Fed up with usual TV fare, a showrunner goes in search of the more unusual – and meaningful. 2,228 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
If Ackerman was capable of sitting still, he might have considered spending a week at a Zen or Ashram retreat in the hope of cleansing himself from his time as showrunner. His TV series was hardly art for art sake. It wasn’t just the relentlessness of seven days a week, week after week, that wore him down. Nor the cartoonish nature of the show. Nor the often drunk leading man who was wooden, defensive, and lacking in both humor and social graces. What gnawed at Ackerman was the tawdriness that increased exponentially as filming went on. He sensed that his days were numbered when one of the creators of the show popped into his office on a Tuesday afternoon.
"You haven’t been on set yesterday or today," noted Jon Schechter.
"Nor will I be there tomorrow."
"Can I ask why?"
"I don’t care if you cast your wife. Or your mother. Or your aunt. Or the bimbo you’re banging. Or the one you’re hoping to nail."
"What’s your point?"
"But when they’re all in the same episode, I’m not coming.”
So Ackerman announced that his debut season on the show would be his last.
His first inclination was to dive head first into a tub of Lysol. But Ackerman decided instead to take some well-earned time off. After a week and a half, his new regimen of detective novels in the morning, Indian buffets at lunch, playground basketball in the afternoon and classic movies in the evening gave way to ever-increasing restlessness.
Then, on a Wednesday morning over a breakfast burrito, Ackerman came upon an article about an experimental youth court in Texas. He’d had "a troubled youth," meaning constant friction with teachers, cops, and other figures of authority, Ackerman was sufficiently interested to do some research on his iPad. He made calls first to the small town in Texas, then to other places with fledgling youth courts. That fact-finding was followed by trips where versions of youth courts were operated.
A newly hired channel executive thinks up the best for the worst. 1,195 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
To: FRN Staff
CC: Skip Delicious, Executive Consultant
From: Jack Ahze, President, Fake Reality Network
I am proud to welcome Mr. John “Skip” Delicious, Executive Consultant, to our FRN family. Mr. Delicious will be responsible for reimagining Fake Reality Network’s programming and turning it into a premiere niche network in at least 17 of the 48 continental United States and maybe Guam.
Mr. Delicious has had a long and storied career as an Executive Consultant in a variety of industries, from medical technology (The Ouchless Catheter) to fast food (Ox ‘n’ Brew). And his rate of success as an Executive Consultant is unparalleled in the annals of consulting. In fact, he was born to be a consultant. When he was seven years old, he used to walk down the street and stop random passersby and say things like, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” and “Might I suggest you diversify?”
I first became aware of Mr. Delicious in 1994, when he was working as a Executive Consultant in the field of Public Relations, and he advised Al Cowlings to “drive slower and put O.J. on the phone – you’ll get more face time.” I knew, even way back then, he and I would work together some day. And today is that day.
In the coming weeks you’ll all get to know and work with Mr. Delicious, and together we’ll make FRN destination viewing!
To: Jack Ahse & FRN Staff
From: Skip Delicious, Executive Consultant
First of all, CALL ME SKIP!!! I am happy to be a part of the FRN team and make us the best fake reality network we can be. Let’s hit the ground running!
TV sitcoms survive on babies, weddings and controversies – in that order. 1,749 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The ballyhooed nationwide talent search for a Muslim-American actress to play the lead in Alisha Loves Fred concluded with the selection of Chandra Parva, a stage-trained ingenue whose TV worked consisted mostly of Law & Order and Criminal Minds roles as the girlfriend or wife of suspected terrorists.
The network’s marketing guru Nina made certain that her staff touted Chandra’s American background. Born and raised in Iowa, even a member of the 4H Club, Chandra was not too dark or light complexioned, and she possessed just the right amount of spunk to make her interesting but not threatening. Still, it wasn’t sufficient to quell the Twitter-sphere where the most popular deprecation called her “a honky in a hijab.”
Casting for Fred narrowed down to the minor country music singer Blake Cummings, a Bakersfield native and bland enough Christian to pass muster. Again, his selection was trashed on social media.
And the award for most hated man in Hollywood goes to… 708 words. Illustration by Roll Call editorial cartoonist R. J. Matson.
