June 19, 2013
The Real Deal
Posted on Jan 28, 2011
Day One on The Deserted, television’s most venerable unscripted drama, in which ten strangers find themselves in a remote location—no money, no maps, and no clue. Early this morning: a flash of light in the tropical sky, a trail of dark smoke as an airliner plunged into the sea. Soon, the survivors washed up bloody and battered on a tiny island far from civilization. While production assistants and tape loggers cheered them on, the Deserted built a shelter, ransacked the flotsam luggage, took stock of one another. Storm clouds gathered. Sharks circled off the shore. Season 13 had begun.
There’s only one way off the island: a harrowing trek through some of the roughest terrain known to man. These ten competitors will have to learn to work together. No one can tell them what to do. Their fate is theirs to determine. But in the end, only one will be crowned Lord of the Island.
In the production facility—a fifteen-acre parcel on the island’s southeast tip—the crew bustled through their tasks: techs and interns beetling around the control room, story assistants huddling in the back with their iPads, assistant producers barking into headsets. The audio team started their betting pool. The remote camera operators claimed dibs on which players they planned to fuck in the off season. By noon the Deserted were at each others’ throats, an ex-Marine harassing a poet, a corporate lawyer named Candy fending off the advances of an auto mechanic named Stan. Only Gloria, a dental technician, stayed out of trouble, silently gathering wood and ignoring the others’ provocations. It drove the crew crazy.
But the producer, veteran of twelve blockbuster seasons, couldn’t give a shit.
We find him far from the facility, far across the island’s desolate expanses, its lush rainforest and parched salt flats, its wheat-dry savanna and treacherous thickets of quicksand, beyond the ancient ruins and the mangrove swamps and the seething cobra pits, climbing a mountain somewhere in the northern quadrant.
His yoga teacher insists he seek solitude: just wind, sun, the silence of his thoughts; no APs, no dailies, no spreadsheets, no GPS. He stands atop a broad escarpment, the island laid out before him. Squinting, he can just make out the cranes and backhoes busying through the ancient ruins, six miles distant. He can see the cut in the eastern forest where trucks roll through from Beachhead A, laden with materiel from the network ships. But he cannot see the Deserted, not even a plume of smoke from their campfire. It’s an enormous relief.
“Prove it,” Armand had said over the phone, earlier today. “Show network that the well’s not dry. Remember what you’ve accomplished.” Fourteen years ago Armand had discovered the producer hosting a cable home-improvement show, and given him his shot. Now Armand lives in San Miguel de Allende, forced into retirement by the recent coup in Programming, replaced by a twenty-eight-year old MBA transferred from Finance.
“What we’ve accomplished. And remind me what that is?”
“Oh, maybe you’re right,” Armand sighed. “Maybe it’s time for a rest. The inmates are running the asylum. Old soldiers like us have seen our day. Remember Tennyson? A last noble challenge for men who once strove with gods…”
“Ulysses never strove with Boby al-Hajj,” the producer said, referring to the new head of Programming.
Fourteen years ago, Armand showed up on location at The Wrecking Ball with an entourage of clean-cut young men in hand-tailored suits; the producer’s first thought had been that he was being audited. After two months of meetings, mostly held at the wet bar on the roof of Armand’s Brentwood home, they were ready to go to the network. Two years later, the producer had his first Emmy.
“You remember Season One?” he said. “How terrified we were all the time?”
“Well, really—the fashion sense of those people,” Armand said. “I refuse to set foot in Florida ever again.”
“We had no idea what they would say. What they might do. It was a seven-week highwire act,” the producer said, glancing at the first-cut of the morning’s beach sequence. Shots of Candy, the lawyer, stuffing her bra; of Simon, the poet, trying to scribble something on bark. A gang-outreach counselor named Shaneequio beat-boxed from the twisted frame of an airplane seat. “It’s just so predictable now. Every word, every scheme. What ever happened to free will?”
“Free will wreaks havoc with underwriting, as you well know.”
On screen, Walter Bernatelli, the ex-Marine, did one-arm pushups in the sand. A high school math teacher named Alejandra combed her long, shiny hair, staring dreamily toward the horizon—and the producer was startled by a memory of his wife, standing at her easel, her eyes moving past him as though he weren’t there. He closed his eyes until the image receded.
“It’s a comfort, that’s all,” Armand said. “People like to find themselves on television. That’s all they really want. Don’t get philosophical. If it’s the last season, have fun with it. Relax. Make it your monument.”
But if it’s a monument, he thinks, so far it’s a monument to every other season, a closed loop. At least on The Wrecking Ball they’d built things, however ugly and extravagant; they’d had something to show for the effort. What did they have here, except for obsessive fan clubs, a bestselling line of Season Ten action figures, four hundred and eighty-five thousand Facebook friends?
“You like it down there?” he’d said to Armand. In the background he heard a voice calling in Spanish.
“Oh, you know… pretty houses, pretty boys. Frankly the place looks a bit like Disneyland. Sí, si, I’m coming,” he called to someone. “I’m trying to get Liz down for a visit.”
“How is she?” Armand’s daughter used to work at the Burbank office, until the suits grew impatient with her vodka-and-pills habit and nudged her onto disability. Last he’d heard, she was in rehab, having progressed to cocaine and driven a rented Hummer through her ex-boyfriend’s ex-wife’s living room wall.
“She’s learning macramé,” Armand said. “I think we should all learn macramé. I must go to breakfast now,” he’d said. The producer had thought it was nighttime in Mexico. “Señora Carmen gets annoyed when I’m late.”
Pulse pounding, the producer stops on a wide stretch of trail and lets the island’s smells fill his skull: broken rock, eucalyptus, the distant tang of ocean. The wind gives these things a sharpness that makes his fingertips tingle. The light chill, the sting of sun on his scalp—these cannot be fabricated. He stretches his arms over his head, sucks in air, thinks, not for the first time: Why not a show about people enjoying a beautiful day?
Then laughs to himself, imagining Boby al-Hajj’s face.
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