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Television

‘We are in triage’: ‘One Day at a Time’ shows how TV’s facing the coronavirus outbreak

Marcel Ruiz as Alex, Justina Machado as Penelope and Isabella Gomez as Elena in “One Day at a Time.”
Marcel Ruiz as Alex, Justina Machado as Penelope and Isabella Gomez as Elena in “One Day at a Time.”
(Nicole Wilder / Pop TV)

If there’s one thing “One Day at a Time” producers know all too well, it’s the art of taking life’s curveballs one day at a time. And with a little bit of hope.

It was around this time last year that the Latino-fronted reboot of the ‘80s classic was canceled by Netflix after three seasons. Sony Pictures Television, the studio that produces the critically acclaimed series, shopped the comedy to other networks, eventually landing the Cuban American family sitcom at Pop TV — which has gained notoriety thanks to cult favorite “Schitt’s Creek” — where it will make its triumphant return on Tuesday night.

“I would say this entire experience has made me realize I know nothing about the business,” said co-showrunner Mike Royce, who came up in the era when a canceled show stayed canceled.

“It always felt like the show was on life support, and maybe it would open its eyes any day,” said his counterpart, Gloria Calderon Kellett. “We were holding a several-months-long vigil. Some days it was touch and go. It was a little too hard on the heart. Some days, we’d be like, ‘No, no, no. It seems like today they had a really good day. They might wake up.’”

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Kellett reflected on the full-circle moment behind her desk inside her office on the Sony lot in Culver City, a healthy distance away from Royce — with good reason: the duo were facing their next curveball. It was the week of March 9, just as concerns about the spread of the coronavirus were coming into sharp focus in the U.S.

Suddenly, the show, like much of normal life across the country, found itself upended as a seemingly distant threat landed on its doorstep.

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By that point, “One Day at a Time” had already begun to tape episodes without a studio audience, and Kellett and Royce were starting discussions about having the writers work from home via virtual platforms.

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The promotional train soon pumped the brakes too. The show’s scheduled panel at PaleyFest, the annual festival saluting popular TV series that draws thousands of fans, was shelved at the eleventh hour as organizers indefinitely postponed the event. And the show’s veteran star, Rita Moreno, had an upcoming appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” scrapped as the late-night shows went dark. Other stops on the promotional tour, including “The View” and “The Today Show,” were scuttled as well.

“We have been dying to get on some of these talk shows and have some of these opportunities that we haven’t had in the past and now there’s been some cancellations,” Kellett said. “But you know what? What would this show be if we weren’t fighting for our lives? Plus, everyone’s going to be at home ... the world right now is a weird place and I think our show, the vibe of our show and the messages and the comedy, is just something people will take to right now.”

A week later, when reached by phone to reflect on how rapidly the situation had changed from that initial sit-down in Kellett’s office — including the suspension of production — any attempt to process the new stark backdrop to their returning series was on the back burner because “we are in triage,” Kellett said.

“Every day things were changing, so it’s hard to say what was real when,” Royce said.

“In terms of this show,” Kellett added, “we are just trying to find ways to keep going and to keep doing our work because it’s also a great distraction.”

For the writers room, days still start as usual at 10:30 a.m. But rather than convene around a long conference table, surrounded by taped-to-the-wall flashcards with plot points, the writers brainstorm story ideas remotely through Skype and Zoom. On March 12, Kellett shared a photo of her new work surroundings — near a fireplace — on Twitter. She acknowledged there were some technical difficulties, but things otherwise worked out smoothly. And there were some perks too: She was able to work in pajamas and she snuck in time to fold some clothes.

Meanwhile, Pop TV is taking measures of its own to ensure “One Day at a Time” finds an audience at a tumultuous time for the industry: The ViacomCBS-owned cable network will simulcast the show’s Season 4 premiere on its sister networks, TV Land and Logo.

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The original series debuted in 1975 and was developed by legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear.