I’m just back from an emergency meeting of Make Acronyms Great Again (MAGA) in Hollywood.
As chairman of MAGA’s Crisis Committee (CC), I called the meeting in response to a recent survey showing that most Americans believe President Of The United States (POTUS) nor Son Of A Bitch (SOB) adequately defines Donald Trump. The debate was spirited, acronymists being famously passionate.
“POTUS describes only the office, not the individual,” I began.
“And SOB is much too narrow,” said a linguistics scholar from Berkeley. “It addresses bad character but fails to take into account the buffoon’s low Intelligence Quotient (IQ).”
“Make it Stupid Son Of A Bitch (SSOB),” cried out a ventriloquist who does Trump impressions. “Or Stupid President Of The United States (SPOTUS).”
“Hear, hear,” added his dummy.
A perverse concept for a Reality TV show turns into an even more perverse shoot. 2,122 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It was the dumbest Halloween pitch anybody had heard in forty years. So, naturally, it sold. The reality show was suggested as a joke at a party on Friday night, and by Monday morning the network lawyers had the contracts ready to sign for The Real Vampires Of Transylvania. Why it never aired is revealed in line producer Josh Combs’ production reports. Thanks to Mr. Combs’ widow for permission to reprint them here:
Friday, April 13:
How auspicious to start a vampire series on Friday The 13th. I’m here in Romania for pre-production. We announced an open casting call from 10 to 6, then realized that we should have made it PM instead of AM. In line with the network’s mandate for diversity, we put out a call for a cross-section of physical types. Of course, all the vampires have to look young, beautiful, and sexy; our shorthand for this is “VILF.” Anybody who’s either old or ugly will be cast as villagers. Since we’ll be shooting entirely at night, we were afraid the show couldn’t have any children. Amazingly, all those who applied so far are at least a hundred years old yet look like they’re nine and ten.
In order to make sure we hire the real thing, we have mirrors posted at strategic spots around the meeting room. Note: this may eventually pose a problem for the make-up department. Costuming probably won’t be an issue since everyone tends to arrive dressed in period finery looking like a cross between a Frozen character and the Ambassador Hotel doorman. Most of the actors say they’re from Seattle and are almost all unrelentingly morose. One of the ways we ferret out fakers is by inviting them to sample our craft service table. They refuse everything, although we almost had a disaster when one of the less worldly applicants started to eat a blood orange and we quickly told him it was just a name. Rather than risk another such incident, Amazon Prime is overnighting a supply of crucifixes.
What if America’s creeps were cast members on The Simpsons meet Survivor? 2,158 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
“An animated weekly web series.”
The producer didn’t say anything. Grover waited. He needed a sign. Fingers tapping, a cough. Finally – thank fucking God – the producer blinked. Grover dove back in.
“We’ll generate money from YouTube ads, a lot of ads, because I think this could go big very quickly. Affiliate marketing, merchandising, a book deal, DVDs, network, possible feature sale. But we’ve got to move fast.”
The producer shook his head. “Bannon might be on the way out. But he’s got Hollywood ties. So does Mnuchin. I don’t know if I want to go up against that. How many people have you talked to about this?”
“You’re the first,” Grover said. And that was mostly true. He’d pitched the idea to a producer friend at a Clippers game and the friend had laughed. “Yowza. Career suicide, pal.” Which didn’t exactly count as a pass, did it?
“Remind me of the one-liner again.” The producer took a deep breath.
“Lord Of The Flies meets Island Of Misfit Toys meets ‘Basket Of Deplorables’.”
To what lengths will the wannabe famous go to stay in the celebrity picture? 1,891 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When I spot the paparazzi on Montana Avenue, I get an adrenalin rush. Someone famous is around here. I can smell it. I, myself, have some notoriety, being the only child of Melissa Kane, star of such classics as Moon Over Malibu and Surf Wars.
My mother was famous in the seventies for her beach movies. She met my father, Francis Fanucchi, a mid-level studio executive, when he came to the set of Sand In My Shoes. My mother was blonde and lithe. In contrast, my father was compact, dark, muscular and pugnacious. I am tall like my mother, but I have my father’s coloring. Some say I have his face, but I reject the idea. Still, I have to admit that his robust genes beat out my mother’s more ethereal ones.
