The highest compliment I can pay “The Politics Episode,” Tuesday night’s animated One Day at a Time special, is that it fooled me into thinking that it had been planned as an animated episode all along. It did not feel at all like the writers had pulled a draft off the script pile and given it the Seth MacFarlane treatment, which is in fact what happened.
According to Mike Royce, the show’s co-showrunner and the producer of countless hours of great comedy from Raymond to Men of a Certain Age to Enlisted, “The Politics Episode” was originally planned to air later this season as a live-action show. How that script became a fast-paced yet surprisingly thoughtful cartoon is something we’ll get to in a moment.
First, though, I can’t recall seeing so many fantasy sequences packed into a half-hour show. It was like Jane the Virgin on pep pills. Royce and co-showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett, who wrote the episode, gave that whiplash sound effect a workout, as they tried to capture the fevered imagination of outspoken liberal Lupe Alvarez (Justina Machado) awaiting the arrival of her MAGA cousins from Florida, playing a bunch of scenarios in her head, imagining how badly it will go when the subject switches to politics — which she expects will happen about five seconds after they drop their bags.
The magic of the episode is that the cousins don’t show up until the very end. By then Lupe has exhausted all the possibilities, and the patience of everyone around her. Will Estrellita (Melissa Fumero) rave about Pizzagate and every other crazy theory she’s found on the internet? Maybe. Will Lupe respond with a West Wing-quality defense that wins her cousins over? Unlikely.
But then, with the cousins moments away from showing up, Lupe realizes the only way to salvage the visit is to do the thing that family members who love each other always do: talk and listen to each other.
“The idea for the show came from Gloria having conversations with her Miami Cuban right-wing relatives,” said Royce. “We wanted it to keep it as specific to this family as possible, which meant really centering it on the Cuban American experience in its many manifestations. It would be very easy to devolve into crossfire that you see on any cable network, any hour of the day. Those aren't people talking — those are points of view. We needed people talking.”
Gloria Estafan and Lin-Manuel Miranda made guest appearances as two of the right-wing Cuban cousins in the episode. I asked Royce how that came about.
“Gloria has a relationship with him,” said Royce, referring to Kellett, who was once in the cast of Miranda’s In the Heights. “She texted him and he was like, ‘I’m in.’ It was that quick. He’s wanted to do it, but of course his schedule is insane. So the idea that we could just ship him a mic kit and he could take an hour and do his part? It was extremely gracious. No agents — he just said yes.” (I enjoyed the part where Alex gets paid for working in a Hamilton reference.)
This season marks the first that the One Day at a Time writers have to mind the commercial breaks. I asked Royce if that was feeling like a squeeze compared to the open-ended format of Netflix shows. He pointed out that, in fact, the writers have had to go back and “break the episodes” for Netflix as wel, as they’re being sold into syndication.
“And that’s been very instructive, because some of those episodes are half an hour long, and we’ve got to cut a couple of minutes,” Royce said. “So I'm happy to discover that, especially in our first season, there was definitely some flab. I don't mind taking that out to make it move a little quicker.”
The live-action version of “The Politics Episode” was intended to air toward the end of this season. Even before the cartoon idea came up, the episode was always going to be a departure from the show’s normal format — it would be single-camera, with no audience. Royce was planning to hire stunt doubles so Lupe could reenact her fantasy of getting into a fist fight with Estrelita. So in that sense, switching to animation saved everyone a lot of trouble.
Microphone kits were sent out to everyone, and in remarkably short order, the one script that couldn’t be saved until One Day’s returns to normal production — whenever that is — was salvaged.
“The more we talked, the more it became a little bit imperative too, because it was about the election,” said Royce. “We realized that if we didn’t come back in a certain amount of time, we’d have to throw out this episode. I don't want to overstate our importance to the national discourse, but we really wanted to get this episode out before the election and make our contribution to how you talk to your family about politics. We thought that was an important message.”
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.