Rita Moreno and Norman Lear ‘Have Never Seen Such Horror’ as Trump’s America
The pair’s sitcom, “One Day at a Time,” makes its CBS debut Monday. They talk Trump, TV’s dismal Latinx representation, and, at age 88 and 98, managing to find hope in dark times.
When Norman Lear was earning his stripes in the ’70s as television’s most accomplished boat-rocker—with shows like Maude, Good Times, All in the Family, and Sandford and Son tackling issues like racism, sexuality, and abortion in ways broadcast TV had never done before—not everyone was a fan of his work. Rita Moreno remembers this, because she counts herself among his critics.
“I remember when they were first on the air, I wasn’t thrilled about it,” she says. The EGOT-winning star’s throaty voice sings itself into a laugh as she recalls how she first felt about Lear’s One Day at a Time, the renegade CBS sitcom about a divorced mom from that era in which, four decades later, she stars in a Latinx reimagination.
“I thought, ‘How is he getting away with this?’ I was getting just a little bit righteous. I was always going, ‘Oh my God, did they really say that?’” By this point, she’s forced herself into a full-on cackle. “And now he's just my favorite person on Earth.”
For four seasons, Moreno has starred as Lydia, the scene-stealing matriarch of the Cuban-American Alvarez family, who announces her presence with a diva’s dramatic opening of a room-dividing curtain and then sambas her way through her daughter and grandchildren’s personal affairs with gut-busting élan.
Her run on One Day at a Time has been unique in that, come Oct. 12, the series will have aired first on a streaming service, then on a small cable channel, and finally on a broadcast network—a trajectory that she feels confident in saying is the first of its kind in her 70 years in show business.
“I made some smart-ass remark recently on the social networks about how this show will not go away: ‘It's like Norman Lear, New York vermin, and me.'” She laughs again. “I didn’t want to say ‘cockroaches.’”
One Day at a Time premiered in 2017 on Netflix, earning distinction as the rare series in the remake/reboot/reimagination trend to creatively justify its existence. Critics cheered the seamless update to the Cuban-American Alvarez family and the opportunity that afforded to discuss issues of race, class, sexuality, immigration, military service, PTSD, and depression through a specific lens. But whatever top-secret metrics Netflix uses to judge its shows’ viewership performances, ODAAT didn’t meet them. The show was canceled after three seasons.
A passionate fan campaign to save it followed, and cable network Pop TV, which had made a name for itself airing first-run episodes of Schitt’s Creek in the U.S., rescued it. The fourth season launched in March, but production was halted because of the pandemic.
Now, in an attempt to simultaneously fill a shutdown-induced programming hole and build up the show’s audience base, CBS will re-air the shortened season beginning on Monday, Oct. 12—marking a return for Lear to the same network that launched the original series in 1975.
“You know, 95 percent of everything I ever did happened to be on CBS, so it is a huge coming home for me personally,” Lear says when we connect on the phone.
At age 98, he is indefatigable. The night before we spoke he became the oldest Emmy Award winner in history, beating his own record with his Outstanding Variety (Live) win for Live in Front of a Studio Audience: All in the Family and Good Times. As he quips when we start our conversation, “If I had a complaint I'd be an ingrate.”
That the live restagings of classic All in the Family and Good Times episodes still resonate so many decades later is precisely why shows “in the Norman Lear tradition,” as the industry refers to comedies that confront charged political and social issues, have become so celebrated in recent years. However, both Lear and Moreno are quick to caution that making television against the backdrop of the times we’re currently in is unlike anything they’ve experienced in their careers.
“We've never had in our White House what we have representing and ‘leading us’ today,” Lear says. "And ‘leading us’ is in quotes.”
Says Moreno: “It makes me speechless. I've never seen such horror. I've never lived through such horror. I never thought I would live through such horror. And here we are.”
