Penelope Alvarez on “One Day at a Time” is what you’d get if you tossed series co-creator and showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett and portrayer Justina Machado in a blender, with some dashes of co-creator Mike Royce and the other writers mixed in. At least, that’s how Calderón Kellett herself puts it.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to shed a light on what it is like to be a Latina woman living in this moment in time in America,” she says. “Whenever we talk about storylines, specifically with Penelope, it always goes through the filter of, ‘What would I do?’ Penelope and I parent the same way; we communicate with our mothers the same way; we both have diarrhea of the mouth [and] over-communicate. I always say, ‘Look at me’ when I talk to my kids, and Penelope says that, too. The other day my son said, ‘You sound like Penelope.’ And I was like, ‘Penelope sounds like me!’”
She may be four seasons into her Netflix-turned-Pop TV reboot of the classic Norman Lear sitcom, but Calderón Kellett has always been comfortable enough with herself to mine her own life and beliefs for comedy.
From the beginning, the new version of “One Day at a Time” centered on three Latinx women from different generations. Penelope is in the middle, flanked on either side by her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno), and daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez). The way they see the world, relate to it and then converse with each other mimics the way Calderón Kellett and her own parents and kids do.
“My mother is a traditional Catholic,” she says, whereas, “I am in the middle — 51% Catholic, is what I say. I like parts of it, like the kindness and commandments and ‘honor thy mother and father,’ but being against homosexuality, not so much. And then this next generation is super liberal and all of this stuff that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around, like how open and fluid everything is.”
One Season 4 storyline that did not come from Calderón Kellett’s life, she admits, is when Penelope’s teenage son Alex (Marcel Ruiz) walks in on her masturbating. That was a story she wanted to do since the inception of the show, to turn a trope on its head. Another, she says, is the “trapped in the elevator” plot because while you’ve seen it a lot, “you’ve never seen it with
a Latino family.”
But, Calderón Kellett, who is happily married, did pull the storyline in which Penelope tells her boyfriend she never wants to get married again from her own opinions on the topic.
“Had I not met my husband, I would have never gotten married. It was literally him and him convincing me that a life with him was a good idea and he was right. I’ve said a million times if, God forbid, something happened to my husband I would never get married again.”
While studio Sony and network Pop didn’t challenge her on delivering such stories for her leading lady, Calderón Kellett acknowledges that many others do because “the patriarchy is alive and well.” But that is exactly why she found it so important to put forth “a positive” portrayal of the topics.
“We feed people this idea that life is incomplete without someone else, and I just don’t think that’s true,” she continues. “And this is a woman who went through a divorce — it was very painful for her family — and I just think she’s really found her own way. The first episode was, ‘How do I make it on my own?’ and her mom is arguing with her about, ‘You need a man,’ and finally she builds to this place of, ‘I don’t. I can do this on my own.’”
Gloria Calderón Kellett’s Inspirations:
Writers’ room style: “I light candles and I usually will make a playlist for whatever I’m writing.”
Favorite writers’ room snack: “I try to be healthy so La Croix, obviously, because we all do La Croix, but [also] almonds.”
Mood music: “This year was very female-empowering, so this was a Lizzo year for me.”
How she breaks writer’s block: “I just read — a play or some Fran Lebowitz.”