Showrunner Gloria Kellett Talks Television Diversity and the Value of Being Earnest

Michael Yarish/Netflix ‘ONE DAY AT A TIME’

With a Peabody nomination under her belt and credits across a wide variety of shows, Gloria Calderón Kellett is one of the most acclaimed and in-demand names in the business. Her depictions of Latinx culture on television in particular have attracted praise and attention from fans all around the globe, and not even a cancellation stamp from Netflix could hold her or her work down.

In a special interview, TV Wasteland sat down with Kellett to discuss how she took things one project at a time, how her earnestness has become her greatest ally, and what diversity on television means to her.

While working on one of her first series, Kellett met fellow writers Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, who told her about an idea that they were developing, an idea that would eventually become How I Met Your Mother. “I had such a unique opportunity in that moment, like I feel like the kismet moment of the job that I didn’t love was that I met two people who were about to create the job I would love. HIMYM was a buzzy pilot with a lot of people clamoring for the opportunity to work on it, and Kellett’s hard work set her apart from the crowd.

She noted how strange it was to work on a show where the creators were the same age she was, with everyone figuring it out together. “They gave me so much opportunity to be in different aspects of production.” Kellett was able to dabble in casting, editing, and other fields that she may not have been able to explore had the showrunners had been older or more set in their ways. “It wasn’t the culture at the time to do that, and these guys were younger and they wanted to create a different culture.”

One thing that a lot of people don’t know about HIMYM was that all but twelve of the 208 episodes were directed by the same woman: the “glorious” Pamela Fryman. Kellett cited Fryman as someone who “has forever changed my life in so many ways,” calling her a mentor and her primary inspiration to try out multi-camera directing. Gloria spent an “incredible” three years on the CBS sitcom before leaving to have her first child.

Years later, Brent Miller, the producing partner of Norman Lear, read some studies about the underrepresentation of Latinx women. Apparently there was also a study done by Coca-Cola that identified single Latina mothers as a big demographic, one that has obviously not been shown much in film or television. Of course, in Norman’s extensive library of previous work was the original 1975 One Day at a Time about a single mother raising two daughters. “It was the first time a divorced woman had been the lead character of a television show.” The producers saw the obvious opportunity at hand and decided to reinvent the original Ann Romano into the Penelope Alvarez who graces our screens today.

Mike Royce boarded the project, and eventually Kellett was contacted to discuss developing the series. “When they called me and said, ‘Norman Lear wants to meet with you about a show,’ I had no interest in doing the show. I just wanted to sit down with Norman Lear… When you get to a certain point in your career, you get to go to meetings with very cool people, and I will say that if it’s a cool person, I’m going to go to that meeting, cause why not, right?” Even though she walked in with every intention of saying no to this project, “Norman did some sort of wizardry on me.” She remembers feeling completely comfortable in his warm presence, and they ended up having a long discussion about the shortcomings of other shows starring Latinx characters. He essentially asked her: “We’ve talked about what you don’t like, what would be the perfect scenario for you?” And when she told him what her perfect scenario was, he essentially said, “Let’s do that, then.” It wasn’t just words, he stuck with what he had promised and only helped to uplift Gloria and bring her vision to life. Working with Norman Lear, Rita Moreno, and other legends has been so phenomenal for her because “I have really been fortunate that my heroes have been really decent human beings.”

In its four-season run so far, One Day at a Time has tackled a myriad of social and political topics like homophobia, racism, PTSD, addiction, and more. Many shows try (and fail) to address these types of issues, but ODAAT is unique in how it seems to come at just the right angle pretty much every time. When asked about how they make sure they’re hitting the nail on the head every time, Kellett simply responded, “We don’t know… We’re all in a process right now where we’re learning and growing, and mistakes are being made, and I think that you’re truly leading with love and listening and trying to be open to getting it wrong with the commitment of getting it right, then that resonates.” Gloria admitted that their show often can be too much for people, coming off as lecture-y or preachy, but others don’t see them as going deep enough. “The work we’re trying to do is not only for this moment and entertaining this moment, but a time capsule of what that moment represented so that people can look back and say, ‘They were trying to do this then.’” Lear has tried to do this for much of his career, so this show felt like a new way to bring his type of time-capsule storytelling to a new generation in a new century. She also highlighted the actors’ feedback, as they are often the ones who really have the pulse of the scene and can tell when a joke or a reprieve is needed at any given moment. A collaborative environment was built on set where actors can feel comfortable airing their opinions as members of the creative team.

