TV FICTION PACKAGE: A wannabe writer seeks help from a college pal who’s now a TV exec. 2,642 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Michael Thompson wished he had taken his filthy Honda to a car wash at least once during the past six months. He tried consoling himself with the thought that his car’s appearance wouldn’t matter. It was pretty unlikely that Phil Brentlinger would greet him personally in the Everest Studios parking lot or walk him back to his clunker when their meeting was over. But if he did… well, too late to worry about that now.
Choosing what to wear had been another headache. Everything Michael read about TV people said they always dressed casually, sometimes even in t-shirts, jeans and running shoes. But that was after they already had positions, credits and big fat staff salaries. As a complete nobody, Michael didn’t feel comfortable dressing down. He settled on a blue oxford cloth shirt, khaki pants, a navy blazer and a yellow tie. The outfit seemed like a safe choice before he left the house. Now he wondered if he looked like a used-car salesman, or just a dipshit.
Too late to worry about that now, too.
He rehearsed what he would say to Phil, taking both sides of the conversation and talking out loud. He didn’t give a damn if other drivers saw him. This was Hollywood. People here either thought you were an actor or a wacko if they saw you talking to yourself, and neither was regarded as unusual.
"So, Phil, what did you think of the samples I sent you?"
"Well, they’re a little rough around the edges, but you’ve really got the basics down pat. They’re funny and smart. Not snob-smart, but good smart. I’d like to show them around and get you some series work, if that’s okay."
No way. Things that good didn’t happen. Michael started over again.
"So what did you think of the scripts, Phil?"
"They sucked the big dick. Now go fuck off back to the Valley and don’t bother me again with crap like this. Also, that yellow tie makes you look like a dipshit."
Michael smiled. Things weren’t likely to be quite that bad.
He was on his way to Everest Studios for a meeting that might change his life. The New Yorker, Esquire, The Paris Review and everyplace else that had rejected his short stories could pucker up and kiss his ass if he got work writing for TV. His high-dollar TV-writing ass.
He pulled into the Everest Studios entrance and rolled down his window as he stopped at the guard booth.
"Michael Thompson, to see Phil Brentlinger."
The guard looked at his clipboard. “Thompson… Thompson. Don’t see you here.”
Michael felt a moment of panic. "11:45. He called me about an hour ago and said to meet here."
"Nope, don’t see you. Let me just ring up Mr. Brentlinger."
Michael’s face felt hot. What if Phil was just being a prick? What if this had been his idea of a prank? That goddamned son of a bitch…
"Okay, Mr. Thompson, you can go on inside," the guard said. "Mr. Brentlinger said he forgot to call down and let us know. Sorry for the delay."
The guard directed Michael to Phil’s office. Michael felt shitty about doubting Phil. Maybe not everyone in the world was a jerk after all. He absentmindedly wiped his forehead with one of his shirt cuffs. His sweat left a mark on the pale-blue material. Michael felt stupid when he saw it. He hoped his blazer would cover the stain.
A nebulous desire to work in the entertainment industry had been in the back of Michael’s mind since high school. But that daydream didn’t seem attainable until the night three seasons ago when he saw Phil Brentlinger’s name flash by in the closing credits of a top-rated network series called Free Press, set at an alternative weekly newspaper. Michael felt sick that a fellow Monroe University alumnus had managed to break into TV while Michael was wasting his days sitting in front of the TV instead of writing for it.
Phil had been bumped up from Free Press writer to story editor, then listed as one of its three producers. At that point, Michael knew he should make an effort to reestablish contact, but he dreaded the prospect of having to explain who he was and what he wanted over the phone. He decided to contact Phil by email. He labored over the message, trying to blend just the right mixture of humor, self-deprecation and ass-kissing.
Although he wrote Phil that he’d been trying to break into the biz, the closest Michael actually had come was buying a book about script-writing. Then the prospect of actually selling a script had seemed so daunting that Michael shoved that aspiration into a mental file labeled "Maybe Next Lifetime."
A week after sending the email, Michael received a call.
"No, you mean, ‘That is I.’ Or maybe just ‘Speaking,’ if you want to avoid sounding like an English professor."
Michael frowned. "Who is this?"
The caller gave an overly dramatic sigh. "Michael, Michael, Michael. You send me an email and then you forget all about it?"
Michael froze. "Phil?"
