How Netflix’s ‘One Day at a Time’ flips the coming-out script

Kelly Lawler
Elena (Isabella Gomez) celebrates her quinceanera on 'One Day at a Time.'

Spoiler alert! The following contains details from the entire first season of One Day at a Time

The emotional climax of the first season of One Day at a Time, the reboot of the classic Norman Lear sitcom, arrives courtesy of a white pantsuit.

In the final episode of the season, 15-year-old Elena Alvarez (Isabella Gomez) walks out at her quinceañera wearing not a traditional gown but a white suit, shortly after coming out to her family. Her father, Victor (James Martinez), rejects her, leaving her alone on the dance floor for the father-daughter dance. But Elena is not left alone for long. Her mother, Penelope (Justina Machado), quickly steps in to take Victor’s place, along with the rest of the family.

“There were quite a few LGBTQ people that were working with us that were really touched by it and really could relate to it, and they were emotional,” Gomez says of filming the “rough” scene. “It was a lot of tears on that set.”

Over the course of its first season (all 13 episodes now streaming on Netflix), One Day tackles many sensitive issues, as its 1970s predecessor did. The new show is another multi-camera sitcom about a single mom raising her family, but the new family is Cuban-American. The topics are updated as well: Episodes highlight immigration, workplace sexism and Veterans Affairs.

But Elena’s coming-out arc has drawn special praise, resonating with LGBT fans and critics for its unique, realistic and refreshing take on the subject.

Elena’s story develops slowly. In the premiere, she’s presented as a feminist firebrand, arguing about misogyny in the quinceañera tradition. A close female friendship causes suspicion. Elena eventually wonders aloud whether or not she is gay, tries dating a boy and, after a mishap involving pornography found on a laptop, comes out to her mother and, later, the rest of her family. .

Norman Lear's new 'One Day at a Time' has a Latin flavor

“Representation of LGBTQ young people is incredibly important,” says Megan Townsend, senior entertainment strategist at GLAAD. She calls Elena’s story line a “great example” of what the organization wants to see on screen. “These portrayals both help real LGBTQ youth to recognize they aren't alone, (and) also foster understanding and accelerate acceptance in their peer groups.”

Yvonne Marquez — a senior editor for Autostraddle, the “lesbian lifestyle and pop culture website,” as Penelope calls it in  an episode — found the show, and especially Elena’s arc, to be “mind-blowing.”

Isabella Gomez as Elena Alvarez in 'One Day at a Time.'

“It just wasn’t trying to get points for the LGBT category,” Marquez says, noting that the issue wasn’t wrapped up in a single episode. “It felt like this queer Latina story is real.”

Elena’s story is easy to trace. The show based her character in part on executive producer Mike Royce’s recently out teen daughter and Michelle Badillo, a 24-year-old member of the writing staff.

Badillo says Royce and executive producer Gloria Calderon Kellett “both come from the idea that you should write stories that are diverse, and you should have people in the room who are diverse who have had those actual experiences. They asked a lot of questions, and they let me tell my story.”

Kevin O’Keeffe of contrasts what he sees as One Day's realism to the sentimentality on shows such as Glee. “Coming out is a journey with ebbs and flows, and One Day at a Time understands that in a less melodramatic, more authentic way,” he says.

Beyond Elena’s coming out story line, the depiction of a young, happy Latina lesbian comes as a hopeful sign for many, especially in a TV landscape that kills off lesbian characters so often it’s a trope known as “bury your gays.” Last year, deaths of lesbian characters, including Lexa on CW’s The 100 and Denise on AMC’s The Walking Dead, sparked outrage among fans.

“No spoilers," but if the series is renewed, "we’re not going to kill her off,” Badillo jokes.