The flirting and gossiping ends badly for someone on this TV series. 3,759 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The wrap party was being held at the cheesy cowboy theme bar at Universal CityWalk. Caleb hated that development next door to the lot where he worked. Even the name grated on him: “CityWalk.” It was everything that pissed him off about L.A.. The antiseptic tourist trap was so utterly un-urban. He could rattle off at least a half-dozen bars on nearby Ventura that were far superior. But he was just a lowly writer’s assistant so it wasn’t his place to question the chosen location for the wrap party. Actually, he wasn’t surprised. He worked for a cookie cutter network procedural, and the powers-that-be had chosen to end the season in the most uninspired way possible. Little wonder that he always could predict each show’s ending.
As he parked his car, he thought about Nora, the staff writer considered a “diversity hire.” She had once confessed to him that she loved the City Walk. Of course, Nora loved the City Walk. Caleb hated Nora. He didn’t see her talent, or what she offered to the show, or why Bryan gave her two scripts. Caleb was really hoping he’d get to co-write the finale, like Matt Weiner’s writer assistants, but instead Nora got it. Like she needed another credit. Caleb had read her pilot back when he was Bryan’s assistant. It was fine, the dialogue was cute, but the story was nothing special. Rom-com chick stuff. He’d been working for Bryan for four years, and Nora had never worked on a show, but she was a staff writer and Caleb was the writer’s assistant. Bryan told him it was because of money. The show had spent too much of its budget on upper level writers, and the studio would pay for a “diversity writer.” That was Nora. A Korean girl from Encino… How fucking downtrodden.
While she would never tell any of her fellow writers, Nora loved Universal CityWalk. As a kid growing up in the Valley, it was the closest she ever got to actually walking onto a studio lot. L.A. kids aren’t supposed to get starstruck. But Nora just couldn’t be jaded. She wanted to belong to the business, not merely be adjacent, and write for a real primetime TV show with millions of viewers. Now that she was, Nora still liked to visit CityWalk to remind herself how far she’d come. About once a week, she’d arrive an hour before work, go to Starbucks, drink her latte and think about how she was about to go work in a bungalow on the real lot. Though she questioned whether she deserved to be there. But if she really was nothing more than a token, Bryan wouldn’t have given her two scripts. She knew Caleb resented her and coveted her job. But she was working her ass off, agonizing over every word of procedural exposition instead of scripting for people to ignore while they did their laundry. Nora had long ago learned that hard work was the best remedy for insecurity.
“What are you drinking?”
Nora turned to see Caleb. He’d barely finished his drink – Jameson on the rocks – and was already going for another.
“Vodka and cranberry juice,” Nora answered.
He snorted. “Vodka-cran. I should have guessed.”
Caleb maneuvered close to her at the bar. Nora cringed as he leaned over and grabbed the bartender’s arm. “You gotta be aggressive. Otherwise you can be waiting here all day.”
They stood in silence. Caleb finished his drink and clanked his ice around in his empty glass.
“So…” Caleb said, “You think we’ll get renewed?”
“Always have faith.”
“It was pretty cool of Bryan to have you co-write the finale…”
“He likes you. I’ve never seen him give a baby writer more than one script.”
What the hell was Nora supposed to say?
The bartender waited impatiently.
“Double Jameson rocks and a dirty Shirley.” The bartender went to make the drinks. Caleb told Nora, “You’ll like this better than a vodka-cran. Still sweet and girly and pink, but not quite as cliché.”
If she’d wanted a fucking Shirley Temple with vodka, then Nora would have ordered one. But even though she outranked him, Caleb was close to Bryan and had known the showrunner longer. Nora knew the worst thing she could do was to act like a diva. This was her first job in TV. She was lucky and she knew it. Caleb had worked for Bryan for years for shit pay and no credits. Caleb might have been an entitled prick, but she’d figured out early on that the culture of this show was to treat the support staff with excessive gratitude. It surprised her, but that was the kind of guy Bryan was – gracious, kind, and needing to be both liked and admired. That was easy to get from the assistants who brought in lunch and took notes.
The bartender arrived with their drinks. Caleb very slowly reached for his wallet but Nora said, “I’ll get it.” She wondered if she should be irritated that he obviously expected her to pay for his whiskey.
As they walked away from the bar, Caleb leaned into Nora and said conspiratorially, “Diversity writers are usually the first to go once they’re no longer free if the show does get another season. I’m not saying it’s right. It’s just a numbers game. But I don’t think you need to worry about anything.”
