Behind the Scenes of Queer, Latina Remake of 'One Day at a Time'

Television writer Michelle Badillo discusses how her own experiences influenced her work on the new Netflix series.

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Jan 7 2017, 2:30pm

Photo by Cameron McCool

When the original One Day at a Time premiered in 1975, executive producer Norman Lear made television history by launching a female-driven sitcom about a divorced single mom. The show aired for ten years and lived on in syndication. Queer television writer Michelle Badillo grew up on reruns, watching it in her Forest Hills, Queens apartment with her own divorced mom. Now living in Los Angeles, Badillo, 24, is the youngest writer on the newly revamped One Day at a Time, premiering this weekend on Netflix.

"It freaks my mom out that she loved the show so much as a kid, grew up to live that exact life, and now I'm writing on this show," Badillo says.

Like Badillo, the characters on the new show are Latina. The remake centers around a Cuban mom and her kids living in an apartment in Echo Park, the traditionally Latino Los Angeles neighborhood that has recently been gentrified by coffee shops and vegan restaurants. Legendary EGOT Rita Moreno joins the cast as the grandmother Lydia, a Cuban immigrant who has lived the Latina American dream. This week, we sat down with Badillo to talk Latinos on TV, queer culture in mainstream Hollywood, and that time Mischa Barton played a lesbian on The O.C. This interview has been edited and condensed.

BROADLY: As an Argentinian and Puerto Rican woman, what was the experience of writing a Cuban family like?
Michelle Badillo: The writers' room was a lesson in what we already knew, which is the most specific is the most universal. Half of the writers in the room were Latino, and two were Cuban, but it was easy for all of us to apply our own experiences to this family. Latinos are specific, but we're also not. We just have a context that hasn't been explored much on TV. Nobody thinks of white people as being culturally specific, especially in media, because white people are still considered what's normal, but there's so many Latinos in this country.

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Who were your favorite Latina characters on TV growing up?
The first Latina TV actress I remember is Eva Longoria on Desperate Housewives, when I was in middle school. I don't remember watching any other Latina characters before that, mostly because I don't think there really were any. It's not like Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz were doing TV. There were some ethnically ambiguous actresses who could have been Latina, but you never really knew. Being Latina wasn't actually a part of their characters. With One Day at a Time, it was important that besides casting Latino people, the characters and stories also had to feel Latino. We didn't want this to feel like any other show but with brown faces.

What's your reaction to when people say diversity is "trending"?
As we wrote this show last year, most other Latino shows got cancelled or failed to get picked up after their pilot was made, essentially all of them except Jane the Virgin. All of a sudden, there was supposedly going to be all these Latina shows, but Telenovela got cancelled. Cristela got cancelled. So while more Latino shows might be getting a shot, there are still only a couple on air at a time. It feels false to say Latino shows are trending when there's now just two or three instead of none.

On the new One Day at a Time, coming out as a lesbian is part of the teenage daughter's character arc. Was it weird to lend some of your own coming out experiences to her?
A lot of her specific coming out story stems from my own life. It tripped me out, but I was trying to shape her character as honestly as possible. Lesbians tend to be extra hard on any lesbian storyline in a show because there's so few lesbian characters on TV all together. At times, I wondered if I was doing something damaging to the national image of lesbians just by being honest in the writer's room.

The cast of the original One Day at a Time poses on set. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

How so?
What gave me the most anxiety is that, at first, Isabella [Gomez]'s character Elena dates a boy and is pretty sexually aggressive with him. But there's a prevalent and understandable complaint in the lesbian community that every time we see a lesbian character, it has to be in the context of a man. On screen, a lesbian always has to make out with a man to realize she's gay, but that was my real experience. I kind of knew I was gay, but I was so desperate not to be gay, that I was very aggressive with men and wanted to have physical experiences with them just to feel normal. I knew I was contributing to the writing of a trope I know lesbians hate, but that trope was my life.

As a queer person working in mainstream entertainment, do you have other reservations, or hopes, about portraying queerness on TV?
My hope is that people, especially young people, have something to look at that makes them feel okay. As a teenager, I googled, "Am I a lesbian?" and "Am I a psychopath?" in the same day. If I had any context for lesbians, I might have known I wasn't fundamentally broken. My other hope is that it normalizes queerness for people, but that's my reservation too. I have a fear that instead of queer culture widening the scope of the mainstream, the mainstream will narrow the individuality of queer culture.

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Did any lesbian characters on TV help you to recognize or understand your own identity as a kid?
No. Growing up, the only lesbians I remember seeing on TV were Olivia Wilde on The O.C. with Mischa Barton and Rumer Willis as a guest star on the remake of 90210 in high school. Both were during sweeps week and had short, salacious arcs. I was just in awe.

What about working with an icon like the show's creator Norman Lear? What was it like closely creating TV with someone almost exactly 70 years older than you?
I was worried he was going to think I was a man because he's 94, and I didn't expect him to recognize me as a bald-ass woman. I didn't want him to be like, "Hello young man, nice to meet you," and start off awkward. The reason Norman Lear is so cool is that at 94, he's quite aware he doesn't know everything. He continues to be so progressive because he shuts up and lets other people teach him, which isn't something most straight, white men with enormous power and money do—especially industry titans.

And unlike most writer's rooms, half of your colleagues were women. Did you ever have to all conspire to teach the men something?
Sometimes we would scare the men in the room. The men were like, adorably dedicated to not hurting anybody. Humor is a thing because that's how we deal with tragedy. If I made a joke that deals with the experience of being a woman, which too often means dealing with tragic sexual trauma, the men in the room would get so uncomfortable. It was a cool opportunity for all of us to learn because, even though I don't want those guys making rape jokes and I know they never would, it was educational or them to realize some women deal with things, even rape, by being funny. It's paternalistic for a guy to tell me I can't make those sorts of jokes because I'm like, "Really? Cuz the five other women in the room just lost it."