How ‘One Day at a Time’ Pulled Off a Fully Animated Final Episode

The animators studied old footage to recreate the actors’ signature moves and add special effects like exploding heads

The hugely acclaimed reboot of “One Day at a Time” already experienced a major network shift when it moved from Netflix to Pop TV after the third season, mainly due to the loud, bring-it-back vocalization of its ardent fans. But nobody could have predicted the fate of its fourth and final season, originally slated to be 13 episodes, very suddenly shut down by COVID-19. The trouble was they only had six episodes under their belt, and who was to know when TV production could ever resume in early 2020 when the pandemic’s grasp was largely unknown? So the creators of the Norman Lear-blessed series (he also serves as an executive producer) turned to a very unlikely medium to have give audiences one last look: animation.

As co-showrunner and also the co-writer of the episode (with co-creator Mike Royce), quite pointedly entitled “The Politics Episode,” Gloria Calderón-Kellett was all-in from the get-go. “It was written to be a regular episode, okay? And then we reconceived it to be a special standalone. This had nothing to do with the other episodes or the other character journeys, it was simply: ‘How do you talk to your family about politics?’”

A rarity for a multicam comedy series (“Community” historically has done some animated webisodes in the past), and including the additional hurdle of not having actors present for animators to study due to health safety concerns, the One Day creators had to get crafty to churn out the 22-minute episode, which blessedly includes many of the principal actors’ signature moves, like Penelope’s (Justina Machado) hand-on-hip stance, Schneider’s (Todd Grinnell) famously high hair and saucy abuelita Lydia’s (Rita Moreno) uber-diva habit of opening the partition curtains to her room with confident sass.

“The Politics Episode” chronicles the Alvarez family’s preparation for the arrival of right-leaning family members (including past guest stars Gloria Estefan and Melissa Fumero, plus show newbie and Hamilton powerhouse Lin-Manuel Miranda) and how they can aptly process their conservatism. It’s bold, usually uncharted territory for a comedy about a Latinx family, and the creators wanted to face it head on.

“Our show took place entirely over the course of the 45th president,” Calderón-Kellett said. “There’s the old adage of ‘don’t talk politics or religion, especially with family’. But this felt like a time where we kind of had to and so how do you do that in a way that doesn’t make people angry? The discussions we had around the room [with cast and creatives] were fantastic. And the episode was really met with a lot of warmth. So I think that intention led to this being its own special thing.”

The freedom of animation allowed the team to go further with scenes that would have otherwise needed VFX, like a moment of the Alvarez clan’s heads exploding in disbelief, or an “American Idol”-style sing-off in which Estefan’s boastful aunt character faces off with … Gloria Estefan. “We got to lean in a little bit more,” Calderón-Kellett said, “and the people at Smiley Guy Studios [the Canadian company who animated the episode] studied old episodes to get a gist of how the actors moved, it was so exaggerated yet graceful. I was shocked how quickly the process works, I swear they’re robots! It’s just shocking the thing took eight weeks, just mind-boggling.”

Calderón-Kellett also mentions that her husband, Dave Kellett, happens to be a cartoonist. So did he have any input on pivoting to this new medium? “He was very impressed. But we’re really good about staying out of each other’s work, which makes for a very successful relationship in a marriage,” Calderón-Kellett says with a laugh.

So is an animation something the sometime-actor (Dead to Me) and force behind shows as varied as How I Met Your Mother and United We Fall wants to pursue again? Said Calderón-Kellett with a burst of enthusiasm: “Yes! It certainly opened my eyes and made me really fall in love with the medium. There’s an announcement coming any day now!”

One Day at a Time Seasons 1-3 are available for streaming on Netflix; Season 4 is available for streaming on Paramount+


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