Crimes Against Television

by J.M. Rosenfield

TV FICTION PACKAGE: An Emmy publicity stunt goes terribly and hilariously wrong. 2,665 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

It materializes out of the smog at daybreak, low on the horizon over the San Gabriel Mountains when most of Los Angeles is still asleep. From the early news reports patched into his headset, Garrett discovers that people just waking up to their morning coffee are already calling in about it. Some claim to be witnessing a UFO. Or even a falling angel.

“It’s like trying to shoot Jesus,” he hears his cameraman say as if he, too, is rising from a dream.

The figure is attached to thick wire ropes that dangle from a harness beneath the open cargo bay of the big chopper, a heavy-lift Sikorsky Skycrane. The first rays of sun glint from gilded wings as the figure glides serenely with outstretched arms over the industrial outskirts of Van Nuys. It turns and banks in a long sweeping curve over the palm-lined tracts of Studio City, flying up and over the hillside estates of Mulholland, dropping in low at treetop level through Beachwood Canyon until it hovers motionless, a pinpoint of flashing gold over the Hollywood sign.

Garrett is seated comfortably next to his pilot in the little chopper, a Bell Jet Ranger, the chase craft orbiting the spectacle at a distance. He’s relieved to discover a sense of stillness above the traffic just beginning to spill onto the freeways. But this tranquility is short lived. He can see prop-wash kicking up squirts of sand on the fire road that snakes its way above Hollyridge. And he knows the deep penetrating thwack of the chopper blades is rattling the flimsy stucco homes packed into the sides of the canyons. He can see people beginning to crane their heads out of doorways and sliding windows.

The thrum of the turbine makes it nearly impossible for Garrett to communicate anything but the most basic commands to the crew. But what does it matter anyway? You can usually depend on the shooters to hose it down. A few pushes and pulls. Still, he thinks, it’s nearly impossible to settle back and watch them work. You never know what hits the screen until it’s too late.

The bad feeling comes on. It starts with a tightness in his stomach. They’re making a lot of noise. Attracting too much attention. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Better to get it over with as quickly as possible. Garrett cues the pilot. The cabin tilts forward. They accelerate. Closing in on the icon. As it passes in and out of shadow, slowly twisting in the empty sky, the facets of the face are thrown into stark relief. Feminine. The muse. She looks otherworldly. Alien.

Crowds are gathering in driveways and on rooftops. They’re shooting cell phone video. Live streaming. One man hoists a boy on his shoulders, pointing to the sky like he’s showing him a shuttle launch or an eclipse and this is a memory the boy will carry with him for the rest of his life. Garrett wonders what it would be like to change places with them and share for just one moment their capacity for genuine awe and astonishment.

It reminds him of something his own father once described. A memory of a memory. A birthday party in 1961 when Garrett’s dad was ten years old. The trip to downtown Minneapolis for the taping of a kiddies show and the thrill only a few hours later after the ride back to the suburbs when they all crowd around the console television, tuning in for the big event. They see themselves for a fleeting moment on the screen. Played back in ghostly black and white as the camera pans the studio audience. The grownups note his bewilderment. One of them says “videotape,” a new word back then, like “instant replay” which he hears them mention as they watch the Packers play the Vikings. He knows it isn’t the same as home movies that use individual frames you can view directly by holding the film up to the light. But storing a live event with picture and sound on an opaque ribbon of magnetic tape and then beaming the images out, invisibly, over the air.

“It all seemed like magic,” Garrett remembers his dad saying. “Back then when it was entirely new. And it taxed every bit of a boy’s imagination to comprehend it. Technology seemed so ripe with possibilities. Transistor radios. Polaroid Land cameras. Color TV.”

A time of faith in the future. New frontiers. Before the world went digital. Apocalyptic.

A gap in the swirling chaos on the ground snaps Garrett out of his trance. Something out of sync with the commotion they’ve stirred up down below. He sees a girl sitting alone. An indelible dot in a vast green sea of manicured lawn that surrounds the rippling blue swimming pool of a sprawling hacienda. She sits upright. In lotus.

Then, the burly biker, in a leather vest and ratty Levi’s. He’s scaling the boundary wall. Garrett sees him tumble forward. Pick himself up. Limp towards the girl.

Time begins to dilate. The world goes slo-mo. Garrett feels the familiar shudder of recognition. The girl is all of seventeen. If that. But he’s seen her somewhere before. In a fashion layout or a commercial. Maybe a music video. Still, he can’t place her. Which bothers him because he prides himself on his infallible memory for famous faces and names.

