The douchey showrunner of a dumb YA series turns up the heat on his writers room. 2,105 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
My agent Chad tells me it’s a good idea to staff on a show, just to keep my name out there. I tell him I’m a big fan of Veep and GOT and Transparent and he says there’s a staff writer opening on WitcheZ. I’ve never seen WitcheZ, it isn’t the kind of show I watch – teen witches and warlocks who fight each other, and have sex. A lot of hot sweaty witch-y sex. Not exactly in my wheelhouse.
“It’ll show your range,” Chad says.
WitcheZ is in its second year. It did okay the first season – medium ratings and terrible reviews, but has a strong social media presence that keeps the network happy. “They’re rebuilding the staff,” Chad tells me and I ask my friend Suze who I met on Melancholy, my first TV job, to translate. She says “rebuilding the staff” is usually a euphemism for a creator/showrunner being a paranoid control freak asshole who fired everybody. She doesn’t know this guy, Scott Buckley, but she’ll check him out.
“Takes lithium. Had a big coke habit a couple years ago,” she reports back. “Resents the fact he’s writing a shitty YA show and thinks he should be on cable winning Emmys. Once mentioned The Crucible to a reporter and said Arthur Miller was a hack who at least got to bone Marilyn Monroe. Likes being boss. Makes writers come into the office every day. No writing at home because he likes an audience.” Suze pauses. “Oh, and he plays the guitar.”
I meet with Scott at his office. He’s got the top of the line Aeron office chair, of course. A few framed U2 posters on the wall. “U2 fan,” I say, trying to break the ice.
“Do you like music?” He cocks his head at me. It’s almost like a tic. He’s got longish hair that could be highlighted. Slightly rat-faced. Val-Surf wardrobe – but if this guy can surf, I’m Kate Upton.
“Sure,” I say. I’ve already noticed an acoustic guitar on a stand in the corner.
“Everybody thinks Joshua Tree is their best album – God, so obvious. Zooropa is kickass,” Scott says, reaching for his guitar. For a minute, I think he’s going to play something. But he just puts it on his lap. He’s waiting for me to talk about U2.
“Bono seems like a cool dude,” I say.
“Yeah. I met him a couple times. We wanted to do an Africa series. Poverty, hunger, shit like that. Showtime gave it a greenlight, then they backed off. Pussies.” He strums a few chords. Seems pleased with the sound. Looks up at me. “His friends call him Paul. That’s his real name. What kind of music do you like?”
“I listen to a lot of stuff. Right now I’m into this old band, Shudder To Think. Craig Wedren is amazing.”
“Not as amazing as Bono.” For a minute I think Scott is kidding and I notice his left hand is gripping the guitar neck so tightly his knuckles are white.
“Yeah,” I say. “Nobody’s as amazing as Bono.”
I tell Chad I think Scott is kind of psycho. Maybe he’s on coke again. Or stopped taking his lithium. I watched the first season of WitcheZ on my laptop and it’s pretty awful. Chad says they want me to start on Monday. And, since it’s the best (and only) offer I’ve got (my pilot was passed on), I take it.
The rest of the staff seems okay and, like me, not thrilled about the job. Five of us are waiting in the conference room for Scott. We’ve been waiting for a half hour and it’s already ten-thirty. We avoid looking at the giant photograph in the room – the cast of WitcheZ with him in the middle and giant letters written in Sharpie across the top from the actors he hired, “We LOVE you, Scott.”
Scott finally comes in around eleven. He’s carrying a Starbucks macchiato and a pink box with three cronuts inside. For a minute, I think he’s brought them for us, a kind of “Nice to meet you” thing. Except why are there only three? And Scott quickly makes it clear, when he eats the three cronuts in succession, that he’s not offering us anything. Not even the crumbs.
When he finishes the last cronut, he burps – a deep rumbling belch – and the writer sitting beside me with a purple stripe in her hair whispers, “I’m going to cut myself.” I nod at her.
“That felt good,” Scott tells us as he turns around and looks at the blank whiteboard. “Jesus, you guys haven’t done any work? What am I paying you for?”
WitcheZ isn’t terrible, but it’s not very good. Two sisters befriend a new girl at their high school after she’s bullied and it turns out bullied girl Posey has some “secret talents.” As in – duh – witchcraft. Bully girl gets impaled in the eye with a lacrosse stick in Season One. Bully boy broils when his shower water suddenly gets too hot. The sisters are naturally afraid of Posey’s powers, but once she points out how her powers can sometimes be used for good – like getting cute boys – their coven is born. Except there’s also a male coven. Which leads to complications.
“Skyclad” is the first episode of Season Two, and Scott would be writing it but he’s working on a pilot for a WitcheZ spinoff, Ghombie. One of the female characters who died in WitcheZ’ Season One turned out to be very popular so the network wants to bring her back. Scott’s idea was to resurrect her as a ghost/zombie. Thus, Ghombie.
“Think of the merch,” Scott tells us.
It’s only the first day and I begin to think up ways to get fired. The first being a junk punch to Scott. Assuming he has junk to punch. We spend the rest of the day trying to break “Skyclad” (which is when members of a coven get naked.) The co-exec producer, a quiet gentle-looking guy named Barry, will be writing the episode. He stands at the board and talks about character arcs and the big action sequence at the end of act three involving the human sacrifice of Dylan, the captain of the football team. We’re moving along at a great clip. Until Scott, who is mostly bent over his iPhone, looks up and shakes his head.