I was twenty when they died and they were both forty-two, only six years older than I am now. My father drove their Maserati off a cliff in Big Sur and it was all very dramatic and tragic. Some said it was an accident. Several claimed it was a double-suicide. Others maintained it was something more nefarious. The mystery was the making of the myth. My mother gained stature in death, her fame and celebrity burgeoning until she became a cult hero while my father doesn’t even have an entry on IMDB.
What I have left of them are the happy memories of being caught by the cameras – of Mom and I dressed up for Easter in matching bonnets, of Mom wearing a fat suit as Mrs. Santa and me as an elf. I became addicted to the feeling I got when being photographed.
When the paparazzi princess disobeys the law, her neighbors suffer. 2,170 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Once news of Venice Hyatt’s arrest hit social media, the paparazzi and TV news vans invaded the streets and crowded the driveways throughout Maureen and Paul’s neighborhood. The gold-diggers had arrived; but instead of picks, rakes, and shovels, they had all sorts of cameras and microphones. Because a picture or a word from the scandalous heiress was worth a fortune on the gossip world market.
A neighbor, Craig, contacted Maureen by phone. He lived up the street from Venice and worked as a nurse at the UCLA hospital. He related how coming home one early morning he had to chase a newsman urinating on his doorstep.
“Now that she has been arrested, the circus will only intensify,” Craig griped. “We need to do something.”
Then came another news break: VENICE HYATT RELEASED FROM JAIL.
What happened was the L.A. County Sheriff ignored the judge’s sentence of 23 days and let the celebutante go free after a mere 72 hours. For an “undisclosed medical condition.” She was to be sent home to serve her sentence while wearing an ankle monitor.
The media as well as trolls on Twitter and Facebook questioned what kind of medical condition it could be since, a few hours before being jailed, Venice was photographed at the MTV Movie Awards. Apparently in perfect health.
When a paparazzi princess moves in, there goes the neighborhood. 2,075 words. Part Two. illustration by Thomas Warming.
Maureen and Paul lived a peaceful productive life on a small winding street five minutes above Sunset Boulevard.
Early mornings at their house were particularly glorious: the chirping birds, the chittering squirrels, the basking sun all contributed to the tranquil bucolic mood, as did the magnificent view. But it was especially the quiet street that made Maureen and Paul’s living environment the envy of all their friends. “You can work here! You can create here! You can sleep peacefully here!” they exclaimed again and again.
Maureen and Paul felt privileged. They earned a good living writing for television but were not rich. Paul was toiling on a second-grade broadcast series. After Maureen’s series was canceled, she was finally trying to write that novel she has been talking about since her glory days in the creative writing program at at Columbia University. They’d acquired their house quite a few years back when prices were still affordable. Today only rich people could build or purchase a home there. The location was so desirable that Maureen and Paul’s neighbors were cashing out by selling their homes to the voracious developers, contractors and flippers eager to buy up any and every property.
One day Maureen heard from her friend Rob, a long-time resident like herself, that the house right below her on Trasher Avenue had sold. Rob walked his dog everyday; dog owners love to chat and keep their ears to the ground. So Maureen got all her neighborhood gossip from Rob.
A week later, he delivered a gold nugget.
“Venice Hyatt bought that house below you.”
“The Venice Hyatt?”
Out-of-work Hollywood types travel to the middle of nowhere to make an adventure show. 2,332 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Mann.
We were desperate. Art. Bruce. Lance. Tony. Scott. The whole lot of us. Desperate for another break. Desperate to make another month’s rent, another phone bill, another car payment. Desperate to make something happen. Tired of waiting tables, waiting in open houses, waiting to get slaughtered at the next cattle call. We’d all had a break or two already – a national commercial, a recurring role on HBO or FX or AMC, a juicy part in a fourquel splatter-fest. Just enough to keep our hopes up, keep us out of real jobs and real money. Only the breaks hadn’t led to bigger breaks. We needed that big roller to take us over the top. And this was our wave machine.
