In the five-decade canon of Norman Lear’s influence on television comedy, you might not immediately think of “One Day at a Time” for a remake: “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Sanford & Son” or “The Jeffersons” might be more easily accessible; they cast a longer shadow.
Even “All in the Family,” as much as every sitcom seems to want to be it, had its time: We’ve always thought that the point of “All in the Family” was to create a timeline in which there would never need to be another “All in the Family,” if you follow — and we seem to be living in that timeline, all programming execs’ intuitions to the contrary.
But Lear’s genius was never simply about recapitulating ugliness, but mining the unseen majority of American experience for its unique beauty, pain, and laughter: “Maude” (1972–78) and “Good Times” (1974–79) were smart takes that not only understood representing what America actually looks like, but were successes in their own right; “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (1976–78) was one of the weirdest television shows ever to air; most presciently and bizarrely, “The Baxters” (1979–81) was a sitcom/talk show hybrid which gave an in-studio audience the chance to weigh in live on whatever hot topics were up for discussion in the show.
Flat in the middle of all that falls “One Day at a Time,” which from 1975 to 1984 told the story of a single mother in Indianapolis (Bonnie Franklin) and her two daughters, played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli. The series was created by former actors and married writing partners Whitney Blake and Allan Manings, based on Blake’s own life as a single mother (of three, including sitcom legend Meredith Baxter) after her first marriage ended.
In Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” divorced mother Penelope (Justina Machado) lives with her mother Lydia (Rita Moreno) and her two children — and yes, Schneider (Todd Grimmell) still comes over a lot — which makes this a particularly intriguing remake: It’s entirely in line with Lear’s sixty-year project, based on a property that won’t exactly have obsessive fanboys nitpicking it to death, and serves a growing and hugely important demographic… Who, along with African Americans and “Muslims” (as grossly overgeneralized), will be coming under particularly heavy fire in the coming year. Equal representation is not only crucial, it makes financial sense — and for Lear, it’s been the only acceptable option from day one.
Lear and Moreno were in Los Angeles before the holidays to talk about their new “One Day at a Time,” along with producer Mike Royce. We spoke with the trio at length about the new show, which binge-debuts all 13 episodes Friday, January 6.
Screener: The “One Day at a Time” theme song was a classic. Did you want to salsa-fy it for this family?
Norman Lear: We thought we had as current a theme song as we could possibly have with Gloria Estefan executing it.
Mike Royce: The answer is yes! The theme song is what everybody remembers about the show, but we did want to update it to fit our show
So many classic TV shows are coming back. Did you ever think yours would be redone for modern times?
Lear: No, this idea came up with my associate Brent Miller, in conversations with somebody at Sony, or an agency. When they told me about it, it certainly felt the right time to do a Latino show. They didn’t take a script from the past. It’s all fresh for this moment.
Have you been interested to see the shows that decided to come back in new versions?
Lear: I haven’t really seen them. This is the only show I’m conversant with.
Rita, you’ve had some great entrances before. Was this one — opening the curtain — right up there?
Rita Moreno: I’ll tell you… What I didn’t expect was the kind of cheer that went up! That surprised me, I honestly did not expect that in a situation comedy. You don’t get stuff like that… The actors said, “What do you mean, you’re surprised?” Well, I was! But I realized that they didn’t recognize anybody up until then. The scenes before me, they didn’t recognize the actors. So when they saw a face they knew, I guess that’s what occasioned that massive cheer. And it was longer than you see it, they had to cut it. It just went on and on and on!
Was it important to include traditions, like the quinceanara, and topical modern themes that come with it?
Lear: Well, Gloria is our Latina. A young woman turning 15 has a quinceanara, or there is great discussion in the family. So this comes right out of her life.
Was it her idea to build up to it as the season finale?
Royce: When we were writing the pilot together, we just thought that’s such a natural place for all the things that these guys are going to go through to come to a head.
Lear: There’s a bigger storyline that also finishes with the quinceanara, or comes to a head at the quinceanara. So the quinceanara is a B story compared to the A story.
Did you ever have a quinceanara, Rita?
I had a sweet 16. Isn’t that interesting? Never had a quinceanara.
How did you end up going with the American tradition?
I don’t know. I didn’t even know about quinceanaras at the time. Didn’t know about them. I don’t know that my mother knew about them. We were very poor.
Playing a character to whom a quinceanara is so important, what did you think of the debate surrounding it on the show?
Oh, I loved it. Any time that Lydia gets to debate with somebody is a time to be funny, and I love that. It’s a time also to reveal all kinds of things. By the way, that last [episode] is spectacular. It’s fabulous.
One of the issues is makeup. Your granddaughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) doesn’t want to wear it, and Lydia always wears it. How did you feel appearing in a scene without makeup for Elena?
You know, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be — because I look pretty okay without makeup on. So it wasn’t that scary. I didn’t like not having my eyes made up, so I love it when she says, “Are you wearing mascara?” No! No, it was okay.
In the original series, was it groundbreaking to even address a single mother raising a family?
Lear: You know, it was. When “Mary Tyler Moore” was written originally, she was a divorced woman. The network wouldn’t allow it. James Brooks and Allan Burns wrote her as a divorced woman, the network wouldn’t accept it. So the original “One Day at a Time” was the first time there was a single woman on a show.
How does having a grandmother at home change the dynamic of the sitcom?
Lear: Did you see it? …The relationship between the mother, and her mother, is fabulous.
Royce: I think it’s the third generation, that’s really what it’s about — and it’s marvelous. Everyone loves that third generation person, because there’s clashes and there’s love. She’s still the grandma! So I love it, I think it’s great.
She catches onto some of the modern issues quicker than others…
Royce: She sees it, but she’s also not happy about it. She’s still a nice, Catholic conservative lady. She’s big and she’s obvious, and she’s vain and all kinds of things — she’s still a conservative person.
Did you see the [episode] about church? That’s a marvelous one. That’s one of our best.
Schneider has an iconic look. Was it important to address the mustache right away?
Royce: That was sort of our idea — make the world think, for three seconds, that this guy is going to have a crazy mustache and that’s what our Schneider’s going to be. We wanted to have fun with it — a very meta, “you thought it was going to be this, but it’s a whole other thing.” The character is so different.
Rita, was it fun teaching Schneider to Salsa dance?
Isn’t he delicious? We have a stellar cast. We have one of those great casts, like “The Big Bang Theory.” When you find a cast like that, you are so fortunate. It’s fortunate also for the actors, we hit it off the second we met at the table read. It was amazing. It was almost creepy, the amount of chemistry that just flowed. People who had never met before… Amazing!
Is churning the butter a real salsa move?
Do they try every chance they get, to make you dance?
Oh, we did a couple times. We’re making a movie, a little home movie that Marcel [Ruiz, who plays Lydia’s grandson] Alex is making, and I dance and use the castanets. I was a Spanish dancer. It turns out that [showrunner] Gloria Calderon’s mom was a Spanish dancer who played castanets. In Cuba? I never heard of this! Really? She did castanets?
Does it come right back to you any time you’re called upon to dance?
Oh sure. Muscle memory.
Norman, Do you imagine any of your other series can be reinvented for modern day?
One day at a time! [Laughter]
“One Day at a Time,” Season 1, is available now on Netflix.