“No,” Scott says. “Posey doesn’t need a scrying tool. Did you watch the episodes? She’s got the power to read minds.”
“I thought she lost that in the finale of Season One,” Barry says.
“We need to bring it back,” Scott replies, on his cell again.
The week goes like this. The writers gather at ten, we make attempts to work on the story, then Scott appears. Usually with his Starbucks coffee and pink box of cronuts. He’ll sit on the sofa – sometimes reclining, occasionally taking off his shoes and socks. (“Sweet Jesus, he’s had a pedicure,” purple stripe Lisa says).
Scott checks the board. “Better,” he says, pulling out his cell. “Except, Barry, erase acts two and three, and we’ll start over.”
We labor ten to seven, five days a week. Barry asks if he can stay home one morning to work on his outline. But Scott says no, the office is more productive. Too many distractions at home. (Scott is saying this as he plays Angry Birds on his cell and shouts, “Fuck you, pig.”)
In two weeks, the first episode hasn’t been broken. Barry spends so much time at the whiteboard, I think he’s high from marker fumes. Lisa worries because her script is up next.
“I wish I was a real witch,” she whispers to me. “I’d make a spell to have Scott wake up one morning with his mouth replaced by his butthole. Wouldn’t that be awesome?” I agree.
The Santa Anas have kicked in and, even though we’re inside, we can look out the windows to see dust blowing and palm trees swaying. It’s Wednesday afternoon and Scott is yelling at us for not moving faster on Barry’s story. Barry remains patient and tells Scott he’s open to suggestions.
“Jeez, am I supposed to do everybody’s job?” Scott says and walks out of the room.
Barry sighs while explaining, “I didn’t want to do WitcheZ. But we just finished a big kitchen renovation.”
“My agent told me it would be good to have a supernatural show on my resume,” Lisa notes. “I wanted to be on UnREAL.”
“I thought doing a YA series would make people think I was still in my thirties,” says the fortysomething writer who looks like he’s closer to fifty.
I’m ready to talk about my stupid agent Chad, but before I can say anything, Lisa jumps up, her cell in her hand. A breaking news alert is on the screen. “Oh my God, there’s a fire. A big one.”
We pull out our cells and watch the local news stations live. Sure enough, the combination of the Santa Anas and a car accident on the 5 freeway have combined to create a massive brush fire.
“That’s close,” Barry says. The flames aren’t far from the studio.
Lisa pushes the window open and sticks out her head. The smell of smoke creeps into the room. The local news anchors are talking about mandatory evacuations in neighborhoods close to the studio, but not us. “Should we go home?” Lisa asks.
“Close the window,” Barry demands.
Lisa pushes at the window, but it won’t budge. “I think it’s stuck.”
People pack up their laptops. I’m already wondering how to get home. If the 5 is blocked, which surface streets should I take?
“I hope they don’t close Laurel Canyon,” Lisa says.
At that moment, Scott appears in the doorway, holding his guitar. He notices us packing up. “Whoa, half-day?” he asks.
“The fire,” Barry says, holding up his cell so Scott can see the flames on the screen. “It’s probably a good idea to leave.”
“Yeah, I heard about it on Twitter,” Scott nods. “I had an idea about Posey in act four. I thought maybe she could sing something. I’m kicking this around. What do you think?”
He sits on the arm of the sofa and starts to play.
I’ve got my backpack on my shoulder, the rest of the writers are ready to walk out, but we don’t move. .
Scott begins to sing. His voice isn’t bad, a little high, like a girl’s. “Feeling sad and lonely, missing my best friend. Wish I hadn’t cast the spell, that caused her untimely end.”
Lisa watches Scott and her mouth hangs open. I wonder if she’s going to say something crude. Barry is looking out the window. There’s an orange tint to everything. The room smells like smoke.
Scott continues to sing. “Tie up my knots, bring me my hex, I miss you so much, but mostly the sex.”
On our cell phone screens, a hillside is burning. Black silhouettes of firefighters are trying to defend a house.
“Chicken bones I crush you, with all the power of Beelzebub, I curse your soul, I wish you pain…” Suddenly, Scott stops. “Fuck. I can’t think of anything that rhymes with Beelzebub.
This is where my TV career ends. I’ll go back to writing plays that don’t make any money, but at least they earn respect. I’m not forced to listen to some Nero-wannabe singing as the city around us burns. Why don’t we stand up to Scott? We could rush him, rip the guitar out of his hands and smash it over his head. Five angry writers, like wolves with a lamb.
A devious, stupid, selfish, lazy, motherfucking bad-singing lamb.
A map is now on our cell screens. The fire is spreading. Moving closer to the studio.
Lisa steps forward and addresses Scott. “If you changed it to Lucifer, you could use executioner.”
Scott thinks that over. “Beelzebub sounds scarier.”
“Lucifer, crucifer,” Barry suggests. He starts to cough because of the smoke. Somewhere on the lot, we hear the sound of an alarm.
Scott looks at me.
“What would Bono do?” I ask him. “Think about Bono.”
And I realize right then that I’ve sold my soul to Lucifer or Beelzebub or whomever. There will be another time to make a stand. But, for now, I’m writing for a bad show and making money and breathing smoky air and listening to a crazy creator/showrunner play the guitar. Anything to keep the gig.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season