"Yes, it’s Phil, you chunk-style chowderhead." That was one of the catch-phrase insults that the surly-but-lovable copy editor on Free Press used at least once in every episode.
Michael’s heart started beating faster. "Hey, thanks for calling. I felt funny about sending that email, but…"
"Believe me, I definitely know. Everybody from the old cafeteria crew to the dean of students wants to be my new best friend as soon as they see my name on the idiot box. Look, I can’t make any promises or anything, but if you’ve written some scripts and want to send them my way, I’ll take a look at them. I can maybe tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, that kind of thing."
"That would be great," Michael said, but he felt a flash of panic. It was time now to put up or shut up. He decided to improvise his way around the truth. "I’m polishing up a couple of things," he said. "I’ll send them over when they’re done."
"No, you mean ‘as soon as they’re finished.’ Meat is ‘done.'"
Michael faked a laugh. He had forgotten what an obnoxious put-down artist Phil had been at school.
"Hey, did you watch the show tonight?"
Michael hadn’t. "Yeah," he lied. "It was good. One of yours?"
"You didn’t watch the credits? Now I’m really hurt. Hey, look, I’m getting another call that might be important. Keep in touch, okay?"
Phil already had hung up.
Things moved quickly after that. Michael turned in his two weeks’ notice at work. He rationalized this impulsive action by acknowledging to himself that, at 32 years old, he hadn’t done a goddamned thing in his life that he could honestly be proud of. He wanted to force himself to take a shot at making a living as a writer, instead of just talking about it.
He wrote two sample scripts in three weeks, fast enough to prove to himself he maybe had a talent for this kind of thing. He followed the instructions in the how-to book. The book said it was best to start out writing samples for a well-known series if a novice wanted to land a TV assignment. Its other advice was not to write too much in the way of set descriptions or camera angles, or long passages of dialog.
When the scripts were finished to Michael’s satisfaction, he sent them to Phil. Months passed with no word. Michael sent Phil another email, short and polite, gently asking if the TV producer had read the scripts yet. Then he tried calling Phil at the studio. All three times, a secretary said Phil wasn’t at his desk. A few weeks ago, Michael sent a hand-written postcard that read: "Please be so good as to let this anxious writer know if his scripts are (a) still under review or (b) decomposing in a landfill." There was no reply.
Eventually, Michael decided that no response actually was a response. Either Phil hated the scripts or didn’t have the decency to provide any constructive criticism. At that point, Phil’s name became inextricably linked in Michael’s mind with the word "asshole." That was why hearing from him this morning had been such a surprise. Michael almost felt guilty about taking the guy’s name in vain for so long.
Phil’s building was surprisingly unimpressive on the outside. Inside, the receptionist sat at a low desk with an "E" symbol made of bright chrome behind her. She couldn’t be older than 21, and looked like a fashion model.
"I’m here to see Phil Brentlinger."
"Are you Mr. Thompson? Down the hall, third office on your right."
Mounted on the wall beside Phil’s door was a black nameplate engraved with white block letters. No title, just the name. Michael knocked.
"It’s open!" called a voice from inside.
Phil was a couple of years younger than Michael, but anyone who saw them together would have a hard time believing Michael was the elder of the pair. Phil’s expensive European-cut suit and dark silk tie gave him the look of a wealthy and impatient stockbroker. His desk was an inch-thick slab of black marble resting atop four polished chrome cylinders. Two Emmy awards were positioned on shelves in such a way that a visitor couldn’t fail to notice them.
"Oh, right, you must be Michael," Phil greeted him, wearing the vaguely annoyed expression of the routinely overindulged. "I didn’t recognize you. Have a seat."
Phil strolled to the front of his desk and casually leaned back against its edge, so Michael had to look up at him. He could not have been more obvious about establishing the room’s pecking order if he had put a damned crown on his head. Michael’s stomach felt tight. He should have expected that Phil would act this way. Arrogant. Full of himself. Shit, after three years of working on a Top Ten network show and pulling down a big-time salary, who wouldn’t have a swelled head?
Phil reached behind himself for Michael’s scripts. “Sorry not to get back to you sooner about these. I’ve been pretty busy lately, since they bumped me up to Executive Vice President. I haven’t even had time to move offices yet."
Michael nodded dumbly, looking at his scripts in Phil’s hand.
