Holding a Mirror Up to the Entertainment Industry

From a New York Times story by Alexandra Jacobs headlined “Holding a Mirror Up to the Entertainment Industry”:

As I typed this, striking Writers Guild of America members were skipping the picket lines in New York City because of poor air quality, after smoke drifted down from wildfires in Canada. It was a grimly perfect backdrop to read “Burn It Down,” a new book about the pervasive moral shortcomings of Hollywood by the longtime entertainment reporter and critic Maureen Ryan.

For the industry Ryan covers is suffering its own kind of climate crisis. Television seasons are shorter — that’s if it’s even relevant to call a collection of episodes that can be binged anytime a “season” anymore. Streaming is everywhere, but pay is drying up. And despite the Great Purge of powerful men a few years ago, the general atmosphere remains as toxic as a Don DeLillo poison cloud. Steam is coming out of her ears, she writes more than once; and her jaw frequently drops as she confronts evidence of ever more Tinseltown transgressions.

Currently a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, where a damning excerpt alleging racism behind the scenes at “Lost” was published last month, Ryan has written for many other publications (including The New York Times), with a long Jill-of-all-trades run at The Chicago Tribune. In recent years, as the entertainment beat was upended by #MeToo revelations, the murder of George Floyd and the coronavirus, she found herself gingerly wearing even more hats: self-appointed “Hollywood cop” (she is the daughter of a police officer); “therapist, trauma worker, lawyer, H.R. official and private investigator.”

Ryan also alludes briefly here, as she has in Variety, to having been the victim of sexual assault by an unnamed television executive. “Burn It Down” is a Howard Beale-style, “mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” manifesto directed at the overlords and ladies of show business, complete with a multi-point plan for their redemption (one idea: an online portal where everyone from the dolly grip to the director of photography could report abuses) and advice from a rabbi and a shrink.

And there’s goss aplenty for those working, or striking, in the field. My husband is a television writer, a veteran of the bawdy joke labs she describes, and I’m going to press it into the hand that isn’t hoisting a protest sign.

For the common fan, there is less to mull.

Partly this is because fandom itself has changed so much since Ryan was mesmerized by “The Muppet Show” and “M*A*S*H” in the ’70s and ’80s, “when things were hairy, odd and goofy,” she contends, “and so many pop culture stakes were lower.” (Even as ratings were higher; the finale of “M*A*S*H” attracted 125 million viewers, The Times reported, a figure approached these days only by the Super Bowl.) You’re simply less likely to be familiar with the shows in the author’s cross hairs.

I must confess to forgetting, if I ever knew, that there was a “Muppets” reboot in 2015 (and another in 2020 that updated the puppets as YouTube influencers, perhaps best left to the dust bunnies of history). Ryan reminds us, and reports that its showrunner disrespected Miss Piggy as “crazy” and defended a crew member fired for sexual harassment. Moreover, higher-ups at the Muppets Studio dissuaded the writing staff from bringing another character, Uncle Deadly, out of the closet.

Was this bad behavior, if true? Of course. (The TV writer and memoirist Nell Scovell is right; Miss Piggy is not crazy: “She’s very clear about what she wants — all the oxygen in the room.”) But will the general reader care about churning water so far under the bridge that it’s over the falls? I’m not sure — though it’s a cute touch that Ryan names one of several pseudonymous sources “Janice,” like the big-lipped lead guitarist of the Muppets’ band Electric Mayhem.

Far less cute is “Kelly,” a Fox television P.R. person who purportedly encouraged racist rumors about a star of the 2013 horror series “Sleepy Hollow” biting a hairstylist. Slogging through that “Sleepy Hollow” chapter, with back-and-forth about who maybe did what — again, very bad, if true — I felt, guiltily, groggier than Rip Van Winkle waking from his 20-year snooze.

Ryan can get great, telling quotes from some of her more than 100 interviewees. An escapee from the staff of “Lost” describes the writers’ room as a “predatory ecosystem with its own carnivorous megafauna.” She crowdsources a “word cloud” of damning adjectives about the show’s work environment and provides it to Damon Lindelof, co-creator of the series. “I completely and totally validate your word cloud,” he tells her, while denying culpability.

She’s disappointed in idols like Frances McDormand darting around questions about the notorious producer Scott Rudin. “To see that level of callous deflection from a woman who’d championed greater inclusion in the industry while carving out a brilliant career as an artist,” Ryan writes, “well, it was both infuriating and an enormous blow to the spirit.”

This is a dogged and dedicated journalist whose interrogation of Jeff Garlin probably got him bounced from “The Goldbergs”(“My silliness making an unsafe work space — I don’t understand how that is,” he told her). But when Ryan tries to figure out how Garlin has remained on the series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which has mercilessly sent up diversity initiatives, she hits the gray wall of image-management static, like getting snowed with that famous staticky HBO opener.

Overall, “Burn It Down” is a valiantly crusading but rather loose and slushy book, albeit with refreshing pieces of tartness. (Ryan describes “Saturday Night Live” as “a slightly tedious aged uncle you treat politely due to his sheer longevity.”) I, too, completely and totally validate her word cloud. But the air above the dream factory stays hazy.

BURN IT DOWN: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood | By Maureen Ryan | 400 pp. | Mariner Books | $32.50

Alexandra Jacobs is a book critic and the author of “Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.”

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