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5 Things We Learned on the Set of ‘One Day at a Time’

"One Day at a Time"
David Viramontes/Variety

Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic forced TV and film productions to shut down en masse, studio audiences were still lining up to watch live tapings on backlots across Los Angeles. “One Day at a Time,” the former Netflix original that now resides on Pop TV was no different.

Variety visited the Alvarez home on the Sony lot in February to interview members of the cast about their big cable debut and what it’s like to be one of the few Latinx families on television. Here are five things Variety learned while on set.

How the cast experiences Latinx culture through the show

The Alvarez family house feels familiar to many Latinx viewers: Rosaries and prayer candles fill the space, ropa vieja is in the pot, and rising rent prices are cause for worry. But quinceañeras and waving Cuban flags at little league games aren’t what resonates the most with the cast.

“We’re always together,” said Marcel Ruiz, who plays Alex, of his on-screen family. “We’re always there for everything. Through the fun times and through the hard times.”

Similarly, Isabella Gomez, who plays the out-and-proud Elena, pointed to familiar relationship dynamics between her on-screen mother and grandmother: “You never are a grown up, ever. [Justina Machado’s character] Penelope still has to let her mom know where she is. It’s very relatable.”

The cast’s favorite storylines involve the show’s most weighty subjects

Audiences have responded to many of the show’s Latinx culture-specific plots, such as the Season 1 finale in which Elena came out to her extended family at her 15th birthday party. And some of those stories are favorites of the cast, as well. Machado, for example, called the quinceañera one of her favorites. But the show’s willingness to tell stories about mental health also ranks high on the list for many.

Elena’s struggles with anxiety and depression were moments that resonated with Gomez. “I was very excited to not only be able to portray that, but to have that representation on TV and show it in a way that wasn’t stigmatized or villainized,” she explained.

Added Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays Dr. Leslie Berkowitz, “If you take on any issue in a truthful way, it is not a difficult issue. Being able to talk about it truthfully makes it a real issue.”

The set features callbacks to previous seasons’ storylines

The main characters make reference to the “Alvarez Museum” as a place to store awards and mementos the family has accumulated over the years, but viewers have never been given a closeup of what it looks like. Upon close inspection of the set wall next to the bathroom that serves as a shrine to their achievements, Variety found Alex’s script that earned an A+ from the first season episode “Viva Cuba”; a certificate that proves Elena is CPR certified, and a handful of awards for science fair projects, spelling bees and debate championships. It shouldn’t be too difficult for fans of the show to imagine a younger Elena earning perfect attendance records.

"One Day at a Time"

The photos that decorate the Alvarez apartment are real

Viewers of the show know the importance of Lydia’s bedside portraits of Pope John Paul II and her late husband Berto, played by Tony Plana, but “One Day at a Time” co-creator and co-showrunner Gloria Calderón Kellett told Variety that the pictures scattered through the Alvarez apartment are her actual family photos.

“There’s pictures of my grandparents on both sides [and] my parents when they got married. It’s so personal on that set,” she said.

Walking around, it became clear that television cameras can’t catch all of the small details, such as the black and white polaroids of newlyweds, the glamour shots of a young Latinx couple or beachside photos of a family vacation. Variety even found a picture of a young Rita Moreno, which you can see below.

"One Day at a Time"

The pre-filming playlist includes a mix of appropriately generation-spanning hits

As the studio audience took their seats, an almost too-perfect playlist could be heard through loudspeakers. Whether this was meant to help the audience loosen up for the laugh track or get the cast into a performance-ready headspace (or both), the songs felt impeccably chosen to represent the musical interests of the Alvarez family. Lydia could easily emerge from her colorful curtains to Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” or reminisce about her late husband to Vicente Fernandez’ “Volver Volver.” Penelope might pump herself up for a workout with a mix of the Steve Miller Band’s “Rock’N Me,” U2’s “With or Without You” and Maná’s “Mariposa Traicionera.”

R.E.M.’s “Losing my Religion” felt like a playful reference to a storyline in Season 1: In the episode “No Mass,” Penelope struggled to articulate her frustrations with religion to her devout Catholic mother. By the end of the episode, Lydia resolved to respect her daughter’s choice to not make the church a central part of her life. Perhaps the song was picked as a nod to that episode.

“One Day at a Time” airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on Pop.