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.
The struggling actress decides to be a cult leader with money and power all taken from the Hollywood elite. 2,563 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Thirty years ago in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, I knew exactly what I was going to be when I grew up. I would be an actress. There was always a white Christmas, and Amish buggies often blocked your way on single lane roads, and some of the nicest buildings were impeccably maintained barns sporting Hex signs. I got out of that place and went to a respected conservatory where some of my idols had studied. The moment I got my BFA I did exactly what they trained you not to do; I went to L.A. to be in movies. Heresy! I’d turned my back on the theater and embraced its lesser upstart cousin, film.
Ten years later I was still a waitress. A goddamned fucking waitress.
It was at a nice Westside restaurant at least. When I first arrived in town an agent told me that I was, “Fine for a human but ten pounds overweight for an actress.” I’m pretty and pleasant and always on the ball, so I did well with tips. And every evening I had the honor of serving overpriced tiny portions of exquisitely arranged delicacies to people who had everything I ever wanted. Lesser people who had fallen upwards, as only you can in this business. Connected kids with no cares and little talent. The farthest they had to travel from home to achieve my dreams was their doorsteps.
Except her. Sabine. (A stage name, of course. Should I have changed mine? Would it have made a damn of difference?) She was good. She actually deserved all of her success, and there was a lot of it. Once a performance of hers had given me chills. Real goosebumps raised up across my flesh as I sat at the Arclight believing she was a doomed historical figure and not the biggest female star in Hollywood.
She came in for dinner one night a week. Every Friday she was in town. I suspected it was her cheat night and that she starved herself every other long hungry day. I waited on her often and she was always nice. (What in the world did she not have to be deliriously happy about anyway?) Finally, I reached the point where I created the role of a lifetime for myself to take what I deserved: some sort of success in Hollywood.
She never thought a dog’s Hollywood career would be better than hers. 1,710 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Maura Downing was waiting to hear what her former employer had to say, and when it came, the last 25 years of their relationship of professional and emotional gymnastics snapped into focus.
“I’ll give you a $6,500 vintage Hermes Jane Birkin handbag…”
‘Subcontract rate for a couple of months’ work is a designer handbag? Seriously?’
The rest of the conversation was a muddle of Maura refusing showbiz work for the first time ever. While she had been underpaid for years, never had she been offered an empty purse for writing services rendered. It seemed almost funny, ironic in a tragic bad novel sort of way.
“What else are you going to do? Work at CVS?,” the Boss taunted.
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.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: After a movie studio’s big awards night, the new boss plans changes. 1,442 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
TO: All Employees of Persistent Pictures
FROM: Bradford “Buddy” Newborn, President
RE: Studio Philosophy and Production Slate
We’re all proud of the eight Oscars that Persistent Pictures won last night under Bob Cutner’s management. We hope he gets to use his taste and leadership at another company now that he’s suddenly moved on to make way for me.
Since arriving to head the studio, I’ve seen many of you in the hallways, in the valet parking lot, and as I walk through the commissary on the way to my private dining room. But this is the first chance I’ve had to introduce myself since my father, Bradford Newborn Sr., bought the studio.
To quell some of the rumors and wisecracks I’ve been hearing through our advanced monitoring system, I am well aware that moviemaking isn’t anything like the strappy sandal business. It just so happens that shoes are only one of the many manufacturing interests of Newborn International. We also make small home appliances (“Nothing larger than a toaster oven” is our motto), breath mints and lacrosse equipment. We also had a major investment in the Miami Majors, an ice hockey franchise that I was in charge of running until it folded last year. Let me speak frankly: the Majors died because of poor public support, not because of that lawsuit from 12-year-old Jimmy Brewin after a puck got sucked up into the Zamboni and shot out into the stands, taking with it half his face.
I can report that Little Jimmy is doing well, all things considered, and loves his new nose, mouth and mansion.
Now, for studio business.
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.
Cop turned screenwriter Nick Chapel finds another body and puts his own in danger. 3,036 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I’m riding shotgun in the LAPD department issue Ford Taurus going south on the 405 and trying not to imagine the sources of the stains, tears and burned holes in the fabric around me. The seats are wide and the suspension spongy. My slacks and blazer will have to be laundered and even that may not erase the smell of fried food and cigarettes. I crack the window, but it’s not big enough to air out this kind of stink.
For the longest time Ayers says nothing, focusing on the intricate sequence of lane changes required when traveling through West L.A. and Culver City. He’s a meticulous driver, head on a swivel, checking his mirrors. Perhaps he was in the military, or played ball in college. I sense team sports in his background, but the lanky frame that impressed high school recruiters has gone soft.
“So you and Brandt were a team,” the police detective finally says. “I hear you didn’t suck. A real hard charger.”
“I liked putting the cuffs on bad guys.”
“Hard chargers burn out. That what happen to you?”
