Last January, Netflix released a remake of the 1970s sitcom One Day at a Time, which, this time around, centers around a Cuban-American family living in Los Angeles. The main characters include Penelope, a recently-separated army nurse veteran who is raising her two teenage kids, Elena and Alex, with the help of her mother, Lydia (and their comedic landlord, Schneider).
Already, One Day at a Time has been celebrated for its incredibly timely commentary on everything from sexism in the workplace to the horrors of deportation, while remaining a feel-good sitcom for the whole family.
My Kid Is Gay co-founder, Kristin Russo, sat down with Michelle Badillo, one of the writers of the show, to talk about Elena’s coming out storyline, and how it’s different from how many other coming out stories are portrayed in TV and movies.
Kristin Russo: Ok, now I want to talk about Victor, and his negative response to his daughter coming out. Did this storyline come from anywhere?
Michelle Badillo: Luckily, this did not come exactly from any of our experiences. The other gay writer and I didn’t have anybody who outright rejected us like Victor does Elena— so that is really lucky for us, but that’s a real thing that happens to a lot of people and we felt like we had to show that on screen. Especially in this family we are portraying, it’s a very real possibility that not everything is going to be super peachy. I think there is a big misconception, especially from older generations, that it’s so easy to be gay now—that everybody’s gay now and it’s cool to be gay. That’s really not true for a lot of people and a lot of kids, and it’s not a breeze to come out. People still get kicked out of their houses, and youth homelessness is still a huge problem. We wanted to make it clear that this still is a reality for many people coming out.
Kristin: It’s so powerful too, because it’s just so heart wrenching to watch. She looks for him at her Quinceñera and he’s not there and they all realize that he’s not coming back. But because of their family’s structure, he’s not one of the most central people in her life. Yes, he’s her father, but she has this incredible support system without him. I am sure nobody knows what that character’s arc will be, but I think this situation also gives the opportunity to explore what element of Victor’s character and his masculinity affects his ability to accept queerness. Typically, what we see is a masculine father put up against a gay person that’s usually his son and that’s the big conflict. So here, between Victor and Elena, I just think there is a lot to explore in that.
I used to be of the mind a year ago, even just 6 months ago, where I’d think, “Oh my God, it would be so cool for Victor to come around and become a supportive parent.” But since the election, think I have been needing to see more realistic things, so now I just think, “Maybe he won’t. Maybe he won’t come around. And maybe that is also really important for us to see that not everybody does journey to where they need to journey.
Michelle: Yeah, sometimes it needs to be heavy. We as the writers have no idea what the hell is going to happen with Victor. I think that it is really important for parents to see how you can irreparably damage your relationship with your child and with the rest of your family, though.
We have nothing written yet, but there are a few aspects that are important to tackle in all this. Alex is a kid who looks up to his father. If you are the sibling and you see a parent act this way towards your sister—how is that person still your hero? That’s so complicated and ugly and happens a lot, so showing the repercussions on everybody else is really important. The way Penelope and Victor will deal with each other over this is something we are really interested in as well. And then there’s Victor himself, who is a person that has been away for a year and comes back and is like, “What happened to my family?” It doesn’t even have to do with the gay thing, it’s more of, “How did things get out of hand while I wasn’t around?” There are so many things wrapped up together when somebody comes out, and on top of it all is Victor being so wrapped up on why he is not accepting her. Hopefully people see this as a way to look at the bigger picture.
Kristin: I think what you are saying is really beautiful actually. It’s really easy to look at it as: Victor is this person and he has these opinions on what it is to be gay, and they are not good opinions, so he’s out. But the truth of the matter is that he did go; He went and has been away, and we already know that he has a substance abuse problem and PTSD from being in the war. There are so many layers. I don’t say any of that as an excuse to justify his actions, but just to point out that there are so many things going on inside of us all the time, so it’s hard to say, “He was a great guy, he just hated gay people.” Well no, there’s more to it than that.
I love what you were saying about the repercussions that can be felt in a family. It sounds like you had a pretty decent coming out experience overall, and so did I. But that experience still affected my immediate family and my extended family in ways that won’t ever change. My mom’s relationship with her sisters has changed. They still have a relationship, but it is different because you see the core of a person when you journey through a coming out process together. And I do think there’s beauty in seeing the core of a person or people through the coming out process, even if the result is not wonderful.
Michelle: Yeah, it’s powerful, in whatever it is.
Kristin: Something that I read about the show said that the whole series was written before the election happened. Do you think it would have been different to write after?
Michelle: Yes and no, it’s hard to say. I think we would have done the same exact stories that we did because the stuff we wanted to talk about before the election is exactly what we would want to be talking about after the election. Like the deportation episode, some of the stakes would have been higher than they were already had we written it after. But for the show to come out when it came out feels really special. We were given a platform, and this platform became even more important now than when we were writing it in the first place. It feels really special that now people have something to watch and connect to that doesn’t feel awful right now.
Kristin: Yeah, I watched it after the election, and I just thought it was extremely powerful. The awareness around the severity of the issues obviously was there before the election happened, but seeing it after… I am just really thankful this show exists.
My experience with people in general—especially people who don’t care as much about equality, whether it’s sexuality, gender identity, race, immigration status—I have found conversations rooted in facts are just pointless. Stories seem to be the only thing that moves the needle at all. That’s why I think a show like One Day at a Time is so critical right now, because there are a lot of people who won’t listen to facts and reason, but will watch these characters and they might then have a different space in their mind and heart when they think about issues like immigration or sexuality.