Given how obsessed a segment of the American viewing public has become with the process of making television, and the people behind the camera who make it, it’s been interesting to watch the reception to a recent slew of behind-the-scenes stories about show business. The CW’s aired the strong Canadian drama The L.A. Complex, about a group of aspiring actors, dancers, comedians and producers who live in a run-down apartment building, to ratings so low they’d be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad to see a good show with intelligent things to say about the entertainment industry get overlooked. By contrast, Jennifer Weiner’s The Next Best Thing, about a woman who sells her dream television show only to face down the compromises that it takes to make a version of it the network will air, debuted at 2 on the New York Times Bestseller list.
That’s an encouraging thing, in part because the novel is a sly and accurate education in the workings of the television industry, based on Weiner’s own experience making the ABC Family show State of Georgia. And those workings, and the conversations people have about them in The Next Best Thing are inevitably inflected by gender, race, and the mechanisms the industry has in place to deal with both.
In the novel, Ruth Saunders was badly injured in a childhood accident that’s left her with facial scars and that killed her parents. Her grandmother, who raised her, moves with Ruth to Los Angeles after Ruth graduates from college and hopes to pursue a career as a television writer. While Ruth begins work as an assistant and moves up the writing ladder, her grandmother scores work as an extra.
Ruth faces her first initial setback when she falls for her boss on a show where she’s working, and he rejects her. When her agent suggests that Ruth look for a job on a show run by a woman “I laughed, knowing as Shelly surely did, that women-run shows, especially comedies, were still a distinct minority. After all these years of feminism and presumed equality, there still wasn’t a woman hosting a late-night network show, and only a handful of ladies were writing for those male hosts. Sticoms weren’t much better. Male writers and showrunners were the rule, women writers and showrunners were still the exception, and while every writers’ room had a few females and at least one person of color, comedy was still very much a white man’s world.” That may be the kind of thing people who read me, or Maureen Ryan know. But I don’t know that the average Jennifer Weiner reader—or really, the average television watcher—does, and it’s incredibly valuable for the book not just to present that information to them, but to present it as if it’s settled knowledge.
When Ruth starts casting her pilot, she has good intentions. “In my head, she’d been white, like me,” she says when a terrific young African-American actress auditions. “But when I’d seen Allison’s audition, I’d decided that I’d be willing to make whatever adjustments were necessary if the network picked her. She was the total package, pretty but relatable, a girl who could handle jokes and drama with equal skill.” But she gets absolutely no chance to implement them, when the network plugs an actress who’s a bad fit in to the part because they have a holding deal. When Ruth walks through her writers’ room, she makes sure to explain that the network is paying for her African-American writer’s salary through a diversity fellowship that isn’t counted as part of the show’s budget, something that actually happens, and that provides an incentive for shows to claim the money, though not to promote writers hired with it into positions where the grants might not apply.
And because Ruth’s mentors are men, some of the network executives treat her like a non-person. “Lanny seemed to have decided that even though I’d come up with the concept and written the script, Dave was really the one in charge, and thus he addressed all his remarks to Dave,” she observes to some of them. “Maybe he couldn’t stand to lok at my face, or he was similarly dismissive to all young women, or to all women in general.” Those mentors, older white men, one of whom uses a wheelchair, have done a decent job of hiring a diverse behind-the-camera staff, but still get uncomfortable and cranky when they’re called on their whiteness anyway.
The Next Best Thing isn’t a perfect novel—Ruth’s naivete can be more uncomfortable than sympathetic, and there’s a third-act twist that makes certain drama seem more contrived than earned. But it’s exciting to see a novel that draws authentic drama out of some of the more ridiculous circumstances that are taken for granted in television production, and to make its characters more compelling by giving them the actual concerns and opinions they’d have in life. And it’ll be fascinating to see if Weiner, by translating her experience for readers, and giving them access to information normally discussed in reports and a few television sites, activates a new group of television watchers to think about what they’re watching, and how it came to be.