Spoilers ahead for season one of Netflix's One Day at a Time.
The closing scene of One Day at a Time's season finale opens on a heart-sinking moment: 15-year-old Elena Alvarez, gorgeous in a sparkly tiara and white suit sewn by her grandmother, is standing in the middle of the dance floor at her quinceañera, waiting for her father-daughter waltz.
The slow dance to Julio Iglesias’s De Niña a Mujer (“From Girl to Woman”) never materializes. Her father, Victor (James Martinez), left the party early because he can’t handle what Elena (newcomer Isabella Gomez) told him hours before: She is gay, and in that closing scene, he rejects her because of it.
Realizing what’s happening, Elena's mother, Penelope (Justina Machado), steps up to dance with her daughter, joined by her son, Alex (Marcel Ruiz), mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno), along with friends, Schneider (Todd Grinnell) and Dr. Berkowitz (Stephen Tobolowsky). The moment is so tender that filming it stirred up powerful feelings in the cast and crew. At a rehearsal for Netflix and Sony Pictures Television executives, Gomez, 18, recalled a gay assistant choreographer walking up to her with tears in his eyes.
“He said, ‘I’m just so happy that this is going to be on TV because this would have really helped me when I was younger,’” she said. “I think it’s going to be very good for the community to see that even when somebody reacts negatively, there’s still going to be people that support you, there’s still going to be people that understand.”
In recent years, gay teen characters have been part of central story lines on shows across TV, including Glee, Pretty Little Liars, Faking It, Shameless, and The Fosters. What stands out about One Day at a Time’s handling of Elena’s journey is how the show addresses the particular hurdles she faces growing up in a Latino family. Her religious grandmother, who was the first family member to wonder if Elena was attracted to girls, at first reacts as if the truth is an affront to God. She quickly reexamines her feelings after considering the Pope's opinions on the topic. “Am I going to go against the Pope and God?” Lydia points out to her daughter. “Who the hell do I think I am? Okay! Okay! I’m good.”
Where the show is even more nuanced is in its depiction of how Penelope reacts to Elena coming out. In front of her daughter, Penelope is a sweet and supportive mother. Later, when she’s alone, Penelope realizes how much she has to process. While she accepts her daughter for who she is, she’s thrown. “I just keep thinking, it’s not the way I pictured it,” she admits to a stranger in a bar in the episode “Pride and Prejudice.”
Elena wasn’t drawn as a gay character from the beginning. In the early development of the reboot of Norman Lear’s classic '70s sitcom, co-showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce decided to alter the family’s makeup from the original, which featured two teenage daughters, because they each have one son and one daughter and wanted to mine stories from both of their lives. Once the show’s 12 writers convened last year to write the season, everyone began sharing their personal experiences. When two young writers, Michelle Badillo and Becky Mann, shared their coming-out stories, Royce told the room his daughter had recently revealed she is gay.
“I became aware of this happening in her life at the same time as we were writing it,” said Royce, a veteran sitcom producer. “The things the writers were talking about, their own experiences, made me understand things I was seeing in my own life with her. So I was crying a lot — not from sadness, but from being emotional. I just felt it, you know? As a parent, it doesn’t matter how liberal you are — your mind has to shift some and you have to get with the new reality.”
Calderon Kellett remembers how moved she was listening to Royce share his outlook. “He was going through it in real time and we wanted to talk about it,“ she said. “What’s beautiful about Mike is that he wanted to do everything right. How do I do this right? How do I parent a gay kid so she says that her coming out was amazing? That’s a different perspective than I’d ever heard.” The writers also quickly realized that following Elena through the stages of self-acceptance and disclosure worked nicely with her quinceañera story line, which sees Elena rejecting the traditional gender norms the celebration reinforces.
Elena, who could be described as a "social-justice warrior," was also inspired by Royce's daughter in ways beyond her sexuality. "When Gloria told me how she refused to have a quinces because it was misogynist, that’s when our homes connected,” Royce explained. “I am not Cuban, and my daughter’s not Cuban, but my daughter would totally do that. My daughter is a gamer. She’s very creative, a bit of a warrior, and she has opinions on a lot of important issues of the day.”
Before getting started, Royce and Calderon Kellett met with Gomez and spoke to her parents to make sure she’d be comfortable with Elena’s arc. “I grew up in this industry and in theater where being gay is so normal, and I grew up in a family where it was never taboo,” Gomez said. “I never understood the discrimination, and I never saw it around me." On the show, the moment she first comes out is an intimate one between the viewer and character: Elena, sitting in her living room, wonders aloud to herself if she might be gay. "It was awesome that I get to play her dealing with herself first before she opens up to her family," Gomez recalled. "You get to see all the different reactions that people have when a person comes out. People need to know that it’s okay to be taken aback, and it’s okay to not wholly accept it right away and to be confused, and even angry. We get to see that Penelope worked through it and she understood that Elena being gay does not make her different from the daughter she always had — it’s just a little adjustment in dreams, but essentially it’s the same thing.”
To mark Penelope’s emotional journey, the writers created signposts: After her conversation with Elena, she discusses it with Schneider, her mother, and then goes to a gay bar with her new friend and fellow veteran (Judy Reyes), where she works through her feelings with a complete stranger. By the end, Penelope realizes she is not a bad mother for not having the "right" reaction. Elena’s father is a different story.
“We wanted to really make that the last shoe to drop,” Royce said. “You think you’re out of the woods then, suddenly, we should have known it was coming but we all fooled ourselves. We’ll obviously be dealing with that more in season two.”
Gomez learned how things would end between Elena and her father while talking to Calderon Kellett at a party two months before they filmed the finale. “I cried, it touched me so much,” she said. “I’d become so fond of Elena, it felt so wrong that this was being done to her. Our director Pamela Fryman called it our ‘curtain call’ when everyone came up, one by one, to dance with Elena. Her dad really hurts her, but at the end of the day, everything will work out because there’s such a strong family unit.”