On February 8, One Day At A Time returned for a third season of storytelling that’s as complex as it is heartwarming. The Alvarez family, once again led by Justina Machado as Penelope, the heart of the series, navigates all of the usual highs and lows of life: money problems, first “Syd-nificant others,” studying for the SATs, professional success, romantic dissatisfaction, and of course, basking in the glory that is Rita Moreno. The reboot, from Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce, brims with as much kindness as topical humor. Some of the highlights of the new season include “Outside,” which opens up a thoughtful exploration of toxic masculinity, and “Anxiety,” which pairs a surreal framing for panic attacks with some very Schneider-esque coping techniques.
As ever, new episodes of One Day At A Time arrive in time to revive low winter spirits, but what’s even more gratifying is the way the show has reset expectations for multi-cam sitcoms as well as Latinx-led stories. Calderón Kellett, who’s inspired in part by her own Cuban-American upbringing, is expanding our definition of an American family, all while featuring some of the best episodic storytelling in addition to an enviable level of cohesion. The A.V. Club spoke with the multi-hyphenate creator—she makes an onscreen appearance this year—about moving the needle on representation, redemption, and reimagining Hollywood’s storybook endings.
The A.V. Club: I have a lot of burning questions, but I have to ask up top, when did you realize how much of a resemblance you share with your star, Justina Machado?
Gloria Calderón Kellett: [Laughs.] Oh, people have been saying it since the first week we started working together. We’re the same height, same weight, same laugh, same big smile. We have big toothy grins. People always think we’re related, we’re sisters. We get it all the time. When we’re laughing together, that’s what it is—we both have these big laughs. So it’s been a joke for a while, and I’ve been wanting to do something on the show anyway, we were just looking for the right thing. Then this season when we were talking about Nicole—I don’t remember the writer in the room that mentioned like, “You should play Nicole and we’ll put a wig on you.” And boy, when that wig came on, it was really something.
AVC: You’re really involved in every aspect of this show—you write, direct, and this season, you appeared in two episodes. How do you decide where you want to be more hands-on, whether in writing or directing?
GCK: Mike Royce, my wonderful partner on this show, and I tend to write the first and last episodes, and maybe we’ll write one in the middle. That’s just because of how it breaks. We just like to break the first one so that we can focus. But sometimes, we’ll shoot out of order, and that’s what we did this year. The wonderful Debby Wolfe actually wrote the first episode, “The Funeral,” and Mike and I wrote the show’s Time’s Up episode, “Outside.”
In looking at the show overall, we thought starting the new season with that funeral and our big, funny family, making it very Cuban-specific, was the way to go. We thought that it would ease the way in like we have in the past. In terms of directing, I usually just direct at the end of the season because the majority of the work has been done. Mike and I are co-dependent, so we like to be in the room together all the time for stuff. I just want to be up there for story breaking and for rewrites and all of that. So if I’m directing, I can do that because after run-through with the cast, I’ll go up. I’ll go upstairs and rewrite with Mike.
AVC: Your show doesn’t necessarily strive to be timely—that’s almost impossible on this schedule—but it always feels socially relevant. What’s the key to achieving that?
GCK: These characters are also so near and dear to both myself and to Mike. His kids are more the age of [characters] Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz). Mine are quite small still, but we both have a boy and a girl, so we’ll talk about what’s happening in our families and open it up to the writers room.
We have this incredible group of people—our writers room is very diverse, ethnically and agewise: Our youngest writer’s 25, and Norman [Lear] is 97. Half of the writers are female, half of the writers are Latino. We also have three queer writers, and the conversations that come out of the room are really where it all starts. What do we fight about? What do we miscommunicate about? What do we educate each other on? Those are the things that are the most exciting, and then how do we find a way to filter that through the lens of these specific characters that we’ve set up? We have it built in because you have this immigrant grandmother who’s here, you have the first-generation daughter, and then you have her second-generation kids. And even just that, there’s sort of a traditional point of view and moderate point of view and a liberal point of view built in to who these people are. And certainly those have been the threads in my own life. So it’s been very easy for us to tackle those point of views because we’re living them.
AVC: That speaks to what creators like you and [Vida showrunner] Tanya Saracho have talked about in terms of how diversity isn’t enough. It’s about representation and specificity, right? If you have a Latinx character on screen but don’t develop them, that’s not much more helpful. But you’ve managed to create nothing but multidimensional characters who are also very funny.
GCK: We really pride ourselves on trying to do those things. Tanya and I talk every day, and we’re really focused on being specific, because right now only 6 percent of all roles on TV are Latino characters. Annenberg [the University Of Southern California’s School For Communication And Journalism] did this study. I think maybe it went up a percentage point year to year. [Laughs.] We make up about 18 to 20 percent of the country[’s population], and of those 6 to 7 percent that are on TV, those roles are still vastly stereotyped. Wildly so. We’re still depicted as gangbangers mostly and drug dealers, all very negative points of view. So then when there’s a major character on a show that happens to be Latinx, you hope that they delve into it because that’s just part of the totality of who we are as people. It’s not all we do or talk about, but it’s certainly there, and it adds to a specificity of the human condition that’s interesting. So, from a storytelling perspective, it’s exciting because I haven’t seen this story a million times on TV. There are other wonderful shows like The Good Place or Brooklyn Nine-Nine that are also doing something different, shows that have a really diverse cast, and I think that’s part of what makes them extra special.
