when she first had sex, which ended with a revenge scheme involving tuna and a Camaro.
With concerns like pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and contact with fuck bois severely lowered for lesbians, Penny isn’t sure why she should be worried about Elena’s virginity. “The idea of virginity has become toxic to our culture. Because it’s usually something men get to take. It’s something a woman loses,” Gomez says. “The whole idea of it has nothing to do with sharing a common experience.”
After watching “First Time,” that’s one issue Elena and Syd don’t have to worry about. That stray minibar soda on the other hand…