Earlier this year, “One Day at a Time” showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, like many other showrunners, found themselves in the unenviable position of having to shut down production in the middle of their season due to COVID-19. But “One Day at a Time” is nothing if not resilient, so on Tuesday, Pop TV will air a one-off animated special, proving that not even a global pandemic can keep this beloved sitcom off the air for long.
“Gloria was like a rocket ship in terms of trying to find ways we could keep doing the show,” Royce said in an interview with TheWrap. “She brought up the idea, and we talked about what episodes would lend themselves to animation, and turned out we have this one that we did.”
The script for the episode — titled “The Politics Episode” and written by the duo themselves — had already been completed. It was scheduled to air later in the season in the show’s regular live-action, multi-camera format as a nod toward the fast-approaching presidential election.
And with a concrete timeline for getting back onto the lot still a ways off and the threat of a second wave looming on the horizon, it wasn’t a given that a live-action version of the episode would make it to air early enough to still be relevant.
“We hoped that it would air before the election so that people could talk about it with their family if they so chose,” said Kellett.
The episode exists mostly outside of the season’s larger narrative arc and required few sets, so the installment seemed the perfect choice for an animated special where every visual element had to be created from scratch. “It was like doing a whole new pilot for an animated show,” said Royce.
The Toronto-based studio Smiley Guy was enlisted to do the animation for the episode, a big ask given the much-compressed timeline. Kellett sent over samples of animated Latina characters for the animators to use as a “framework,” and Smiley Guy sent over “four or five” sample sets of character designs for the producers to choose from.
All the work, which would typically take as long as seven to eight months, was completed in eight weeks. “They really blew us away with the speed,” Kellett said. “It was astounding, truly.”
“The live version of the show would’ve involved a lot of CGI and stunt people,” said Royce, referring to the episodes flashback-style fantasy sequences. “The animation just made it easier, essentially. We were able to amp it up a bit, but we actually surprised ourselves when we looked back at it. We didn’t change any of the bits.
To capture the actors’ voices, Kellett and Royce sent “a lovely guy in a van” to their homes — “Not creepy,” Kellett promised — to provide them with a set of sterilized equipment and facilitate recording from a safe distance. The actors then performed their parts with Kellett and Royce and director Phil Lewis overseeing via Zoom.
For the cast members who weren’t quarantined in Los Angeles, including Rita Moreno and first-time guest star Lin-Manuel Miranda, microphones and other equipment were mailed to them directly. Guest star Gloria Estefan, naturally, had her own studio.
“We had gone to Lin before to be in the show,” Kellett said of finally getting her friend to guest star. They had approached him with multiple episodes, offering to write a part specifically for him, but the “Hamilton” creator was just never available. “He’s just so busy doing amazing, remarkable, life-changing things,” Kellett said.
It wasn’t until the pandemic delayed Miranda’s next project and the animation concept made a remote contribution possible that the perfect opportunity finally presented itself. “I just thought, ‘I’m gonna shoot my shot,'” Kellett said. So she shot off a text asking Miranda if he was available to be in the episode. And just like that, he was on board to voice Tio Juanito.
Beyond this episode, what the future holds for “One Day at a Time” remains unclear. California gave the green light for film and TV production to resume last week, but with “national treasures” Rita Moreno and Norman Lear involved, Royce and Kellett say they aren’t rushing into anything while COVID-19 remains a threat.
“There’s conversations that we’re a part of as to how we could return safely, but no one has figured it out yet,” Kellett said. “We’re just kind of playing it by ear and seeing when it will seem safe to go back. There’s a lot to be worked out still, but we can’t wait.”
And while it is frustrating that they can’t get back to work right away, Kellett says she’s fine having the show take a backseat for a while given everything else going on in the world.
“This moment has lent itself to a sort of reckoning in this country, and that’s very exciting,” she said, alluding to the renewed cultural conversation around racism and police brutality. “[There are] conversations that needed to be had, but that nobody wanted to stop and have. This has forced us to stop and have them.”