Zeitgeist's "Good Television": It's Unreal

Jenny Reagan (Brittany) & Christine Power (Connie)
(photo: Joel W. Benjamin)
Zeitgeist Stage Company’s current production of “Good Television”, the New England premiere of a play by first-time author Rod McLachlan, might seem to be an oxymoron at first, but the title refers not to the quality of a television series but the good intentions (or lack thereof) of the people creating it. McLachlan writes of what he knows, as his wife was a field producer for the highly successful Arts and Entertainment Network reality show “Intervention”, which ran for thirteen seasons. With expert Direction and Set Design by the company’s Producing Artistic Director David Miller, this is an impressive first work by a very promising new playwright (and actor). Like most if not all so-called reality television, the programs are as un-scripted and spontaneous as WWE (that’s World Wrestling Entertainment, to the uninitiated). Such broadcasts are easy targets given their blatant lack of authenticity, but the unreality of such fare isn’t McLachlan’s focus. What he’s presenting is the complicated dilemma of a well-meaning producer whose stated idealistic intentions for successful rehab come under scrutiny when the goals of the network are far from any idealism. “Rehabilition”, the series in question, has three million viewers a week, and is coming under pressure to provide twenty-two episodes in the same time frame and with the same resources as prior seasons of fourteen. Added to this is the fact that the network powers-that-be aren’t as interested in treatment as they are in what makes for good television, as in ratings.

Ratings, like elections, have consequences. No one knows this better than producer Connie (Christine Power) who knows the territory from personal experience. She’s arranged with South Carolina housewife Brittany (Jenny Reagan) to record the story of her brother Clemson, “ev’rybody calls me Clemmie” (Benjamin Lewin), and his five-year meth addiction. Her motivation, she claims, is a positive outcome from rehab, but this is challenged by newly-hired Tara (Tasia Jones). Connie’s boss Bernice (Shelley Brown) supports her, but is about to jump ship for a job offer with Fox. Her replacement Ethan (William Bowry) has no illusions about outcomes other than maintaining the popularity of the series; according to him, “carnage and wreckage make great T.V.” He even offers to come along to the shoot before he’s on payroll (one of the more implausible plot points) and ends up assaulting Clemmie’s litigious older brother Mackson (Olev Aleksander) in easily the least credible moment of the play. Meanwhile, the unexpected arrival of Clemmie’s father MacAddy (Bill Salem) further complicates matters, until the “big reveal” (not to be disclosed here) which is partially predictable. We are left with unresolved issues for several characters, not the least being Connie herself. Is it possible to change people’s lives through television by “showing the truth”, as Ethan puts it? Are the participants “selling their life rights for detox” as Mackson sees it? Is the “trade-out” of providing rehab rigged if the chosen addicts are qualified as “already destined for recovery”, as Tara charges?

These are but a few of the questions, both explicit and implicit, that the playwright raises. The cast of seven by and large meets the many demands of this ethical quandary. Power herself noted elsewhere that “You’re still controlling the story, even if you’re letting things evolve as they would naturally evolve…after the TV show is gone, how do they deal with it all after?” She’s very believable as the complicated center of the play, as are her cohorts Brown (providing some comic relief) and Jones (earnest and honest if naïve) and Bowry as the clueless new boss. Reagan makes the most of her character who could have been a stereotype. The same could be said for Lewin, moving and vulnerable, and the menacing Aleksander (perhaps too attractive for a stereotypical redneck). Salem’s character arrives too late and hastily to make enough impact, but he does what he can with an undeveloped role. Miller’s sets are clever and natural, as are the Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, the Costume Design by Jez Insalaco and the Sound Design by David Wilson. They all enhance the fascinating insights into one art form by another.

Whatever the future of this play and its playwright, which if there is any justice in this world should be successful, “reality” television will undoubtedly survive, given its enduring bottom-line results and its relatively inexpensive (well, all right, cheap) requirements. As Ethan correctly proclaims, “Television is always in charge”.

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