This controversial sitcom is in trouble and network execs are in crisis mode. 1,953 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The first thing they agreed on in the programming meeting was that Alisha Loves Fred, a proposed sitcom about the romance between a Muslim feminist and an Evangelical redneck, was a horrendous concept. The second thing they agreed on was to take it straight to series. A full season’s commitment without a pilot.
As the senior executives shuffled out of the conference room, JoJo Travis, the network’s programming president, JoJo arrived back at her office, reached into her desk’s side drawer, popped a Xanax and washed it down with a shot of whiskey, hoping to quell her immediate buyers’ remorse. Then she whispered to her assistant, “Tell Nina I need to change my quote in the announcement release. It sounds too much like the one I made when we were dealing with the ‘Asian situation’.”
Nina Torkay, the marketing Executive VP, had worked at the network long enough to predict a wreck before the train had even left the station. She understood the politics behind this particular decision but the release announcing the series was ready to go. That JoJo would delay it by fussing with her quote and possibly jeopardizing the story leaking to the trades – for which Nina would be blamed, of course – was merely another glamorous perk of her profession choice.
Alisha Loves Fred was the brainchild of Prince Charming Productions headed by actor Stuart Gower, who not only executive produced the new sitcom but also exec produced and starred in Our Streets, a consistently successful L.A.-based detective series with multiple spinoffs for Nina’s and JoJo’s network. But Alisha Loves Fred was Stuart’s passion project. It was a 21st Century update of Bridget Loves Bernie, which itself was a resurrection of the 1922 Broadway comedy Abie’s Irish Rose.
Stuart’s refresh was a volatile mixture of Islamic cultural norms and good-old-boy Christian sensibilities adding up to a demographic gold mine, or so he contended. “The jokes write themselves,” Stuart had enthused at the pitch meeting.
One of the reasons the network decided to order Alisha Loves Fred was as a pre-emptive strike. A major pay channel would soon announce its variation on the same theme, a dramedy created by a multiple Emmy-winning writer/producer probably with movie marquee names attached. The pay channel also would undoubtedly handle its version with the depth and artistry that had become its hallmark. It could afford to take such risks without advertisers vulnerable to screaming “family values” organizations who continued to behave like the four major networks still controlled all the nation’s TV entertainment choices.
Yet another not inconsequential consideration was that Stuart’s Our Streets had been a Top Five-rated show for the past decade, spawning three successful spin-offs based in Chicago, New York and Atlanta respectively with a fourth to be set in Phoenix on the drawing board. The mothership and its offspring formed the backbone of the network’s primetime schedule, doing tons of ad revenue and killer numbers in syndication.
JoJo could not afford to alienate Stuart who was mostly well-behaved. That is, if she didn’t count his annual warning that each season would be his last. “So I can kick off my movie career.” The threat was as predictable as it was toothless. If Stuart wasn’t keenly aware of his serious limitations as an actor, his agents and manager certainly were. Despite the series’ massive popularity, the best movie assignments they’d been able to scare up for him each hiatus consisted of supporting roles in disaster or superhero movies passed on by film actors.
JoJo was in a bind, having already turned down two of Stuart’s previous series ideas, both infinitely better than Alisha Loves Fred, a guaranteed socio-political headache. If JoJo didn’t commit to Stuart’s new sitcom, a rival network would snap it up simply for the pleasure of poaching him. And she had to get it on the air before that pay channel doppelganger debuted. JoJo couldn’t afford to be seen playing catch-up, especially with a concept this potentially explosive.
“Bring me the list of all our advertisers who are born again. I know we have a file somewhere,” JoJo called to her assistant Iris. “And tell Nina and Stuart I need them in my office right now.”
When Nina arrived first, JoJo pounced: “Tell me: how fucked are we on this religious thing? Be honest. I think we need to be proactive. We could push the fact that one of the writers on the show is Muslin. And a woman.”
“It’s Muslim,” Nina mumbled not quite under her breath. “Muslin is a fabric.”
The scripts for the first three episodes of Alisha Loves Fred were, at best, disheartening. The sitcom was three-camera broad comedy and borderline incendiary. With any luck, after the censors had chimed in, the scripts would be sufficiently neutered to give no offense or pleasure to anybody.
“How Muslim is she?” JoJo asked, this time correctly.
Nina had done her homework. “She’s Pakistani-American and her father is head of oncology at USC. She graduated from Vassar and is engaged to the show’s senior writer.”
“Please tell me that the senior writer is Jewish,” JoJo begged. “Then we could go out with a whole Middle East can’t-we-all-get-along theme.”
“Dan’s Lutheran,” Nina countered, doing her best to appear disappointed. “Perhaps we should hire a Muslim script consultant?”
“Good. What we also need is an evangelical spokesperson who’s on our side. The minute we announce, those holy roller windbags are going to take a giant dump on us. We need to counter that with our own Bible thumper.”
JoJo sighed and suddenly darted out of the room, shutting the door behind her.
My mother was right, Nina thought to herself as she waited for Jojo to return and Stuart to arrive. “Marry a rich guy and have children.” But, no, I had to major in communications.
