The multi-cam format on “One Day at a Time” might trick you into thinking it’s a traditional sitcom — but it’s really not. Consider the first scene of Season 2, Episode 3, which takes a conversation about complicated gender pronouns and turns it into a funny, yet also respectful, bit reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”
It was a sequence that taught star Justina Machado (who plays Penelope) a lot, even though she admitted to IndieWire that “I still don’t understand it.”
Isabella Gomez, who plays Penelope’s teenage daughter Elena, has a better grasp on the difference between “she,” “zhe,” and “they,” but said that “it did take me a minute, too. We have LGBTQ writers on our staff and they’re the ones who have to sit down with me and be like ‘Okay, ready?’ And explain it all to me. It’s so interesting because our generation is so open to it and Netflix allows us to represent us.”
The family sitcom from Gloria Calderon Kellett, Mike Royce and Norman Lear, now entering its second season, may be one of the most progressive shows on TV right now, especially when it comes to its exploration of gender and sexuality issues. These are largely centered around the character of Elena, who came out to her family as a lesbian in Season 1. Now, in Season 2, the character has started developing a love life.
Gomez said that Elena’s love life was a storyline viewers had been clamoring for since Season 1: “The fans were begging and screaming and harassing us over it all the time, so I was really excited to give them what they wanted.”
And in Season 2, it ultimately culminated in her finding a partner in Syd (Sheridan Pierce), who identifies as non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns.
In the dialogue of the show, those pronouns are front and center when talking about Syd. But Syd is also referred to as Elena’s “girlfriend,” which is a bit contentious given Syd’s non-binary status.
For Machado and Gomez, using that term felt like the right choice for the older generations of the Alvarez family. “I think that realistically Penelope and Lydia [Rita Moreno’s character] would say ‘girlfriend,'” Machado said. “Even if they’re trying to be P.C., or they’re trying to be great to their daughter and granddaughter, habits are hard to die.”
In the time since Season 2 premiered, Gomez has heard viewers react both negatively and positively to that choice: “We had fans reach out, actually, because somebody mentioned something about it and was being really nasty. And somebody that identified with ‘they/them’ pronouns said ‘Hey, I have a girlfriend and she calls me her girlfriend and that’s just what we do. They’re doing their best and they’re representing us, don’t be nasty, they’re figuring it out.’ So that’s been really nice.”
It’s only one element of the richly developed sitcom, which delved into life and death territory in the season finale after Moreno’s family matriarch character went into a coma.
Machado scoffed at the idea that Lydia was ever in any real danger of being killed off. “What are you talking about? She ain’t going nowhere. We knew she wasn’t going to die,” she said. “They’re not going to kill the grandma, are you crazy? We’re not taking an EGOT off this show!”
However, Machado did acknowledge that it was a scary moment for viewers, especially younger ones who happen to be big fans of the vibrant abuelita. “Do you know many little kids love her? My friend told her that her nephew or something was crying because he thought in the finale that she really died,” she said.
Filming that episode was also an incredibly emotional experience for the actors, who each received a hefty monologue to perform. “When we sat down to do the table read, each one of us saying our monologues, we were like…” Machado said.
“We were so choked up,” added Gomez.
“And the writers were like ‘Listen, you can’t do that!'” Machado said.
“They had to write more jokes into it because it was so heavy,” Gomez continued. “Also, the original script was very long — like, each monologue was three pages long. We all got cut down to like a page, a page and a half. And they were painful… It was a very hard episode to read through. I remember during Todd [Grinnell]’s speech, when he was reading, Todd could barely get through it. And I’ve never seen Todd cry, so it freaked me out.”
Of course, as Machado mentioned, Lydia lives and the season ends with her triumphantly becoming an American citizen. What might happen in (an as-yet un-greenlit) Season 3? Machado had no specific thoughts initially for the writers, because “everything they’ve given me for the last two seasons has been impeccable. Truly. And they’ve taught me a lot.”
The one thing she doesn’t need? A husband for her character. “I like it this way,” she said. “It wouldn’t be ‘One Day at a Time’ if Penelope got a…”
“You can get a boy toy,” Gomez said.
“I don’t mind, you know, more boyfriends,” Machado admitted. “That would be nice, yes.”
“One Day at a Time” is streaming now on Netflix.