TV FICTION PACKAGE: Kyle finds murder most foul among network primetime series writers. 2,454 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
I’m a playwright, I live in New York. What do I know about TV? I watch news and sports (go Mets!). Drama? A couple cable shows, GOT, Billions. Not a lot of network stuff – it’s all the same. I had a play produced last year at a small-ish theatre with some nice reviews. A brief couple of weeks where “Kyle Greene is a bright shining light.” You know, bullshit like that. But, hey, I’ll take it.
So this little window appears where I’m hot. They’re looking at playwrights to write for a new TV series. My agent tells me the creator and executive producer of the show won’t read traditional TV people because they’re “hacks” and he wants “fresh” and “out of the box.” And, yeah, I hate air quotes and when I meet the creator/exec producer, Logan, you can practically see the air quotes when he’s talking.
Logan is in New York for a couple days and could we have coffee? So I suggest a place, and the first thing he says is how thank God we’re not at Starbucks because Starbucks “is the end of civilization as we know it.” And he orders a grande vanilla latte extra foam and I know he’s a poseur. That and the scarf around his neck. I can tell he’s practiced in the mirror until he got it exactly right.
But he seems nice. Nice-ish. Talks about graduating from film school at USC, Sundance, his girlfriend Theodosia (“great rack”), how his primetime series is going to “re-invent network television” and “nothing like it has ever been done before.”
Whatever. The money is ridiculous. I get to live in L.A. for four months while my agent promises to hook me up with other development opportunities. So what if Logan’s brilliant idea isn’t exactly brilliant or original? He has an order for twelve episodes from a major network.
Logan’s idea is a contemporary Hamlet done as a family drama. People fighting for control of Hamlet’s mother’s high-end cookware company, G. Køkken. His new stepfather may or may not have killed his father. Hamlet is Hampton, Ophelia is Orlinda. “Clever,” I tell Logan and he asks if I use baby name websites when I’m coming up with character names and I tell him no. But, boy, that’s a good idea.
I move to L.A. Get an apartment in Echo Park, not far from the production offices. The writing staff meets the first day and there’s Logan wearing shorts with little martini glasses on them. I notice a tiny woman with frizzy hair who doesn’t talk much – she does graphic novels. Another guy has Prince William hair (thinning with bald spot) and looks like he needs a Xanax. Two other guys are a team and have matching Harry Potter t-shirts.
Logan explains he’s going to be writing and directing the first episode (the pilot has already been shot) and I’ll be writing the next episode without him but with Prince William hair guy helping me. Is writing the first non-creator episode a good thing? I guess so because after the meeting Prince William hair guy comes up to me and says congratulations.
His name is Brett and he’s a co-producer. He met Logan in high school, he tells me. As if I don’t understand what he’s saying, he tells me again. “We go way back.”
“Great,” I say. And if I had hackles, they’d be going up because there’s something about Brett… I tell myself not to be paranoid.
I work on my outline with Logan and that’s fine. My episode is about Hamlet’s – I mean Hampton’s – first attempt at proving his father was murdered. Plus, he feigns insanity and has a great sex scene with Ophelia/Orlinda. I finish an outline and Logan is happy and the network seems to like it so I’m off to script. Logan disappears to prep his episode. But not before he tells me again I’m safe in Brett’s hands.
My office isn’t big and it’s only got one window that looks out at the side of another building, but I can see the top of a palm tree and that’s L.A. enough for me. My laptop on my lap, I’m listening to some Slipknot and I start writing the teaser.
Brett walks in. “How’s it going, Kyle?” He sits on the mini sofa.
“Great,” I say. “Just getting started.”
He nods. We haven’t really talked much so I’m not sure if I should make polite conversation or ask about the script. He starts by saying his undergraduate experience was awesome. Clearly a prompt for me to say, “So where’d you go to college?” and I knew what he was going to say before he said it. He was going to tell me Boston so I’d have to ask where in Boston and he’d say Harvard because God forbid anybody just says “I went to Harvard” straight out. No, they’ve got to make you beg for it.
