Monday, October 10, 2011
What's it like to be on a show in trouble
This is from a showrunner’s perspective on a comedy. The actors have their own hell.
Back in May everything was lollipops and roses. Announcement parties in New York.. Congratulatory emails and texts from friends and bitterly jealous colleagues. Tickets to Broadway shows… and good ones. Not CHICAGO now starring the Progressive Insurance girl.
The summer is filled with interviews and pre-production. The cast arrives in early August and there’s that blessed seven week window when you make your first batch of shows under the radar. Sure there are the network and studio notes and there’s always at least one cast member who is high maintenance as he or she tries to lock into their character, but for the most part it’s a pleasant experience.
You will know if your show is in trouble before the actors. You’ll discover that it’s harder to break stories than it should be. The flaws in the premise will become apparent. I co-wrote an episode of a new show once and it took two full days working with the producers to come up with a notion. This was for episode three. That show was dead in the water.
Once you see footage you also start to learn the weaknesses of your cast. This can be particularly alarming if the weak links were all people the network foisted upon you.
Still, everything is relatively calm.
Then the reviews come out. If they’re bad, or even mixed, get prepared to go down to the stage and talk your cast off the ledge. And watch. One bad review. Just one. And suddenly the actors stop trusting you.
Now they start questioning things. Every thing. You’re somewhat under siege.
And what will be particularly galling is that you agree with a lot of the criticism in the reviews. You only went in that direction or hired that lox because you were forced to. And yet, you can’t say that. You take the bullet. That’s part of the job. Suck it up.
Then the show premieres. And tanks. Now the actors go nuts. After all, it’s their faces up there. They consider bad ratings a personal rejection – by thirty million people. You can understand their distress. And if your show features a big-name star, you’re really in the eighth ring of Hell. You go down to the stage and do your best to reassure them. Good luck.
Now you get “the calls”. Calls from the actors wanting to come to the office to talk about their characters. Calls from the managers and agents for the actors claiming you’re not servicing their clients. At least one cast member will cry in your office. Hope it's an actress.
The network and studio descend upon you like locusts. If you thought you got notes before, just wait. Now it’s a constant barrage of mandatory suggestions. Everything is questioned. Hair color. Props. Fire this actor. Throw out this story arc. Forget of course that they approved every cast member and they approved every story notion, and outline, and shooting script. But it’s up to you to FIX IT!!
At this point forget about ever seeing your family. You’re working fifteen hour days, seven days a week. Scripts are thrown out. There’s a level of tension on the stage you can cut with a knife. You go down for a runthrough and the cast looks at you like you just killed their puppy. Everything is second-guessed.
The show’s ratings for week two or three are not much better. There’s a lot of rationalizing. We were hurt by the baseball playoffs. We have a bad time slot. We didn’t get enough promos. They didn’t air us in Salt Lake City. We’ll come way up after the DVR viewers are counted. We’re up .02 in women 25-34. We held 62% of our lead-in and even though that’s not great, the show that was on last year kept only 59%. We tested so well.
But in your heart you know.
So now you’re killing yourself, no one’s happy, and in all likelihood you know that the episode you’re currently working so hard on will never see the flickering light of television. All the while, the star is calling you at home, one of your best writers quits, you’ve put on ten pounds, and you come down with pneumonia. Couldn’t possibly be stress related. You don’t dare go on line because you know in chat rooms and blogs your show is just getting crushed.
Finally, you get that call from the network putting you out of your misery. You say all the right things, “Aw, shucks. We really thought we had turned the corner creatively. This is really devastating.” But you hang up the phone and cheer. A two-ton weight has been lifted off your shoulders. And just like that it’s over. You’re free. The phones stop. It’s quiet. Blessed quiet.
Yes, you’re disappointed, have feelings of guilt and remorse, but that’s what scotch is for. And you’ll be able to start drinking that scotch in the afternoon! Because you’re free!
And those writers who texted congratulation when your show got picked up, will text you congratulations again.
No, it's not winning an award. But it is the next best thing.