How ‘One Day at a Time’ Came Back From the Brink

How ‘One Day at a Time’ Came Back From the Brink


PASADENA, Calif. — To say the cast of “One Day at a Time” was knocked sideways when Netflix canceled the show in March 2019 is an understatement.

Like the rest of the cast, Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays Dr. Leslie Berkowitz on the comedy, heard the news not long before it became public (and began trending on Twitter). He was about to film a scene of the ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs,” and he was so sure “One Day at a Time” was about to get a fourth season that he cheerfully answered the phone when the showrunners, Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce, called him.

“I picked it up and Gloria said, ‘Our little show — they pulled the plug.’” Then there was a knock on the door: “‘Stephen, we’re ready for you.’” Tobolowsky struggled to make the transition from receiving that gut punch to being funny on camera.

“I was like, ‘I’m traumatized, and I’m going to need a lot of professional help just to get through this moment,’” he recalled.

Justina Machado, who plays the nurse, Army veteran and mother Penelope Alvarez on the comedy, said that when her friends heard the news, they were “so mad. They were emotional.”

Part of the anger, Machado said, was over what that news represented. As the journalist Vanessa Erazo noted in a Times Op-Ed shortly after “One Day” was canceled, Hispanic people made up an estimated 18 percent of the population, but Hispanic roles constituted just 7.2 percent of all roles in scripted streaming series — and even less on broadcast and cable.

“It’s the stories that we’re telling and how they’re seeing themselves represented on the screen” that made this more than just another cancellation, Machado said in an interview with cast members during the Television Critics Association press tour, in January. The show had become something “beyond a job.”

Todd Grinnell, who plays the show’s affable landlord, Schneider, noted the irony of being canceled by Netflix, “the place that usually saves the show that the network has cast aside.”

“We weren’t cast aside,” he added. “But this was the reverse.”

But Rita Moreno wasn’t having it. “Yes, we were!” she said, sounding much like the indomitable matriarch she plays on the show.

The social-media outcry at the time was intense, as was the response from TV critics, who wrote dozens of pieces about the show’s cancellation and why it deserved to be rescued. But the most important reaction was the one that came from Sony Pictures Television, which produces the series.

The day the showrunners found out Netflix didn’t want a fourth season, Royce said, Sony executives “called us and they’re like, ‘We’re getting this show on somewhere.’”

That somewhere ended up being Pop TV, the cable channel owned by ViacomCBS that is best known for the quirky Canadian comedy “Schitt’s Creek.” On Tuesday, “One Day at a Time” debuts at its new home just over a year after Netflix cut it loose. The fourth season picks up as the family answers questions from a census worker played by Ray Romano (and takes a slight dig at Netflix, as well).

The fact that “One Day at a Time” was canceled at all still seems surprising given its devoted audience and versatile premise. The cancellation, after 39 episodes, was crushing because “we just got started, really,” said Royce, who had been an executive producer on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” among other shows.

If a family comedy is successful, the audience wants to “live in that world and hang out with that family,” Royce said. “But we only got to hang out for a little while.”

Netflix, which declined to comment for this article, indicated at the time that whatever the audience’s devotion, its size was just too small. In a Twitter statement about the cancellation, Netflix, which does not release detailed viewing data for its programs, simply said that “not enough people watched to justify another season.” (Moreno said that statement had led her to wonder: “What are the numbers that would please you? We aren’t privy to that.”)

But where Netflix saw an underperforming show, David Nevins, the chief creative officer of CBS and chief executive of Showtime Networks, saw opportunity. He had gained oversight over Pop TV just days before the cancellation was announced.

“I think Netflix clearly has a model where they feel they’re getting value out of [shows] in the first couple of seasons and they don’t have that much incentive to go the long haul,” he said. That may be the right decision in many cases, he added, but “the programmer in me thought it had untapped potential.”

As its fate hung in the balance, “One Day at a Time” had a lot of things going for it: an active and dedicated fan base, reporters and critics invested in the show’s survival and media-savvy creators and cast members. And at a time when audiences — and many executives — value nuanced representations of historically marginalized groups, the series was one of few shows with a predominantly Hispanic cast, as well as several L.G.B.T.Q. characters.

“I wasn’t going to rest until we found a new home for the show,” said Jeff Frost, the president of Sony Pictures Television. “It’s not just an entertainment show. It transcends that.”

For all the show’s admirable qualities, its survival is also a product of a confluence of industry circumstances. In March 2019, Pop TV was in the market for a high-profile acquisition to replace “Schitt’s Creek.” (The network announced late that month that the show’s sixth season would be its last.) And like Nevins, Brad Schwartz, the president of Pop, was already a fan of “One Day at a Time.”

It also helped that Sony was more motivated than many studios to keep its programs alive. Increasingly, TV studios belong to companies that also operate networks or streaming platforms, and those studios can usually rely upon their corporate parents or siblings to acquire and renew much of their output. Sony has become a rarity: a television studio without those kinds of corporate familial connections.