“Can you believe this shit?” said Art, an aspiring film editor scraping by on local commercials and backyard bare-knuckle brawl videos. Believe it or not, they pay people to edit those things. He got four hundred bucks and an eight ball for the last gig, which launched the career of a 380 pound overalls-clad cyclops named Opie Mohammed.
I couldn’t believe the tab as I looked at it, dollar signs burning my eyes. Even out in the middle of nowhere like we were, in some Northern California town where the redwoods met the Pacific, it was possible to run up a four figure bar tab. Before I could react, another round had arrived — bottles of Budweiser and whiskey backs, although you could have them in any order you liked. I could already feel the hangover and I knew a couple of the others were half blind. Somebody had to pay for this. The credit cards were maxed. We didn’t have the budget for this bill. I hailed the waitress and ordered another round of whiskey.
As soon as I said it I got hit in the eye with the flash. “How come every time I order a whiskey, you take my picture?” I asked.
Scott slipped the phone back in his pocket. “Because in Argentina they say ‘whiskey’ instead of ‘cheese’. Picked it up on a shoot in Patagonia.”
TV FICTION PACKAGE: A veteran producer learns from one of his teen contestants. 2,442 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
People have a lot of questions for me lately. How did I come to fire the most powerful law firm in Hollywood? Tear up the contract that governs how most reality competition shows do business? Lose the potential breakout star of my TV singer-songwriter contest Troubador?
The last one is the easiest to explain: Why didn’t I sue Brady James when he gave me and my series the finger and walked away?
He didn’t have a contract.
It started with me watching Crystal Bowersox on season nine of American Idol and thinking — that girl writes her own songs so let’s hear some of them. The idea took shape with Phil Phillips and this latest kid Mackenzie Bourg. I quickly realized a new show could put everything I loved together in one package. I love music. I love songwriters. And as I’ve proved during a thirty-year career working with all four networks and a couple of cable newbies, I love TV. So why not air a performance contest for singer-songwriters? Forget LaPortia Renae standing up there in the laser show belting out some old Mary J. Blige number. My vision was 1974’s Joni Mitchell standing up with a guitar, no light show or pyrotechnics, and simply singing Big Yellow Taxi. Or Bob Marley performing No Woman No Cry for the first time on my stage. Or – why not, shoot for the stars, Danny! – Bob Dylan, scruffy and unknown, knocking the world on its ass with Mr. Tambourine Man. You’re telling me the world ran out of Joni Mitchells and Bob Marleys and Bob Dylans? Seriously?
Then check out Brady James. I knew he was the genuine article at the first Troubadour audition. And it was a big relief, let me tell you.
TV FICTION PACKAGE: A reality executive gives the presentation of his career. 2,201 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
Marty Nordin was sweating at his desk. He had a presentation due in 10 minutes and it wasn’t just unfinished but he hadn’t even begun to write it. It would be his last opportunity to keep his job. Because he couldn’t count on the shows he had developed to save him.
Some 13-year-old boy in Norway was getting 19 million views per week on a YouTube video while Marty’s series on the Watch-it! Network were lucky to attract 35,000. Fuck. And what was the kid doing that was so goddamned compelling? Playing a kazoo and simultaneously playing a video game. Crap.
Marty was 48 years old and had spent his entire adult life trying to create a hit TV series. To be honest, he’d really spent most of that time just trying to stay employed. But making a hit was the goal. He had tried at one point to develop quality dramas, but he had ended up in reality shows just like everybody else with half a brain. Scripted TV was deemed too formal. Viewers no longer wanted beginnings, middles and ends. They wanted chaotic stuff stitched together.
He could thank the cable industry’s package pricing for the proliferation of channels like the Watch-it! Network that get less than 50,000 viewers. Marty was responsible for developing Eat-it! where several people ate gross stuff and made each other eat gross stuff and then talked about eating gross stuff. And he launched Play-it!, a show with a room of “famous” people with very different POVs on life playing board games until it disintegrated into name calling and brawling. Shove-it! didn’t even make it past pilot but Marty felt it had more dramatic arc than anything on YouTube, dammit.
Now the pressure was on. New bosses. Ratings that sucked. A media landscape that just didn’t make sense anymore. The channel was being shopped to whichever buyer took control of a chunk of Congruent which was the giant corporation that owned the corporation that owned the Watch-it! Network. Between the corporate bullshit and the kids on YouTube, Marty was starting to think it time to get a real estate license. How long did that take?