AVC: Lately, there’s a big push for Latinx-led shows that focus specifically on immigration, shows like the Roswell reboot and the upcoming Party Of Five reboot. What are your thoughts on that trend or movement?
GCK: I think it’s certainly interesting. I like an immigrant story—Latinx or not, I think it’s an interesting journey. But I also feel like—look, I’m first generation, and my life is a very American existence, but my parents came from somewhere else, and this is how I sound and this is my, you know, my life is very “Americanized.” But my Latinidad absolutely comes through all of that. So I think that’s interesting, but it ignores the fact that Latinos have been here since before America was America. And I think that’s a missed opportunity.
AVC: It does seem like Hollywood can only handle one Latino narrative at a time.
GCK: This past season, I had three shows that I was going out with, none of which got picked up. One of them was kind of like a modern-day Friends, with two Latino characters: one of them was fifth-generation and one was first, and I was very excited to have those conversations, how one was completely removed from his Latinidad and the other one was so fresh to it and how they differed and how they were the same. But we just keep trying. We’ll keep trying to make these kinds of stories and to talk about these issues. We’re like the minority majority, so, or the majority minority, I guess. Majority minority. So, it’s with time they will come. It’s just I would like it to come faster because I am interested in it.
I think it’s interesting and the conversations that we get to have with people—not just Latinos, but other immigrant groups, veterans groups, LGBTQ groups—we’re sort of telling stories of the “other,” and these communities are so thrilled to finally have a positive narrative. Especially right now. I have fear fatigue, man. The news is rough. Any negative shows are rough for me, and I think that everyone is feeling this fear fatigue, and if we can put some joy into the world, a little bit of laughter, some kindness, some conversations about understanding one another and coming together—less about building walls and more about building bridges.
AVC: The show has been very subtle about references to a certain president. Season three felt like it had more than usual, though, between the hemorrhoid commercial bit and then that great punchline, delivered by guest star Melissa Fumero, at the end of the premiere. How did that come together?
GCK: We needed a treacle cutter anyway—the episode was getting too sweet—and we thought, “Let’s make a commentary on what’s really happening.” That’s not just me, that’s a lot of the writers in the room. We’re West Coast, we live in Los Angeles, we’re all liberal writers. So obviously we’re primarily Democrat. It’s rare to see—Marc Cherry’s a Republican, and we’re always like, “You’re a Republican, how are you a Republican?” Because the Republicans stand out. There’s just not that many. We’re all pretty liberal-minded. And so, we talk about our relatives and how they voted and how they feel and why they feel that way and trying to find ways to build bridges with our own relatives. I have a lot of family in Miami, and they all voted for him—I still love them. I think they’re bonkers, and they think I’m bonkers, and we still manage to love one another. So it was like, “Let’s just do this joke to honor all the families out there that find a way to love one another through this insanity.”
AVC: Is that compassion part of what has felt like a season-long exploration of forgiveness and redemption, where some characters learn to forgive themselves while others seek redemption?
GCK: We’re in a really fascinating time where men are finally being held accountable for being terrible. We’re hearing all of these awful stories that we in Hollywood have known about forever. You hear the whispers here and there, you have no proof, but you hear the whispers. So you try to guard yourself as best you can. And then you have people who are trying to navigate, how do we behave now? What is the road to redemption? The men in the [writers] room with us—it’s so interesting because these are good guys. They’re like, “Oh my god, did I ever? Was I ever a party to behavior that a woman didn’t like and I thought she was okay with it and she wasn’t?” It started really interesting conversations. So, we were covering ground that hasn’t been covered yet.
We’re going to make mistakes, and along the way, we need to say, “I’m learning.” I’m trying to cover this in a way that is responsible, but we may have failings. And if we do, we need to be able to fail, right? We need to be able to try and fail and say, “I am so sorry. I know more now and because I know better, I’m going to do better.” And we want to give that to everyone so that we’re not walking on eggshells around each other. But we are saying, “I’m so sorry. Teach me better and I’m going to learn and now I know better and I’m going to do better.”
AVC: Toxic masculinity is something that’s explored through a couple of characters, but it’s part of a bigger story for Schneider, who Todd Grinnell does such a great job with this season. He goes through so much: a new romance, coming to terms with having a shitty dad, a heartbreaking relapse. What did you draw from to create Schneider’s arc this season?
GCK: We focused on the Alvarez family for the first two seasons and really getting to know them and following their personal struggles. A large part of my [real-life] family unit are the people that have been adopted as family—the people that we meet along the way, who we take under our wing and then become like our family. Growing up in my house, I never had to ask if I could bring somebody over; it was full of friends all the time. We would feed people, they’d stay with us if they needed to. If there was somebody going through a family tragedy, they’re staying with us. That was just part of my life. There are people who call my parents “Mom” and “Dad” because of how my parents made my home feel.
