Fed up with usual TV fare, a showrunner goes in search of the more unusual – and meaningful. 2,228 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
If Ackerman was capable of sitting still, he might have considered spending a week at a Zen or Ashram retreat in the hope of cleansing himself from his time as showrunner. His TV series was hardly art for art sake. It wasn’t just the relentlessness of seven days a week, week after week, that wore him down. Nor the cartoonish nature of the show. Nor the often drunk leading man who was wooden, defensive, and lacking in both humor and social graces. What gnawed at Ackerman was the tawdriness that increased exponentially as filming went on. He sensed that his days were numbered when one of the creators of the show popped into his office on a Tuesday afternoon.
"You haven’t been on set yesterday or today," noted Jon Schechter.
"Nor will I be there tomorrow."
"Can I ask why?"
"I don’t care if you cast your wife. Or your mother. Or your aunt. Or the bimbo you’re banging. Or the one you’re hoping to nail."
"What’s your point?"
"But when they’re all in the same episode, I’m not coming.”
So Ackerman announced that his debut season on the show would be his last.
His first inclination was to dive head first into a tub of Lysol. But Ackerman decided instead to take some well-earned time off. After a week and a half, his new regimen of detective novels in the morning, Indian buffets at lunch, playground basketball in the afternoon and classic movies in the evening gave way to ever-increasing restlessness.
Then, on a Wednesday morning over a breakfast burrito, Ackerman came upon an article about an experimental youth court in Texas. He’d had "a troubled youth," meaning constant friction with teachers, cops, and other figures of authority, Ackerman was sufficiently interested to do some research on his iPad. He made calls first to the small town in Texas, then to other places with fledgling youth courts. That fact-finding was followed by trips where versions of youth courts were operated.
Ackerman’s assessment? That a promising notion was undermined by what he, as a film buff, termed a "Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland" approach. Teenagers impersonating both a prosecutor and a defense attorney proved to be both clumsy and corny. As did leaving it to adults to reach a verdict and, if appropriate, determine the sentencing. He knew Reality TV could do it better.
Ackerman holed up in his home office for several days, then reached out to an attorney friend. "Who do you know who’s involved with the juvenile judiciary in L.A. County?" he asked Phil Carpenter. "I want to change the system. Meet me for lunch and I’ll explain."
Two days later Ackerman found himself face-to-face with the county’s Chief Probation Officer, tall avuncular Gary Nieberg.
"Carpenter says you’re a good guy. He also says you’re Hollywood without being Hollywood,” Nieberg told the showrunner. “So how can I help?"
"By letting me create a Teen Court."
Nieberg frowned. "I’m not big on kids play-acting."
"Me neither, which is why I want something real. First-time offenders can elect to face a jury of their peers, and I don’t mean the glee club.
Six kids with built-in bullshit detectors. The defendant’s parent or parents would be involved. A real Probation Officer. A real judge."
"If I come on-board – and it’s a big if – who pays the development costs, since there’s no room in our budget?"
"Me. Because didn’t Carpenter also say I’m half-nuts? In exchange for the TV rights if we succeed. How about we put in a kill clause in case you’re not happy?"
"Got any paperwork you can leave with me?"
Ackerman reached into his attache case. "Do I ever."
The next three weeks yielded a flurry of questions, qualms, and comments from Nieberg, all of which Ackerman fielded as best he could. Then finally, at a coffee house not far from the Probation Department’s executive offices, Nieberg greeted Ackerman with a smile. "I’m in. It’s now time for us to see the Presiding Judge of Juvenile."
Judge Louis Ortiz immediately put Ackerman on the defensive. "Why in the world should I entertain the notion of a teen court?"
"Because the recidivism rate for first-time offenders fluctuates between thirty-five and forty percent. Which means ridiculous court costs and Probation Department expenses, not to mention lives being ruined."
"And you’re going to be society’s savior?"
"Savior, no. Helper, hopefully. You’ll stick your neck out for something like this because Gary says you’re one of the good guys."
Another period of due diligence followed until Ackerman, Nieberg and Ortiz decided to see if they could make Teen Court work.
"So what’s the next step?" asked Ackerman.
"For us to cover our butts," said Ortiz, “by taking it to the county’s Board of Supervisors and the Bar Association."
Only at this point did Ackerman schedule a lunch with his agent to explain what he had kicked into motion.
"I love it!" Susanna Reeves exclaimed. "It’s The Real World meets The Jersey Shore!"
“Nope. If anything, it’s closer to Scared Straight."
"Whatever. I’ll get on it right away."
At his first Hollywood meeting about the show, a production exec greeted him. "I hear you’ve got something hotter than The Kardashians." Worse still was the second meeting, with a development exec asking, "So what’s this concept that’s better than The Real Housewives?"
"What language was I speaking?" a chagrined Ackerman asked his agent when he reached her while driving home.
"Is this or is this not a business that runs on hype?" she replied.
"It’ll make it a harder sell."
"Not to a place that gets it."
To Ackerman’s surprise, Susanna called before the day was over. "A major syndicator wants to hear your pitch. You’ve got a meeting with a VP named Neil Danner Tuesday morning at 11."
"What happens if a kid convinces your jurors of innocence, or maybe extenuating circumstances?" Danner asked after preliminary small talk, followed by Ackerman’s explanation of his project.
"He or she walks."
"And if found guilty?"
"Restitution and letters of apology if appropriate, but most importantly community service with the hours and the type – to be determined by the nature of the infraction."
"And if all that is completed?"
"The record is sealed. It’s what’s known as ‘Front End Intervention,’ which means keeping kids from getting caught up in the system. Because Juvenile Hall is grad school for wrongdoing."