The truth was Nina loved the TV business and wanted JoJo’s job. The road to a promotion just happened to run through this very office.
Outside, JoJo leaned over her assistant’s desk and pulled open the bottom drawer which contained an emergency bottle of Xanax. Without being prompted, Iris handed a glass of water to JoJo who swallowed another pill and took a deep breath.
JoJo’s palpable nervousness was to be expected, Nina thought, especially after the “Asian situation.” Nina’s own hands were clean. She’d warned JoJo ahead of time politely and discreetly but forcefully enough so no one could shift the blame onto the network’s marketing guru. Because escaping blame was the name of the TV game.
The Asian situation had begun when the network cast a Caucasian — an Oxonian Brit to boot — in the role of Herman Chan, the great grandson of famed fictional sleuth Charlie Chan. After protests and picket lines, the actor was let go and his termination lawsuit cost the network a bundle. He was replaced by a bonafide Asian but who proved to be Korean-American, not Chinese-American. Nina was yelled at for not being able to tamp down the media barbs.
After a second casting correction, the series finally aired. And though it boasted the kind of suspense and humor rare in most procedurals, the critics chose to focus on the Asian situation. Nina might have suffered even more slings and arrows had the network’s corporate parent not ordered JoJo to pull the plug after the second episode. The show’s creators put up a major stink by accusing the network of maliciousness. Then they turned around and sold the series to a streaming service where, free of network standards and practices, it was now in its third season and a must-see binge.
Still, in the end, Nina’s ass was covered. But not JoJo’s.
Back in her office, JoJo flopped on the sofa and kicked off her stilettos and welcomed Stuart Gower into the meeting. “I’m waiting,” she said, though Stuart had no idea what the network’s programming president wanted.
But, lucky for him, Stuart was a network politics savant. For instance, he was planning the fourth Our Streets spinoff as a vehicle for Geena Clarke, His former co-star. Stuart had pretended to put up a fuss when the actress first announced she was exiting the mothership. Quite to the contrary, he was overjoyed. Geena had been fresh-faced and compliant when he’d plucked her from obscurity. But as her TVQ skyrocketed, egged on by her “people,” she’d becamo increasingly demanding. Not all her complaints lacked merit. She battled with the writers, accusing them of turning her into “flocked wallpaper” in many episodes and berating them for inserting explicit wardrobe, hairstyle and even footwear suggestions into the scripts.
“Tell me again why my character would put on thigh-high boots to go grocery shopping?” she asked in a carefully worded missile leaked to TMZ.
Rumors that Geena was being courted by other networks and cable channels had been circulating for months, most if not all figments of her agent’s imagination. But she agreed to the new series, contingent on a female showrunner and a writing staff “that doesn’t contain a single Ivy League nebbish or the inbred spawn of a famous producer or network executive.” Stuart’s slick move soothed the actress’s ego. What Geena didn’t know was that the network planned to debut her offshoot against one of the competition’s powerhouses. With any luck, Geena’s solo venture would be gone by midseason and she would bear the onus of not being able to carry her own show. A couple of years hence, as Stuart informed the network, they could demonstrate their magnanimity by reintroducing Geena into the original Our Streets but at a reduced per-episode rate.
“I’m just spitballing here,” Stuart began to JoJo who was hanging on his every word, “but we could announce a nationwide talent search for the ideal Muslim-American actress. We could label it a ‘first’.”
“Are we sure it’s a first?” JoJo asked.
“It’s got to be a first of some kind,” Stuart argued, not quite covering up the annoyance in his voice. He hated being challenged. Especially by a woman. Especially by a woman who made decisions affecting his lucrative TV career. “Then maybe we could also conduct a similar search for the redneck. Just drive ten miles outside of Los Angeles. You can’t throw a stone without hitting one.”
“But can they act?” Nina interjected, not disguising the fact that she loathed Stuart.
“Do we want a real redneck? That could make the set uncomfortable,” JoJo opined.
“We’ll vet him first, of course,” Stuart assured. “He should be evangelist but not too evangelist. Conservative but not too conservative. Red but not too red.”
“Oh, you mean a pink neck?” Nina said, aware of how much her or any woman’s input grated on him.
Dead silence, as everyone pretended they hadn’t just driven into an ideological cul-de-sac. Finally, Nina spoke. “How about a country western singer looking to break into acting?”
“Great idea,” JoJo said.
As soon as she expressed approval, Stuart added, “Yeah, he can write the show’s theme song. Be a great music tie-in. And does the female lead wear a head scarf? I’m also thinking fashion tie-ins.”
“I hate to burst your bubble,” Nina countered, though nothing pleased her more. “The second episode centers on a dispute between Alisha and her parents who want her to wear a head scarf and Fred who doesn’t want her wearing short skirts. It’s how her parents bond with him. But she defies them both.”
“Well at least the feminists will be happy,” snarked Stuart.
“That’s enough for now,” said JoJo, though she was damned if she could remember more than five words of the entire exchange through her Xanax haze. “Come back to me tomorrow with some concrete answers.”