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Out Producer Brent Miller Brings Norman Lear's Comedy Into the Future

Brent Miller, "One Day At a Time"

As the entertainment industry struggles to reinvent itself during the global pandemic, queer Latinx comedy One Day at a Time is determined to keep pushing forward. After the reboot of Norman Lear's classic sitcom was canceled by Netflix early last year, fans rallied on social media and convinced small cable network Pop TV to renew it for a fourth season, only for COVID-19 to shut down production. Now it's been announced that the existing six episodes of Season 4 will air on CBS for three Mondays next month: October 12, 19 and 26 at 9 p.m. Eastern.

"This little show has something around it that clearly is special," out producer Brent Miller tells The Advocate. As Lear's producing partner and president of production for his company Act III Productions, Miller originally had the idea to reboot ODAAT, centering it around the Cuban-American Alvarez family. It also features a queer storyline about teenage daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) that's been a big hit for younger viewers. The show is being honored at Equality California's Golden State Equality Awards on September 13, where Lear will be presented with the Ally Leadership Award.

ODAAT is just one example of how Miller is working to connect Lear's legacy with today's audience. He co-produced the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You in 2016, and last year he helmed two live TV specials for ABC. The holiday-themed special Live in Front of a Studio Audience: All in the Family and Good Times is nominated for four Emmys including Outstanding Variety Special – Live. Lear and Miller were also executive producers for Heidi Ewing's Sundance film I Carry You With Me, a love story about a gay Mexican couple trying to live the American Dream.

Miller spoke with The Advocate about introducing Lear's work to a new generation, his efforts to increase diversity and representation, and the future of television in the COVID-19 era.

The Advocate: You're a producing partner with Norman Lear, who defined TV comedy for a generation. What's it like to work with him?
Brent Miller: It's a masterclass. Every day I learn something new, and it's not always on producing or how to produce, it's about life. I feel extremely lucky that we've had these past 14 years together, because they were life-changing for me since the day I met him. We came together in a very unusual way by standards of how you break into television, if there were a manual. But it's worked out, and it may be a bit of serendipity, it may be a bit of luck, but in the end I couldn't be more grateful.

It was your idea to put a modern, diverse spin on One Day at a Time, which is one of our favorite shows right now. What made you feel that this was the right show and the right moment for that?
It was a combination of things. One, it was a business decision — it was a time when I was trying to bring a heightened awareness of Norman and his brand to generations of people who may have not been aware of it, since it was almost 40 years since the original One Day at a Time came out.

It was also obvious to me there was a hole in the marketplace for a Latinx family. I had a conversation with an agent about Norman's library, and he shared a study with me that had been done on Coca-Cola on how they wanted to market their product over the next 10 years, and the group of people they wanted to market to were single Latinx women with children.

We're seeing a lot of movies and TV shows from the '60s and '70s getting rebooted these days. What's the key to making a reboot that's worth watching for today's audience?
For me, it's how do we make it better than what it was before, and how do we maintain its relevancy. I think there are a lot of great shows out there and the bar is high, so to be able to bring back a property that was as known as One Day at a Time or what we're doing with our live specials on ABC, it makes sense to bring them back if you can honor or pay homage to what was created before it. Any time I look at a property of [Norman's] in the library, I think how can we reinvent it or reimagine it, or make it so it not only has its relevance but we can still honor where it originated from.

One of the ways the reboot is pushing that envelope is with lesbian character Elena, played by Isabella Gomez. What are your thoughts on this character and what Gomez has brought to the role?
I could be wrong, but I think Isabella is our most popular character on the show. We haven't seen a young, Latinx woman in a comedy that has come out to her family, in the way that Elena has in the Alvarez family. It's been fun and also a learning experience for people to watch her evolve as she's grown up with them, and come into her own. Hopefully in this season coming up, she's going to be entering college, and how does that all play out as she looks for the school she wants to go to and thinks about her current relationship and where that might go. She's been a character that a lot of people in the LGBTQ community really identify with, and I think it excites them.

