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'One Day at a Time' Is the Diverse, Brilliant Future of TV

The creators of the Norman Lear sitcom reboot talk about updating a classic, the importance of diversity, and the benefits of multicam.

by Noel Murray
Jan 6 2017, 4:13pm

Netflix / Michael Yarish

In 1975, TV producer Norman Lear was riding a hot streak with All in the FamilySanford and Son, MaudeGood Times, and The Jeffersons, all of which were on the air at the same time. Not satisfied with only four hit shows, Lear was readying his latest socially relevant sitcom for CBS: One Day at a Time, a frank and funny look at life after divorce. The writer Gloria Calderón Kellett, who was born that year, grew up watching Lear's output in syndication in the 80s, when his series ran back-to-back with the likes of Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch. Even then, she told me, "I knew these shows weren't frivolous. They were about something." So, 40 years later, when she was invited to have lunch with Lear—now 94—to talk about a new project, her first thought was, Who says no to that?

The new show turned out to be a reboot of One Day at a Time, which Netflix dropped on Friday. With 70s and 80s TV remakes in vogue, Lear's current producing partner Brent Miller—another kid born in '75—saw One Day as the piece of the canon best-suited for revival. He brought in Mike Royce, a veteran comedy writer who created Men of a Certain Age and has been a major creative contributor to Everybody Loves RaymondLucky Louie, and Enlisted. Royce was already a fervent Lear admirer, though his first memory of the man's work was being told by his parents to leave the room whenever All in the Family came on, because it was too adult.

The original One Day at a Time follows a divorced, hardworking mother of two who lives in a cheap apartment with a nosy superintendent. Lear and his new collaborators decided that their updated heroine should be a Latina military vet. At some point during their first meeting, they realized, "We should probably have a Latina here in the room." That may seem obvious, but according to Kellett, "Too many people in this business wouldn't even have that conversation."

They called in Kellett, a Cuban American playwright who'd written for RaymondDevious Maids, and iZombie. Lear asked her one simple question: "What would it be like if you were divorced?" Within minutes, she was spilling her guts about how involved her parents are with her own life and kids. As she talked about how she's sparred with her strong-willed, opinionated mother, Hellett told me that Lear lit up, repeating, "Yes, yes. This, this."

One Day at a Time may catch Netflix subscribers by surprise. It's classically Lear-esque in form, in a way that dares to be un-hip. The 13 half-hour episodes were shot in front of a studio audience, and with multiple cameras, a departure from the single-camera style that's been in vogue for years. Though the characters deal with adult problems like drug-dependency, depression, religious faith, and sexuality, the content is decidedly TV-14, not TV-MA. Yet the show is as surprisingly addicting—"binge-worthy," even—thanks to scripts that balance broad old-fashioned comedy with heart-tugging emotion, and a cast that can stand up to Lear's best.

Instead of Bonnie Franklin's outspoken Ann and her mischievous daughters, Julie (Mackenzie Phillips) and Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli), the new One Day at a Time has Justina Machado playing Penelope, a Los Angeles nurse and Army vet, separated from her PTSD-plagued husband. She raises her socio-politically "woke" teen daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) and scheming son Alex (Marcel Ruiz), with the help of her widowed, conservative mother Lydia (Rita Moreno).

Moreno was an easy casting call; Kellett said the EGOT-winning actress has the passion and small-but-strong stature of her own mother. Machado, meanwhile, knocked everybody flat at the start of the audition process with her ability to handle both fast-paced jokes and tearjerking pathos. "She was someone who was making us laugh and making us cry within two minutes," according to Kellett.

Over the course of its nine seasons, the original series also skewed sentimental, dealing with the problems facing a working mother and two savvy adolescents in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan eras. The new One Day at a Time takes its inspiration from the likes of The Carmichael Show and Black-ish (both descendants of Lear's 70s work in their own way) in balancing frank talk about hot-button issues with funny situations drawn from personal experience. Royce told me that he took this assignment in the first place because he's the father of two teenagers. "There's stuff going on that I wanted to put on television," he said. Kellett's two kids are much younger, but she knows about nosy Cuban moms, and about the subtle variations of West Coast Cuban culture.