She glances up at the grating machine noise from the sky. Garrett can see this girl possesses a rare dark beauty. Her porcelain complexion is set off by smoky hair. Long and unruly. Parted down the middle and hanging in loose wavy tresses. She’s completely out of place in the bright California sun. She seems to have stepped out of a late Renaissance painting. Blinded by the harsh light of an unfamiliar century.

She raises a hand to shield her eyes. From the glare? Or searching for a clue to his intentions?

Garrett signals the pilot to descend for a closer shot.

The cameraman looks up. “Not on the flight plan, boss.”

The Ranger dives sharply. The cameraman wrestles with his controls, trying to find her in his monitor.

Garrett instructs the pilot to level out and hover. But by now a team of black-suited security guards is alerted. They’re swarming full tilt from the house. Sprinting to intercept the intruder who pulls out a flashing metal shank. Garrett wants desperately to warn the girl. But he’s sealed inside the helicopter. Mute and paralyzed. Like he’s viewing a rehearsal unfolding on a stage. The action is real. The actors just out of reach.

The girl slowly turns to face her attacker. She sees the blade. And smiles. What’s this? She seems to welcome him with a mixture of curiosity and something else. Acceptance?

The man grabs her by the hair. Just as the security guards gang-tackle him. He’s cuffed and gasping for breath. They hustle him away. Garrett looks to the girl. He searches for the slightest sign of fear on her face. She exhales slowly and reaches up with a sleeve. Wipes away a tear.

Garrett checks with his cameraman. Hopeful.

“Talk to me,” Garrett says.

The cameraman shakes his head. Throws his hands up. “What the fuck. You’re calling audibles?”

Garrett pantomimes a slashing motion across his neck.

The pilot takes them up. The cabin shakes as the Ranger fights to gain altitude. The cameraman looks over from his monitor. Garrett turns around. He sees it, too. The belly of the big chopper looming perilously close. Filling the cabin window. Blotting out the sky.

Too close. Their tail rotor clips a long line. One of three securing the gilded figure beneath the big chopper. The wire rope snaps. Zing.

The big chopper lurches sideways at the sudden shift of its payload. And drops. Nearly collides with the Ranger which banks steeply and veers away. The cameraman pivots back to his console, swiveling the joystick, tracking the sudden erratic movements of the statue. It twirls wildly. Hangs awkwardly from its two remaining lines. Gyrating in midair like a wounded marionette.

Cheers from the crowd below. They think the aerial display is part of a planned routine. But the cheers fade when a second line gives way and the head of the statue tips forward end over end. It hangs from its feet. Spinning. Looking more like an upside down magician trying to escape from a straitjacket. It’s now hanging by a thread.

The pilot of the big chopper tries to pull up. Too late. The head slams into a brick chimney. Clips the tops of wind-blown cypresses and the branches of evergreens. Finally, the entire figure shatters. Disintegrating in a shower of plaster fragments and gold leaf shreds. Until all that remains is the wire cage armature which snags on a cell tower. Touching off a cascade of sparks and igniting a small brush fire. A few homeowners are able to douse the flames with extinguishers and garden hoses.

“Strike the phrase Emmy organizers,” she says. “They prefer to be known as the Television Academy.” Garrett contemplates her, this little nitpicking fact-checker with her punk pigeon glasses and skewed haircut, as he would some exotic insect. Can’t she see he’s on deadline? She’s just handed him a vetted version of his script. Clean copy. Neatly typed in big block letters by a writer in the newsroom. But already defaced with yellow highlighting streaks and the onset of fresh corrections scrawled in red next to stenographic marks at the head of each graph. Bizarre hieroglyphics he couldn’t begin to decipher even if he had the luxury of time to look the whole thing over. Precious time. Which he doesn’t have.

Garrett climbs the last few steps to the loading dock when he’s intercepted yet again. This time by an intern. Blonde ponytail. Dodgers cap. Probably nineteen. She’s been sent to fetch the camera’s memory card.

He eyes her tight little hardbody, which she barely conceals under loose fitting painter’s overalls. He hands her the card.

“For the open,” she says. And dashes off with it in the direction of the soundstage.

“They’ll be needing that upstairs,” he calls after her.

“Too close. We’re running it raw,” she says without looking back.

He glances at his watch. It’s already past three in New York. By now the second and third blocks of the show are up-linked on the sat-feed. The East Coast affiliates will need the first block by 3:50 at the very latest. But the producers have obviously committed themselves. They’re holding back the lead. Feeding ahead the other blocks of the show out of order. Gambling on their ability to throw something together at the last second. Now it all falls on him. The mad scramble to preview the video. Cue up some sound. That’s already happening in some edit bay. Maybe lay down a track or do a live VO. He’ll have to hustle into makeup and collect himself in front of the videowall. All in time for a single take. But he’s overcome worse in the past. Learned to go live at the drop of a hat. If it comes to that he can fall back on basic reporting. Just keep it short and sweet. Tell it in simple declarative sentences. See it and say it. Only what you know is true. Reference the video. Tag it. Toss it back to the anchors.

