“One Day at a Time” is the equivalent of the Little Engine That Could (or maybe the Energizer Bunny), in that it keeps going no matter what challenges are thrown at it. The adaptation of Norman Lear’s 1970s family sitcom hit a snag after the conclusion of its third season when, despite a devoted legion of fans and essays praising the series’ examination of everything from issues affecting Latinos to growing up gay, Netflix canceled it. What felt like an eleventh hour reprieve came courtesy of Pop TV, which gave the series a fourth season and helped it become the first streaming show to transition to network television.
But just as the series was settling in, it was hit with another challenge: industry-wide production shutdowns. The global pandemic forced the series to first eschew recording in front of a live, studio audience — as was standard practice — before halting entirely. When the plans to shut down started, leading lady Justina Machado was preparing to shoot her first episode as a director. But once showrunner Gloria Calderón-Kellett knew production was going to shut down entirely, she and co-creator Mike Royce decided to take another look at the remaining episodes in development.
They had a standalone special episode, originally written in January, that was prepared to run as Episode 11. Dubbed “The Politics Episode,” it follows the Alvarez clan as they prepare for the arrival of their extended family — who are Trump supporters.
“It was based on a conversation I had with my cousin who’s a very conservative Miami Trump supporter, who’s Cuban,” Calderón-Kellett said. “We grew up together; we love each other, but we see very differently on many issues.”
She shared her experiences in the show’s writers’ room and, through telling her story, heard how other writers were dealing with their own relatives.
“Everyone has a story of someone in their family they had a reconciling with,” Calderón-Kellett said.
From there, the episode transformed. Not only did matriarch Penelope (Machado) figure out how to have a civil, non-argumentative conversation with her cousin Estrellita (Melissa Fumero), but the crew was determined to help viewers struggling with their own political beliefs and family relationships as the election looms.
Calderón-Kellett says she could have never foreseen the events — not just the pandemic, but our current worldwide protests against racism and police brutality — as making the episode even timelier. But once the group realized they needed to have the episode out before the election, and not knowing when production would start again, it became their test case for trying out animation. They reached out to an animation company based in Canada; normally, it would’ve taken 29 weeks to complete the episode, but they were able to wrap in just eight weeks.
Compared to other animated series out there, “The Politics Episode” feels like an outlier. The animation is colorful, but each one of the characters is enhanced with an animated signature, whether that’s landlord/friend Schneider’s (Todd Grinnell) trademark pompadour to Mirtha, the despised sister of the Alvarez grand dame Lydia (Rita Moreno), looking exactly like its star, Gloria Estefan.
A big thing Calderón-Kellett wanted to emphasize was that the characters are Latino.
“I was like, ‘We’re not whitening them up,'” she said, noting that they stayed on a broad spectrum of skin types as some Latinos can be lighter skinned, as in the case of Fumero’s character, Estrellita. The animation house and showrunners worked closely, via remote conditions, fielding notes back and forth at nearly every step in the process.
Even more surprising to Calderón-Kellett — and what she praises as a testament to the actors assembled — was how they were still able to convey the closeness of the family unit despite recording their lines at home.
“Each of them recorded their lines alone in their houses and it looks like they’re having a conversation,” Calderón-Kellett said. “When I was watching it, sometimes I would forget I was watching animation.”
And while the episode comes as the first round of Emmy voting starts up, Calderón-Kellett said accolades are the last thing on her mind. She explained that awards are nice, but with so many people struggling to survive, between the pandemic and the protests, it’s not a factor in her thoughts at all.
“We are all taking a pause to support the Black Lives Matter movement, to support our brothers and sisters of color [who] have been fighting this fight in America since the birth of this nation,” she said.
It’s also inspired her to look at her own personal growth and her own stake in the movement. While a Latina with “African blood in my veins because I’m Caribbean,” Calderon-Kellett said she understands “I have not walked the world as a Black woman; I have not walked the world as a Black person” and that she has far more to do in learning how to be a supportive ally.
“There are better ways to support my community because that is equality for all of us,” Calderón-Kellett said. “If Black Lives Matter than all of our lives also will matter.”
She wants to do her part to personally lift up Black artists and include other voices other than Latinos in her work going forward. A key element within that is looking at the role of white supremacy with regard to awards voting. Calderón-Kellett said she’s surprised every season when Machado and Moreno are passed over.
“I think the work they’re doing is equal, if not better, than the work that is being celebrated,” she said.
She knows about the imbalance of money that goes to Emmy campaigns better than most. Back in 2018, her and Royce paid for a plane to fly over Los Angeles in a makeshift way to influence voters to nominate Machado.
She brings up how both “One Day” and Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” were two of Netflix’s highest-rated series “and when we’d open the paper it was ‘The Crown’ and ‘Stranger Things.’ We were like, ‘Where’s our front-page ad in the L.A. Times?'”
But Calderón-Kellett doesn’t say this out of bitterness, but out of hope for bringing awareness, specifically as “One Day at a Time” continues to examine issues Americans are dealing with, hopefully with a laugh and some love.
“The Politics Episode” of “One Day At a Time” is available through Pop TV.