“I’m sorry, did I offend you?”
“No,” she lied.
There was an awkward pause. Finally Caleb said, “Well, it was good talking to you. Have a good hiatus…”
Nora raised her glass and did her best to look sincere as she smiled.
As Bryan walked to the wrap party from the show’s post-production suite on the lot, he thought about how long he’d be obligated to stay. These things were always so much more fun for him before he’d become a showrunner. Now it was all a pointless charade. He would walk around, give facetime to everyone he possibly could, smile as they kissed his ass and answer the same question about the show’s renewal chances.
He knew that what his people really wanted was to bitch about him.
The editors thought he picked the wrong shots. The writers thought he should have assigned each more scripts. The actors wanted more lines or a love interest. The production office was pissed about late night Friday shoots. The Teamsters wanted more overtime.
He was no tyrant – at least Bryan didn’t think he was. But he was the boss, and everybody bitches about the boss. He had when he was coming up as a writer, especially at the wrap party when everyone reflected on what could have been better about the season, and anything wrong had to be the showrunner’s fault. As a young writer and even a writer’s assistant, Bryan would get blitzed at the wrap party and hope to hook up. Of course, he rarely did because the other seventy-five single guys were all gunning for the same ten single women.
Maybe that’s why he was fifty and single. Because he had spent the last thirty years looking for love at work – and nowhere else.
He was looking forward to seeing Nora, though. But even she was becoming just another source of stress. They had done a good job keeping their relationship secret this past month, and Bryan thought there might be something real there. But he was thinking now he’d have to end it. For her sake. He’d convinced himself that he had separated his feelings for her from his professional judgment. The first episode she had written had been one of the best all season. She was able to turn the wooden exposition necessitated by the procedural format into something funny and charming and self-aware. She absolutely deserved to share credit with him on the finale. In Bryan’s mind, she had done him a favor by making the script better, not the other way around. Nora also was the only writer whose words the show’s female lead Tess wouldn’t refuse to say. Tess was number five on the call sheet, yet she always managed to be Bryan’s number one problem. Despite all this, if the other writers had known that he and Nora were sleeping together while they wrote the finale, she’d just become another woman sleeping her way to the top. Bryan knew Caleb was already out for blood…
And what to do about Caleb? He had been a good and loyal assistant – always the first to arrive and last to leave. His room notes were thorough yet succinct, and his research was exhaustive. Bryan knew Caleb felt entitled to a promotion. But his writing was garbage, a cardboard-thin imitation of Quentin Tarantino with a vapid millennial vocabulary. What Caleb lacked in subtlety, he made up for in profanity. Worse, he clearly thought he was better than the show. Fucking film school graduates…
Bryan knew he was at a crossroads with Caleb – no reason not to bring him back for the following season, but no inclination to promote him either. It wasn’t a sustainable position. So Bryan had lied, telling Caleb that he was able to hire Nora because she had been a diversity hire paid for by the studio, but the show couldn’t afford to take on another non-diversity writer. It was an easy fib that had spared Caleb’s feelings and saved Bryan from an awkward situation. But downplaying Nora’s talent like that had aggravated Caleb’s already growing bitterness. The truth was that if Bryan had wanted to staff Caleb, he could have stretched the budget. But given the choice between Nora’s writing and Caleb’s writing, Bryan would have picked Nora a hundred times over, and he had thought that before they started sleeping together.
Bryan hated lying. But the more power he got, the more frequently he found himself doing it.
When Bryan walked into the bar, he saw Nora and Caleb talking. Bryan could see from her face as she turned away that Caleb had said something nasty to her. Bryan made his way towards her.
As Tess arrived at CityWalk, she was thinking about how badly she wanted the series to be canceled. As long as it was on air, she was locked into a three-year deal, while other offers for better roles poured in. She’d been labeled “difficult” during the shooting of episode two because she’d had the nerve to point out that teenage girls didn’t actually talk, think or dress the way the middle-aged men on staff had written her character. So her scenes were cut in half.
At twenty-seven, Tess was playing the seventeen-year-old computer-hacker wunderkind among the show’s crack team of investigators. She had considered the pilot garbage from the minute she read it. She’d wanted to do a comedy, preferably something on cable. But this was a series regular, network primetime, for more money than she’d ever made. And now here she was at the wrap party, feeling like an ungrateful spoiled brat because she wanted the show to stop.
Tess turned to see who was talking to her. Shit, what was his name? He was kind of cute, and one of the few people here under forty.
