Use Your Illusion

Falcon Crest: Up close, 'Saturdy Night Live' is like watching celebs read cue cards in a school auditorium. Also, the bird is fake.

Falcon Crest: Up close, 'Saturdy Night Live' is like watching celebs read cue cards in a school auditorium. Also, the bird is fake.

Until recently, my relationship with television was solely voyeuristic. I could be an objective judge of TV content, panning Wife Swap or pooh-poohing According to Jim without worry about offending anyone on the other side of that flickering tube. I perceived actors as recyclable paper dolls for my entertainment. Writers were emotionless gag machines plugged in somewhere near Burbank and rebooted every September. Producers were simply amusing logos that appeared at the end of every show--roaring lions, mutant enemies, and Ubu, who sat on command like a good financier should.

My distance from the actual business of television is precisely what enabled me to immerse myself in its pageantry. Weirdly, this phenomenon was described to me at the age of 10 by a jaded classmate. Her name was Lee and her parents, though monstrously wealthy, fought like starving dogs. One day I told Lee that I was jealous of her lavish lifestyle. She peered at me over Gucci sunglasses and hoarsely replied, "Never get front row seats at the ballet, kid. It ruins the illusion."

Now that I work in television as a hired scribe (and who knows how long that will last), I've been afforded a close-up, warts-and-all view of what happens inside the box. And while I wouldn't say the proverbial illusion is ruined for me--I still believe that Joanie loves Chachi, Carrie loves Big, and Homer loves rancid bacon--my perception has definitely been altered.

For instance, when a show flops, it's whisked off the schedule with apologetic efficiency. As viewers, you can blithely go about your business as if The Charmings (look it up) never existed.

But you can bet your ass that they're bawling in Studio City. "I was sure this would work!" the disgraced show runner wails, beating her breast. "How could America not embrace the idea of Snow White and Prince Charming struggling to make ends meet in modern-day suburbia?" The executive producer chimes in, dabbing his eyes with a seven-figure check: "It tested huge in Vegas!"

Thankfully, things move at Lamborghini speed in TV development, especially compared with the excruciatingly sluggish pace of the feature film world. Those weeping executives (tittybabies, all of 'em) will be developing a new pilot before the snot dries on their Sidekicks. Nervous hacks like me are summoned to conjure ideas that haven't already failed on another network. The dance continues, and the audience remains unaware of the machinations, the cold sweats, the gnashing of teeth.


But who cares about that kind of backstage drama when you can literally go backstage?

See, last week, I had access to front row seats of a more literal kind. During a trip to New York, I was invited to the set of All My Children to meet with a young actor by the name of Leven Rambin. AMC fans know her as Lily Montgomery, the hot autistic stepdaughter of Emmy-grubbing Erica Kane. Now, when I was a teenager, my friends and I were slumped, grimy creatures with bad clothes and cavernous pores. This cannot be said of Leven Rambin, who looks like a fairytale princess as painted by Thomas Kinkaid and his elves. The girl is luminous, to employ an adjective that's way overused in celebrity journalism. Ms. Rambin suffered my queries graciously and introduced me to her co-workers, who were lounging around and running lines in full makeup and terrycloth turbans.

Next, we toured the Pine Valley sets, which were shockingly small. Thanks to camera magic, only half a room needs to be built to trick the eye into perceiving an entire house. There were meals already laid out for a dinner scene to be shot much later--actors frequently have to eat cold food on camera without grimacing, because the plates are "styled" in advance. I had never actually been on a TV set before, even as a tourist, so the experience was fascinating. (Note to AMC junkies: I didn't meet La Lucci, as she was not on set that day. However, I did see her Lilliputian costumes. Girlfriend is Tom Cruise tiny!)

Two days later, I attended a taping of Saturday Night Live. I was especially torqued about this because I've been a loyal SNL fan since Julia Louis-Dreyfus was in the cast and I had to ask permission to stay up and watch. Thirty Rock is hallowed ground for class clowns, after all, and SNL is a notoriously tough ticket to get because the studio is so small. I had no idea how small it really was, though, until I passed through approximately 18 levels of Gitmo-grade security on the way to my taped-off seat.

I'll be frank here: Studio 8A is a friggin' dump. The famous stage where hosts stumble through ill-advised musical monologues is small and scuffed, so dangerously narrow that there were times during sketches when I feared performers would fall off. That imaginative Grand Central Station set that looks so cool on TV is actually wee and claustrophobic. The show itself was like watching famous people read off cue cards in a high school auditorium, and I couldn't get over how weird it was. Still, seeing Will Forte up close was worth the loss of innocence. Fun fact: That bird they use in the "Falconer" sketches is fake!

Obviously, when anything is magnified, the hairline cracks in the facade become canyons. That said, TV will always be magic for me. Unless I improbably become Fred Silverman or Jaime Tarses someday (don't hold your breath) I'll never be fully privy to the intricate puppetry of programming. From now on, I'll appreciate what little distance I can maintain.