I smile at the jab, then explain, “I got a job on a TV show and it stuck. Now I’m a screenwriter.”
“I need you to just remember one thing: you’re not a cop anymore. So who is this mook we’re trying to find?”
Former LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel follows a lead in the serial murder case. 2,096 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Five tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
There is a reason I specialize in rewriting crime stories. It’s not just the compelling nature of murder, and the ease of breaking a second act that is propelled by the search for a criminal. It’s the simple motivation that drives the hero to his or her goal. No boring exposition is needed to explain why a police officer or private investigator endures trials and hardships to solve the crime and catch the villain. It’s simply what they do, and who they are. It defines them.
It’s the detective who doesn’t pursue the killer that requires explanation. He knows the criminal is out there somewhere. The same sun beats down on him. He wears sunglasses to cut the glare, just like I am, and maybe even a hat to protect his sensitive scalp. The same hot wind blowing in from the desert burns his lungs. I drive east, sketching out the backstory of a man I’ve never met.
He works in show business, or used to, but the reality never matched his dreams. That made him angry, enough to kill, but he’s no wild man ranting on Hollywood Boulevard about what might have been. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Intelligent. He has a plan and a place to do his work that must be private, where no one would notice his comings and goings, or the bodies he carries.
Driving through Beverly Hills, I wonder if he is shopping at this very moment. Maybe he is sipping a cappuccino at one of the coffee shops on Robertson, or eating lunch at the Beverly Center. But then he is probably more accustomed to brown-bagged lunches and black coffee from a thermos than hipster meetings at The Ivy. I settle into his shoes, and feel the weight of the implements he uses to cut his victims apart. I should be angry with my ex-partner, LAPD Homicide Det. Jim Brandt for introducing me to this character, but only feel an odd gratitude. Finding Sid Shulman is the least I can do.
LAPD detective turned screenwriter Nick Chapel is consulted on a serial murder case. 2,272 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The elevator doors open at the lobby revealing Russell, the day man on the front desk.
“Mr. Chapel, are you okay?” he asks. “I caught the whole thing on the security cameras. Should I call the cops?”
“I’m fine, Russell. No need for the police, but don’t open the garage for them. Maybe they’ll miss their deadline.”
Finally, I let out a long sigh. I am home and safe behind metal gates, doors with biometric key card locks, and Russell with his security monitors and taser. With each passing floor, I feel cleaner and safer, high above the dirt, poverty, illegal-immigrant desperation, multi-cultural conflict, gangbanging violence, and star-struck disillusionment of the city below.
The doors slide open, and we are greeted by a reproduction Louis XIV side table topped with a vibrant bouquet of bird-of-paradise. There are only two condos on this level and Lee Chang stands outside the open door to my unit, no doubt having watched the entire affair on the security system inside. He’s not much older than my college roommate’s daughter, Megan Davies, but already a veteran of the industry. Three months as my assistant will do that to a person. Gone is the boy band haircut and saggy skateboard jeans he wore to his interview, replaced by dressy-casual attire from the vintage stores on Melrose. Right now he is bringing me up to speed with his usual efficiency.
“Housekeeping has the guest room all set up for Megan. Mel called about a deal at Paramount. Mrs. Henderson from next door is threatening to take you before the tenants’ board because of all the paparazzi outside. And you’re all over the news. The landline’s been ringing off the hook. Channel 4, Channel 7, the L.A. Times, Entertainment Tonight. I’m letting the machine pick up. What the hell happened?”
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?”
A Hollywood publicist and a psychic-to-the-stars have an unscripted close encounter. 2,203 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
We’re anchored off St. Barts on the top deck of a super-yacht belonging to a Reality TV producer. It’s a humid starry evening with a party atmosphere of clinking glasses and glib conversations. I’ve come at the invitation of my pal, director Reggie Morgan, to witness a Hollywood psychic deliver a palm reading to an up-and-coming actress who was delightful in that DiCaprio movie.
Olivia Wallace Grimes holds her palms up and listens as Susan Talmadge intones, “I can sense the aura surrounding you, and I now see your aura. Did you know that you have a spiritual host, my dear?”
Olivia suppresses a giggle as she nods faintly.
“Your spiritual host is named Martha,” Susan is saying. “Do you recognize her?”
“Martha? Martha?” Olivia thinks for a second and bites her lower lip. “You mean, Aunty?”
“Yes, your Aunty. And she is very worried about you. There is a person of great importance in your life who has recently betrayed you. A person whom you counted on. And they have lied to you.”
“It’s Hollywood. What can I say?” Olivia says glumly amid titters from the party crowd.
“What is it, Martha? What’s that you say? Martha says that Emma…”
Olivia straightens. “Did you say Emma? Are you talking about the role of Emma? The part I’m up for?”
“Were up for, Martha tells me.” Susan removes her hands from Olivia’s outstretched palms and turns away as the actress begins to tremble with suppressed anger.