“I worked at ABC and ABC Studios for years, and there, you knew if a project went away, there’d always be another project that came along,” Frost said. “Whereas for us, every one of these shows, they’re our children.”

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to refer to “One Day at a Time” as an adult, given that the property is 45 years old.

The first version told the story of a white family in Indianapolis headed by a single mother, one of a string of iconic Norman Lear-produced comedies — including “All in the Family” and “Good Times” — that debuted in the 1970s.

The new incarnation, which counts Lear as an executive producer, revolves around the tight-knit Cuban-American Alvarez clan in Los Angeles. Despite the changes, “One Day at a Time” hews to the traditions of the best multicamera comedies: It is shot on a soundstage, the soundtrack includes laughter from a live audience, and the writers and cast expertly blend deft jokes and sincere sentiment.

“We’re trying to make people feel better,” Calderón Kellett said. “You’re laughing, but it’s ultimately a hug.”

All things considered, the comedy is “radical within a very safe and comfortable form,” Nevins said. When news of the cancellation came out, he said his “first thought was, this could be an attractive subscription driver for CBS All Access.”

That would have been a full-circle moment, given that the original “One Day at a Time” aired on CBS. But the show’s Netflix contract precluded a move to another streaming platform. Though Sony explored other options, it didn’t take long for Pop to emerge as a potential home.

Pop had garnered plenty of buzz for “Schitt’s Creek,” which premiered in 2015 and built a loyal audience, particularly after seasons began arriving on Netflix two years later.

“We needed a nice, big, shiny new thing for when ‘Schitt’s Creek’ ended,” Schwartz said.

And like “Schitt’s Creek,” the Alvarez family’s story serves as “a counterbalance to all the negativity and divisiveness and the political climate,” Schwartz added. “It just seemed to be an antidote to everything going on in the world, while also being hysterically funny and incredibly moving.”

So there was a lot of love for “One Day at a Time” at Pop — but less money.

“It really took Sony coming down as far as they could — and where it still made sense for them — and it took us going up as high as we’ve ever gone,” said Schwartz, who, along with Frost, declined to provide specific numbers.

Frost said the show’s budget reductions had been “not significant,” in part because of some “creative deal making.” For instance, CBS agreed to air “One Day at a Time” on its flagship linear network down the road, which allows Sony to pocket an additional license fee.

As Pop executives pondered whether to acquire the show, they had viewership data to consider. While Netflix’s in-house numbers were unavailable, they did have data from Nielsen.

The number of people in the United States who watched the Netflix version on televisions — its “reach,” in Nielsen terms — was 721,000 in Season 1 and 1.63 million in the third season. Those totals do not include delayed viewing or viewing on phones and computers not connected to TVs, and thus executives at Pop believed the total audience for “One Day at a Time” was larger than what the Nielsen stats indicated — and could well approach the audience for Season 4 of “Schitt’s Creek.” (Pop estimated after Season 4 that “Schitt’s” viewership was roughly 3.3 million viewers across all platforms, according to Vulture.)

“We thought, OK, we can imagine how it would perform for Pop,” Schwartz said. “And whether those Nielsen numbers are right or wrong, they’re directionally the same.” Pop announced on June 27 it had commissioned 13 more episodes of “One Day at a Time” — and that might not be the end of the road.

“You’d love to think that this can go on a run like ‘Schitt’s Creek’ and have a nice, who-knows-how-many-seasons run,” Schwartz said.

Now that “One Day” has completed its highly unusual journey from streaming to basic cable, are more big transformations coming? Not really.

The revival will continue to stay true to the show’s roots in socially conscious comedy, the showrunners said. Although “One Day at a Time” regularly provides belly laughs and warm moments — and those are always core goals — there are times when Penelope wonders how she’ll pay her bills. Characters have also grappled with mental illness, racism, immigration concerns and L.G.B.T.Q. acceptance.

Calderón Kellett and Royce said they hadn’t necessarily set out to make a topical show, but certain subjects were bound to come up, given that the sitcom employs multiple L.G.B.T.Q. writers, that the writing staff has more women than men and that the majority of its writers — including Calderón Kellett, who is Cuban-American — are people of color.

“My brother called me and was like, ‘I was just on a beach and somebody told me to go back to Mexico,’” Calderón Kellett said. “That happened.”

Royce added: “We have all these talented people coming from all these different backgrounds. People tell their stories and our stories come out of that.”

The plot of the Season 4 premiere, for example, arose partly from a desire to address the fears that some Hispanic people have about the 2020 census. It also solved a practical problem: It relays information about each character to viewers who might not have watched before Pop acquired the show.

In other words, it’s a textbook episode of “One Day at a Time”: a warm and clever marriage of meaningful subjects and expert sitcom craft. Devoted fans can take comfort in the fact that, aside from the addition of ad breaks — another throwback to the original version — the show is still the show.

As Schwartz said his first email to Calderón Kellett and Royce after the Pop deal was official: “‘Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re making this show because we love it.’”


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