Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Welcome to Little America, and creator Ilana Peña talks Diary Of A Future President

Kemiyondo Coutinho, Tess Romero
Kemiyondo Coutinho, Tess Romero
Photo: Apple TV+, Christopher Willard (Disney+)

Here’s what’s happening in the world of television for Friday, January 17, and Saturday, January 18. All times are Eastern.

Advertisement

Top picks

Little America (Apple TV+, Friday, 3:01 a.m., complete first season): “Stories of aspiration are increasingly commonplace, but Little America distinguishes them by adding fraught real-life tension mixed with humor and romance, with an emphasis on friendships and family that paints a very wholesome picture of the protagonists’ lives, which don’t solely revolve around the pain or struggles of moving to a new country… Strong resolve is the vein that runs through all eight episodes, connecting them even as the plots run through different cities, timelines, and cultures.” Read the rest of Saloni Gajjar’s pre-air review here.

Sex Education (Netflix, Friday, 3:01 a.m., complete second season): “Season two [of Sex Education] picks up several threads from season one, but also ambitiously dives into a slew of new stories on sexuality and interpersonal relationships with characters of all ages, crackling with humor and heart along the way. In just eight episodes, it does a dazzling amount of character work—a masterclass of writing and performance.” Read the rest of Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya’s pre-air review here. 

Rob Delaney: Jackie (Amazon, Friday, 3:01 a.m., premiere): “A comedian has to portray himself as somehow smarter than his audience—or at least the subjects of his jokes. But Rob Delaney’s position as outsized Yank in London adds a certain conspiratorial edge to jokes about, for example, the differences between his two countries’ relative approaches to health care. ‘If the N.H.S. [British National Health Service] had a dick, I would suck that dick,’ booms Delaney when wrapping up the comparison, and the wash of greeting laughter encompasses the crowd’s multilayered appreciation.” Read the rest of Dennis Perkins’ pre-air review here.

Wild card

Diary Of A Future President (Disney+, Friday, 3:01 a.m., series premiere): The proud tradition of coming-of-age stories continues with the latest series from Disney+, and this one has a fun, time-jumping twist.

Executive-produced by Gina Rodriguez and creator Ilana Peña, among others, Diary Of A Future President briefly introduces us to adult Elena (Rodriguez), who has just begun her tenure in the White House, before jumping some 28 years back in time to follow young Elena (the endlessly delightful Tess Romero) through her middle school years. To this point, Peña has been best known as a writer (and taco cart girl) for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but this series should change that—and while Diary is considerably less adult, the two share a healthy interest in menstruation. We spoke with Peña about the show’s timeline, how Lizzie McGuire influenced the series, and writing about periods.

Advertisement

The A.V. Club: Tess Romero is so great as Elena. What was the casting process like? Was it surreal, having to search for the right person to play a character loosely modeled on your younger self?

Ilana Peña: Yeah. The whole thing has been, in some ways, such an out-of-body experience. It’s a dream come true. We looked all over, and we actually found Tess out of New York. She is so expressive. We were looking for somebody that we wanted to take a journey with. We wanted to be on this ride with her for, God willing, years and years. We fell in love with Tess instantly. She truly is just like, “Come along with me. Here I am.”

AVC: There’s quite a lot of discussion about periods in these early episodes. What were the conversations about that like in the writers’ room? You don’t often see menstruation as a plot point unless it’s traumatizing for the kid.

IP: That was was always important to me. That’s how I view periods, too. I went to an all-girls sleep-away camp [as a kid], and every summer, from the age that we could [potentially] have our periods, our parents would pack us with enough pads for the entire camp. We were all talking with each other, “Are you a woman yet? Are you a woman yet?!” And [that was reflected in the] conversation in the room. It’s this weird external way of viewing womanhood. When you’re growing up, that is what you’re thinking about. That’s what I was thinking about, and that’s what Elena’s thinking about. Whether she wants the bra that everyone has, or she’s thinking about her period… She is growing up, and [at that age], you’re constantly asking, Am I mature enough? Am I where I’m supposed to be?

We had a few men [in the writers’ room] and it was never this taboo thing to talk about. The women were comfortable talking about their own experiences. The men were comfortable talking about what it seems like from the outside. We never [approached it] like, “This is a gross thing. This is a traumatizing thing.” This is just the way that we’re tracking this girl’s relationship to her own womanhood.

AVC: What other teen or preteen stories influenced you as you were sitting down to write?

Advertisement

IP: Lizzie McGuire is the comparison that I had growing up. That was the girlhood show. I feel like we all ate it up because there wasn’t a ton like it. There were a lot more stories about boyhood on TV, but those were also inspiring. Like Everybody Hates Chris, in terms of being an origin story that’s also a family comedy about a kid. My whole family would sit down and watch Everybody Hates Chris. I feel like I also grew up on movies like Mean Girls and 13 Going On 30. Actually those two movies came out, I don’t know if it was the same weekend, but I think I saw them in theaters the same weekend. [Note: She’s right, they came out exactly a week apart.]

When you’re a teenage girl and you see teenage girls on screen, there’s nothing better. You feel [like they’re] talking directly to you. All of those movies are all in the show somewhere. Not to mention the experiences of our writers and our assistants. I should mention them, a couple of them have credits on episodes, and they were all so amazing. Everybody brought their own experiences, and also the shows and movies that they grew up on that were inspiring as well.

AVC: When is this set, precisely? In what year is Elena’s middle school experience taking place, and when do we see Elena as president?

IP: That’s a good question, but we purposely don’t say. We really wanted to have a timelessness with this show, and but also wanted to say this president, this future of America, is not far away. We didn’t want it to be [that] years and years and years go by before this [happens]. We’d call the middle-school-time the “now-ish”, and the President time the “future-ish.” We have cell phones [in the show], but it’s not like we have an episode about Instagram. We very much wanted to have a sense of timelessness. A show that influenced us was Sex Education. Obviously it’s a super different show, but they do, I think, a really good job with the now-ish. Because it’s clearly not in the past, but it’s also very much about people talking to each other and having tangible tactile experiences. There’s not a whole episode on TikTok or whatever. We wanted to pay tribute to the stories that we saw growing up without having them be muddied by kids with their faces buried in their screens.

AVC: How often will we see President Elena?

IP: Not that often. We thought of this as 12-year-old Elena’s story, and we use the scene in the pilot to kick us off and send us off to the races. Kind of like The Princess Bride, honestly. It’s like we opened the book, and here we are. So we may tease it, return to it, but not that much and not for that long either. It was important to us that the story is about how she got there and what qualities she learns and possesses that make her a good leader, rather than focusing on writing a story about the things that are happening in the White House day-to-day.

AVC: This Elena is the second high-achieving, intense young woman named Elena on TV right now, the other being Elena from One Day At A Time. This Elena is in Florida and the other is in California, but is there any universe in which those two Elenas could meet? Would the world explode?

IP: Oh my God, I would love that. One Day At A Time is a huge [influence]. Thank God for that show, for so many reasons. Just to be able to see a family comedy about a Cuban American family... Gloria [Calderón Kellett] is also one of my mentors. I would love it if the two Elenas met. I feel like they would probably be somehow competing—in a vocabulary bee, or having to write an essay about leadership, something like that. I feel like they would be competing, but they would ultimately realize that if they team up, they could really take over the world.

Advertisement

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!

Share This Story

Get our newsletter