Now 97, Lear is also an executive producer on the updated version, which revolves around the Alvarez family: Justina Machado (“Six Feet Under”) stars as Penelope, a war veteran and single mother of two teenage children, Elena (Isabella Gomez) and Alex (Marcel Ruiz). Moreno stars as Penelope’s sassy and meddling mother who lives with them. And Todd Grinnell plays Schneider, the privileged but lovable honorary member of the family.

The series isn’t afraid to delve into topical and serious issues, such as mental health, immigration, gentrification and LGBTQ acceptance. And, at least on social media, it nimbly pivoted to give its take on the current state of affairs with a roughly six-minute video dubbed “ODAAT: Quarantine Edition,” in which the show’s stars play their characters as they check in with each other over video chat while staying home.

Royce and Kellett aren’t yet sure whether the current situation will inspire an actual storyline in the future.

“Who knows what’s going to be tone deaf and what’s going to be OK?” Kellett said. “I don’t know. I keep on thinking about the ‘40s and ‘50s and those great musicals that came out of that time because people needed that comfort. So I’m wondering if content is going to be created that doesn’t talk about it so that people can have some version of an escapist experience. I’m not sure. I think we all have to be sensitive and play that by ear.”

ONE DAY AT A TIME
Ray Romano as Brian, Marcel Ruiz as Alex, Justina Machado as Penelope and Rita Moreno as Lydia in “One Day at a Time.”
(Nicole Wilder / Pop TV)

This doesn’t mean the series will shy away from its interest in timely subject matter in the meantime, though. Tuesday’s premiere, for instance, gives attention to the 2020 census, which, coincidentally, has also been upturned by the coronavirus.

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The episode opens with a U.S. census taker, played by guest star Ray Romano, showing up at the Alvarez home to get responses to the decennial questionnaire — prompting the family to think about their relationships and what their future holds. (The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced a two-week suspension of field operations, related to outreach and training, as it navigates how to protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus.)

The 2020 census had been on a list of topics the producers wanted to discuss in the new season. Since Pop TV executives wanted the show to reintroduce the characters at the start for new viewers — one early idea had Schneider bring a new neighbor by to meet the Alvarez clan — the writers saw the census as an opportunity to set the stage and educate at once.

“We carefully calibrated, ‘OK, what are some misconceptions that would be good to highlight and make clear?’” said Royce, whose brother works at the Census Bureau. “We wanted to get at, ‘What are the actual questions?’ Because there’s things that you think they ask that they don’t ask and things that they do ask that you wouldn’t think they asked.”

“And then especially just getting the word out to the Latino community about what to expect,” added Kellett, referring to concerns that immigrants are less likely to participate.

Whether that worthwhile message will register against the magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak is an open question — one that reflects Pop TV President Brad Schwartz‘s bittersweet feelings about welcoming “One Day at a Time” into the network’s fold at this particular moment.

“I’m really, really proud of ‘Schitt’s Creek’ and ‘One Day at a Time’ and the kind of joy that they’ve put in the world,” Schwartz said by phone. “The virus, in keeping us all home and impacting our daily lives, almost gives this show about family and joy and togetherness and fighting and dealing with issues together even more importance. It almost feels needed now.”

Before production came to a halt, the series had taped six of its 13 commissioned episodes for the season. The studio, network and producers are monitoring the situation closely before making any decisions about resuming production.

“Hopefully, they will get back into production and finish up the remaining seven [episodes] and we don’t miss a beat,” Schwartz said. “Maybe we have to repeat a couple of episodes before a new one comes. Or, we wait a little bit and bring back the final seven as season 4B. There’s lots of options. We’ll see how the world goes. It’s a studio production, so you don’t have to be in multiple locations, you can do it without an audience, and you can do it with a skeleton crew. But we’re going to be very cautious. We’re going to make the right decisions for the health of everybody. And we’ll see.”

Again, one day at a time.

‘One Day at a Time’

Where: Logo, Pop and TV Land
When: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday
Rated: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)


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