After slogging through a universally difficult 2020 and with Christmas approaching, Gloria Calderón Kellett sought out a trusted form of escape.
“I was watching ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ which I do every year, and ‘Love Actually,’ all of those wonderful rom-coms, and I was reminded that it is indeed a white Christmas on our screens,” said the writer-producer ("One Day at a Time," “Jane the Virgin”).
America was also facing “a barrage of darkness,” she said, including violence and intolerance toward people of color and the LGBTQ community.
“I can provide a panacea,” Calderón Kellett recalled thinking. “I can provide a healing salve and give people... something where they are the center of a story, and they’re experiencing love and joy and all the warm good feelings.”
Amazon gave her pitch a quick approval, and the result is the original series “With Love,” a holiday potpourri of a rom-com with a Latino family and tolerance at its heart. Holiday movies have eased away from rigidly all-white casts, but people of color overall are playing catch-up when it comes to seasonal TV stories.
“I feel like this show represents the Latinx community in a way that we truly are, but nobody’s ever seen us before,” said series star Constance Marie. “We are just like everybody else. We have Christmas holiday traditions, just like everybody else. And it’s (the series) so inclusive that it really kind of educates people.”
The five episodes of Portland-set “With Love,” out Friday, follow the extended Diaz family, their friends and partners through a holiday cycle of Christmas Eve (Nochebuena), New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day, July Fourth and the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos).
Many of the characters face relationship challenges, including Beatriz (Constance Marie) and Jorge Diaz Sr. (Benito Martinez), in a middle-age marital slump; siblings Lily (Emeraude Toubia), who just dumped her perfect boyfriend, and Jorge Jr., who may have met his Mr. Right (Vincent Rodriguez III), and cousin Sol (Isis King), a physician who's falling for a co-worker.
Renée Victor and Pepe Serna play a long happily married couple.
Calderón Kellett, who began her career as an actor, gets to deliver some choice lines in the supporting role of Gladys, who's unapologetically single and exuberant.
“This is a rom-com that happens to be about a Latino family, not a Latino rom-com. So I hope that we welcome in people that love rom-coms, and that they see their family in some way through the lens of this family,” she said.
Constance Marie ("George Lopez," “Switched at Birth”) recalls Calderón Kellett's giddy reaction when her scripted vision for the family's enviable Craftsman-style home came to life on a soundstage.
“She was just so filled with joy that she wrote something on a page and cared about it so much,” the actor said. "And through all her hard work, Latinos made it to the upper middle class.”
What's most striking is the Diaz family's willingness to accept each other and those they meet. There's affectionate teasing by relatives but everyone in their midst — older or younger, gay or trans or straight, white or not — is respected and embraced.
For Calderón Kellett, that's not wishful thinking. It reflects the reality of her family circle and the blended Latino and Irish American household she's created with husband Dave Kellett, a cartoonist and writer.
“It didn't feel like a fantasy to me. I guess for a lot of people that is not their experience, but they certainly have seen enough white story lines through the lens of aspiration and joy and love,” she said. “This is reflective of my family. We have queer people, and I feel like nobody cares anymore."
King, who co-stars as the trans, nonbinary Sol, welcomed the chance to play an upbeat character for whom being trans wasn't the defining characteristic.
“Being someone who loves rom-coms and loves this genre, I was just so excited to be a part" of the series, she said. "In my everyday life, I’m kind of goofy and silly and light-hearted, and for trans people we don’t ever get to see ourselves like that.”
Sol is happy with their life and career, also a contrast to some trans screen depictions. Whether they're ready for a committed relationship is the character's main challenge.
“Our stories are always built on trauma, which I get. We have stories to tell. But not every single moment and every single day of my life is around the trauma of transition,” said King ("When They See Us," “America's Next Top Model").
Good cheer is what Calderón Kellett hopes “With Love” brings to viewers and, through its diverse and open-hearted characters, maybe something more.
“It's a romantic comedy package; we know what that is," she said. "But in that, can we sneak some broccoli into the mashed potatoes, show some things that are not often seen, and tell some stories that are not often told?”