I went to ClexaCon last year with Sheridan Pierce [who plays Elena's non-binary love interest Syd] and Isabella on a panel, and wow, the attention that they received when they walked out on stage — it was like I was attending a performance of the Beatles. I love how Isabella has grown as a person, knowing how important her character of Elena is to the community. She's taken it very seriously and recognizes the value, not for herself but for the community, to get it right. She's taken steps in making sure she can be as authentic as possible to who Elena is.

It was amazing to see fans rally around the show and get hashtags trending after it was canceled by Netflix, and help it get picked up by Pop TV for at least another season. What was it like to watch that happen?
We're doing this for others, we're not doing this for ourselves. So to know what we're putting out there is being received in the way it is, that people feel the need to step up and speak about it and protect us and defend us and push for us, is the gift of all gifts. We wouldn't have survived without the fans.

This show is like The Little Engine That Could. We got on Netflix, we were told that we didn't have a large enough audience and we were going to be moving on, and we're the first show from a streamer that was rescued to more of a traditional network. We go to this small cable network, and then this pandemic hits so we can't shoot anymore. And then suddenly we get the news that now we're going to a broadcast network and CBS is going to air all six episodes. 

What's the future of the show after it airs on CBS?
It's unclear at the moment, but I can say with certainty that CBS will be taking notice of what our numbers are on those three Mondays that we air. It's very important that we rally our fanbase once again, and they all tune in and we get all of our friends to tune in, because the only way that we'll be able to continue on is if the fans show up and support us in the way CBS is looking and hoping to see us supported.

The universe is testing us to see if this something that can continue, to be that little engine that could.

A lot of people were disappointed that ODAAT didn't get much recognition from the Emmys this year, especially Rita Moreno and her amazing performance. What's your perspective on the obstacles facing Latinx shows right now?
I don't understand them, to be honest. It's strange to me that a show like ours, which has been received so well, isn't an automatic fit for CBS. It surprises me when the shows are canceled. I follow the narrative from the Latinx community, and I think rightfully so, they feel underrepresented. It's frustrating. I'm just trying to do my part as a producer and an ally to give them representation. It's always front and center in my mind in any project we do, to try and make sure it's representative of the current culture we're living in.

We have a film that Norman and I executive produced for Heidi Ewing, called I Carry You With Me. It's a Latinx story specifically about a Mexican couple who is moving to America to try and achieve the American Dream, and what they have to go through to get there is quite beautiful. In the end it's a really amazing love story.

As a gay man getting started in the entertainment industry, did you face any obstacles because of your sexual identity?
I moved here as an actor originally, back in 1998. I remember meeting with two different agents, both who said to me, and I'm paraphrasing now, "If you're gay I don't want to know about it. It's best for you and your career to just stay closeted." I came from Toledo, Ohio, and Toledo was a closet in its own. Moving to California was freeing for me. I wasn't sure what my path would be, but I knew I wanted to be in entertainment, and I knew I just wanted to be who I was. To arrive here and be told immediately out of the gate to hide who you really are, that's not necessarily a good start to entering the entertainment business.

But like anything, you get through it. It's incredible to me, of all the social issues that we talk about and how far we've come, the LGBTQ social issues have really advanced in an exponential way.

Producers have had to be really resourceful and innovative to keep shows on the air during the pandemic. What do you think television will look like in the post-COVID era?
I think I can speak from a place of hope, and say that it will, like everything in the entertainment business, evolve to a point where it can continue to happen, and ultimately we'll learn from these experiences. My guess is it will turn out better. If there is one industry of people that rise to the occasion during any kind of crisis, it's the entertainment industry. Norman always says that it's laughter that has added time to his life, and people are looking for that; people want to laugh. At a time when we're losing so many during this pandemic, I think remaining hopeful that we're all going to be laughing again and it's entertainment that's going to help us laugh, keeps me optimistic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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