Fighting For Representation, One Day At A Time
Gloria Calderón Kellett is a woman with many missions. She wants to bring more stories centering women and people of color to television, and to help young writers learn how to break themselves into the industry. She wants to lift up marginalized voices, and break down barriers in Hollywood. She'd also like to save her television show.
A number of Calderón Kellett's missions are evident to anyone who watched One Day at a Time, a show that had a truly gigantic heart and a vested interest in telling challenging stories through the lighter lens of a multi-cam sitcom. Centered on a Cuban-American family living in Los Angeles, the series provided crucial representation in multiple arenas. It was also hilarious, and heartwarming, and tender, and relentlessly kind-hearted. As showrunner, Calderón Kellett helped to shape this heart—and now that the show has been canceled by Netflix after three seasons, she is fighting to shape its future, too.
Meaningful representation can be hard to find, and One Day at a Time featured major—and thoughtful—storylines starring Latinx characters and exploring everything from mental health issues to lesbian awakenings and nonbinary identities. When Calderón Kellett first announced on Twitter that One Day at a Time was in danger of being canceled, her followers rose up to defend and fight for the show. It didn't work; a couple of weeks later, Netflix confirmed its cancellation. That only mobilized fans more—#SaveODAAT started to trend, and hordes of people took to social media to share what the show had meant to them.
Calderón Kellett has hope that the show may yet find a home at a different network. She's also working to break down barriers by demystifying Hollywood for the next generation of aspiring writers. When I spoke with Calderón Kellett for The Riveter, we discussed the joy inherent in One Day at a Time, the way she takes care of herself when bad news comes, and the importance of heart in every proceeding we undertake.
You’ve had a hectic couple of weeks, with the fight to keep One Day at a Time on the air, followed by the unfortunate cancellation and subsequent public backlash. Now you have the fight to get the show placed at another network. How are you doing amidst all that?
Whenever you make something, you want people to like it. Shows get cancelled and life goes on, but the fact that so many people, so many fans were outraged — that's all you want. That means that it spoke to people and to communities. Not just to people of color or LGBT people, either; I've been hearing from white guys from Scotland, too, who loved the show. If you have to have a cancellation, I think that's the best way to have it.
You’ve said before that this is all part of the highs and lows of the entertainment business. But do you have a specific way to take care of yourself when the blows do come?
I spend time with my family. On Saturday I did not change out of pajamas, and on Sunday I just had people I love in my house. I just invited a bunch of people I love over. You have to build a support network of people who are there for you in the ups and downs, and I have a great village. I have learned to always take care of myself and check in with myself. It's obviously a heartbreak, you know, but [One Day at a Time] was also such a love affair, and the heartbreak doesn't defeat the love affair. It was such a beautiful experience that I hope we'll be able to move somewhere else. I loved every moment of doing it, and I learned so much, and I became a showrunner for the first time, and a television director for the first time. There were so many exciting firsts that I got to experience on that show.
One Day at a Time did something pretty rare, which is that it took representation on TV seriously and centered that in ways that still felt natural and artful. The show didn’t feel like an after school special even though it was championing a lot of important ideals and underrepresented stories. From your experience as one of the people creating this, what was it like in that writers’ room, balancing the art with the responsibility?
It was exciting, because the one thing that people don't really talk to us about when they talk about us hitting hot button issues is that because a lot of shows don't do it, it makes for good story. It makes for good conversations for characters to have. So we felt very fortunate that in a comedy space and specifically in a multi-cam space these were not conversations that were being had very often. We had the opportunity to have these conversations with people of color, and show how our conversations might be different from your conversations, and have people fight and then have them get to the bottom of it, all through the lens of love. Our room was a really wonderful inclusive space, I loved it, I miss them every day. And we have so much more to say, especially right now.
One of the things that struck me about One Day at a Time was just how joyful it was as a viewing experience, even though it tackled some pretty heavy topics. Can you tell me a little bit about how you all developed the tone of this show?
[Co-creator and co-showrunner] Mike [Royce] and I are pretty linked to our hearts, we're pretty gushy humans. Norman Lear knew what he was doing, putting Mike and I together. We love heart and humor, we like those things going hand in hand, that's our favorite kind of TV to watch. So I think that's always what it's going to be, because that's what Mike and I like.
I heard an interview with Gina Rodriguez last year on WTF With Marc Maron where she said that as she was shopping around shows centered on Latinx characters, she was getting responses from networks saying that even though Latinx people are such a massive part of the viewership population, they were already watching the shows that exist without them in it. The networks were arguing, basically, “What would be the point of putting their perspectives onscreen if they’re already watching our shows?” Have you encountered this line of thinking as you’ve been in conversation with networks? If so, how do you combat that?