So it felt like that’s something that the Alvarezes would do as well. We set up from the pilot episode that Schneider is a recovering alcoholic in AA. He’s been in recovery for several years. We thought this is a great opportunity for—we had never met Schneider’s dad [guest star Alan Ruck], even though he talks about him a lot. We thought about how important Schneider’s father is to him, and how he might relapse due to his father coming back. That’s what started things off, and then we’ve started talking about toxic masculinity, in particular how it’s related to the #MeToo movement, because it really does seem like it’s destroying our country. It’s certainly very confusing and destructive for young men.
AVC: We also see this in the second episode, “Outside,” which explores enthusiastic consent—something that’s almost never talked about in a sitcom—and calls out different forms of toxic masculinity, including the kind that initially gets played for laughs in Alex’s storyline.
GCK: The thing is, right now we’re sending this great, empowering message to women: “Stand up for yourself. Women support one another.” But what do you do if you have a son and you are raising him in this environment? What do you say to him? Well, our show has a teenage boy character, so we tried to work that out. I had a boyfriend who would honk my boobs in pictures, like Alex does in “Outside.” I’d laugh along, because you’re excited that your boob’s being touched and you like that they like you. But it wasn’t my favorite thing. But you also don’t know as a woman or a young girl how to say, “That’s not okay.” I think now women know we can say it’s not okay, and now we’re telling the guys it’s not okay, but also asking how to get them to understand and see where we’re coming from. We want to help everyone rethink their relationship to power—those historically with or without it—because we think that that’s something that our society needs right now.
AVC: That discussion culminates in the 12th episode, after Schneider has relapsed and Penelope confronts him for lying to her about it. He tells her, “You’re the only one who’s ever trusted me, and that goes away now.” And she says, “It doesn’t go away. It’s just hard to get it back.” That moment gave me chills.
GCK: This is where real, lived experiences are so helpful, because Todd came in and shared personal narratives from his own life. We’ve been friends for a very long time—I was friends with Todd after he got sober. So, I didn’t know the Todd before, but we’ve been friends for over a decade, and he’s the one that brought up the “nobody lets the addict do stuff.” So when you’re asked as the addict in recovery to do something for someone else, you want to show up big time because you’re so grateful to be trusted in some capacity. And so we’re so grateful to Todd for being so open with his own personal narrative, because that’s what gave the line before that its context. It’s something that would have never occurred to me, but of course Penelope has let him take Alex to baseball games. And now that’s infused with so much more heart, because now we understand what a big deal it was for Schneider to have been asked to do that and how he took that responsibility very seriously, which leads to the moment in the show that you’re describing.
AVC: Few other shows really nail their season closers the way One Day At A Time does, a tradition you continue with “Ghosts.” There are so many great moments, from Penelope realizing her happy ending doesn’t look anything like what she envisioned when she was younger, to the monologue that Isabella Gomez gives in the little chapel toward the end. What went into making that finale, and what inspired Penelope’s big revelation?
GCK: Mike pointed out after season one, after seeing the aftermath [of what happened between Elena and her father, Victor], he said, “You know, at some point he owes her that dance.” And I said, “Yeah.” And so that’s been in the back of our mind for a while. We didn’t go into this season knowing that this year Victor [James Martinez] was going to get married. But Mike and I really sit over the course of every hiatus and plan—we’ve already thought about a bunch of stuff for season four already. We have a skeleton that we walk into every season with, of where we want to start and where we want to end and what the evolution of our main characters are. And this year, we wanted Penelope to really go on a soul-searching journey. She’s been wanting to become a nurse practitioner for so long. She’s almost failed several times because of various challenges in her life, and she’s finally made it.
So that’s really what we were starting the season with. All of that was built in because we have set all of that up in prior seasons. So it was like, all right, if she’s going to go on this major journey, but we want her to also go through, experience that sense of constantly reevaluating your life and updating your goals. Because so often we go, “Oh, I want to get that.” And then once you’ve gotten that, it’s like, “Well, now what?” Then it’s, “Well, now I want to get this.” And then once you get that, it’s “Now what?” So we wanted to explore her becoming a nurse practitioner even as her ex-husband moved on with his life and married someone new. What would that feel like, what would that be like?
What we were looking at is, with parents who are no longer together and want to present a united front for these kids, then you have to be happy for that other person when they move on. But also, how dare they do that before you do! [Laughs.] It’s all of those great feelings. So we were talking about all of that, and thought that “ghosts of boyfriends past” would be a great framework. That was sort of the framework that we were thinking about for that final episode, which leads to acknowledging that she is the love of her life. As much as we love Max—and every time Justina and Ed [Quinn] are on screen together, we’re all like, “Oh, my god, these two people, my god, I just ache for them to be together”—the love of Penelope’s life to be herself and her family and that’s what she’s chosen. And she feels good about that choice. We thought that would be a really beautiful, kind of empowering message to also send out to all of the single women out there that you can have a perfectly wonderful, happy life. Your happy ending is not encapsulated in you being in a relationship with a man. So that’s what led us to that journey.