Justina Machado's taking it one day — and one step — at a time on 'Dancing with the Stars'

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune
·8 min read

One of the reasons Justina Machado agreed to do “Dancing with the Stars” this season was because it gave her the opportunity to talk about her show “One Day at a Time,” the fourth season of which is currently airing on CBS.

A reboot of the Norman Lear original, it’s been one of the most consistently funny comedies on TV — and one of the only to feature a Latinx family at its center. The show began at Netflix, which wasn’t able (or perhaps willing) to give the show the kind of high-profile promotion it needed. When Netflix pulled the plug, Pop TV stepped in and greenlit a fourth season — shot this past spring — which was truncated because of the pandemic.

Which leaves the show’s fate up in the air. How well it does during this run on CBS will determine if it has a future.

The stories unfold in a cheerily modest apartment in LA. Machado plays a divorced mother of two who also lives with her own mother, played hilarious verve by Rita Moreno. “Hold on tight/we’ll muddle through/one day at a time,” the infectious theme song promises. Talk about encapsulating a moment.

Machado is a Chicago native and we spoke recently about “Dancing with the Stars,” her hopes for “One Day at a Time” and the dearth of Latinx representation on TV.

Q: Why do you think it’s been challenging to build a groundswell of awareness around “One Day at a Time”?

A: We haven’t had enough marketing and that’s a huge deal. But also I think that people get so caught up in thinking that it’s a Latino show that they can’t relate to. Which, to me, always blows my mind.

I’m born and raised in Chicago to Puerto Rican parents — I’m first generation — and I grew up watching quote-unquote “white” shows and I always found something to relate to. So we’re trying to change that narrative of what you think our shows are about. What you think we’re about.

I have people coming on my Instagram, now that I’m doing “Dancing with the Stars," and saying, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know who you were and I didn’t even know what this show was, but now I’m going to watch.” I have people on “Dancing with the Stars” who are like, “What’s that show?”

Q: Does that bug you, though?

A: (Laughs) No, it doesn’t bug me. It just shows you how many things there are on TV now and we need more marketing for these types of shows. The critics have been nothing but amazing to us, but how do we get people to watch?

Q: What I find so confusing is that you can have a show like “Cobra Kai,” which originated on YouTube, come to Netflix and become this big hit — and without a whole lot of old school promotion behind it — but Netflix struggles to do the same with its own originals. I don’t understand it.

A: Me neither. But I think the difference with “Cobra Kai” is the nostalgia. I gotta tell you, I watched both seasons because I loved “Karate Kid,” I’m an 80s kid. So I think it’s the nostalgia, they don’t have to do a lot of marketing for that.

But I will say this: I am super grateful to Netflix because I know that no other network would have put “One Day at the Time” on the air because they would have been afraid of the subjects we tackle. (The show addresses everything from PTSD to racism to sexual identity to addiction.) So Netflix was courageous and I’m grateful for those three seasons.

Q: Did you decide to do “Dancing with the Stars” this season because it would give you this huge platform to let people know about the CBS run of “One Day at a Time?”

A: Absolutely. There were many reasons. One, my mother is a fanatic of the show and has always wanted me to be on it, which is hilarious. The second reason was COVID; like a lot of people I was feeling a rollercoaster of emotions — just depression and kind of tired of being in that state — and I thought, what a great thing to be dancing.

And No. 3, yes, it was to bring attention to the show. That was absolutely one of the factors.

Q: I think people are curious: What are the logistics of doing “Dancing with the Stars” during a pandemic?

A: OK so, every single day we’re tested. Every day. When we go to the studio to rehearse, we’re masked. They take our temperature. And then we go into our rehearsal room, and we only leave to use the bathroom or get some water — and we’re always masked. We don’t interact with other dancers, we don’t interact with other celebrities, we just go straight into our room.

Then when we are on the show, each couple has their own hair and makeup (people), so we’re in the same bubble. So Sasha and I have the same hair and makeup and they don’t do anyone else.

Then we have COVID officers on set — believe me, we have many COVID officers who are constantly separating us, because human nature, you want to go talk to another person. But unless it’s your partner, they’re separating us and making sure we’re six-to-eight feet apart, even though we’re being tested every day. So they’re being extremely rigorous.

Q: I don’t know if ABC is even allowed to do this, but do they try to suggest what you do in your off time? You always wonder, what if someone goes to a family gathering or a party?

A: They can’t do that. But I know they separated the dancers that are married; there are three couples on the show that are married and they have to live in separate apartments. They can’t go home to each other during the duration of the show.

But everybody is doing everything so that the show doesn’t go down. I mean, I don’t do anything because I’m so nervous about going out. I’m like, “Hmm, I don’t know about that.”

In June, three months after the pandemic hit, my brother and I drove 30 hours to Chicago, and we did it non-stop. We didn’t fly, we drove, just so we could be with our family because we were losing our minds. We stayed for a month and then came back to LA because my brother had to get back to work and I had stuff to do. But we probably would have stayed longer because we just felt safe with my brothers and my sister and my mom. We were in Logan Square and all just kept within our little bubble. Actually, it’s Avondale. There’s new names for places in Chicago! Back in the day we would just say the streets. I grew up all over: Lincoln Park, Humboldt Park and Avondale and Logan Square.

I actually hadn’t been home for that amount of time since my 20s. It’s always interesting to rediscover Chicago. I left in 1994 or 1995 and it’s always interesting to see the changes. What I miss are the neighborhoods. I don’t see neighborhoods too much anymore, it’s kind of all the same. Now I’m walking down the street and seeing townhouses being built and it looks generic. So there were certain things, when I walked around the city, that surprised me.

Q: A study came out earlier this month that found there’s an increase in diversity on TV over the last three years, with the exception of Latinx people, who remain underrepresented. Why do you think that is?

A: I think when a show greenlit, they don’t allow that show to grow an audience. They cancel the show after maybe a few episodes.

This doesn’t just happen with Latinx shows, it happens with a lot of shows — but we’re talking about Latinx because we’re the ones who don’t have many shows on the air. So that’s one of the problems.

Also, you have to have authenticity and specificity. If you just make a generic story, people aren’t going to relate to that? That’s why people loved the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — they hear the Windex joke and they’re like, “Oh, we have something like that in my culture!” Latinx people are like that with Vick’s VapoRub, we think it cures everything. So those little specific details and that authenticity is what makes people go, “Oh, there’s something like that in my family.” And having Latinx people in the writers room when you’re telling a Latinx story is of the utmost importance. So more of those writers need to be hired.

But at the end of the day, we need marketing. Because if you don’t know about it, you’re not going to watch it.

Q: What is the future of “One Day at a Time”?

A: Pop TV is not doing scripted television anymore. So either we get another season on CBS or we go away. So that’s why it’s so important for people to watch these episodes on Mondays because that will determine whether we get a fifth season on CBS.

The stakes are high.

But the stakes are high in everything right now. We’re all used to it because we’re all living in a state of anxiety. Vote, vote, vote. Make sure you vote.

The fourth season of “One Day at a Time” airs Mondays on CBS and is also streaming on CBS All Access. The show’s first three seasons are available on Netflix.


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