If fifty percent of marriages end in divorce (or sweatpants, as NBC’s Whitney would have us believe), then the vast majority of television shows are the bastard children of their narcissistic, money grubbing parent networks. Too harsh?
Not when you imagine the numbers. To make the math simple, if in a year fifty new pilot scripts are bought (out of maybe a hundred actually decent options), then twenty might be ordered to film. Of those twenty, possibly ten are slated to premiere that fall. By Thanksgiving and certainly Christmas, only one or two will remain. One or two out of a hundred, generously speaking. Established shows can’t rest much easier — plenty have been cut after multiple seasons and a loyal (but not good enough by network standards) audience.
But to a newbie foaming at the bit to get your hands dirty on your first real paid TV gig — even as a production office assistant (a.k.a. a glorified gopher) — no day could be sunnier than when you receive that official studio drive-on badge. You’re excited to be at the hub of the entire production process. Every department goes through your office, making this job the perfect way to learn about scripted television, even if you’d ideally rather work for the writers on a less procedural-heavy show. Not unlike a new relationship, every day on the job for the first couple of weeks yields a miraculous discovery: an endless supply of free snacks and made-to-order lunches (never mind that you’re picking them up); the far-flung and fancy homes of actors, where you deliver freshly printed scripts; and to top it off, you are now a copying, filing, and distributing pro. Do they give awards for that? You’d so win.
Even those ungodly early morning days when you stayed up late marathoning Friday Night Lights (of which multiple colleagues worked on — bonus!) are bearable when you can relay to friends and family that “the Parenthood trailers are right around the corner, and let me tell you, Lauren Graham is just as pretty in person” or “that British actor Mark Sheppard asked for my name to better personalize a request and his accent was adorbable.”
And then the other shoe drops. Silence in the bullpen as the higher ups take the call. Your supervisor tiptoes over to brace her palms and right ear against the ominous, closed door. Moments later, downcast eyes and the shake of a head confirms what everyone already suspects.
The next day a small party with clipboards and formal attire swoops through the office. “We can’t keep meeting like this,” a colleague attempts to joke with these executives in charge of determining the striking process — professional mood killers you’ll privately refer to them as.
With the holidays approaching, it isn’t uncommon to find more than a few unfamiliar faces over the last few days of production. These people are all smiles and undeniably eager, reminding you of your first days on the job, back before the ratings plummeted and it felt like the network was on your side by airing repeats on weekends to hopefully gain a bigger following. You hope the enthusiasm means your absentee colleagues found other work, but a tryptophan coma seems equally understandable.
Various art departments turn in their binders — photographic records of every costume, hair or makeup style for each scene of every episode — with the intention that if the show were ever “un-benched” a new crew would be able to pick up the reluctant pieces. Your formerly newbie self wants to believe this is possible, but you’ve wised up by now and know your meticulous filing and boxing of their contents will only collect dust.
Abandoned offices are stripped bare (leave no tack, paperclip, or pen behind!) for future productions, with the same odds stacked against their success. Coworkers in different departments finish their last days, and you hug goodbye knowing that as part of the production office you’ll still be here for weeks after they are gone, burying the skeletons of a promising and well-but-not-widely liked show.
But it’s not all negative: you have the wrap party to look forward to, where you and all your hard-working collaborators can drink on the network’s dime. It will be an event you’ll pretend doesn’t cost more than you make in a year, and to make up for it, you plan to be suitably intoxicated.
And then, with a glorious hangover, you will experience yet another existential life crisis in which, due to mourning, you can’t help but reference this past job in the second person. It’ll be alright though, because at least there’s unemployment to tide you over until pilot season, when, to ensure a steady paycheck, you intend to only accept work on a sitcom with tired gags and an equally deplorable laugh track — a surefire success.
Photo by Jason Eppink