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, October 4, 2015

Winners and Losers

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

The opening line from A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

The new offerings from the major broadcasting networks have now set sail upon the troubled waters of the Fall television season, each show carrying a heavy cargo of hope that it will manage to navigate stormy seas which -- thanks to modern technology -- are further roiled by an increasingly fickle and distracted viewing audience. These shows face an uncertain future in the weeks to come, much like the fragile wooden ships of the Old World that bravely ventured out beyond the range of reliable maps to a mysterious and terrifying realm where whirlpools, hideous sea monsters, and God only knew what else awaited to devour their unlucky crews.

Some of those new shows -- poorly-conceived, badly written, mis-cast, or simply unable to find their on-screen sea legs quickly enough -- will sink within weeks, cancelled by nervous studio executives anxious to cover their high-salaried asses. Others will catch a favorable breeze and sail through those perilous waters over the next six months to the promised land of a second season... and maybe more. Meanwhile, there will be drama ahoy amid the ranks of producers, writers, actors, and the crews below decks who signed on for the voyage. Tears of woe will be shed amid the inevitable wreckage, while champagne flows freely aboard the shows that survive.

In the boom-and-bust world of Hollywood, it's always the best of times and the worst of times.

All the viewing public will know about it is that a number of new shows came and went, leaving the hardy survivors to remain on the Toob until next March, when the regular season fades to black, then settles in to wait for the spring rains of pilot season to bring yet another new crop of television. Unseen by those viewers at home will be dramas that played out behind the scenes between the frenzied rugby-scrum of pilot season and the Fall season launch, a seemingly quiet stretch when many of the lucky winners -- pilots picked up to series -- are forced to make some very cruel adjustments designed to bolster their chances of surviving the first crucial weeks of the regular season. As I've learned the hard way, this can be a dicey time for actors and crew alike, as roles are re-cast and new blood brought in to help ensure success. For the winners, it’s great -- but for the losers, this process can be brutal. 

One minute you have a job, then suddenly you don't.

Which just goes to underscore another fact of Hollywood Life: no matter what promises you've been told, you can’t count on anything until you get an official call time for your first day of work.

While staring into the fire on the Home Planet recently, my mind wandered back five years to a pilot I did that was picked up, then -- much to everyone’s surprise -- survived to run for over a hundred episodes. Although people on the writing staff and crew came and went over the years, it was a great run for us all -- producers, writers, directors, actors, and crew.

All except for one actress, that is, a young woman who was cast in the core role of a teenage girl for the pilot. Tracey Fairaway did a good enough job for the show to survive pilot season, but due to reasons best known to the mysterious powers above-the-line, her part was recast with another young actress when the show was picked up. Tracey had a job, then she didn’t after which she had to watch from afar as the show -- her show -- went from a pilot to the Valhalla of 100+ episode syndication, propelling the  young actress who replaced her into the limelight.   

        Taylor Sprietler, photo courtesy of Afterglow Magazine

Our new actress -- Taylor Sprietler -- was terrific, and there’s no doubt her considerable acting skills and audience appeal helped the show remain on the air as long as it did. For that, I’m grateful, because our little show kept my rent and bills paid for four years. Still, I’ve always felt bad for Tracey Fairaway. It's one thing to have a pilot go nowhere -- that's pretty much par for the course in this town -- but to have your pilot picked up, then dump you (and only you) before launching a 100+ episode run that's got to hurt.  

Sooner or later, one way or another -- often time and again -- it happens to us all, and when it does, there's nothing to be done but pick up the pieces and move on.  As traumatic as the experience must have been, it wasn't a total disaster for Tracey, who went on to build a successful acting career. And if she hasn't yet landed anything like a 100 episode show, you never know what will happen in this town.  The phone might ring tomorrow with a role that turns her into the next Jennifer Lawrence,

Similar dramas have doubtless played out for dozens of actors over past few months as the pilots that were picked up re-tooled for the new season launch -- actors who thought their ship had finally come in only to have have their dreams torpedoed by a money-making machine that can't afford to have a heart.*  Such is life in the cruel world of Hollywood, where the zero-sum game so often bestows a golden glow of success to one person at the cost of someone else’s dismal, oh-so-personal and soul-crushing failure.

So when you turn on the Toob to see what’s new this season, remember -- maybe you didn’t hear the screams of pain, much less the weeping and wailing, but the long knives have been working overtime these past few weeks, spilling plenty of blood on the cutting room floors.

Have a little compassion for the actors who suffered through it, because while this is certainly the best of times for some, it's also the worst of times for others.

Same as it ever was...

* Which is just one more reason actors have the hardest job on set

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