Sunday, July 16, 2006

TV: 4 Days in 7th Hell

Ava and C.I. Camden here. At least that's what our agent tolds us to tell people. We just landed the gig and ay-yi-yi.

Simon and Ruthie are out!

That's the word.

And 7th Heaven needed two new young characters quick. Could we pass for fourteen-year-old cousins just moved to Glenoak? Catherine Hicks took one look at us and laughed out loud. What fun she must have been on Tucker's Witch opposite the world's oldest college student (31 when he was on screens as Otter; 37 when on screens as Bob McGraw).

We avoided Stephen Collins for most of the week because he was on one of his "I could have been Tom Selleck" kicks. (Let it go, let it go. Doesn't TM offer any peace?)

Our big concern, frankly, was us.

We wanted to stand out and thought we could give the show a goose by showing a little flesh. That led to the day one dressing down.

As punishment, drill sergeant, er series creator, Brenda Hampton forced us to watch a few episodes, "So you can understand the 7th Heaven family."

We're not sure, but we think it was the last episode, the one about wedding rings -- where Pop Camden lost his like twenty-something years prior and they were only talking about it now, where the minute-rice hottie lost his and where Simon was having trouble paying for one -- that left us feeling all nasty and wasted like we were tricked out on 'ludes.

There was a beaming Hampton, glowing in front of us, asking, "So you get it now?"

"Yeah, it's about a family in Amish country," one of us cracked.

As an attempted brainwashing, Hampton forced us to watch the episode about Sam & David's birth.

"Get it now?" Hampton asked in sterner tones.

Hey, we've been through the airports, we're familiar with Moonies. We smiled vacantly and said, "It's about life and love and puppy dog tails."

She embraced us warmly, gave us gift bags of Nabisco Oreo Cookies and we think we heard her say something about pamphelt literature that we'd be passing out on the weekend.

We were too busy working up our first big scene.

The script had C.I. Camden saying, "I don't know Ava, I hope everyone likes us." Ava Camden responds, "Me too. They seem really nice and, when I look at them, I just feel the love." C.I. was supposed to respond, "I think I have an idea of how we can get them to like us." Then our characters rush out of the room and the next scene (to be filmed on Friday) would have us making Duncan Hines brownies for everyone in the kitchen.

We filmed the bedroom scene on our second day. We didn't understand the big problem on the set. Look, we know writers are married to every word, comma and period. We weren't going to mess with the lines. We were playing two troublemakers from the Camden side who'd been sent to live with the Rev for awhile (thirteen episodes) so that the love of a good American family could show us the error of our ways. We were spitballing and brainstorming how to make the scene come alive. No one, not one person, told us we couldn't provide our own props.

We think the scene went wonderfully. (And we'll note no one called for a reshoot. In fact, they were so stunned by our creativity, the director forgot to yell "cut.")

We were upstairs in Mary's old room (apparently the designated room for trouble makers) and they'd set some suitcases around to make it look like we'd just arrived. One was open, on the bed and we put a prop in there. The director called, "Action."

Here's how it played. Ava Camden, 14, looks around the room, scared of the newness but in awe of the love that breathes from the wall like lead paint. C.I., 14, knelt before the bed, reached into the suitcase and pulled out a bag.

Beginning to roll a joint, C.I. said, "I don't know Ava" dramatic pause to light up "I hope everyone likes us." Walking over, Ava took the joint and a deep drag before saying, "Me too" and then exhaling to give the scene a visual before adding, "They seem really nice and, when I look at them, I just feel the love," Ava passed the joint back to C.I. Studying it for a moment, then waving it in the air, C.I. shouted, "I think I have an idea of how we can get them to like us!"

Excitedly, we rushed out of the room.

We thought we'd really created something and read the stunned silence that followed the end of the scene to be a testament to that. Only after one of us called, "Cut!" did we realize there was a problem.

