• The San Juan Daily Star

In ‘With Love,’ Gloria Calderón Kellett comes home for the holidays

“It was so joyful to write it and then so joyful to get to make it,” Gloria Calderón Kellett said about her new series, “With Love.” Each episode is structured around a different holiday.

By Alexis Soloski

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, in the 1980s, Gloria Calderón Kellett watched a lot of television: “The Facts of Life,” “Fame,” “The Love Boat,” “Family Ties,” “A Different World,” “The Cosby Show.” (“That one is obviously fraught now,” she said.) She rarely saw characters who looked like her, a U.S.-born daughter of Cuban immigrants, but she didn’t mind.

Still, she remembers the excitement she felt when a character with a name like hers, Esteban Calderone, showed up on “Miami Vice.” She also remembers the confusion. Calderone was a drug dealer, a villain.

Later, when she turned to acting, she discovered similar stereotypes. (She also discovered casting directors who told her that she was too light skinned for Latina roles and too curvy — even at less than 100 pounds — for anything else.)

“It was always a trauma narrative, a screaming mother, a crying mother — it was never reflective of what my life was,” she said. “My life was pretty joy-filled.”

This was on a video call on a recent weekday morning. Calderón Kellett, 46, now an actress-writer-creator-producer, had clicked on from the sunny home office where she has built a career making stories about Hispanic characters that lead with joy — notably, as a showrunner of the critically adored reboot of “One Day at a Time.” On Friday, Amazon debuted her first show as a sole creator, “With Love,” a five-episode intergenerational rom-com with each episode structured around a different holiday.

“It was so joyful to write it and then so joyful to get to make it,” she said, leaning into the camera. “I’m hoping that that feeling of joy and kindness and thriving and all that yumminess just makes people feel like, ‘Oh, this is the warm hug I need right now.’”

To speak with Calderón Kellett is to receive that warm hug remotely, like it or not. Even through a screen — or maybe, given the nature of her work, especially through a screen — she has the kind of big den-mother energy that makes you want to go out and sell a shipping container’s worth of Girl Scout Cookies and also become a slightly better person. Her enthusiasm could come across as naïve if not for the shrewd intelligence, decades of hard work and ample proof of concept backing it up.

“She’s been at it for a long time, putting in the work,” Tanya Saracho, a close friend and a fellow showrunner, told me. “So when she got her big overall deal, it was like, ‘That’s right. A brown girl can also take up space that way.’”

After earning an undergraduate degree in theater and communications at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calderón Kellett moved to London for a master’s in theater at Goldsmiths college. Back in California, she found herself working as an assistant to writer-director Cameron Crowe, answering phones and signing for UPS packages.

He encouraged her to write some sample television scripts. A live-action sitcom is just like a play in a proscenium, he told her. Those scripts, plus an evening of monologues that she self-produced, led to her first writers room gig, on “The Ortegas,” a sitcom canceled before its debut.

After a decade in the business, she felt ready to tell stories that hewed closer to her own.

“I had enough gravitas and enough chutzpah to be able to do it,” she said. That’s when she booked a meeting with Norman Lear, the acclaimed sitcom creator and an expert at sneaking critical social issues into friendly half-hour formats. Lear and showrunner Mike Royce wanted to create a new version of “One Day at a Time,” a sitcom about a single mother that ran from 1975 to 1984.

At the meeting, she pitched him a version centered on a Cuban American family. But she also expressed doubts.

“There’s a PTSD in terms of the deep starvation for representation that my community has,” she remembered telling Lear. “And then when one thing exists, we can’t help but want it to make up for 200 years of B.S.” She told him that only by making the family incredibly specific would the show work. That convinced Lear to book her as a co-showrunner.

“It didn’t take but a second to realize she was the one,” Lear wrote in an email. “Four seasons later, none of us had reason to regret it.”

Justina Machado, the show’s star and an American-born actress of Puerto Rican descent, appreciated the authenticity of the show.

“She gives us a way to tell our stories our way — to not have our stories whitewashed, to not have our stories be made more palatable,” she said.

But despite strong reviews, the new “One Day at a Time” had to fight for each of those four seasons, moving from Netflix to Pop TV and ending before its creators felt ready.

“One Day at a Time” was canceled about a year ago, in the midst of the pandemic, when she and her husband, cartoonist Dave Kellett, felt isolated from their extended families. Calderón Kellett is active on social media, and typically that’s a happy place for her. (She often opens up her Twitter account so that aspiring writers, actors and directors can query “Tía Glo” directly.) But when she logged on last year, she instead found a timeline that she described as “a barrage of Black and brown and queer and Asian bodies in trauma.”

So she conceived “With Love” as an optimistic response. If she and her husband couldn’t see their families for the holidays, she would structure every episode of her show around a holiday. If queer characters and characters of color were typically found at the margins of rom-coms and Christmas movies — if they were found at all — she would put them at the center. And give them a Nancy Meyers kitchen.

She pitched the series in January, assembled a writers room in February, shot it in June. Set in Portland, it follows the Diaz family, an interdependent, intergenerational clan that runs a high-end Mexican American restaurant. Starting on the night before Christmas, it moves through New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Independence Day and the Day of the Dead. Calderón Kellett cameos as Tía Gladys, a perennial bachelorette who belongs to two book clubs and one wine club. (The book club is basically a wine club, too.)

The relationships can feel glamorized; the elder members of the Diaz family are accepting and loving almost to a fault. I wondered if this was a deliberate overcorrection, a way to make up for all of those decades of drug dealers and gangbangers and crying moms. Not really, Calderón Kellett told me.

“Families do look like this; my family is like this,” she said. (Several of her colleagues confirmed this. That her parents now live across the street in a house that she mostly bought also feels like corroboration.)

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