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.