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.
We will be sharing this interview in three parts over the next few weeks, so stay tuned for parts two and three!
Kristin Russo: This show is amazing. Just seeing characters handled the way that they are, and speaking the way they are speaking, is incredibly refreshing. Especially Elena! Hearing the stuff that comes out of her mouth, I’m like, “Is this really on television right now?”
Michelle Badillo: We were so privileged that we got to have the characters talk the way they do on the show. We forgot that people aren’t really like that on TV. In real life, I’m a little bit like that, Gloria (the Executive Producer of One Day at a Time) a little bit like that. Mike, our showrunner, his daughter is super like that and Elena’s character is based on her a lot. So we all kind of forgot that is not something we get to see a lot on TV.
Kristin: Many of us see this in our real lives, but on TV it’s usually packaged in a way that doesn’t feel authentic—as a viewer you’re usually like, “I identify with this piece or that piece,” but this show just feels so holistically authentic.
Michelle: Just to have her say “microaggressions” was so fun!
Kristin: And on a television show that my parents watch, in an accessible way! In a lot of the work that I do, the trick is always figuring out how to talk to parents or anyone else who isn’t steeped in this all the time, and have them grasp it. I feel like you did that with this show.
Michelle: I think it’s that we had three generations of people working on it together who could all be a mouthpiece for different viewpoints. I know when I talk to my mom, who is so liberal and understanding, I can get frustrated and upset with her because she wasn’t a Women’s Studies major in college, and I was. I get frustrated trying to explain certain things to her and I just start getting angry and don’t know how to talk about them. And that’s really unhelpful, especially for someone who’s ready to be on my side. I feel like I learned, while writing this show, how to have conversations with people that exist on a plain where everybody’s saying their piece and maybe learning things, and nobody’s going insane.
Kristin: Absolutely. Let’s dig into the coming out story lines, specifically. I feel like there are 3 prongs to Elena’s coming out story: there’s Penelope and the mother-daughter relationship; there’s Lydia who has that moment on the couch about Catholicism; and the third is Victor, Elena’s father. Let’s start with Penelope and talk a little about her wanting to accept Elena’s sexuality, not being able to at first, and being afraid to have questions. When I wrote This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids, the biggest issue I found was that many parents were like, “I don’t need that book. I don’t have any questions because I’m not a bigot.” How did the Penelope-Elena storyline come to be?
Michelle: I was so excited to do that storyline, because it is one we really haven’t seen in mainstream media. The part about being afraid to have questions felt really real for all of us on the show.
My mom was definitely that way—I think she just always thought that she was very liberal and knew gay people, so it was whatever. And yet she was weird about me being gay when I first came out! I think it’s hard for people to admit to themselves that they have this discomfort, so they don’t even want to go there. I brought up PFLAG to her and she was like, “Why would I go there? I don’t need that. I’m fine.” Becky, the other gay writer in the room, sort of had the reverse experience with her father. Her father also came out to her, and she was like, “I’m gay, I have questions, and I feel weird!” And then Mike, our showrunner, his daughter’s gay and he’s super supportive, too.
I think we are all so used to seeing parents who are either right away the PFLAG parents or the parents who are like, “Get out of my house! I don’t love you anymore, you’re not mine.” There’s sort of no space for where most parents fall, that middle ground, so we really wanted to just get in there and talk about it. We wanted to give people the breathing room and the space to feel what they’re feeling, even if it’s not a feeling they feel good about. We wanted to show that it doesn’t make them a bad person. And because we wanted this show to be watched by the whole family, we really wanted to get that part of the coming out experience out there for people to see.
Plus, everybody’s so emotional. When you come out, you’re emotional, the person you are telling is so emotional. Everything seems so fraught. We all wanted to show not only somebody having a little bit of trouble in spite of them not understanding why they are having that trouble.
We wanted to show how to still deal with what’s best for your kid, too. So even though Penelope is feeling weird, she’s never letting her kid see that she feels weird. We get to see that as the audience and go through that alongside Penelope. But if you yourself are going through that, it’s important to not necessarily let your kid know. You can, though, let them know that you have questions.