As a result, their show has a wealth of personal stories to pick from. The writers weave their true-to-life observations throughout the first season, working them into scenes, episode-length situations, and longer arcs. Season one's 13 episodes are loosely structured around the skeptical, feminist, 14-year-old Elena's on-again/off-again plans for her quinceañera, as well as the way Penelope uses pills and therapy to manage the physical and emotional pain left over from her military service (to the dismay of Lydia, who believes it's more honorable to "fight the crazy" than to rely on any outside help).

One Day at a Time has a variety of episodes in its first season: In one, Lydia squabbles with Elena because the teen won't wear makeup; in another, Elena's best friend has to leave town because her immigrant parents were deported; in a third, Penelope teaches Alex how to shave by showing him how she removes her own mustache. Throughout, the series—like its predecessor—gets a steady supply of wacky from the apartment's superintendent, Schneider (Todd Grinnell), who's been reimagined as a leftist trust-fund hipster who doesn't understand why it might be offensive to wear a Che Guevara shirt around a Cuban refugee like Lydia.

For Kellett and Royce, the decision to tell these kinds of stories in a multicam format isn't just a way of paying homage to the original (which they also do by copying the basic set design of the old apartment). It's actually a way to take advantage of what both old-school and new-school TV have to offer. "The freedom that Netflix gives you is sometimes in little things," Royce said. "Like, we didn't put any music in. We sort of assumed we'd have incidental music transitioning from scene to scene, but since we don't have commercials or acts, we didn't need it." That difference in style manifests in scenes that sometimes play out for ten or more minutes, like little plays. Kellett said this allowed them to "nourish these moments" where the characters have to be honest with one another, without allowing them or the viewer the relief of a cut to a commercial or to another scene.

"Having the audience there creates an incredible energy, and you can see immediately what works and what doesn't, Kellett said." If nothing else, playing to the crowd leads to punchier jokes—as in one episode where Elena is complaining about micro-aggressions and her mom snaps back, "If I got bent out of shape at every dumb thing a man says, you wouldn't be here." 

"To me, there's nothing harder to do well than a multicam. There's just so many variables," Royce said. "Things change quickly, and you have to nail it right in front of an audience. You don't have a lot of wiggle room in the editing. And yet there's nothing more satisfying when you really do it well, because you're having this group experience."

That communal feel extended to behind-the-scenes, where the writing staff was purposefully diversified: mixing ethnicities, genders, and ages. "We have writers from 23 to 94," Kellett said. "The quality of the conversation has been phenomenal." Royce added, "Our show not only benefitted from that combination of voices. It would've been silly to do without it."

It's impossible to replicate the taboo-busting radicalism of those earliest Norman Lear shows. In a way, that's what makes One Day at a Time an ideal candidate for reinvention, because it doesn't have the cultural baggage of an All in the Family or Good Times, which were more aggressively progressive. The original One Day at a Time had a more modest aim than Lear's more famous shows: to adjust the family sitcom to the age of rising divorce rates and latchkey kids. It was an easily adaptable premise, as Kellett can attest. "I write it from my Cuban perspective because that's who I am," she said. "But these issues are so relatable that hopefully my specificity and what Mike is bringing with the teenagers will resonate."

What may end up being revolutionary about this new One Day is the confidence with which its creators combine the new and the old by changing the makeup of their collaborators while also reminding TV viewers how effective a traditional shot-live multicam can be. "I think we take advantage of the format to wear our heart on our sleeve," Royce insisted. And whether the show connects with viewers or not, it's still impressive how it takes a borrowed 40-year-old outline and fills it with something contemporary and meaningful.

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entertainment
Norman Lear
One Day At A Time
Gloria Calerón Kellett
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