After Brett’s Harvard reveal, he doesn’t ask where I went to school. Big surprise. Like he would give a shit if I told him William & Mary. He says he’s seen my play, then corrects himself and says he knows someone who’s seen my play, but he read it and recommended me to Logan.
I say thanks. But I’m impatient to work on the script and he picks up on that and asks if I have any questions since I’ve never written TV before. “How’s the teaser going?” he asks.
“Great.” All I’ve written is “Fade in.” But I don’t tell him that.
“Hampton is having the ghost dream, right?”
I nod. Brett shakes his head. “I was talking to Logan on the set and he wasn’t sure about starting with the ghost dream. He thought it should come later. At the end of act two.”
I glance at the outline. “Logan didn’t say anything to me.”
“Because he’s busy directing.”
“Maybe I should go to the set to talk to him,” I say. “Or shoot him an email.”
“Do you think he looks at emails when he’s directing? God no. When we talk tonight, I’ll run the teaser by him. We talk just about every night – you know, because we’re friends.”
“Okay. But Logan seemed happy with the outline the way it was.”
“I’m supposed to help you,” Brett says. “Remember? Don’t worry.”
When Brett leaves my office, I begin to worry.
The other writers are busy with their scripts. Brett’s script is after mine, then the writing team’s, then the girl’s who doesn’t talk much. Her name is Suze and, like me, she’s slightly baffled at why she was hired. We stand in the office kitchen and examine the list on the refrigerator for the P.A.’s next trip to Trader Joe’s. Dark chocolate edamame, dark chocolate ginger, chocolate chip brownie, oat bars, Joe-Joe’s cookies. Someone has crossed off everything dark chocolate and written, “Too much fat! We need lentil chips and hummus!” Suze and I laugh and, at the same time say, “Brett.”
I ask Suze if Brett is helping her with her script. She shakes her head no. “How’s that working out?” she wants to know.
“Fine. So far.” I don’t tell Suze how Brett asks to see hard copies of pages and gives them back to me with notes in the margins. “Logan hates this word,” he’ll say, or “Logan doesn’t think Hampton would ever do something like this.”
I make the changes Brett suggests.
“I heard Brett really wanted to write the first script after Logan’s,” Suze says.
“Brett didn’t tell me that.”
Suze shrugs. Adds all the dark chocolate items back to the Trader Joe’s list. “If he tells me one more time how he went to Harvard, I’m going to stick a bottle of Two Buck Chuck Merlot up his ass.”
The working title of the series is Melancholy, but the network tested it and it didn’t go over well. (“Too depressing.” “Is it about a mental institution?”) Logan complains to us that the network is “living in the past” and a title like Melancholy is guaranteed to bring in big ratings – not to mention clean up at the “major” awards.
Each episode will have a title that relates to a quote from the play. Logan’s episode is “To Be, Or Not.” Mine is “Thine Own Self Be True.” Which makes sense because most of my episode is about Hampton pretending to be crazy – get it? He’s being true to himself, but not to the other people around him.
Brett thinks my title is too obvious. He quotes from the play to me, “To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, Till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”
“Okay,” I say because I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.
And Brett says, ’What’s a better title than ‘Stopping A Bung-Hole’?”
I want to tell him, “Just about anything,” but I don’t because he’s the co-producer and I’m a lowly staff writer so I make the change. And I lose the sex scene with Hampton and Orlinda because Brett thinks it could wait until the next episode.
Logan pops in the office one afternoon. He’s got ear buds around his neck and beard stubble and shorts with red lobsters on them. He says hey to everybody and claims things are “beyond awesome” on the set. And when he sees me, he asks how the script is coming and I tell him I hope it’s great. He says “beyond awesome” again – and he’s gone.
The ghost dream that was supposed to be in my teaser is now at the end of act three. “That seems late,” I tell Brett.
He says it’ll work better there and he’s very impressed with how I’m doing so far and isn’t it wonderful how collaborative TV writing is?
Without the sex scene, Orlinda doesn’t have much to do in my episode so Brett suggests writing her out. “But she’s a main character,” I say.