"What kind of cases are exempted."
"Nothing that necessitates being tried as a grownup. No hate crimes. No rape. And, understandably, no murder."
"But everything else?"
Then the exec picked up a dart and threw it at his office wall. "Let’s start getting a deal in place so that if and when you get the go-ahead from the county, we can kick things into motion right away."
While his agent and lawyer wrestled with business affairs, Ackerman put together the beginnings of a staff. First came a co-producer. Then a director. Then they chose a location: a pastel-colored court room at the Juvenile Judiciary’s new facility. Then started on the cast.
To serve as the Teen Court judge, Ackerman approached the Presiding Judge himself, Ortiz. “Because you get it, you’re photogenic, and it’ll send a nice message having a Latino."
"Not to mention that I’m a ham. Right?"
Ackerman’s only response was a smile.
The next search was for potential jurors – teens who had been in trouble themselves before turning their lives around. What Ackerman wanted was a pool of male and female, and white, black, Latino and Asian whom he could mix and match depending upon the case. The first one selected was Marquis, busted for aggravated assault. Next was Juan, who did time for grand theft auto. Then Tina: larceny. Hong: arson. Christine: prostitution. And Yoshi: Pimping. Each in his or her own way was surprisingly articulate. Even more important, all were passionate about keeping others from making the kind of mistakes they themselves had made.
Ten days after setting up a production office in Studio City, Ackerman received a surprising call from Danner. "I just looked over your expenses, and it seems your show is spending far too much on lunch."
"Let me explain something," Ackerman countered. "Every day, in production offices around town, at around 10:30 there’s a flurry of calls, emails, and texts as staffers negotiate where to have lunch. Next comes a period of clock-watching until it’s time to head out. Then, upon their return, they check messages, pee, and shake off the frustration over traffic, parking, and who-knows-what else. With me? We, in contrast, bring in something different every day – tacos, Chinese chicken salad, pizza, sandwiches. Then, like a family, we eat together, which results in people getting to know each other and feeling a part of something. We talk sports, movies, all kinds of stuff, including, I should mention, our show. Come join us and see for yourself."
"How’s tomorrow?" asked Danner.
After joining the Teen Court staff for burritos, Danner pulled Ackerman aside. "You’re doing it right," he acknowledged.
Ackerman was getting ready to leave a run-through when he got an anxious call from Danner. "Who in the world is Beverly Diehl? She claims she’s filed for a copyright on Teen Court."
"Let’s get Legal to tell her to drop dead," Ackerman suggested.
The night before the pilot was to be shot, Ackerman was too busy thinking about everything that could go wrong to get more than an hour’s sleep. His fears about the defendants getting cold feet swiftly escalated into thoughts about the jurors going on strike, and even an earthquake or tidal wave wiping out all of Los Angeles. As dawn finally neared, Ackerman took a shower, then headed to the set.
Years of experiences both good and bad had taught Ackerman that while preparation was crucial, he still needed the production gods on his side. As a result, the excitement that was building inside of him was kept in check by a gnawing sense of dread. Knowing that everyone would look to him for not just for guidance, but also for moral support, Ackerman did his best to convey a sense of quiet confidence. The dealings in Teen Court were fresh and interesting.
At the end of the long day’s shoot, Ackerman made a point of personally thanking every person involved. Then, despite a yearning for solitude, he allowed himself to be dragged off for a celebratory beer.
"We’re gonna make history!" the director stated proudly.
"And have a hit show!" added the co-producer merrily.
Nieberg came over with Ortiz and patted Ackerman on the back.
“I owe you," said the Chief Probation Officer.
"No," said the judge, "we all owe him."
Danner offered Ackerman a fist bump. "It’s fucking magic!"
After seeing a work-in-progress edit, Danner was aglow. "With graphics and music, this is gonna be a monster! But one question. Any chance we can make it even more sexy by adding more emotion."
"Which, if I’m not mistaken,” replied Ackerman, “means bickering, hollering, and more tears."
"Didn’t you tell me you like Teen Court because it’s different?"
"Yes," admitted Danner reluctantly.
"Then why do you want to make it like everything else?"
After two more weeks of wrestling between Ackerman and Danner, a decision was made to take the finished pilot to NATPE. Danner and his colleagues patted not merely Ackerman, but also themselves on the back when their pilot was listed as one of “The Newcomers To Watch.”
But less than a week later, Ackerman was summoned to Danner’s office. "Let’s cut to the chase," said the exec. "Despite all the hoopla, the clearances just aren’t coming in as we hoped. We need to give stations the kind of sexy that’ll put the show over the top."
"We’re talking about minors, remember? Which is why, as you may recall, there’s a kill clause."
Danner took a deep breath. "Don’t forget that this is your chance for serious bucks."
"I’m lucky. I don’t have a coke habit. Or multiple alimonies. Or fifteen kids to support. For me, this is about changing lives. For you, it’s about selling lots of soapsuds, Viagra, and feminine hygiene sprays. And as for changing lives, looks like we’ll be doing a good amount of it."
"The county is about to inaugurate its first Teen Court, with Judge Ortiz presiding. And know what? For me, that’s reward enough."
His head held high, Ackerman left the meeting, unaware that in the months ahead the number of Teen Court venues would increase exponentially. Where once there was none, soon there were three, then seven, then twenty within just a few years. Nor could Ackerman know that cities across the country would ask for, and be granted, permission to use the model that he had conceived.
Ackerman’s only disappointment came when, after five years, Teen Court was honored at a luncheon. Judge Ortiz accompanied him, but the other founder, Nieberg, dead of a heart attack, could not attend.