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.
As for the sitcom itself, the usual “values” suspects whined that it would glorify Muslims, though no one outside the studio had seen a script. The liberals countered that the network was treating a serious issue trivially, although they too had no evidence.
After extensive coaching from Nina, consisting of her staff’s carefully prepared talking points, Alisha Loves Fred executive producer Stuart Gower mounted an in-person defense on morning and evening talk shows, He skirted any surprises with smart-ass catch phrases whether they were germane or not.
So far the choppy media waves had proven navigable, which reflected well on Nina. But then the pay channel competing with its similar show tried to steal the network’s thunder by casting a Shakespearean-trained, British-born, Sri-Lankan Muslim actress who’d done some impressive movie work and been nominated for a Golden Globe. Her co-star was a top male model who’d appeared in several well-respected Christian films and whose six-pack had become an Instagram sensation. The channel then launched a months-early billboard and social media campaign combined with dynamic trailer to draw attention away from Alisha Loves Fred.
Immediately, Nina countered by calling in a favor to James Corden’s people and convincing them to do a car pool karaoke with Alisha Loves Fred’s leads. The endearing pair briefly managed to make Twitter forget about the sitcom’s controversies.
When the first episode was shown to critics, Nina bugged her staff for at least two favorable pull-quotes from the early reactions. But there weren’t enough ellipses in the world to cobble together anything resembling praise. “Why must I do everything myself?” Nina huffed to her underlings, always a morale booster.
With her network boss, programming president JoJo, breathing down her neck, Nina was forced to have lunch with Howie Drake, a minor TV critic and usual provider of apple-polishing quotes. He also had the table manners of a platypus.
The temperature outside was ninety-two when Nina took her sidewalk seat across from Howie.
“Didn’t you just love the show?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah,” Howie said, cautious not to bite the hand paying for his flounder.
“I knew you would,” she purred. “You have the best nose in the business for this kind of material.”
“I will say that, after so many cop/lawyer/doctor shows, it’s refreshing to sit through a comedy,” Howie opined.
Nina immediately produced a pen and pad. “‘Refreshing’. Can I use that? Would it also be safe to say it was ‘a real treat’?”
“I don’t know,” he replied.
She reached across the table and laid her hand over his. “Please. I’m asking you as a personal favor. I’ll owe you.”
“You’re the best,” Nina said. “Speaking of treats, let’s be naughty and order dessert.”
Later that day, Nina met with another marginal reviewer over drinks. After his third martini, she managed to extract another pull-quote: “Funny and uplifting.”
“Read ‘em and weep,” she crowed to her staff the next morning as her assistant distributed copies of the positive blurbs.
Her next task was greasing the major TV critics before their reviews were written. She listened to each one’s damning appraisals of the show. With a series of “hmms,” “ahs,” and “I sees,” she seemed to tacitly agree with their assessments without actually saying a word. But tHe real reason she phoned, she told them, was to set up breakfasts and lunches between them and Stuart. “He would love your opinion on how he can improve the show as it goes along,” she assured.
Never mind that more than half the season’s shows were already written and several already taped. The fact is that most TV critics would rather be making series than just reviewing them. So having Stuart hang on their every word would be ego-feed. Also, knowing in advance that they’d be meeting with one of TV’s biggest actor/producers after their reviews were published, the critics might tone down some of their criticisms. Nina referred to this strategy as “plugging up the dam with tampons.”
Now came the onerous task of preparing everyone – bosses, Prince Charming Productions, the Alisha Loves Fred cast and crew – for the first review that would be less than kind. Deservedly so. No amount of tweaking had transformed this sow’s ear into a gunny sack, much less a silk purse.
“Their opinions are based on one episode. Even Seinfeld wasn’t Seinfeld at the start,” Nina argued, fully aware that people drowning rarely question the viability of their life preservers.
Nina was also counting on the curiosity factor, pumped up by her marketing department’s well-cut promotional spots. Plus, Alisha Loves Fred had a strong time slot sandwiched between two other successful Wednesday night comedies to give the show at least a fighting chance of attracting eyeballs.
