TV FICTION PACKAGE: A PhD researcher may have inadventently killed her pilot deal. 1,932 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was like watching Geraldo Rivera attempt the salsa in a Donald Trump wig on Dancing With The Stars. I, Dr. Janet Ling, could not tear my horrified eyes away from the Hollywood news story that might sink my nascent TV career:
LOS ANGELES — Just weeks before 2016’s May network upfront sessions in New York, a joint Caltech-UCLA study is sending shock waves through Hollywood by proving there is too much TV. The document draws a direct causal connection between the volume of TV series programming (the networks tallied 412 scripted series that aired last year) and brush fires, drought, deepening fault lines, traffic congestion, gluten sensitivity, identity theft, arguments with Siri, muffin top, ADHD, man buns, California roll, dog breed names ending in ‘doodle,’ bears in swimming pools and the viral growth of new gastropubs serving craft beers and small plates. “Who knows what will happen next?” said Caltech researcher Don Boswell. The scientific research bears out the ominous words of John Landgraf, president of FX Network, who sparked a heated debate at last summer’s Television Critics Association Press Tour by stating: “There is simply too much television.”
It’s not that I didn’t know. I’m one of the authors of the study. I’m an associate professor of neurobiology, a promising young researcher at UCLA’s renowned Brain Institute. But seeing our findngs on the front page of the Los Angeles Times still gave me the shivers. I sucked anxiously on my Big Gulp of Red Bull Sugarfree — although if anyone knows the carcinogenic effects of artificial sweeteners, I do. My cat, Higgs Boson, could sense my agitation as he cuddled in my lap.
Was I horrified because, as a responsible scientist, I now feared for the well being of our country? No, I was nervously nibbling Exotic Mango polish off my nails because, while working on the study, I had also been taking a UCLA Extension course in television writing. (Never take these how-to’s in hopes of meeting Mr. Right: all the dweebs who sign up still live with their parents. But I digress).
I took the course because, after long days in a dark research facility, I needed a little Hollywood glamour as well as a compelling reason to comb my hair. Besides, I received UCLA’s employee discount.
The course required me to write a pilot script for a comedy series. Mine was good — beginner’s luck, combined with my 175 IQ. My instructor, a former successful TV writer now earning a pittance from part-time academia, floated my script to his agent, who floated it to Netflix, who floated it to the top of the pile. I was signing the pilot deal next Tuesday.
Now I worried the series was in jeopardy if anybody in the industry saw my name attached to the study. Maybe I could count on the trade reporters never making it past the first few pages of the document or the first few paragraphs of the press release. This meant they’d never even skim the dizzying array of charts, bar graphs and my name in small print in the index. Only problem was my name also appeared in large type in the headline with the other researchers.
I was most concerned about one little number buried deep in the report and discovered by yours truly:
“Index iii, page iii-g, footnote from page 127: Performance studies conducted on laboratory rats, rhesus monkeys and millennials determined that the thin line separating ‘TV’ from ‘too much TV’ is exactly 437 scripted series.”
So if I signed my production deal at 1:30 PM Tuesday, and it premiered on October 17 in late 2016, by my own unerring calculations, my fresh new comedy Clown College would become… Scripted Series #437."
Don’t ask how I can be so sure. Just trust me to understand such a complex algorithm like a team member on Scorpion or a character on The Big Bang Theory (except for Howard Wolowitz who’s lacking a PhD). To paraphrase Matt Damon in The Martian, I scienced the shit out of this one.
I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but I knew that the moment Scripted Series #437 debuted, the results in terms of life as we know it in the USA would be catastrophic. To calm myself, I finished reading the news story about the study:
PBS confirmed that Ken Burns has begun pre-production on a 187-hour documentary series featuring brain scans of avid TV watchers over the last 50 years, set to rare early bluegrass recordings. Mega-producer Dick Wolf released this statement: “In television, there are two separate yet equally important groups: Too much TV, and Dick Wolf TV. Doink. Doink.” Wolf is reportedly funding his own $500 million study to disprove rumored links between the over-syndication of Law & Order and the Zika virus. But Jane Lynch, star of Angel From Hell, remained cheerful. “I don’t feel guilty about the report since nobody watched my show.”
My scientific colleagues were aware of the fateful number and, being entertainment industry outsiders, they naively believed there was an ample amount of time to stop the TV industry before it reached Scripted Series #437 in 2016. I, on the other hand, was the only one who understood both Hollywood and science. Nobody else was connecting the dots. I knew what they failed to take into account was that, with so many entertainment platforms hungry for TV content to broadcast, deliver on cable or satellite, or stream on the internet, an eight-year-old was probably selling a pilot script and negotiating a development deal to Hulu this very minute.
