'One Day at a Time' Gets a Modern Makeover on Netflix

ONE DAY AT A TIME - KEY ART - Netflix-H 2016
Courtesy of Netflix

Growing up in the 1980s, Glora Calderon Kellett was no different from most kids. She loved her TV sitcoms, from Family Ties to The Cosby Show to Happy Days reruns. However, unlike the majority of those kids, she saw these shows as more of a window than a mirror.

“There were no Latino families to watch, nobody who looked like me,” recalls the veteran writer/producer, who has worked on everything from iZombie to How I Met Your Mother. “It’s like Russell Simmons has said, that when he saw George Jefferson writing a check, it opened up his world because he didn’t now that was possible 'till that moment.”

Justina Machado had a similar experience as a kid, “never seeing people like me on TV shows. We watched Jimmy Smits on LA Law, and occasionally there were [Latino] characters on ABC after-school specials. That’s why I identified so much with The Cosby Show. I wanted to be Lisa Bonet so badly!”

It’s ironic, then, that one of those shows they both would occasionally enjoy – One Day at a Time – has become their chance to get more Latino characters on television. Calderon Kellett is the executive producer on an updated version, debuting Friday on Netflix, which revolves around a Cuban-American family suspiciously like the one she grew up in. And Machado plays single mom Penelope.

There are a few similarities between the original and this reboot. It’s still about a single, working-class parent, Penelope, trying to raise her two kids on a limited income with the occasional help/interference from an apartment handyman named Schneider. However, this new version instead features a large Latino cast, including Rita Moreno as Penelope’s libidinous grandma. 

“Gloria’s family is basically the heart and soul of this show,” explains Norman Lear, executive producer of the original One Day at a Time as well as an exec producer on the 2017 series. He’d always wanted to do a show about a Latino family, ever since his a.k.a. Pablo was axed in 1984 after airing just six episodes. When he met Calderon Kellett not long after deciding to reimagine One Day, he knew instantly she’d be the one who could get the show to “reflect a version of our humanity that isn’t represented on television.”

Even though he wanted to do a Latino-based comedy, he never imagined it would end up being a revival of one of his most beloved 1970s sitcoms. That idea came from Brent Miller, a producing associate of Lear’s. Miller broached the subject and Lear loved the idea. They began meeting with potential showrunners, which is how Calderon Kellett crossed his path.

“I got the call saying, ‘Norman Lear wants to meet with you.’ He was doing his due diligence with all the Hispanic writers in town,” she says. “That’s all he knew about me. And he’s so disarming to talk to, so interested in people, that all of a sudden I was opening up about everything.”

She told him stories like the time her family began planning her quinceanera and she refused to participate because it was “like the men of the village welcoming someone’s daughter, and I’d rather not be a part of that.” Lear was so impressed by her tales, he hired her to write the pilot and run the series with veteran showrunner Mike Royce.  (And turn that quinceanera incident into an episode.)

As Royce and Calderon Kennett jumped into crafting the pilot script, they realized their update would need a few other changes from the original. For instance, because it featured a diverse cast, they wanted to create one of Hollywood’s most diverse writers rooms.

“We’re breaking new ground with what a room looks like,” says Calderon Kellett. “To make our stories as honest as possible, we have a room that has people ages 24 to 94 when Norman’s there. It’s half Latino, with writers from all different backgrounds – Jewish, German, white guys. The conversations we have in there are amazing! The place just lends itself to stories. Like the day when Norman was there asking our 24-year-old lesbian [writer] how she masturbates just out of curiosity because we’d been talking about sex and girls. So it came from an organic place.”

The show still centers around a single mom similar to Bonnie Franklin’s original Ann Romano. However, instead of having two daughters, Machado’s Penelope would have a teen son (Marcel Ruiz) as well as a teen daughter (Isabella Gomez). And, instead of working at an ad agency as Ann did, Penelope is a nurse and an Iraq War veteran.

“Norman is very passionate about helping vets and spends a lot of time with them,” says Calderon Kellett. “Plus, Mike was just coming off the series Enlisted, so he was connected to the veteran community too. Given all that, our initial instinct was to have Penelope’s ex-husband be a vet, but the more we talked about it and spoke with vets, we realized a lot of relationships start in the service.”

She and Royce figured they had to make Penelope a vet as well, and once that happened, “we had vets come in to tell us their stories, which had us all crying. When a vet tells you about his or her best friend dying next to them, as he or she is trying to put that person’s face back together after being shot, we’re done.”

Another difference between the two One Days is the presence of Moreno in the new version. She plays Penelope’s mom, Lydia, and was originally supposed to just be a recurring character like Ann’s mom became. However, Lear was a big fan of the actress, and she was one of the first he talked to once he decided to go ahead with the new series. She soon became a series regular.

Recalls Moreno, “I never thought I’d get to work with him. I’d auditioned for a role in a pilot of his years ago, and he thought I was too young, even though I was 60-something at the time. I remember just going to my car and sobbing. But we ran into each other a political fundraiser about a year and a half ago and when he saw me, he said, ‘I very much want you in my new sitcom.’”

She signed on right after reading the pilot script. “It set a new standard for an Hispanic or Latin show," she says. "There’s no stereotypical stuff. We’re not doing Desi Arnaz here.” Instead, the show is doing what Lear has done with all of his shows. It doesn’t shy away from slipping real issues in amongst the jokes, tackling topics like sexism, religion, racism and the plight of veterans.

So despite the many differences, the new One Day at a Time and previous One Day at a Time have something in common: their politics. “What works here is the vision of Norman Lear, his state of mind,” says Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays Penelope’s boss, Dr. Berkowitz.

“Take a look at some of the great shows in our lives, like all of Norman’s shows and Seinfeld. Each one spoke to different hopes and fears of that generation. Seinfeld, with its structure, had no story. That was when we felt we had no purpose and our lives were self-interest. But what Norman has said in the past and hopefully with One Day at a Time today, he’s looking for the real story of our lives.”

It’s not just Lear’s sense for a compelling story that continues in the new One Day. He’s also made sure the structure of those stories is similar to those from back in the days of All in the Family and The Jeffersons.

Explains Royce, “The exciting hook for Gloria and I was to do something very old school, using all the good tools that Norman used. There were very long scenes, and no incidental music between them, so it felt like a filmed play. Doing a show like that, while not a new thing, was a rediscovery for me. When you get the audience in there and you take your time, everything just feels in sync.”

There are a few other ties to the old show, in particular having Mackenzie Phillips on as a potentially recurring character, and the theme song returns as well. It’s been reworked with a Latin flavor by Gloria Estefan, and for Royce, the tune was “the No. 1 reason to have this show on Netflix since network shows don’t have theme songs any more. That song may even be the main thing people remember about the show.”

Although, to be fair, the original did have a few other memorable traits as well.

“I always thought that show was important, but now I think it’s even more important,” explains Machado. “After the election, it’s a big deal to have a show that is all about the tolerance and compassion within this family. That’s something lacking in the world right now, and almost makes the One Day at a Time even more important than the first version.”

One Day at a Time's first season is now streaming on Netflix.