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99 Tropes Offers a Glimpse of the Television Industry's Underbelly

by Rich Smith • Nov 27, 2018 at 11:55 am

Working in writers' rooms for television shows can be a maddening, precarious, and not very lucrative situation that almost immediately requires you to sell off large portions of your soul—and for what? To bust your brain making some bullshit, basically misogynistic thriller that'll get canceled after two seasons—if it doesn't get canceled after two episodes—only to build up your resume to the point where you can write slightly less misogynistic thrillers? Well, sure. But there's also a chance you can get on a show that changes the way people think about the world, the way The Sopranos or The Wire or Burn Notice did.

All the action is set in the aggressively boring environs of a typical writers' room. You're looking at a long table, some roller chairs, a white board, and a lot of light gray surfaces dotted with sticky notes.

Jen Anderson plays Sally Higgins, a salty showrunner working on a network show about a deadly virus spreading across the U.S. When the show starts to tank in the ratings, the annoyingly academic show creator C. Chan (aka C.C., played by E.J. Gong) dreams up a way to right the ship. His new direction bucks convention and seeks to challenge audiences with a radical social justice message. This gamble initially pays off big time, which leads to a power struggle between C.C. and Sally. Since Sally is a lesbian woman in a field dominated by men, and since C.C. is an Asian American newcomer to the industry, the internal battle is *charged* with issues of class, race, and experience that pits the younger writers on the team against the veterans, but nothing really sparks.

Chapman doesn't focus the drama on the plight of being a woman in the television industry versus the plight of being an Asian American man in the television industry—though one of the characters does succeed in making a feminist appeal for Sally to wrestle back control of her show from C.C. He mostly focuses on the drama of whether the writers think a largely white network audience will watch a show with a premise that takes them out of their comfort zone. The tension in this question, however, is deflated by the play's circumstances—the television show is failing and all the writers are about to get fired anyway, so why not try something a little different?

The internal battles between the writers are mostly form and content questions related to this problem of assumed audience interest. At one point a young black writer named Reggie Jenks (played by Jonathan Keyes) convinces an older white writer named Paul Montgomery (played by Nicholas Horiatis) to simply imagine a non-white writer as his primary audience, which was enough for him to shake off his white fragility and start writing scenes for a new episode. In terms of form, Mitch Goldman (a bad writer who fails up thanks to his extreme likability, played by a perfectly aloof Steve Murphy) advises C.C. to remove overt language about race/class power differentials in the script and replace it with action movie pablum. C.C. is receptive, seeing the concession as a spoonful of sugar to help the audience take its medicine. But the fate of the show ultimately doesn't appear to be tied to its subject matter nor its writing style, so it's hard to tell what Chapman's argument about race/class/gender in TV is. He mostly abandons that question and settles on the notion that television is a weird, ephemeral genre and you really don't know what people want to watch. The real social justice TV show is the friends we made along the way, etc.

Moreover, this scene between Mitch and C.C. presents my favorite part of any show, which is the moment when the performance contains its own critique. In his writing lesson, Mitch defends his stripped-down writing style by saying, "If you overwrite it, it sounds like a play." This is meant to be a knowingly self-deprecating joke, but it's also kind of true of 99 Tropes. Chapman's script repeats a lot of beats, and the characters exchange plenty of spoken subtext. With another pass, this snappy and humorous play could have been snappier and funnier.

The overall competence of the writing and the quality of the acting, however, was enough to keep me from falling asleep. Everyone took a minute (or ten) to warm up, which is to be expected at an opening night performance, but Keyes, one of Intiman's 2016 Emerging Artists, was the only character who felt like a real human being the entire time. He seemed completely at home on the stage, and I can't wait to see him in a role that shows off his range as a performer. Anderson balanced her rage with her humor well, and Gong perfectly embodied a pompous academic, though both performances seemed a little forced at times.

In general, the play contained all the satisfaction of watching a pretty decent show on Netflix.