Kristin: Right. And Penelope seeks out advice a) in a gay bar, and b) with her gay friend. That’s a total move that my mom did. My mom didn’t have gay friends, but anytime that she did meet a gay person, specifically a lesbian, she would corner them and be like, “What’s it like to be you?”
Michelle: Yeah! Three days ago, my mom texted me and was like, “I was at the bar. I met these two young lesbians, very sweet. Showed them your article. Was asking them how they met.” And I was like, “Why are you doing this?” And then she was like, “They met on something called POF, Plenty of Fish. Do you know what that is?” And I was like “Stop. Just stop.”
But it’s adorable to care that much! This show would have been a good thing for me to watch when I was a teenager. I didn’t really have any patience for my mom not being immediately on board. I think because I expected her to be, I was really angry, really upset. I didn’t get to watch her on a TV show talking to her friends. I think it’s a great way to understand where everybody’s coming from while knowing the love is still there.
Kristin: Right. When you are in the position of somebody coming out, you are centered on yourself. How old were you when you came out?
Kristin: I was 17. And also being 17 or 18, you are still more focused on yourself anyway. It’s very hard to think of your parent as a person with feelings that need tending to. So, I agree. The relationship between Penelope and Elena would be really powerful for a parent to watch unfold. I can see how powerful it would be for a parent to see a character who is so loving, and accepting, and loves their child. And she is totally cool with gay people, but is like, “Wait, I have questions.” But on the flip side, to be a young person watching the show and be able to see too how their parent has a process that they have to navigate.
Michelle: Schneider has this line: “She’s been thinking about this for months or years, you found out 3 hours ago.” That is so true.
Kristin: When I heard that line, I was like, “Did they call me to get my input on lines for this show and I just forgot?” I am going to give you my book. That line is basically every answer. Your kid has probably known for a long time, you have not. Remember that, and allow yourself the process.
Michelle: I think knowing that their kid has known for a long time also freaks parents out, though. Especially when people come out as early teenagers, parents really think that they know everything about their kid, that they are an extension of them. Every kid at some point becomes an adult and has their own identity, but it’s such a huge departure from who you are, or seems like it. It’s unfathomable that this person that you have raised and known their whole life has this identity that has nothing to do with you. I think that’s scary for anybody.
Kristin: Totally. And I think too, parents can get very upset when they feel like they are the last to know.
Michelle: Oh yeah, that’s a huge one.
Kristin: It’s beautifully illustrated in Elena and Penelope’s story when you see that the reason she isn’t telling her mom is because she loves her so much, she’s the most scared. It’s the scariest one, because “what if”.
Michelle: I think definitely parents want to know first because they want to feel like you can go to them with anything. But they are the scariest ones to go to because if they are not ok with it, it doesn’t matter if anyone else is ok with it. Everybody’s feelings are hurt, it’s a rough time. We had these jokes in the room because it felt like we had eight coming out episodes. When you come out, you kind of never stop coming out. Every time I leave the door, I come out to somebody else.
Kristin: Right. I think that’s why so many people connected to this storyline, especially from the LGBTQ community. So many other coming out storylines aren’t really arcs in television. It is one moment, it happens, and then there’s another thing. That’s really not how most people experience coming out.
I would just love to ask you: For parents who are reading this, and parents who have seen the show, what would you say some of the most important messages are for them to hold onto?
Michelle: I think, first of all, if your kid comes out to you, they are still the same person that you knew. This is not a different person. It’s an adjustment period. It might be a little weird. You might have feelings you didn’t expect to have. All those are ok and acceptable. You are allowed to breath in those feelings and have them. Make sure that loving is the first order of business. Make sure everybody knows they are still loved. Have your weird feelings, because you will get through them. If you care enough to care, then you are going to get through them. If you care enough that you are being weird, then that’s great—that’s amazing.
Kristin: Weird feelings come from the fact that you care.