“Caleb,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m the writer’s assistant. Apparently, my writing wasn’t good enough for this show. I think we met like one time during the first week of shooting.”
“That’s right. Sorry, I—“
“No problem. It’s a lot easier for me to remember you, considering I see your name on the cast page of every script and read it in the credits every week.”
“Do you really watch every episode?”
“I do actually. What are you drinking?””
Caleb leaned over the bar and again grabbed the bartender’s arm. “Gin gimlet and a Jameson on the rocks, whenever you get a chance.” Caleb turned back to Tess. “I saw you do standup one time. At the Icehouse.”
“You were wearing a low cut orange blouse, jeans, and a hat.”
“Fuck you. Did you really just tell me what I was wearing and not what my set was about?”
“You did a bit on what different politicians might sound like in bed. Pretty funny.”
“Why didn’t you lead with that?” Tess said, grabbing her drink from the bartender. There was a pause. She looked at Caleb.
“I’ll get it,” Caleb said as he pulled out his debit card.
“Damn right you will,” Tess replied.
Caleb and Tess walked away together. Tess liked him already even though he was kind of a dick. She was pretty good at reading people, and to her Caleb read like a ton of insecurities but not an ounce of phoniness. And he worked out. She saw him in the gym on the lot all the time. She liked a guy who took care of himself. He had a nice smile. He had to know that he was pushing his luck hitting on her, but he was doing it anyway. She could make his year if she fucked him, and maybe she would. But it bugged her to know that if they had sex, he wouldn’t be thinking about her lips, her eyes, or even her tits and ass. What would turn him on the most would be her name on the call sheet and in the credits.
“So you only care about the sexism thing when it suits you, huh?”
“What?” she asked Caleb.
“Well, you were pissed when I talked about your outfit instead of your material. But then you made me pay for the drink even though we both know, you make my yearly salary for a single episode.”
Caleb was starting to get on Tess’s nerves.
“You want me to Venmo you for the drink?” she asked him.
“Of course not. I’m just trying to pin you down.”
“I can tell you’d like to pin me down.”
“Wow. That was direct.”
“But you’re not denying it.” Tess enjoyed watching Caleb go red. It started in his ears, then crept toward his nose. “Did you really like my act?”
“I did. You were funny. Why aren’t you doing a comedy?”
“Why aren’t you a staff writer?”
“Because I don’t check the right boxes.”
“What do you mean?”
“The salary of a white male staff writer comes out of the production budget. The salary of a diversity hire is paid for by the studio.”
Tess gave him the side eye. “You’re becoming less attractive with every word. You really think I’m going to go for this ‘woe is the white male’ thing?”
“So you did think I was attractive before?”
“Nice. Change the subject.”
“I’m trying to go back to a subject where I win. So… You think we’ll get renewed?”
Tess snorted and turned to go. “It was nice to see you again.”
“Wait! I’m sorry about the diversity thing…”
“Oh, I wasn’t walking away because of that. I’d rather you offend me than bore me. ‘You think we’ll get renewed?’ That’s the wrap party equivalent of talking about El Niño.”
“This weather has been fucking crazy though, hasn’t it?” Tess laughed. Caleb smiled, satisfied with himself. “So I’m interesting again? Worthy of your attentions?”
“Can I ask you something? What do they say about me in the room?”
“How about a trade? You tell me what they say about me in the room, I’ll tell you what the cast says about you.” Tess raised her eyebrows and tried her best sarcastic smile.
“Nobody on the cast knows who I am.”
“They know you’re bored.”
Tess was surprised. She was expecting “difficult,” not bored.
“You want to know why they halved your role after episode two, right? You think it’s because you made them rewrite your dialogue to update the slang. That’s not why they cut your scenes.”
Tess could tell that Caleb was getting off on dishing the gossip. She wanted to tell him that his mouth was going to get him in trouble in this business, but she wanted to hear the gossip more.
“They cut your role because you never read your pronunciation guide for the science and tech lines. And they know you want out of your contract.”
“But that doesn’t really answer your question. You want to know what they say about you. They say, ‘I wish we had a better way to use her. She’s probably the most talented actor in the whole cast.’ Then someone else says, ‘Yeah, but she’s lazy.’ We have to shoot an episode in seven days, and no one has time to hold your hand. So they give your dialogue to one of the six other regulars who have been doing TV for two decades and know how to play the game.”
She didn’t know whether to kiss him or slap him. Who the fuck was he to give her career advice? But she had asked him a question, and he had answered it honestly. Refreshing, if reckless.
“I could get fired for telling you that.”
