19. GOOD TELEVISION
Ever wonder about the ethical thinking that goes on behind the scenes of television reality programs, the kind that go into the private lives of people who have agreed to expose their innermost thoughts and reveal the most sensitive aspects of their relationships with family and friends? That’s exactly what Rod McLachlan does in GOOD TELEVISION, his quite involving, if somewhat contrived, play being well presented at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Atlantic Stage 2. This play focuses on a TV show whose premise is to find people with serious drug, alcoholic, or other addictions, and then to film their private lives with the goal of leading them to an intervention involving all their closest family members so they may win the prize of being sent to a rehab center whose prohibitive cost of $100,000 would ordinarily be completely out of their reach. The playwright posits various questions about the morality of these shows, but the basic one is whether the shows are truly concerned about the welfare of their subjects or if providing good television, i.e., the kind that brings in viewers, is really the ultimate goal.
Set designer Eric Southern has found an effective method of realizing the three locales required. When the audience arrives it sees a pale gray, institutional office environment, with solid looking walls to left and right. At stage right is the small office area occupied by show runner Bernice (Talia Balsam), where the main production decisions are made, and at stage left is another office space, used by producer Connie Cuellar (Kelly McAndrew). Connecting them is a wall of opaque, latticed glass, which can slide open to either side from the center. When a prospective addict or family member is speaking on the phone to Connie, the wall slides apart enough for us to glimpse a living room behind the speaker, who stands just within the opening. When, as is the case for most of act two, we are in the actual home of the addict, the entire wall opens up to reveal a tacky, Southern Gothic living room with old-fashioned paneled walls and furniture that has redneck written all over it.
The essential plot concerns the TV show’s dilemma over whether or not Clemson “Clemmie” McAddy (John Magaro), a young, slurry-speeched, meth-amphetamine addict from South Carolina will make a suitable reality star, given his unwillingness to submit to any intervention, which the show holds to be its gold standard when choosing people. The chief enabler trying to get Clemmie selected is his older sister, Brittany (Zoe Perry), who sincerely wants her brother to enter the rehab program so he can try to get his life back on track. Interfering, however, is her older brother, Mackson (Luke Robertson), who has a low-level TV station job that he tries to inflate into something more important so he can accuse the show of being exploitative unless it compensates all the family members. Connie, the on site producer, is a recovering alcoholic herself, and is seriously devoted to helping the people the show selects, but is caught on the horns of the dilemma as to whether she wants to make a good show or take advantage of its subjects. When she and her assistant producers, Tara (Jessica Cummings) and Ethan (Andrew Stewart-Jones), descend on the McAddy home and begin to film, things get out of hand, especially when the family’s long absent father, Mr. McAddy (Ned Van Zandt), appears and claims he’s found Jesus and sincerely wants to reunite the family. There’s a big revelation from Clemmie about what made him an addict that presumably should shock us, and the result is a taping that could spell ratings heaven but could also create a legal mess. Connie, sensing she’s lost her moral compass, decides to quit her job, and she, the former therapist, finds surprising comfort in the advice she receives over the phone from, of all people, Brittany.
Most of the acting is quite good, although Talia Balsam, who plays Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) wife on MAD MEN (and is married to Slattery in real life), has a colorless role as the producer who is leaving the show for a better job at Fox. Most effective are Zoe Perry (daughter of the marvelous actress Laurie Metcalf) as Brittany, and Kelly McAndrew as Connie. Both bring truth and sensitivity to their characters, even when their issues are overinflated for dramatic effect.
Playwright McLachlan, better known as an actor, knows his way around the thinking that goes on in TV production offices, and he, with the considerable contribution of director Bob Krakower, creates a believable sense of the way legal and ethical issues are considered, but some of his plotting becomes a bit too predictable. Still, I was caught up in the maneuverings of the various characters and found enough authenticity here to feel when the play came to its close that GOOD TELEVISION had made good theatre.