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The Showrunner


Stacey was in her office with the door closed, reading a script, when she heard her producing partner, Ann, bray her name from outside her door. “Stacey! You in there?”
She marked the spot that she’d read to, and pictured Ann steamrolling down the hallway. Three, two, one: Ann flung the door open and stepped inside. “There you are. I want you to meet someone.”
Stacey did not grimace at the interruption. She made her eyes go bright and friendly, and held up the script. “Hold on, I’m halfway through the latest draft of episode 5.”
“I’ll be quick. And that script is fine; I already approved it.”
If Stacey were keeping track of Ann’s little put-downs, that would be the first of the day, the fifth this week. On a Tuesday morning.
Ann pulled in from the hallway a slim, pretty actress whose credits included the lead in a low-budget horror movie, a four-episode guest arc on Gossip Girl, and featured roles in the ensemble casts of two short-lived cable shows. She had also done a TV spot in the previous year for The Olive Garden, as a perky waitress, if Stacey was not mistaken. But what was she doing in the office?
Ann said, “Jenna, I’d like you to meet Stacey Sampson, the second woman in Two Women Walking, and co-creator of The Benjamins. Stacey, this is —”
The second woman? Make that slight number six. Stacey said, “Jenna Kuyt, isn’t it?” stood, shook hands, and hoped Ann had not gone behind her back and cast this Jenna without Stacey’s consent. She had nothing against the girl, but there were protocols in place for who did what when and consulted with whom. Protocols Ann was inclined to forget.
“It’s such a treat to meet you!” Jenna said. “I was just telling Ann how much I loved Mothers and Daughters, and you worked on it, too, right?”
“I did, yeah. And hey, I liked your work in East Side, West Side.”
“You mean you were one of the ten people who saw an episode before it was cancelled?”
Jenna was enough of an actress that Stacey couldn’t tell if the modesty shtick was false or true. What she could see was that Jenna’s face was a study in the golden ratios that define physical beauty. Up close, she was breathtaking, in a pan-ethnic, olive-skinned, green-eyed, auburn-haired kind of way. Like a citizen of the future, an ambassador of the planet.
Next to Ann, she looked like Baby New Year alongside Mother Time.
“But thanks,” Jenna said. “It’s good to know someone watched the show other than my parents and my boyfriend.”
Okay. What was Jenna doing there? And why were Stacey’s calf muscles tensed, and her heart rate elevated?
Ann said, “Jenna’s going to be my assistant while Candace is on maternity leave.” And to Jenna: “Stacey is number one on my contact list. We call each other eight times a day, minimum. And text or message countless more times. Right, Stacey?”
“Sometimes,” Stacey said, “we even speak to face-to-face, like we’re doing now.”
Jenna smiled politely, Ann rambled on about the nature of their partnership, and Stacey wondered what Ann was up to with this hire. Maybe Jenna’s acting career had slumped (The Olive Garden, for Christ’s sake) from C-list to off-list in the last year, and she was reduced to doing temp work, so why not become an assistant to an industry heavyweight like Ann? And it would be just like Ann to take pleasure in bossing around — she would call it mentoring — a pretty, semi-known actress. That was probably what was happening: the two of them were engaged in mutual exploitation, and Stacey’s fight-or-flight response was an overreaction. “I should get back to this script,” she said. “Welcome aboard, Jenna. I hope you like it here.”
“I’m sure I will. It’ll be fun to learn how the business works from the other side of the camera.”
Yeah, non-stop fun was what they had, all right. Stacey said, “Ann, a quick question — what happened to that kitchen argument scene between Ryan and his dad? I didn’t see it in this draft.”
“I moved it to ep 6. And like I said, don’t worry about that script.”
“Me, not worry? Is that even possible?”
Ann ignored that, and on her way out, said to Jenna, “Stacey started in the business as my assistant a few years back. I took her on straight from college, and now her office is almost as big as mine.”
Ann’s version of the how-they’d-met story positioned her as a wise old bitch and Stacey as a young, eager-to-please pup plucked from a litter of interns and trained until she became Ann’s top dog. It was true enough that Stacey didn’t need to hear it again. She got up to close the door and heard Jenna ask, “So, which one of you is the showrunner?”
Good question. Stacey waited, doorknob in hand, to hear Ann’s reply.
“I am. On the creative side, anyway. I’m the éminence grise around here.”
“The what?”
“The head honcho.”
Stacey shook her head. Ann would take full credit until forever for their combined work, and for the work of the three hundred people that their production company employed to produce The Benjamins, a primetime dramedy (the inevitable tagline: “It’s All About Them”) centred on the hopes, dreams, and weaknesses of an interracial L.A. showbiz family.
