Saturday, July 21, 2012

"The Next Best Thing" is the Perfect One-Two Combination of Coming-of-Age and Hollywood...

I talk a lot about television shows that come along and feel like they were made specifically for me, but today I am turning my attention to a book-- the newest novel by Jennifer Weiner, to be exact-- that does so. I recently wrote about recognizing the signs of fate and destiny and our own specific paths, and I feel like "The Next Best Thing" fits into that journey greatly for me but will be a poignant and still fun journey for the rest of you.

The protagonist in "The Next Best Thing" is twenty-eight years old. She has never worked as a staff writer for television. In fact, she has barely been in a writer's room. Yet timing and the people she knew worked out for her, and she was not only able to pitch her own show but sell it on first try. Like with many of Weiner's books, there is a romantic quality to the premise of this one. Things are far from perfect for the woman who was so scarred by a childhood car accident she had to have countless surgeries growing up to reconstruct her face and still feels like she will "never be beautiful." But still, in many ways she lives a charmed life-- a life so many will envy. She has a grandmother who has been there for her more than any two parents combined; she has a healthy settlement she could always fall back on; she has had people take chances on her for job opportunities even when she has said the wrong things in meetings. Perhaps most importantly, though, she has a gift for words and a deep passion for the medium.

Weiner's heroine, Ruth or Ruthie, as she is known by her friends and colleagues, starts out unlucky in love but just on the verge of everything she has always wanted professionally. This is not a dark drama, but still something happens that threatens to take away everything she's always worked towards. And that something, quite simply, is the machine of Hollywood.

About the show that inspired her early years, sitting with her grandmother in the hospital as she had surgery after surgery and longed for a world where differences were not only beautiful but celebrated, she explained:

"In that happy land, not everyone was beautiful, or young, or perfect. Not everyone had romantic love. But everyone had friends, a family they'd chosen. It was that love that sustained them, and that love, I imagined, could sustain me, too." 

She found that solace and inspiration in Golden Girls, and she hopes to give the same message and "safe place" to young girls growing up today-- young girls who don't see themselves reflected in the stick-thin, Photoshop gorgeous actors on their screens.

Ruth's pilot starts out as semi-autobiographical, a tale that is told to us to be a sitcom but from the scraps we overhear from first draft seem much more serious. It centers on a young woman and her grandmother who leave their hometown behind to start fresh in career and love (respectively), much like Ruth and her own grandmother did years earlier. As pilot season goes on, more and more gets changed, Ruth is unable to find the voice needed to speak up and fight for certain things, always saying "Okay" to notes she knows are nuts. She wants her characters to "come of age" on-screen, but really it is Ruth who still has to do so

It's no secret that I'm obsessed/in love with stories that feature "late in life" coming of age tales because their characters have been somewhat emotionally stunted. But here Ruth has great and unique reason to be: she closed herself off, with really only her grandma as her BFF. "The Next Best Thing" explores how one woman's deep-rooted insecurities can bubble up and take over, even when she doesn't realize it. The compromises-- or rather, the "laying down and letting people walk all over her" (as I would cynically, critically accuse)-- Ruth makes reminded me too much of Louis C.K.'s own musings on this industry. He has said that "you have to be willing to not do the show and not get the money...[because] you if you're concerned with the success too much, you make all kinds of decisions and compromises that hurt the actual stories that you're telling."

Hollywood is lousy with people who will sell each other out just to get ahead, but ultimately what Weiner is exploring here are the subtle ways we sell ourselves out and sometimes not even realize it. Until it's too late.

Now, Weiner is known for lighthearted beach reads, the too easily dismissed "chick lit," so naturally a happy ending should be expected-- even if it's not necessarily the happy ending you entirely see coming (spoiler alert: in Weiner's world, The CW can play the hero, and honestly...we kind of love her even more for that). Some liberties have to be taken in order to wrap up Ruth's situation in a soul-saving bow, but honestly, I appreciate that, too.

Even when exposing the corruption of creativity in Hollywood, Weiner manages to capture the fairytale nature of the town. It's a tough line to tow, but she tightropes across it expertly, also managing to create a tale that would be perfectly adaptable for the screen. Above and beyond the personal, internal struggles Ruth faces, Weiner perfectly captures pilot season-- or at least every writer's worst case scenario version of seeming success from pilot season. You can't help but feel like a fly on the wall of Ruth's meetings and calls, and you can't help but wonder if Weiner was once somehow a fly on the wall of a production company's own process.

Look, I'll just say it: I'm twenty eight years old. I have never worked as a staff writer for television. In fact, I have barely been in a writer's room. Yet I am counting on timing and the people I know to work out for me and I would kill to pitch and sell my show on the first try. I know enough about myself, my issues with control, and the politics of this business to know I'm not willing to compromise nearly as much as Ruth did. After all, either way, you're not getting your show made, and I'd much rather the studio or network scrap the project completely than produce something with my name on it that doesn't resemble what I actually created. However, I'm also still enough of a dreamer that reading a story, even a fictional one, like "The Next Best Thing," where things go haywire and then come out a-okay, if not touched by a little Hollywood magic, inspires me in its own way.

And even if you're not aspiring to do the things Ruth did, undoubtedly you are aspiring to be the kind of strong, positive female role model Ruth is, and therefore, you will be inspired in your own way, too.

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