“Six out of twelve,” Brett tells me. “Hey – I’ve got an idea. Instead of Orlinda, why don’t you add a B-story with Yoshi?” (Yoshi is the new name for Yorick. Logan wants to make sure the show is diverse.)
“Yoshi’s dead,” I remind Brett.
“He ends up dead. But think how much more resonance the scene with Hampton and Yoshi’s skull will have if we’ve seen Yoshi alive.”
“How did his skull decompose so fast?” I ask. “This isn’t the 15th century. It’s 2016. Yoshi’s going to be buried in a casket.”
Brett thinks that over. “Unless he’s cremated. And there’s some sort of accident at the crematorium. So most of him is burned up. Except his skull. Oh, man – you can have a blast with Yoshi. He’s a comedian. Think… Jerry Seinfeld.”
“Yoshi is a Japanese name.”
“Right, so he’s that guy on Dr. Ken.”
“Ken Jeong is Korean.”
But Brett isn’t listening. He’s writing out a B-story for Hampton and Yoshi. He laughs to himself.
I finish the script and show it to Brett who says he’ll go through it and do a light polish. When I read the draft the next day, he’s done more than a polish. Most of the humor is gone, even in the scenes with comedian Yoshi. I ask Brett about that but he tells me Logan said the show needs a more serious tone. And because Brett’s so confident about my work, he’s already given the script to Logan. I don’t mind, do I?
I say no.
Logan finishes directing. The plan is for Logan to give me notes on my draft before he dives into editing. And the first day Logan is back in the office, I wait for my summons. It doesn’t come before lunch. Or after lunch.
Suze comes into my office and closes the door. Her face is serious.
“Logan was yelling in Brett’s office,” she says.
I remember Suze’s office is next to Brett’s. “About what?”
“About your script. ‘Why didn’t Kyle stick to the outline? The outline was fantastic. This is a piece of shit.’ Then I heard Logan throw something. The walls are really thin.”
“He was talking to Brett?”
“Logan hated the stuff with Yoshi,” Suze continues. “He yells, ‘Why did Kyle make Yoshi a character? Who gives a shit about Yoshi? And what happened to Orlinda?’”
“Logan wanted to see Yoshi. And Orlinda is six out of twelve.”
“She’s in every episode. Logan told you he wanted to see Yoshi?”
I’m not stupid. Well, I wasn’t stupid in New York. I’m just stupid in L.A. “No, not :ogan,” I tell Suze. “Brett told me Logan wanted to see Yoshi. And that Orlinda didn’t need to be in the episode.”
Suze nods. “And the title, ‘Stopping a Bung-hole,’ I’m guessing that was Brett’s idea, too.”
“Logan didn’t like the title?”
Suze pulls something from her pocket. A crumpled-up piece of paper. The title page of my first draft. “He threw it out the door,” Suze says.
“Did you hear Brett say anything?” I ask Suze.
Suze looks as if she doesn’t want to tell me. She sighs. “Brett told Logan you didn’t listen to anything he said. You rejected all his advice because you wanted to do it your way. Brett volunteered to do the rewrite.”
When Suze is gone, I think about my options. Call my agent and tell him I’m about to get axed. Oh, well. I’ll still get paid. Too bad my first experience in TV turned out like this.
Or… I think of another option.
I leave the office and go back to my apartment, get my original draft and rewrite it the way I think Logan would like. No Yoshi. Lots of Orlinda. Humor. I write for seven hours straight and wonder if five Red Bulls will give me a heart attack. They don’t. I email the draft (with its original title) to Logan at 3 AM and write, “Hey, I think you got the wrong draft. Sorry to waste your time. This is most current draft. Hope you like it. Kyle.”
In the morning I pull into my parking space and see Brett walking in front of me. Up ahead on the steps leading to the office, Logan is waiting. He waves at Brett.
“Sorry, Kyle,” Brett says. He grins at me. “Life in primetime.” His bald spot is looking especially shiny and pink today, like a baby’s bare ass.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, motherfucker,” I say as I move quickly past him because Logan has spotted me and I notice I’m getting a wave. A biggish wave, bigger than Brett’s.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season