I went out with three pilots this year, and generally, I think people are aware enough to not say that anymore to our faces. I think there was a time when they thought they could say that out loud and it would be OK, but I think they've at least learned that's not an OK thing to say out loud. It's clear that, yes, when I grew up, I didn't see myself on TV but I still watched TV, sure. Would it have been more meaningful if they had been doing stories with Latinx characters? Yes. I think that's part of what the backlash to the cancellation is about. One Day at a Time hit a lot of different groups, from Latinx people to LGBT people, and veterans and trans people.
I do unfortunately think there is a feeling in Hollywood that [there's no point in increasing representation]. People have been a little bit nervous about telling very specific stories because it can become political and this is a time when executives are very worried about viewership and very concerned about not getting everyone. But I think it's OK to also have an opinion. There are a lot of shows out there that are not for me, and I'm glad they exist for other people. We're in a space of peak TV with 400 shows, and there can be a pocket of shows that make more people feel seen. I really am grateful for Netflix for giving us a home for three years and showing that people do want to see themselves represented.
And with so many people in your mentions talking about what the show meant to them, have you heard any particular stories that have stuck with you about changed perspectives or the show just being what someone really needed?
The ones that always get me are the parents and the kids where the kids say they watched the show with their parents and came out to them, and that because they watched the show with them, they had a framework through which to talk to them about it as a positive experience. There are a lot of people who have reached out about anxiety, and depression, and feeling suicidal, and medications. There are also a lot of people reaching out about the Schneider storyline from this season, the AA storyline, because they have struggled with addiction themselves or know someone who has.
The public reaction to the cancellation has been effusive, to say the least. Where you are in the fight right now, how can people not in the industry take part in helping to save ODAAT?
I think that we are in a social media time. We were trending for a while and then people moved onto the next fight, I get it. I think if people keep talking about it, and keep saying what they liked about the show, that's [helpful]. For a lot of networks, hearing "low viewership" as the reason we were canceled is worrisome for anyone else trying to pick us up. So hearing from our fans that they are out there and ready to follow us wherever we go is important. And you know, there are some phone calls, some things possibly happening. We have to suss everything out and make sure it all works with the rules of Netflix and what the contracts were and seeing how flexible they will be.
You also do a lot of work to reach out publicly to writers trying to break into Hollywood and demystify the process, both on Twitter and through an upcoming class. What made you start doing that?
I didn't know anyone when I moved to LA. I didn't know anyone in the business, I didn't know how to break through. It was years of figuring it out and I made a lot of mistakes. So I figured if I could tell people what my mistakes were and answer some basic questions, maybe I could save them a couple of years. It's really why I started teaching. I started teaching about seven years ago, but then I became too busy to teach and I missed that connection with students. I missed those young, excited faces, and I just thought, well, if there's a way to use Twitter for good amid all the negativity I could do that. So that's what started the threads, and that became popular and people would comment on those a lot. Then, I reached out on Twitter one day and said if somebody would produce a Hollywood 101 class, I would do 10 or 15 videos covering the basics and put that out there for anyone to see for free. And Twitter is magical, and [BuzzFeed’s] Pero Like reached out. They were there for us, and they're in editing right now. Later in the spring it should be out and free for anyone who wants it on YouTube.
It's just one point of view. Here I am, a woman, a Latina, anxiety-ridden. It's rough, and if I can make somebody's journey a little bit easier...I'm sort of doing it for myself. I'm so grateful for the people along the way who took me under their wing and were kind to me, and I just will never forget those people. You don't forget the kindnesses you get along the way, so I thought this would be a nice thing to do amid all the craziness.
It’s still pretty rare to have someone be so transparent about how Hollywood works. What do you think makes the industry close ranks the way that it does, and what are the steps that you think need to happen to break that down?
I think do what you can where you can. I am certainly taking this opportunity and this moment that I'm having to try to maximize voices of women and people of color and letting people know what they do and don't have to deal with. I also think so much of it is just about confidence. [Starting out] I had to deal with everything we hear our whole lives about this business, and little microaggressions, and all of that just piles up when you're starting any job for the first time. So now that I've done it for many years, I feel like I know what I'm good at and I know where I need to do more work. I know what I'm good at, and I think there's something about that. If you can get confident before you go into a room, I highly recommend that. As writers we're always in a room a little self-loathing and a little bit in love with ourselves. It's a strange relationship we have with ourselves as writers where we're our own worst critics and our own biggest fans.
So I think as much as we can do, whatever we are, that's something. That's not nothing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Alanna Bennett is a culture writer who has written for BuzzFeed News, Vulture, TV Guide and more. She currently lives in Brooklyn and will always believe that the personal, the political, and the pop cultural are deeply connected.