We were in Hampton's office, surrounded by Oreos, Campbell soup cans and, we swear, a Dodge Grand Caravan. Hampton was t-ed off.

What did we think we were doing?

Well, the script said we were "trouble makers," right?

"In the 7th Heaven universe," Hampton explained, "that means you've been borderline C-students, who forget to brush after every meal -- you have received your complimentary Crest tubes, right -- and who've dated dangerously."

"Oh, we're sex addicts," one of us said while the other shrugged and added, "Our bad. Wrong addiction. Live and learn."

"S-s-s-e-x!" Hampton stammered. "No one used that word! You 'dated dangerously.' That means you missed your curfews, didn't introduce your dates to your parents and have taken to liberally using swear words like 'darn.'"

She really bore down on the word 'liberally.' We let it pass. So we were playing two losers? Well why didn't she just say that?

"That's right. Social losers," Hampton said firmly.

"So we should be in wardrobe getting some glasses and ugly outfits," one of us said attempting to end the discussion.

"What? No!" Hampton answered. "These are not dorks, these are dangerous characters. We went with you two because we were told you could bring 'gritty realism' to the show. That you'd be convincing as dangerous characters, as --"

We exchanged a look, rolled our eyes and feared she was about to say it, yep, she was.

"darn dangerous characters. We have created a whole arc of growth storyline for them where, by the end of this episode, they go to church to hear Lucy's sermon and by the beginning of the second episode they've repented and recanted their old ways."

She thought that was realism? She obviously never saw Kids or read Drew's Little Girl Lost -- let alone visited the real world.

We just wanted out of there before she ordered us to clean the latrines or, worse, palmed off some more Kraft samples on us.

"Got it," we said nodding.

Day three was a scene where we were supposed to talk to Kevin about feeling like an outsider while he took care of his daughter. Our big lines were "That is just amazing" and "What a sweet baby."

Our big mistake? Saying them when Kevin bends over to change Savannah's diaper.

We thought that was real. Come on, it's only a matter of time before George Stults does a multi-year vanishing act and then reappears playing a creepy character with a creepy hairline on a soap opera. Those looks are transitory, why not enjoy them while they last? Or are we the only ones who remember "Merle the Pearl"?

So we exchanged a look, stared at Stults blue jean clad butt and stated, "That is just amazing" followed by a whistle and "What a sweet baby."

You'd have thought we said, "Break me off a piece of that, Sister Slut!" the way Brenda Hampton came storming up to us.

Back her in office, smoke was pouring out of her ears as she reemed us out (which seemed to be the day-to-day thing she got the most kicks from, obviously Aaron's death has left her feeling "empowered" -- we'll tell Tori).

"That is just about it!" she screamed. "We have already discussed the s-word. For you to do that scene and do it that way was just . . ."

She paused before spitting out the word "suggestive."

But weren't we 'dangerous dating' 14-year-olds? If we wouldn't have sex, wouldn't we at least notice the bods around us? (And did anyone really have a bod on that show other than Stults?)

"This is a family show!" she hissed. "Maybe in three years, when your characters hit 17, we'll do a show revolving around the s-word, giving one of you a pregnancy or STD scare. Other than that, Camdens save it for marriage!"

We shuddered as we remembered the glorification of marriage in the ring episode, where Lucy and Kevin go dreamy eyed at the thought of her parents about to have sex as soon as everyone leaves the room. Creepy.

Hampton insisted that was "reality!" and that married people continue to have sex. We countered we weren't doubting that they did but we don't know many children who get excited about the thought of their parents having . . . We paused, smiled politely and ended with 'the s-word.'

She told us they do that in a religious family, they do it all the time, they get very excited when the parents have the s-word. Not wanting to be questioned on that, she warned us against screwing up tomorrow's big church scene and told us to get out.

We were nervous until we called our agent who set us straight: "Reality is that you're characters won't see 17 -- the show's only got 13 episodes and then it's over. Reality is that Spelling was a franchise but Hampton is Fat Actress. The CW won't kiss her ass. A show that had it's highest rating in 1999 should have been cancelled in 2001."

