'One Day At A Time' Star Justina Machado On Why You Can't Actually Find "Real America" On A Sitcom

Photos: Ben Ritter, Design: Cindy Hernandez

In February, fans of the Netflix sitcom One Day At A Time were downright desperate. The series had not been renewed for a second season and even the series' showrunner, Gloria Calderón Kellett, tweeted a plea for people to watch the series en masse and joined a grassroots campaign to convince the streaming platform to keep it on its roster. It worked, and Season 3 is on its way. But in the four weeks that Netflix kept the fans, cast, and crew waiting, One Day At A Time lead Justina Machado was cool as a cucumber.

"I was never worried because I always knew something would happen. I don’t know what that something was, but whether we were gonna get picked up or whether something else would happen, I just knew that this kind of show that’s so important was going to have a home somewhere," she says when we sit down at Bustle HQ in New York. The Netflix series (a reboot of Norman Lear's '80s sitcom of the same name) follows single mom Penelope Alvarez. Penelope is a veteran of the Iraq war dealing with the effects of PTSD and life after divorce; her son Alex falls victim to peer pressure and often feels crushed by the family's limited budget; her teenage daughter Elena is a lesbian trying to figure out life after her father refused to accept her as she is; and her mother Lydia is a Cuban immigrant, struggling to maintain her connection to the country where she was born while working to gain U.S. citizenship (she's also played to sheer perfection by the incomparable Rita Moreno).

I think the dangerous thing is when we start saying, "This is only real America." Or, "That’s only real America."

Despite all that, just months before Machado and I speak, the reality of looking for a new job was a distinct possibility. But now, she's taking on the TV actor's rite of passage — the For Your Consideration pre-Emmys tour — in hopes of scoring a nomination for herself and One Day At A Time. And while the prospect of a shiny, golden trophy is great ("I want the Emmy nomination," she admits with the same gleeful frankness that makes her character such a joy to watch), it's the fact that One Day At A Time gets to continue telling its "important" stories that really gets her going.

Photos: Ben Ritter, Design: Cindy Hernandez

"We get love letters from [fans] all the time and [I love] the beautiful things that they say to me and how I’ve inspired them and how they’re a single mom and how it’s the first time they’ve seen themselves up there — how there’s so much representation on our show," she says. It's those same fans who were rallying to keep the series on air, Machado says, clearly still moved by the gesture.

...they’re not writing for us, you know, based on our ethnicities. They’re just writing people.

This dedication is the same kind that kept another on-the-bubble sitcom, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, on the air in May. Fans made the series the number one trending topic on Twitter when Fox decided to pull the plug, and hours later, NBC had picked up the series. Machado was actually having a drink with BK99 star Melissa Fumero when the whole thing went down. "She was being so great about [the cancellation], so gracious. An hour later, NBC picked it up and I said, 'Are you kidding me?' It was awesome," she says.

Machado sees the parallels between BK99 and One Day's situations, not just because they were saved by fans' ferocity or because she's friends with the show's stars, Fumero and Stephanie Beatriz, but due to what both series offer to audiences: "Because people are seeing themselves represented, because they’re not writing for us based on our ethnicities. They’re just writing people."

For One Day At A Time, specifically, that means writing the Alvarez family as just that: a family. "Now the fact that our family happens to be Cuban-American, the specificity of it is what makes it amazing. But it’s still a universal story about love, about family, about all of these things that people go through — it’s just being told through a different lens that people are not used to seeing because we’re not giving it to them," she says, referring to the lack of Latinx representation in film and television (just take a quick look at Huffpo's "7 Damning Facts That Prove Latinos Are Grossly Underrepresented In Hollywood" if you need proof). "So, when they see all of these wonderful characters, all of these beautiful colors, and all of the fabric of America, of what America really is, then people respond to it."

Photos: Ben Ritter, Design: Cindy Hernandez
There is no one real America story. Just like there is not one immigration story. Or one Latino story.

Of course, now, thanks to a certain number-one sitcom on ABC, invoking the word "America" inevitably resurrects the "Real America" TV conversation that sprung up in March 2018. The Twitter trend, at that time, was to point out the myriad sitcoms that actually represented "real America," aka working class people struggling with realistic daily problems, and One Day At A Time was chief among these examples alongside series like NBC's Superstore (about minimum wage workers at a big box store), Bob's Burgers (about a lower-middle class family who owns a struggling restaurant), and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (working class cops of all different races and orientations treating each other as — get this — humans). But according to Machado, while the inclusion on these lists is flattering, the "real America" title is inherently problematic.

"I don’t really know what to say about that. Because I am American. And [One Day At A Time] is an American story. So, I guess it is real America. But there’s tons of real America everywhere," she says. She appears almost exhausted by the term itself. "My real America is different from — I mean, not to get sad, but the homeless problem that we have in Los Angeles right now. I mean, that’s real America, too. So, there’s a lot, a lot of stories of real America. So, I think the dangerous thing is when we start saying, ‘This is only real America.’ Or, ‘That’s only real America' ... There is no one real America story. Just like there is not one immigration story. Or one Latino story. We don’t all have the same background. We don’t all have the same immigration status."

But Machado is proud that her series is, for all intents and purposes, well, real. "It tells the truth and that’s what I love about it," she says, specifically referencing the Season 1 finale in which Penelope's ex-husband and Elena's father practically disowns Elena for being out as a lesbian. Machado says it's important to her that the writers didn't preach a specific, or correct, reaction to Elena's storyline.

Photos: Ben Ritter, Design: Cindy Hernandez
I think people think audiences are dumb. They’re not.

"Somebody came up to me and said, ‘My daughter is gay and your show helped me because I thought something was wrong with me because I was having the same feelings that you had on the show,'" she offers, referring to Penelope's immediate support when Elena comes out. "But, it’s not like we want to try to make people say, ‘This is good. This is bad. You’re supposed to feel this way. You’re not supposed to feel that way.’ We’re human beings and I love this show because it just shows what people go through." (And that title of human being even includes Elena's father, who does eventually learn to accept his daughter.)

And, ultimately, what Machado really wants more than a "real America" sticker for her series or to have told a story the "correct" way, is to deliver a story that has faith in the audience actually taking the time to watch it — like when One Day At A Time includes lines of Spanish without subtitles, despite being a show made for an English-speaking audience.

"I think people think audiences are dumb. They’re not," she says, leaning forward for emphasis. "Let’s give them an opportunity to follow a story. Sometimes you wanna see mindless things — I do, too. But let’s not dumb everything down. Because people actually wanna think. They really do." And thanks to sitcoms like Machado's, people really are.

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