Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

New Reality in TV Land

Resistance is futile...

The long siege of pilot season feels like an endless treadmill of work-sleep-eat-work, under a steadily accumulating burden of fatigue. Recovery comes on weekends, but every Saturday morning brings another pile of laundry to be washed, dirty dishes stacked high in the sink, and the usual grocery shopping to replenish the larder. LA is an exceedingly crowded place on the weekends, when trying to get anything done means swimming upstream against a very stiff current. A little of that goes a long way, and when the last “weekend” respite morphed into a single day off instead of the usual two -- one lousy day to get all my domestic chores done and prepare for a six day work week -- I was more than ready to get the hell out of Dodge.

Such is the life of the free-lancer in Hollywood, where there’s usually no choice but to put your head down and keep pushing forward until the work finally stops, or you can no longer crawl out of bed -- whichever comes first. But sooner or later the work always stops, which is both the blessing and the curse of this often ridiculous business.

And so when the punishment finally stopped, I made the long drive north towards the rolling green hills, blue sky, and cool morning fog of the home planet, there to stare into a wood fire and forget all about cable, lights, and the relentless demands of the sound stage. Every morning brought a pale blue mist of Forget Me Nots glistening with dew, along with chores of a different sort: dead trees to cut up, firewood to stack, several months worth of fallen leaves to sweep, and an ocean of tall weeds swaying in the golden afternoon sun, just waiting to be whacked. At night there was that lovely crackling fire, a glass of something strong, and the gentle music of baseball on the radio.

A week isn’t so much time under such circumstances. On the last day, my final task done, I carried the tools back down the slope towards the basement, wishing as always for a few more days – and there in a lush green meadow at the edge of the forest stood a doe and her two tiny spotted fawns. Barely thirty feet away, the three of them looked like statues carved from soft brown stone, not even breathing, staring hard at me as though I’d just beamed down from an alien spaceship. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared back, trying to meet the fixed intensity of six jet-black eyes.

It was no contest -- after barely half a minute of eyeball-to-eyeball stasis, I blinked first. The mother doe flicked her ears, then very deliberately stamped a sharp hoof hard into the ground, and in an instant they were gone, three sleek phantoms of the forest bounding effortlessly through the dense green woods. I stared into the trees for a long time after they'd vanished, then put the tools away, locked the door, and packed up the car.

Drawn like a moth to the flame of an economic imperative that never relents -- another job, another paycheck -- I drove south towards the Doomed City of the Future, where dreams fade to black in the hot smoggy air, but hope never dies.

Back to LA...


For the Hollywood work-bot, the landscape of television has changed a lot in recent times. Until a couple of years ago, we’d work from late July until sometime in March, then stagger through the rugby-scrum of pilot season into early May, followed by a solid eight to ten unpaid weeks off until the new season geared up in late summer. The pattern was established long ago when networks ruled the television world, and persisted through the years as small cable outfits emerged on the fringes, surviving on crumbs. But the meteor has come at last, upending the established order, and as the network dinosaurs sink ever deeper into the economic tar pits, bellowing in their pain and confusion, cable is on the rise.

This is mostly a good thing for the viewing audience. With a few exceptions, the major network offerings have been tepid-to-lame the past few years – an assembly line of gory police/forensics procedurals interspersed with doctor/nurse/hospital dramas that are little more than weepy high-gloss soap operas. If those don’t hold your interest, there are a couple of popular sit-coms, a few mildly subversive animated shows, and the fetid, stinking garbage scow of “reality” television, lead by the likes of “American Idol.”

Meanwhile, cable has been busy creating all the really good stuff. Although HBO seems to have stumbled into creative quicksand lately, they made television history and set a very high bar indeed with shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” among others. FX came on strong with “The Shield,” and more recently “Sons of Anarchy,” while AMC -- once the chinless little sister of cable – caught everybody by surprise with “Mad Men,” then knocked the ball out of the park with the astonishing "Breaking Bad." As far as I'm concerned, this is the best show on television. No broadcast network will ever have the creative balls to make, let alone air, a show as bold and smart as "Breaking Bad." But this is the new reality: when it comes to sheer imagination, creativity, and quality, cable has been eating the network’s lunch for the past decade. Network shows still have the numbers by a wide margin (and they will for a while), but what cable has achieved is extremely impressive.

This is all good for the viewing audience (viewers with cable, anyway), but not so much for those of us who get down and dirty working in the bowels of the Dream Factory, because toiling on a cable episodic is a lot harder and considerably less lucrative than working a network drama. Thus far, I've been lucky -- other than a season day-playing on HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me," and a single day filming pick-up scenes on “The Sopranos” final season, I’ve managed to avoid working for those low cable rates. With the welcome influx of multi-camera sit-com pilots this season (leading to optimism that the buffalo really have returned), there was reason to hope that my artful dodging of the low-budget swamp would continue.

You can’t pay the rent on hope, though, and for all our strenuous efforts, this pilot season proved to be an exhausting bust for my crew. Both pilots we made died in their cribs -- but in what qualifies as a minor miracle, one of those two pilots we did last fall finally got picked up. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s not a true network pick-up, but instead will air on one of the Big Four's numerous cable affiliates, which means a nine or ten episode demi-season rather than the usual twelve or thirteen for starters. Unlike a network show, we'll have no shot at a full twenty-two episode season –- but that might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, since we’ll be getting paid according to the terms of that odious cable “sidebar” deal, nailing us to the cross with a full 20% pay cut from basic union scale.

For every five days we work, we’ll get paid for four. Put another way, it means that come Friday each week, our entire crew will be working for free.

I absolutely hate this, but such is the new reality of Hollywood, where every year those who do the heavy lifting are squeezed a little bit tighter, then forced to bend over just a little bit more. Granted, this is going on in the real world to an even greater degree –- and that’s for those lucky enough to even have a job these days -– but if this grim fact is supposed to make me feel better, it doesn’t. Still, even a lousy job will keep the rent paid while feeding hours into the health and pension plans. Sometimes that’s the best you can get, in which case you take the bad with the good and hope for something better down the road.

I could have said “no thanks” to such a crappy job, of course, but turning down work these days is a realistic option only for the exceedingly fortunate few. And those lucky souls? Maybe they can afford one of these to while away their gainfully unemployed hours.

Watching cable, no doubt.


Anonymous said...

Regarding ratings: USA actually beat NBC a few weeks ago with an episode of Burn Notice. (Which, by the way, is noticeably absent from your list of Good Cable Shows; if you're not watching it, you should.)

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous -- I wasn't attempting to name all the good cable shows, but simply listing a few that caught my attention as examples of the quality available on cable. I've heard good things about "Burn Notice," but haven't had a chance to check it out.

Cable is indeed coming on strong, and will (deservedly) score the occasional ratings coup over the network competition, but it's hard to beat the reach, depth, and hold on the public imagination enjoyed by the networks after fifty years of dominating the airwaves. Only a small portion of the viewing public has even heard of AMC, let alone watched an episode of "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad" -- but they all know where ABC, NBC, and CBS are on the dial. It'll be a while before that changes.

Then again, ten years ago, who would have thought GM would go bankrupt...

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to pop in and say hello. Taking a Rigging Electric safety course in the AM. Always think of you and your advice when I get my brain in learning mode.

Oh, and Breaking Bad is awesome.