TV FICTION PACKAGE: An adventure channel crew reconsiders after a scary encounter. 2,347 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
After the monster bit our boat, we got the hell out of the river.
Our star, Dr. Grady Jackson, laughed as we climbed up the bank and made our way in the dark to the van. Nothing seemed to slow him down. Not even an evil villain sent straight from hell. Less than an hour ago, we were standing knee-deep in a Central American river filled with horrific hungry creatures big enough to eat us. At night. So we could shoot dramatic footage in the dark with Grady as he caught a few of the bigger beasts. In small rubber boats, no less. Me, I almost saw the headline flash before my eyes when he went under the water: “REAL LIFE ACTION HERO KILLED MAKING TV ADVENTURE SERIES.” People do die making our shows.
Top that, Hollywood.
“Pura Vida!” Grady said.
“Or Aloha,” I said. “Whatever.”
Helping Grady was exhilarating, but for me it represented a new low point in my career. I was glad to be outdoors, shooting video in an exotic location. It sure beat smoking crack next to our headquarters in the middle of downtown Washington, D.C. on my lunch breaks every day. But this was getting too weird. Even for me. No, I don’t really smoke crack. It’s a metaphor. My job now was chasing killers more ruthless than any of the other wild creatures I have spent thousands of hours watching from the safety of editing rooms.
A TV team for an adventure channel goes in search of scary footage. Unfortunately, they find it. 3,502 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
And there I was.
The point of this exercise was about as stupid as it sounds when you say it out loud. I was standing knee-deep in a river filled with horrific hungry creatures big enough to eat me. At night. We were launching two rubber boats so we could head out into the warm murky water and shoot dramatic footage in the dark with our star, Dr. Grady Jackson, as he caught a few of the bigger beasts. Yeah. In rubber boats. Jesus.
Yes, I just took the Lord’s name in vain. Sorry if you are offended. I am a bad man. But not bad enough, as you may soon see from the confessions I list. Why should I fear hell? Some of it was right here. At the moment, we had some huge real-life demons to deal with.
Confession #1: I absolutely hate this particular species.
You’ll get none of that noble carnivore crap from me. In India and Africa these evil mutants have been known to devour small children and old women. They are killers more ruthless than any of the other wild creatures I have spent thousands of hours watching in editing rooms. Which is where I usually was. Not now. With the extra camera, I would catch another angle for editing purposes. I was the writer-slash-producer-slash-director of this show.
My job title was not as glamorous as it sounded. In TV, if you write it, you usually have to produce it and direct it, to see that it’s done right, and that can mean shooting footage, or editing, or even narrating the piece. If you managed to read those tiny credits at the end, while the channel was promoting the next program coming up, you might have seen my name fly by.
Granted, it was kind of exciting to be out here near them in the open. But the creatures we were hunting? I detested them almost as much as I feared them. I have my reasons.
TV and film collide on a serial murder case with the LAPD and a detective turned screenwriter. 4,813 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jim Brandt was too old for this shit. He should be home in bed with his wife, not stuck in a car on an LAPD stakeout. Detective Dana Hansen sat in the passenger seat, sensitive to his every move. They both looked out the windshield of the Ford Crown Victoria to the unimpressive apartment building across the street.
The cameraman directly behind her broke the silence. “I need something white,” he said. “You got anything white?”
“You need something white?” Hansen asked. She was petite, and the cameraman could only see her crown of dark hair over the seat’s headrest.
“Yeah, white, to color balance the camera.”
“Brandt, you got anything white?”
“No,” Brandt said. “Just everybody don’t move around so much. Keep your eyes peeled.”
The car fell silent. Brandt worked the kinks from his neck. Stakeouts were bad enough with only two people confined in a car for hours, listening to each other’s grumbling intestines and breathing air scented with sweat, hamburger grease, and farts. But a stakeout with four people was impossible. He blamed the show, the goddamned Manhunt show. The brass downtown thought a network reality program was the perfect opportunity to show the progress the LAPD had made since the dark days of Rampart and Rodney King.