[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Tuesday's One Day at a Time animated special, "The Politics Episode." Read at your own risk!]
One Day at a Time showed off its range on Tuesday night with a clever animated special that proved the Alvarez family is worth watching in any medium. "The Politics Episode" dug into a timely topic -- how to talk about politics with loved ones -- with empathy, humor, and a touch of fantasy, as Penelope (Justina Machado), Lydia (Rita Moreno), Elena (Isabella Gomez), and Alex (Marcel Ruiz) prepared for a visit from their conservative relatives by imagining all the ways their disagreements could play out.
"The Politics Episode" was originally written to air in live action, but it was always supposed to feature fantasy sequences, which meant co-showrunners Mike Royce and Gloria Calderón Kellett didn't have to change too much of the script once Kellett had the idea to venture into animation. Aside from adjusting a few lines to reflect the moment, the core of the episode remains the same -- a testament to how topical One Day at a Time has always been. But they did manage to throw in a Hamilton reference once Lin-Manuel Miranda joined the episode's impressive cast alongside returning guest stars Gloria Estefan and Melissa Fumero.
TV Guide spoke to Kellett and Royce about the relevant episode, including the power of Penelope's big heart-to-heart with Estrellita (Fumero). Plus, they revealed how Miranda reacted to that Hamilton joke and weighed in on whether another animated special could be in the cards. (Head here for even more from Kellett and Royce on how the special, animated in record time by Canadian company Smiley Guy, came together.)
What was the process like of recording this episode with the cast?
Gloria Calderón Kellett:
We have incredible actors. I don't think we can take any of the credit for how lived in these roles are for our main cast and then how excellent our guest cast is. You know, Lin was so funny. He and Schneider (Todd Grinnell) really provide the comedic moments of levity, where you need that moment to kind of breathe and have a break before the next round of conversation starts. And just out of the gate, so funny. It just speaks to great performers. Gloria is wonderful, Melissa is so emotional and so good. They are pros. And then our main cast -- Justina every week delivers such incredible, dynamic, emotional performances for us. So it's no surprise. But just to see it -- their facial expressions, their bodies... are such instruments that you're like, "Aw, if it's just their voice, what's that going to be?" And boy, are their voices layered and emotive, and really gave us everything we wanted. So when it was paired with the beautiful animation that Smiley Guy put together, it felt like the show. I had a friend reach out to me who had just seen it, and she said, "You know, halfway through I kind of forgot it was animated. It felt like the show." I think that's the best compliment we could get.
Mike Royce: Logistically, it was hilarious to do, because we're all on Zoom, and we're watching them record in their homes. Everybody's home of course is different -- nobody has a recording studio except for Gloria Estefan. Justina, her surroundings were pretty noisy, so she had to be in like a stairwell or something with baffles around her. Every single recording session had some hilarious, like, "OK, that's a great take, but there was a bird that got really frisky." Or there was somebody taking a piano lesson across the street from Justina's house that was very loud, and a garbage truck -- it was garbage day I think, or leaf blowers maybe, during Marcel's [recording], so it was kind of hilarious. But it all went very smoothly, honestly, given the circumstances.
You squeezed a Hamilton reference into this episode. What was Lin-Manuel Miranda's response to that?
Kellett: That was an alt joke. So he didn't even really know about it until Brent, one of our executive producers, reached out just to make sure that was OK with him, and he seemed tickled by it.
Does that mean the polite British fantasy gave birth to the Hamilton reference, and not the other way around?
Kellett: Yeah, polite British family was there already.
Royce: Amazingly, every fantasy sequence is kind of the same as it was in the live-action one, with just the added animated stuff. But I think everything stayed basically the same, as far as the premise.
So Rita Moreno and Gloria Estefan's sing-off would have been live?
Kellett: Yes, that would have been live. I know... It's what the world deserves.
What was their reaction to that scene?
Kellett: Oh, they are tickled. They love it. They adore each other, obviously, in real life, so they get quite a kick of out getting to be mean to one other.
Royce: And then Gloria gets to judge herself, and then I guess vote against herself as the judge of her own singing. It's very meta.
The idea behind this episode, having these hard conversations with your loved ones, has somehow become even more relevant lately. Was there anything you changed over the last few weeks?
Kellett: We tried to update a little bit. One of the biggest conversations was, "Do we mention COVID?" We discussed it because it was like, "Well, we're probably going to be in lockdown for a while. We don't want to say that this family is not doing what we're supposed to be doing, which is isolating in place." You know, it just brought up so many other things to talk about COVID, so we decided not to. We did sort of the little nod to animating your favorite shows... We tried to change it up a little bit to wink at this moment, to say that we understand what's happening right now, but it's largely, I would say 90-95 percent the same as the draft we came up with in November.
Royce: Right. It was all recorded in, I guess, early May.
Was the "Black lives matter, trans lives matter" line in there already, too?
Kellett: No, those were not. Those were in an earlier draft. There were also LGBTQ lines that we had to cut. So those were all [in the script] when we were in the breaking of it, but those were added back to reflect the moment, along with the animated characters line.
What was it like writing Penelope's big speech to Estrellita at the end, and what points did you want to hit with that scene?
Kellett: We just wanted to really give both sides a fair shot at being generous into what they care about. I love a monologue; Mike will tell you.
Royce: [Laughs] Yes. The speeches, both of them evolved and changed just in the writing of the draft, and we wanted to make sure that it sounded like those two characters, those people, talking, as opposed to -- it could easily devolve into liberal versus conservative, which we didn't want. We didn't want a cable news talk show of, like, Crossfire or something. So it had to feel like they're expressing their personal thoughts. And to me the greatest thing that I'm so happy with is Justina and Melissa just killed it in their performances. I mean, we're talking about animation now, where their faces are just drawings and can only go so far in expressing emotion. And they both gave such pouring out their hearts as their characters. The ability for the emotion to come through to the cartoon, that's all their voice acting. I just think they did a stupendous job. Everybody in the show did a stupendous job with their voice acting.
What do you hope people take away from this episode?
Royce: Everybody's going through a version of this. It's hard to talk to your family about politics. Sometimes you just avoid it, sometimes you take it head on and your relationships fray and become hard. But we all are in a period where so many issues, political issues, are so important to us, so we wanted to reflect that and try to use a lot of what you may be going through. Here's some of the strategies you can try or that might be going through your head, and at the end of the day it might be valuable to speak the truth, your truth, to your family, if you feel strongly about it. But listen, at the same time, people's relationships are different. But in a relatable sense, I think that's where we wanted to go with the episode. It's a time when all of this stuff is so important, and this family's going through that too.
Do you think there's a chance of another animated episode?
Kellett: Never say never, man. Sure, I had a great time. I'd do it again.
Royce: Let's do everything. Let's do claymation.
One Day at a Time airs on Pop TV.
The first three seasons of One Day at a Time are streaming on Netflix.