Glory-taking was Ann’s way, and there was no denying that her track record of thirty-one years in television — take this in: she’d started in TV the year Stacey was born — had helped sell the show to the network. But The Benjamins concept had been all Stacey’s to begin with. She’d dreamt up the concept during her non-existent spare time while producing Ann’s last show. She built and devised the storylines, characters, and arcs for the entire first season, and put together a complete show bible before she even brought the idea to Ann. Before Ann had tweaked it and assumed ownership of it.
Ann said, “Stacey’s a rock, but her role is to look after the logistical side of things. She’s got an accountant’s mind — she’s all about dotting i’s and crossing t’s.”
Stacey eased her office door shut. The secret to survival when working with Ann was to pick out the occasional tiny gold nugget of approval from the dross she blurted out daily. So Stacey would take being called accountant-ish and rock-like as a compliment, and she would get back to work.
As of that August morning, two episodes, post-pilot, of the eight-episode first-season order of The Benjamins were in the can, the fourth was in production, the premiere was slated to air in a month, and Stacey was so busy she had to compartmentalize. She picked up the script and tried to focus in on it, but she couldn’t concentrate — her mind skittered and bounced over the words on the page. She lifted her head, dropped her jaw, and placed two fingers on the pressure point beneath her collarbone. She breathed in and out and ordered her brain to calm itself, to de-tense. That was better.
When she’d finished reading the script, she made some notes on it and gave it to her assistant, Topher, to distribute, though without employing any of the techniques Ann had used in Stacey’s assistant days. There were no imperial summons or hollered orders, and no throwing of papers across the room. Instead, Stacey got up from her desk, opened her office door, and waited until Topher finished his phone call before asking him to please pass the script on.
“On it,” he said. “And sorry about Ann barging in on you before. I told her you wanted some alone time, but she pretended she didn’t hear me.”
“Thanks for trying. Did you meet the new assistant?”
“The actress? Yes, I did.” He gave Stacey a knowing look from behind his hipster glasses. “You want in on the office pool for how long she lasts?”
“Now, now. Let’s be nice to her for at least a week or two.”
Topher arched one eyebrow, a trick he was good at. “So I’ll put you down for two weeks? My bet is on ten days.”
“I should deal with this script,” he said, and hustled off.
Back inside her office, Stacey picked up her phone and read a text from Ann:
Did u talk to Ryan yet?
Ryan was the actor who played The Benjamins’ resident heartthrob, one of the adult grandsons of the Benjamin patriarch. Thanks to a panty-melting grin, a well-proportioned and ripped physique, and a willingness to remove his shirt at the drop of a clapperboard, he had built up a vocal online fan base of gay men and straight women on his last show, and Stacey was counting on Ryan’s pecs and abs to pull in some early eyes to The Benjamins. So far, he’d kept his body in shape, shown up on time for his calls, and dutifully attended the second-rate red carpet events the studio publicists had arranged to have him invited to and photographed at. His acting was one-note — his role as a charming slacker was made for him. So he’d caused no concerns until word had reached Stacey from an on-set spy that he’d become extra-friendly with Vanessa, the seventeen-year-old nymphet actress who played the role of his seventeen-year-old nymphet sister.
Ann and Stacey had discussed the issue the day before on their mid-morning walk — a leisurely stroll from the studio to a nearby coffee shop and back — during which they covered the usual seven or eight items of business, Ann did not mention that she’d hired a new assistant, and Stacey was elected to have a chat with Ryan, to warn him off the jailbait.
“He’ll take it better coming from you than me,” Ann had said. “From someone closer to him in age. If I talked to him, I’d probably come off parental, and that would be so not cool. For him and for me.”
Stacey agreed that she should handle Ryan, but not because they were of the same generation. More because she was immune to Ryan’s charms, and Ann wasn’t. Stacey knew better than to pursue or lust after any guy that handsome. She’d learned that lesson in high school, after a good-looking alpha male she’d yearned for all senior year had rewarded her devotion by letting her give him a blowjob at a grad party. Whereas Ann, despite her eminent greyness, had a way of dropping her boss woman persona in Ryan’s presence and turning girlish and giggly. And a little pathetic.
Stacey had practised both parts of the upcoming conversation the night before, at home, where she’d adopted a jocular, between-us-guys tone, and had Ryan match her in kind. So, she was rehearsed when a flustered looking Topher — Christ, not him, too — showed Ryan into her office.

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