Shaken by the statistics, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders apologized to America for claiming that climate change leads to terrorism. “TV leads to terrorism,” tweeted Sanders. In light of the gaffe, Sanders lookalike Larry David vowed to stop portraying the Democratic President candidate on SNL. “I’ll just wait for some other tall, skinny, balding putz to run for the highest political office. What do I need this for? Next time, should I do a Republican?” Asked if he was worried about the future of television, David said: “Of course I’m worried — I’m Larry David. Besides, I still haven’t made as much money as Oprah yet.”
Of course, I could always go to my Netflix meeting, sign the deal and pocket mid-six figures without anyone realizing what havoc would ensue a few months from now when 13 episodes of Clown College dropped like a nuclear bomb. But I consider myself a citizen of Planet Earth. So, frankly, I don’t want to be waiting around when the world collapses. That’s right, I have a conscience, Hollywood.
There was only thing to do. Find the producers of the scrited series greenlighted before mine, #436 already in pre-production, and kill them before the show ever aired.
Granted, my solution may shock anyone except those who know how hard it is to sell a TV pitch. Hollywood wannabes and veterans alike will understand that cancelling my first scripted series was not an option for me. C’mon, it’s Netflix.
Plus, I’m only talking about toasting a handful of TV writer-producers who are more plentiful than lab rats. Too much TV is the direct result of too many TV producers. I would be doing everyone a favor by knocking off a few of them.
While those with an entertainment industry connections expressed dismay over the Caltech-UCLA findings, reaction from the general public remains subdued. “What’s a TV?” asked Edward Lopez, 16, of North Hollywood, before darting into Lankersheim Boulevard traffic on a hoverboard. In the short hours since the document was released, more than 6,500 Ivy League students posted dismissive comments tweets using the hashtag #TVSoWhat. Older women said they were anxious about being able to watch the series finale of The Good Wife.
I grabbed my iPad, leather jacket, Prada messenger bag and Big Gulp and stepped outside my condo only to find a familiar male voice greeting me.
“Hello, Dr. Ling,” he said, sweet as Aspartame mixed with Sucralose. “Or should I call you ‘writer-producer’ now? Or maybe just Janet, like I did on Tuesdays nights in ‘Beginning Writing For The Spec Sitcom In The Digital Age’? Or should I call you the creator of Scripted Series #437?”
It was my UCLA Extension instructor Peter, thick brown hair falling over his high forehead, a hint of beard on his chiseled chin. Peter raised his classic Ray-Bans and emitted a hollow horror-movie laugh. My Big Gulp fell from my hand and spilled all over the porch.
“To know that number,” I insisted, “you’d have to estimate the number of writers pitching pilot scripts at any given moment, then graph the deal-making speed of each writer’s agent. plus the strength of the writer’s motivation weighed against network interest across all platforms. Then find the exact point at which all lines intersect for each potential deal, and analyze comparative strength of all series at the time and point of intersection to predict the probability of any one project becoming #437. I saw for myself you couldn’t even figure out what to tip the Shake Shack counter guy.”
“You’re right. I can’t figure it out. But you can.” From his jeans back pocket, Peter pulled a copy of the Caltech-UCLA study, all 670 pages, open to index iii.
I gasped. “Where did you get that?”
“You left a copy on the thumb-drive you gave me when you handed in Clown College. Very absent-minded, Professor.”
I admit being proud of my unique analytic abilities even in this desperate situation. “Yes, I did figure it out. My Clown College is #437. Which is why I’m cancelling my Netflix deal.”
“No, you’re not,” Peter scoffed. “You have a production deal. And since I’ve served as a staff writer on almost every long-running TV crime drama since Cop Rock, I know more than some newbie comedy writer about motive for murder. I believe you’ve decided to kill the producers of Scripted Series #436.”
He laughed again. “In fact, it’s ridiculous, just like your ugly orange nail polish. But it’s possible. And you need me. You have no idea how to murder anyone. But I’ve written enough Pysch episodes that I can think of a hundred ways do it in my sleep. All you have to do is put my name on Clown College as co-creator. You wouldn’t have been able to write it in the first place without my expert guidance. Let’s break you into Hollywood, revive my career and save the world together.”
I only hesitated for a nanosecond before I shook his hand.
“Deal.” In showbiz, that word means there’s no going back unless pitbull lawyers are hired.
A few days later, I was sharing some edamame with the cat when I saw this news article online:
An LAPD task force has assembled to quarantine future TV producers from writing, negotiating or making new scripted series. They will be housed in a bankrupt luxury golf community near Morongo Casino for the duration of pilot season. Sergeant Anthony Chips, hiding what appeared to be a 120-page spec script under the front seat of his patrol car, said, “Too much TV may have prevented El Niño from happening. We must act while there is still time. All you yoga bitches start doing a rain dance.” A successful assassination of a scripted series writing team already has occurred. Police called it America’s first double homicide with strategically placed banana peels. Hollywood liberals are already calling for stricter fruit control. Anyone who sees individuals working on laptops and loitering in studio-adjacent CrossFit Gyms and Genius Bars is asked to dial the hotline: 1-800-NOT-RITE.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season