He heads straight over to the set. Arlene, a mousy news producer, catches up to him on the way. She matches him stride for stride.

"You’re not only fronting the lead, you are the lead," she says.

How to explain to these minor functionaries – they’re killing me with interruptions. If it wouldn’t cost him extra seconds, he could go find an ax and lop her head off.

"I’m on deadline," he says.

"Caught a breaker. Can’t help that."

"Might be nice if someone gave me a little heads up. Clued me in I’m making air."

“You didn’t answer your cell. We tried raising you on the chopper’s two-way. Variety and the Times are lobbing in calls every five minutes. Story crossed the wires twenty minutes ago. It’s already hit TMZ. Gawker is working to advance it."

Garrett’s temples pound. Migraine coming on. This is exactly where he doesn’t want to be. The subject of a story. The worst place for a reporter. He’s fair game for anyone. The story is about to gain a momentum of its own. A momentum he won’t be able to control. Who knows where it will finally end up. Where it will take him. Or his career.

“I wasn’t flying the bird,” he tells her. “How do I know what went wrong up there?”

They arrive at the soundstage with the large 22 painted on the side. He reaches for the door. Arlene holds it shut as they wait for the flashing red light.

Garrett says, “I’m going to die before that thing goes out.”

Arlene tugs at her tights. "They smell blood. You know it’s teasable. And you’re the only crew with video."

The flashing stops. All clear. Garrett yanks the thick door open. He gropes his way in the dark through the narrow corridor to the set while he tries to avoid snagging his pristine Kiton suit on the exposed two-by-fours and chicken wire that line the decrepit backing of the stage. It takes a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. When they arrive at the videowall he’s nearly blinded by the 10K’s. A writer thrusts a revised script page into Garrett’s hands while an audio technician clips a Lavalier mic to his lapel.

“I’ve got to give them something,” Arlene says.

“We were wrapped. A cable malfunctioned.”

“Why didn’t you head back to the airport? The crew says you saw something on the ground. What were you shooting when it failed?”

He ducks into the makeup room. Only a temporary reprieve. But heaven. Garrett slides into the leather barber chair. The door to the room seals shut. The girl goes to work. He wishes he could lie back and go to sleep on the couch in this cool, sound-proofed, sanctuary. He would ease into a daydream about the yoga girl with the dark beauty. Beads of sweat roll down his neck. He reaches back to tamp it dry with the itchy paper towel that protects his chin from smudging his tie and shirt collar with orange stains. The makeup girl slaps his hand away.

He scans the pages. Notes the running times for each block of text. No time to check the copy for meaning. Just punch up the action verbs on the fly and give it a lilt. When he plays back his live shots, they always sound stilted to him. Like game show speak. But anything more subtle or shaded, the producers will jump all over him for being indifferent. Or worse. Boring. Got to convince the viewers why they should care.

That same evening, the story breaks on every major network. But not before Garrett’s report debuts on Hollywood Lowdown. It runs a minute forty-five. Most of it voiced over the visuals of the giant Emmy crashing into the hillside. It’s initially cued in real time. Then re-racked repeatedly in slo-mo. While Garrett matter of factly recounts how the Academy’s mission to airlift the statue from a workshop in Valencia to the Microsoft Theater in Downtown L.A. for the upcoming awards ceremonies “somehow went terribly wrong.”

A few of the local independent stations run tape from amateur shooters on the ground. The O&Os each request and receive a dub of Garrett’s video which is fed to them and, in turn, is re-fed to their affiliates across the country. Inquiries for interviews with Garrett come in from Today, Good Morning America, The View, CNN and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

He takes a side door and dodges the network​’s flack. For now, at least, a clean getaway. As he exits the lot, he’s already thinking three moves ahead. The postmortems will begin in earnest first thing Monday morning at the 6:30 meeting. Probably followed by sessions with the lawyers.

About The Author:
J.M. Rosenfield
J.M. Rosenfield has worked in many aspects of Hollywood film and media. He was location manager for On Golden Pond and Carny and produced the sci-fi feature Wavelength and its soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. He was a producer, writer, and segment director for Entertainment Tonight and newswriter at KNBC and KTLA. This excerpt is from his new novel.

About J.M. Rosenfield

J.M. Rosenfield has worked in many aspects of Hollywood film and media. He was location manager for On Golden Pond and Carny and produced the sci-fi feature Wavelength and its soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. He was a producer, writer, and segment director for Entertainment Tonight and newswriter at KNBC and KTLA. This excerpt is from his new novel.

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