"Right, about your stuff…" Phil riffled through both scripts with his thumb. "I don’t know, Michael. Maybe with some work you could show these to a few agents and try to get something going. But if you want my opinion, there’s something missing."
Michael felt his face getting hot. He tried to keep his voice even. "What exactly…"
"I don’t know.” Phil kept riffling the scripts, apparently just to put bend marks in the pages. "They didn’t grab me. But what the hell, maybe I’m just jaded." Phil walked back around his desk to sit in his high-backed office chair. "When I was working on Free Press every week, I saw a lot of beginners’ scripts. Maybe too many. Sitcom writing is tricky. Everybody thinks they can do it just because they watch TV all the time, but it’s not that easy. I mean, it’s not hard, but it’s not easy.” He gave a short laugh.
Michael wanted to tell Phil to fuck himself, but managed to smile back. Phil put the scripts on his desk and slid them toward Michael, who picked them up and stared at them.
"So how long have you been out here anyway?" Phil’s voice suddenly was full of false camaraderie. "You graduated Monroe a couple years before me, right?"
"I moved out here five years ago. We were in Tudryn’s creative writing class together, remember? He always liked my stuff."
“Yeah, you were his golden boy back then,” remarked Phil. “I never could stand that pompous jerk."
Michael was stunned that Phil actually seemed to resent him for his success back then. Michael liked that there once had been a time when Phil was jealous of him, instead of the other way around.
"So what have you been doing out here?" Phil asked.
Michael wished he were someplace else, anywhere but here. It could not be more obvious that this rich motherfucker didn’t give a shit about him. Still, Michael clung to the hope that something good might come out of this meeting. All he had to do was make a favorable impression, find some way to connect with this smug prick, and maybe network through him to somebody else. That happened all the time, right?
"I’m writing professionally,” Michael said.
“What, like novels and stuff?" Phil asked.
Michael had an overpowering urge to reply, Oh sure, I’ve written a half-dozen bestsellers already, you dumb son of a bitch. The manuscripts drop out of my ass once a week in a stamped manila envelope, ready to pop in the mail. Instead he answered, "No, I’ve only been writing short stories."
"Had any luck getting them published?
Phil was such a pig that Michael decided he had nothing to lose by telling him the truth. "Actually, the only stories that are making me money are the ones I’ve written for men’s magazines."
Sure enough, that got Phil’s attention. Suddenly fascinated, he asked, "You mean like porno?"
"Nothing sleazy," Michael lied. "Just, you know, erotica."
“No kidding? Hey, you ever think about writing a porn movie script? Probably a lot of openings for beginners in that industry, in more ways than one."
What Michael had regarded as his dirty little secret actually was turning out to be a way of connecting with Phil after all. Guys are guys. Michael was just about to reveal that he had adapted one of his sleazier stories into a hardcore adult video script that he had submitted on spec to a producer when Phil interrupted.
"I mean, it would kill your chances of ever getting legitimate TV or film work. Might be good for a few laughs, though."
Michael hoped he didn’t appear as stupidly stunned and sickly disoriented as he suddenly felt. "I never would want to hurt my chances of writing for TV," he said.
Phil looked at his watch. "Oh, hey, I’ve really got to run." He got to his feet in a way that made it obvious he expected Michael to do the same. Phil clapped a hand on Michael’s shoulder and guided him out the door. "Keep in touch, buddy.”
An hour later, Michael drove his dirty car back home. In the mail was a check from Gal Pals, a bottom-rung men’s magazine that had bought an especially shitty story written by Michael which three better-paying porn markets had rejected. Michael hadn’t expected jerk-off magazines to be his sole source of income now. He was beginning to think what he had started out doing as a goof might be the only thing he did well.
He checked his voicemail. A gravelly voice said, "This is Arthur Pallas at Seventh Circle Video. You sent us a script called Panty Animals and we want to make it. Call me."
The guy’s timing was shockingly perfect. Michael looked at his sitcom scripts on the kitchen table. He picked up one of them and riffled through it, the same way Phil had done. Would it really matter if some TV producer found out he had written a porn video? It could break the ice in pitch meetings, for sure. Until CBS, Fox or NBCUniversal decided to give Michael a call, Seventh Circle Video would have to do.
Michael replayed the message, writing down the phone number on the title page of one of his sample scripts. As he punched in the digits, he couldn’t help thinking, "Fuck you, Phil."
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season