Another aspect of the show that really makes it unique, especially in the 21st century, is that it’s a multi-camera show shot on a stage in front of a live audience. Even though that was the norm just a couple of decades ago, even big shows like The Big Bang Theory, Will & Grace, and 2 Broke Girls have slowly been dying out with the form. Kellett really admired what Lear was doing decades ago which she saw as essentially just shooting plays. “I think what happened is, over time, it became too pandering to the audience.” They would end up cramming every scene to the brim with jokes, “and it became less about substance and more about jokes. It’s worthwhile to just laugh for thirty minutes, I think it’s good for the soul, but the storytelling threads would be the first thing that would be sacrificed as a result.” Kids shows then became multi-camera because it was cheaper to produce, so then it was seen as more of a kid-like medium. Advertising began to take more precedent as well, and episodes slowly became shorter as commercial breaks began ballooning into the spaces formerly held by C-story plots. Even taking out five minutes can be a lot, removing a lot of substance or nuance from the story. “All of those things together started making it a format that wasn’t a play anymore. It was really just sketches that were linked together by a mild story. As the form changed, the content changed.” Kellett praised Mom and other shows that are still finding ways to innovate and do deep storytelling within the genre, but the multi-camera series has been repurposed in a way that’s made it lose some of its impact. “For me, the stuff I grew up on, and the stuff Norman did, I think was incredible and very play-like.” She and Mike were attracted to that old-school type of storytelling as the best way to convey their messages and their character arcs.

After airing ODAAT for three seasons, Netflix cancelled the series in March 2019. There was immediate uproar all over social media, dismayed that one of the most honest and realistic representations of queer and Latinx people on television would no longer be returning. There’s a period in between seasons of every show where no one’s sure if it’ll be picked up again. Maybe the people on gargantuan hits like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family could count on safe footing, but if you aren’t bringing in millions upon millions of viewers and ad revenue, nothing is ever sure in the television world. Backup plans always have to be set in place, because you always need to act as if you aren’t coming back, just to be prepared. Over the next three months, everyone working on the show had to balance those backup plans with simultaneous attempts to save the show they loved.

One thing that’s crucial to remember about these cancelled-show situations is ownership. Kellett used Netflix’s Astronomy Club as an example. People were asking her for advice on how to get the sketch series saved by another network when Netflix cancelled it after one season, but in that case, it was gone. Netflix produced the show and aired the show, and they had all of the rights and ownership of it. If they want it to be done, it’s done. Of course, there are your Brooklyn Nine-Nine situations where the cancelled series was miraculously saved in a handful of days, but that’s because it was owned by a parent business (NBCUniversal) who simply rented it to Fox. When it was cancelled by Fox, they still held ownership of it, so it was easy for them to just place it on their own network.

One Day at a Time’s issues took a long time to untangle because of these ownership issues. Netflix aired the show, but Sony owned it, so they could shop it around to other buyers, “but there were other legalities and other things that needed to be worked out.”

During the time between the series being cancelled and then picked up again, Gloria was just “trying to keep fans engaged.” She admitted: “I am not cool. I’m earnest. It’s taken me fifteen years to get to this place, so I have no reason to pretend that it’s all sunshine and rainbows.” She realized the importance of being honest with your fans. It can be easy to get caught up in thinking that the whole world knows about a show because you follow the entire cast and other people who are fans of it, even when the majority of the world has no idea who the Alvarez family is. “We are a little show about a Latino family, and a lot of people dismiss it because of that.” Even because of the multi-cam format, a lot of people tried to dismiss their show, even though their main goal was to make a series for everybody. She remembered how surprised people were when she emphasized that they needed more people to watch the show because everything ODAAT-related was all “in their echo chamber” more than everybody else. Something as simple as a viral tweet can be enough to raise awareness for a series and can get enough eyes on it to have it picked up again. “Once I found out that my earnestness and letting people in behind the curtain was what people liked, then I would just keep doing that.” The viewers are the ones who have the power, and Kellett wants to ensure that the general audience knows the influence that they hold over the things they like. “They want your eyeballs. They want to know what’s speaking to you.”