That calmed our nerves. But we really did want to do a good job -- or, at least, avoid another ass chewing. So we gave a lot of thought to the church scene. We had six lines between us. These little generic statements that never even mentioned the Son of the God. So this time, we decided to tamper with the text.

Hampton didn't hit the roof. She'd blown the roof off days ago. She shot to the moon on this one. Grabbing us roughly, each by an upper arm, (and did she take a moment to compliment our delt tone? No.) she hauled us off to the side.

"What is all that 'Praise Jesus' crap! This ain't no revival!" she snarled.

But it's a family show, a religious family show.

"We do not stress 'Jesus.'"

"How do you do a religious family show, where two characters are pastors, and never talk about 'Jesus'?" wondered one of us.

"Very carefully," Hampton insisted. "Our appeal is splintered among various denominations. You two acted like you were about to start speaking in tongues. Do you know what that would do to our ratings?"

We started to ask, "What ratings?" -- but she looked like Pat Roberston calling for the murder of Hugo Chavez, so we just eased away slowly.

We hit our marks, the director called action and we reshot the scene, which for some reason included Campbell's chicken noodle soup being passed around with the offering plate. We uttered our lines in a mechanical drone -- with all the believability of Condi Rice testifying before the 9-11 Commission.

Hampton pronounced it 'perfection' and before we could break for lunch we had to shoot the next scene with Catherine Hicks. This was the scene where we thank Annie for taking us into her home especially since we're from her husband's side of the family. Hicks is mainly supposed to listen to us then say "We are family, we are" while offering us Oreos.

Pouring all the anger over the way her career turned out into that one line, we felt like she was flashbacking to Chuckie as she nearly crammed two cookies down our throats. This was sincerity torn from the Book of Tammy Faye. We couldn't help but giggle, blowing the take.

Hick was furious and screaming for Hampton, screaming for her agent, screaming for makeup and screaming for her career being in a public toilet.

Hey, don't blame us, we didn't force her to disgrace herself for an eleventh season of bad TV. And it's not like we'd been taunting her with, "Oh yeah, well Bess Armstrong didn't bastardize her craft!" We hadn't brought up any of her contemporaries from the days when Hicks' name conjured a promising, exciting career.

But that was it for us, Hampton told us, we weren't 7th Heaven people. (Gee, you think?) They'd piece together what they could in editing (like they don't do that already) and we wouldn't be needed for the second episode.

She'd had a brainstorm: our characters salvation hadn't taken. We'd gone back to 'dangerous dating' and snuck out, on a Sunday night (a sure sign of our sinful ways -- even the Lord rested on Sunday!), then ditched our dates (who just wanted to share an ice cream soda with us) for the mysteries of the road as promised by an old man offering us a ride to La Jolla (if Hampton was attempting to suggest a portal to hell, couldn't she have just had us head off for the Richard Nixon Museum in San Clemente?).

It would all happen off screen (like most of the action does on that show) and lead to a lot of pondering and soul searching on the part of the Camdens over Oreos and cups of Campbell's tomato soup.

"It'll be another award winning episode!" she exclaimed and we just knew she didn't mean Emmys but some right-wing group applauding the show for tackling the perils of hitchhiking and 'dangerous dating.'

At this point, we didn't care -- our agent had nailed down a pay-or-play for all thirteen episodes. We packed up our stuff and headed out, passing the soundstage where Hampton had gathered in a circle with the cast and profit participants to pray for what really mattered: "residuals," "brand intergration" and "end-of-season renewal."

Can a show about nothing last twelve seasons?

We'd be non-believers like our agent but cloaking itself in the guise of faux-morality had pulled it up to the eleventh season. Appealing to the gods of commerce (the true religion practiced on the product placement heavy show) and the gods of false piety had clearly worked for it thus far.
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