Nina managed to keep the hounds sufficiently at bay that the show debuted to good, if not spectacular, numbers, sufficient to justify a second week’s heavy marketing push. One of her smarter staff members came up with the idea of a “real people,” segment on the network’s popular morning talk show, and Nina decided to run with it. A panel comprised of genuine Muslims and rednecks extolled the sitcom in everyday language. When the moderator queried them about the negative critical response, they pooh-poohed the reviewers. “I’m not going to let smart people tell me what to think” was their usual argument.
The expected protests from the various hues of the political rainbow spectrum surfaced on schedule: all damning assessments ranging from “libtard propaganda,” to “disrespectful and sacrilegious” to “lowest common denominator pap.” But none of the called-for boycotts had any effect on the ratings for the second episode, which actually witnessed a boost in the coveted 18-49 demographic.
Third week promotional efforts consisted of using the complaints to the show’s advantage, labeling it “TV’s most controversial new sitcom. See the new show that has everyone talking,” the announcer proclaimed, in a spot with scattershot one-liners, mostly ethnic insults not deleted by censors.
By the time the pay channel’s similar but smarter and less stereotypical show Hands Across premiered, the critics trotted out all their favorite catchwords: “sensitive,” “thought-provoking,” “self-aware.” All made sure to reference the far inferior Alisha Loves Fred which was fine by Nina. Even better, the numbers on Hands Across weren’t great. But Alisha Loves Fred’s had begun a steady decline as well. By early spring, as renewal time approached, a second season looked dim.
But Nina wasn’t worried. She’d done her part and the show had been running long enough that its eventual failure would reflect badly on the programming department and not on her marketing. Frankly, she would be relieved when this “porcupine turkey,” as she called it, was cancelled.
Then a miracle came along and changed her mind. And her life.
Alisha Loves Fred’s Muslim star Chandra had begun dating Real redneck Orly Buckminster, an MTV reality show sensation. Orly was unvarnished white trash, famed for the perpetual cocky grin of someone not smart enough to be bothered by self-doubt. His main attribute, Chandra confessed to Nina, was an ability “to go all night.” Nina tried to recall the last man she’d dated who could go more than six minutes.
In April, while attending Coachella together, Chandra was racially harassed and disparaged by a group of white nationalists, and Orly leapt to her defense. His fisticuffs was caught on video, which went viral, as did footage of the police arrests. TV cameras swooped in on Orly’s prominent shiner and bloody lip as Chandra clung to his arm and tearfully thanked him for protecting her.
Nina sprung into action: her staff booked Chandra, Orly and even leading man Blake on news shows to discuss the destructiveness of ethnic hatred in contrast to Alisha Loves Fred which promoted cross-cultural understanding. “Make sure you emphasize ‘the healing power of comedy,’” Nina instructed.
After one of the segments, in the limo with Nina, Chandra confided she was carrying Orly’s child and petrified that the pregnancy might endanger her job. After consulting with JoJo, Nina set up a meeting with Stuart’s people, Chandra’s people, Orly’s people and MTV. After the meeting, Nina secured a booking on the network’s late night show where Chandra announced her pregnancy to gasps. Then, in a “surprise” appearance, Orly emerged onstage with a ring box in hand and got down on one knee. Tears. Applause.
Stuart came on next. He explained that the pregnancy was being written into the show in a case of art reflecting life, and the first season of Alisha and Fred would end with “a very special” one-hour wedding episode. More tears. More applause.
The gambit worked, as Nina suspected it would. Weddings and babies are a no-lose proposition on sitcoms. The fact that Orly was an even bigger boob than Chandra’s co-star predictably spiked the show’s ratings. The heavily advertised finale during May sweeps was one of the year’s top ten rated network broadcasts.
The next day, the network officially announced a second season for Alisha Loves Fred. A month later, Hands Across was quietly cancelled.
For Nina, the outcome was a gift of golden handcuffs. She was moved up with her main assignment, as JoJo explained, to ride herd on all new projects from Stuart’s production company including Alisha Loves Fred. “And if you think that show sucked, wait until you see what else he’s got in the pipeline,” JoJo said as the programming boss reached into the desk drawer and pulled out the bottle of Xanax. She tossed it to Nina. “Enjoy your new job. You’ve earned it.”