But even through all of this, Gloria continued to hustle. She was pitching movies and trying to get other things done because there was just as good of a chance that it wouldn’t work out, that the series would be gone forever, and as sad as it would be, she would have to have a contingency plan and know what she would be doing next. “It was so much in the interim… and then finally we got the news that we were going to Pop.”

A long three months later, ODAAT ended up on Pop TV, where it has since aired the first half of its fourth season. The COVID-19 pandemic halted filming, so only the first six episodes have been produced, but just like the innovators they are, the creative team found a new path.

Last week, an animated special aired, featuring the voices of the main cast members joined by Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda. Kellett made sure to emphasize how amazing the animation company who produced the episode was. “They said, on average, to do a pilot for an animated show that was thirty minutes long, it takes like twenty-nine weeks. They did this in eight weeks.” Trying to be cognizant of the pace at which things needed to be finished, the creative team found themselves approving things within minutes so that the animators could get started on everything without a moment’s hesitation. Right now, Miranda was supposed to be working on his directorial film debut, the Tick, Tick… Boom! adaptation starring Andrew Garfield, but of course, that was down along with everything else. The ODAAT team had wanted him to guest star on the show for years, and with his schedule now free, he was immediately excited to lend his voice to one of the new characters. “He is the comedic reprieve from a very serious conversation about politics.” Kellett called it “the most political episode we’ve ever done,” which is quite a feat considering the many topics previously discussed over the series’ run.

When asked about her favorite behind-the-scenes story, Gloria said that “the show has been so full of special moments that it’s hard to isolate one,” but she specifically recalled the pilot feeling really special. Her parents come to every single taping, even being given their own dedicated chairs, and when they came to the very first one, Kellett remembers her mother meeting Rita Moreno, who was already in costume for the day. Moreno’s wig on the show is modeled to look like Gloria’s mother’s hair, and she said that “it’s crazy to see them side-by-side.”

She also thought back to seeing Norman Lear watching the shooting and “being such a big fan of the show… We’d be doing a scene and he’d just whisper into my ear, ‘This is fucking fabulous.’ There’s things that happen where you’re like, ‘What is life? What is my life right now?’” Kellett admits to still being surprised about Lear in new ways every day, like when she discovered that he was a producer on The Princess Bride. “It’s amazing how many things I’ll constantly find out Norman had his fingers in [as] such a prolific producer.”

There was also the day that Gloria Estefan guest starred. “She is so down-to-earth that you forget instantly that she’s a world-famous rockstar.” While they were filming, Estefan made a comment about being a little chilly, and without thinking, Kellett went up to her and began rubbing her arms up and down. She continued for a few moments before catching herself, stepping back, and apologizing for immediately going into mom mode. However, Estefan reassured her that there was nothing wrong, and it really showed Kellett that even those huge megastars are just people too.

Many people believe that the pandemic and the impact it’s having on the television industry will eventually develop into a setback for diversity in front of and behind the screen, and Kellett also finds herself in that camp. “I feel like there’s a lot of shows that have finally made some traction, and I do worry that the pandemic may mean that they don’t get to finish their seasons or that the added cost of going back to work may mean that shows about disenfranchised voices are the first to go.” Whether this fate will turn out to be true is still to be seen, but “what’s great about talking about it is that hopefully the powers that be will realize” what the people want. Kellett admitted, “guilt is fine with me,” so even if networks grumble about keeping the diverse shows around because they don’t want the backlash, then Gloria is more than fine with that. She does still worry that they may not end up shooting the second half of their fourth season, even due to non-political reasons like stage reservations and endless business or economic reasons.

Kellett just started a new deal with Amazon, so much of her quarantine has been spent working out all of those moving parts. She also just sold a movie, and while she’s not allowed to talk about it just yet, she’s very excited for that as well. None of her upcoming projects are multi-camera, so the world of single-camera will be a new one to explore.

On how One Day at a Time has changed her life, she simply said, “It’s all been a gift. The whole thing has been such a gift.”

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