“It’s… enlightening,” she said. Then Tess saw that something had caught Caleb’s attention. “What’s wrong?”
“I should have fucking known.” Caleb was turning red again, but this time it wasn’t from embarrassment. “Bryan and Nora… I just saw them kiss outside. They probably think no one inside can see them.”
“Because you weren’t bitter enough about Nora already.”
“That’s probably why he let her co-write the finale. Motherfucker… So much for my chances of getting promoted. If Nora stays on next season, her salary comes out of the show’s budget and I’m fucked.”
“That’s a lot of assumptions based on a kiss.”
They both looked as Bryan and Nora walked away from the bar.
Caleb snorted, “He didn’t even say hi to me.”
Tess liked Nora who seemed to be the only writer with a sense of humor on the show. “Sorry about that. Hey, my drink’s empty. I’m going to go get another one.”
“Hey, it was nice getting to know you better.” Tess was surprised that Caleb didn’t follow her to the bar. This dipshit cared more about who the showrunner was sleeping with than he did about her. Caleb’s loss, Tess thought. Instead of the bar, she walked out the front door.
As she waited for her Uber, Tess found her frustration turning to relief and then optimism. Maybe the night hadn’t been a total bust after all. Did the writers really think she was the most talented actor in the cast? She made three resolutions. First, she would stop hoping that the show would be canceled. This was a show that was on air, not another crap-shoot pilot. She’d done a handful of those since she moved out to LA, and they had all come to nothing. Even if it wasn’t the perfect show, it was something. Second, she would stop ignoring the pronunciation guides that came with her scripts. That was an easy enough thing to fix. Third and finally, she dialed her agent’s cell phone knowing it would go straight to voicemail. “Hey, this is Tess… I know you’ve been talking to Bryan’s agents about me. I can’t have that. You’re fired. Please don’t call me back.”
Tess felt more powerful than she had in months.
Caleb waited what seemed like an hour for his next drink. He could feel his ears getting hot, the way they always did when he was angry. He figured his face was probably as red as a lobster. As he glanced around the room, he noticed a lot of the same crewmembers that had been on Bryan’s last show. But all the new faces had something in common: none were white men.
Among the people who outranked him, Jose was the new lead editor, Keisha was the new first AD, and Proteek was the new producing director. And Nora was a new staff writer. Would this rainbow coalition at the top really make the show better? Since when did Bryan care about this “diversity’ shit?
The bartender finally brought Caleb another drink and he downed it one gulp. Then he stormed toward the exit. But not before noticing Nora and Bryan sitting on a bench together – closer than co-workers would normally sit, but not doing anything to arouse suspicions.
Caleb fully intended to walk past them without a word. But then Bryan called out, “Hey buddy!” And that’s where it all started to fall apart. Caleb didn’t open with “hi” or any other normal greeting.
“So this is a thing now?” Caleb said to Bryan and Nora.
Bryan looked taken aback. “Excuse me?”
“No wonder you got to write the finale, Nora. I’m sure you’ve got a great mouth for… dialogue.”
Bryan’s tone contained a note of warning. “I think maybe you’ve had one too many drinks, Caleb. You probably shouldn’t drive home.” But Caleb had already crossed the line and couldn’t come back.
“For someone who was hired to promote a progressive agenda, Nora, you sure are setting women back, aren’t you? I mean, sleeping with your boss? What a fucking cliché.”
Nora didn’t respond.
“You’re going to regret this tomorrow, Caleb,” Bryan told him. But Caleb already regretted it. He already knew he was blowing up his career. So why stop now?
“Her writing isn’t even good! It’s chick lit crap. But I guess it’s not really about her writing, is it, Bryan? I guess a coupla rolls in the hay are more important than four years of—“
“Jesus Christ, will you shut up?” Bryan ordered. “Over the last four years, I have suffered through five scripts’ worth of derivative drivel by you. I wanted them to be good, Caleb. I wanted them to demonstrate talent. Because I liked you and I wanted to be the showrunner who gave his assistant a shot. But how could I explain it to you? ‘Sorry Caleb, you work hard and you’re a great assistant, but you’re just not a good enough writer.’ So there… I’ve said it now. I’m sorry but this isn’t about Nora. It never was.”
Caleb could feel the hot tears coming. He could see Bryan and Nora looking at him with a mix of contempt and pity. He could hear them talk about calling him an Uber. But it was like he was watching a scene play out… Because they couldn’t possibly be talking about him. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. He could always predict the endings.
This story first posted here on April 28, 2016.