The 88-year-old actress, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original West Side Story film, remembers being in attendance for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” at the March on Washington in 1963. She sat between Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte, part of a contingent of celebrities there as a show of support. The feelings she had as part of that civil rights movement are back again, something that is both invigorating and dejecting.
“That was the beginning of that huge changeover,” she says. “What is fascinating now is that we're doing it all over again for the very same reasons. And that's dismaying, to say the least. It’s so crazy. I mean it sounds so familiar. But what's different this time is that somehow we are more determined than ever.”
When she thinks of her own community and her industry, she sees the way things are maybe now even worse than before, especially considering how much time has passed.
“What's happened to Latinos in films and in television?” she says. “Why have we not moved ahead? It's a huge puzzle. I am absolutely perplexed and confused. I honestly don't know what the heck is going on with the Hispanic community.”
When One Day at a Time makes its CBS debut, it will be the only series on the network centered around Latinx characters. Given how much conversation there is in the industry about diversity and representation, that’s a stark statistic—more so when you consider the fact that the show isn’t actually a CBS show.
“It’s depressing,” Moreno says. “I see that this industry has not learned too many lessons yet. They are doing really well with the Black community, as they should. The Black community, I am filled with admiration for what they have done for their own community and for their values. I’m just wondering why the hell we can’t do that. Where is our wonderful movie like Moonlight? What’s going on? I don’t get it.”
“It’s surprising,” Brent Miller, Lear’s business partner and ODAAT producer, says about the network representation. “It feels like such a no-brainer and I don’t really understand what is going on behind the scenes in the minds of the various networks. I’m not in those closed-door meetings where they’re talking about ratings. I’m so eager to see how our show performs on CBS, because we’ve always felt that it was a CBS sitcom.”
Two episodes will premiere on CBS Oct., beginning with “Checking Boxes.” In the episode, a Census worker, played by guest star Ray Romano, knocks on the door and asks if he could fill out the family’s form, only to have it slammed in his face: “A guy wants a list of Latinos in my house? No thanks.”
Romano’s character reassures everyone that he’s not there to document citizenship—a PSA of sorts to many immigrant Americans following the “citizenship question” debate that has dominated news about the Census—and his questioning becomes a clever gateway for the family to introduce themselves and their relationships to a potential new audience on CBS, just as it was when it marked the series debut on Pop this spring.
The show’s frank discussion about politics echoes the ones happening in living rooms and at dinner tables across the country. Through the perspectives of three generations of Alvarez women (current Dancing With the Stars contestant Justina Machado plays Moreno’s daughter, Penelope, and Isabella Gomez plays her granddaughter, Elena, who shocks the family by coming out as bisexual in the first season), there’s a universality to the show and a spectrum of opinion that ensures no debate is one-sided.
Though, Moreno boasts, “I do have a line in this particular season about Trump and it just slides off the tongue.”
“A lot of the conversations on the show are things that people or viewers are aching to say and haven't said themselves yet,” Lear says. “That’s what I hear most from people.”
Lear is heartened by the fact that, nearly eight decades into his career, his work is timelier than ever. But he isn’t surprised.
“It reminds us that human nature remains human nature,” he says. “Nothing much has changed human nature. We learn, at least we hope we learn, but the basic elements of human nature don't change. So there will be the selfish, there will be the opinionated, there will be the kind, and there will be the decent. There will be the Ediths and the Archies throughout our history.”
Asked about what he thinks about the state of the country and the future, he says, “I’m full of so much I want to say.”
“I couldn't wait to enlist in World War II, to fight for a country that we all loved long before we started to think of ourselves as the chosen people. We loved America for what our founders brought us to. Then following the war we began to take ourselves too seriously among the peoples of the world. And I think we pay a price for that. Part of that price is our president, the occupant of the White House at this moment.”
After all that he’s lived through, does he have hope for us still?
“I don’t wish to wake up the morning I’m not hopeful,” the 98-year-old says. “Of course I’m hopeful. We’ll get through it.”
Update: CBS has moved the ODAAT premiere date to Oct. 12.