Tuesday, November 04, 2014
I don't mean to discourage anybody, and when new shows go well then life is golden. But for people going through a struggling newcomer, or anyone who wants a look behind the curtain of how high-stakes television really works, here’s what it’s like:
Everything was so great at the start. You flew to New York for the upfronts. Lavish parties, the network president lauding your show as the next huge hit. Drinks with your stars. A total lovefest.
Then you went to work. That network that praised you to the heavens now questions every decision you make. Story notions are thrown out. Outlines are rejected. First drafts are met with voluminous notes. One of the stars you had drinks with you now have to fire because she didn’t test to the network’s liking.
Production begins and the notes increase. Network approval now extends to all casting and editing decisions.
You start falling behind. You realize you wasted several weeks of pre-production preparing an outline that ultimately got rejected. You wasted more time just waiting to hear back on stories and scripts you sent them.
But everybody on the cast and crew is still relatively happy. Everyone likes everyone else. It’s exciting. Hope burns eternal that indeed this will become the next big thing. And everyone has steady employment (at least for the moment). On-air promos have begun. Ads appear in magazines. One of your cast members goes on Conan. It’s all good.
Then the reviews come out. You focus on the good ones, but the cast focuses on the bad ones. You now have shaky actors you have to talk off the ledge.
Meanwhile, the network gets instantly nervous and decides the direction of the show is the problem. So they begin rejecting scripts that had already been approved. Now you’re really scrambling – trying to make a midcourse correction based on a consensus of executives.
But it's only the first week. Things could still turn around. Maybe... possibly.
Week two – the numbers are worse. They even slipped in Houston. Still, the good news is you’re starting to have a handle on the show. Trouble is, there are six episodes in the can before these new better shows can air. IF they air.
You seek desperately for any positive. A tweet someone wrote, a compliment from your mother’s second cousin. Originally, in reviews you were hoping they’d say “brilliant” and now you’d gladly settle for “promising.”
For weeks you couldn’t wait for your show to actually begin airing. Now you dread it. Each new episode could be a lethal punch to your gut.
You are trapped in a nightmare. And it becomes clear your show has no future. But you still have to make them. You still have to write till 4 a.m. You still have to reassure the cast. You still have to recast that sales clerk because the network rejected her. A director you had signed for next month wants out because he got a chance to do a show that got decent ratings. The network insists you reshoot a scene. Your star was slated to co-host a holiday parade on your network but they just dropped her. She won’t come out of her trailer. The table reading for the next show tanks. The cast hates the new direction. You have to do a page one rewrite for an episode you know will never air.
And then – finally – the CALL (or today, maybe the text). You’ve been cancelled. How do I describe the sensation? It’s like you’re skydiving, hurtling towards the earth, and then suddenly your parachute opens. Whooooosh! Ahhhhhhh! You float. You’re at peace.
All script work just ends. You may have to finish filming the episode on the stage (and that’s a treat, lemme tell you as someone who has directed several “last” episodes). But basically it’s done. No more scripts in the pipeline to write. No more pipeline. Yes, you’re sad but there will be time to grieve later and second-guess decisions that led to this, but for now your sole emotion is just RELIEF. What’s your next career move? Where do you go from here? You don’t care. Not at that moment. All you know if that you no longer have to do THIS.
Fond goodbyes and hugs. You feel bad for everyone in the crew. They’ll now have to get other jobs. But they will. And so will you. But not before you sleep for a month.
Again, I feel bad for anyone going through this. We’ve all done it. Just be proud that you created a show that got on a major broadcast network. Very few people can ever say that. And your next one will be better because of the experience. You will be a much better showrunner. You’ll have a better sense of how to solve problems. And you’ll figure out what went wrong and avoid those mistakes the next time around.
For now, take a nap.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM