Real People, Real Problems

by: Alan Swyer

The business of Reality TV, and what happens when you find yourself living amongst the Walking Wounded….

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“I‘m in a pickle,” Amato announced as he opened the door to Kaplan’s office.

“Your wife?  Your girlfriend?”

“If only. Some company wants me to produce a reality pilot.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Their ideas are brutal.”

“So go with one of yours.”

“If only I had one.”

Seeing Kaplan’s eyes light up, Amato stepped further in, closing the door behind him.

“Tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“Your idea….”

“Well,” said Kaplan, “this is the age of the quick fix….”

“Yeah….”

“Everything from flat tires and Lasik to marriages, divorces, and probably even burials.”

“So?”

“Why not do it with a shrink show?”

“Go on….” Amato implored.

“Instant crisis intervention.”

“Meaning?”

“No psychobabble. We cut to the heart of the problem with a diagnosis, then we provide an instant solution.”

“Don’t move!” Amato roared as he raced down the hall.

Toiling as a screenwriter, Kaplan had grown accustomed to what in Hollywood is known as Development Hell, a world with so little cause and effect that careers flourish despite projects never getting produced.

So it was strange, only one day later, for Kaplan to find himself together with Amato in a meeting where the key question was the antithesis. “How soon can we shoot?” asked Paul Lundquist, the head of New Vision TV.

When Amato deferred to Kaplan for an answer, the response he gave was simple.

“We’ll know once we find the right shrink.”

However difficult casting a movie or TV show may be, at least there are road maps – the first step being to bring in a casting director, who reaches out to agents and managers, then posts the project on the appropriate websites.

But a casting call for mental health practitioners? For that there are fewer precedents. Knowing it was important to have someone with a serious credential – a MD or a PhD, rather than simply a Masters in Social Work, or worse, a Marriage & Family Therapist or a Mental Health Counselor – Kaplan made calls, then sent out emails, clamoring for referrals from everyone he knew within a twenty mile radius.

That led to a series of disheartening coffees, get-togethers, and interviews in which he found himself face-to-face with aspirants he termed, The Walking Wounded. Never before had Kaplan encountered people with so many twitches, tics, peculiarities and quirks. There were those who stared at him with googly eyes, and others who seemed unwilling, or incapable, of making any eye contact whatsoever. Then there were the ones who snorted, sniffled, or scratched. Plus a few who seemed disconnected from anything resembling reality.

Growing despondent, Kaplan joked to Amato that instead of going forward with their pilot, they should simply do a documentary about the oddballs who abounded in the Southern California world of psychotherapy – a Who’s Who of eccentrics capable of making Freud and Jung roll over in their graves.

Then, thanks to the wife of a poker-playing friend, Kaplan was introduced to Conrad Clark. A clinical psychologist in his mid-forties, Dr. Clark was good-looking enough to be appealing to women, but not so much as to be off-putting to men. With an ever-so-slight Texas drawl, he possessed a firm handshake, a winning smile, plus sufficient presence and authority to inspire confidence. Best of all, as co-author of two books that made their way onto best-seller lists – The ABC’s Of Relationships and Creating A New & Better You – he also had a highly marketable cachet.

Amato, after meeting “the Doc,” as Dr. Clark came to be known, stated: “The camera will love him.” Paul Lundquist was even more ecstatic: “We’ve got us a star!”

Since, thanks to the main title, opening credits, commercials, and end credits, a half-hour TV show contains considerably less than thirty minutes of actual program time, it fell to Kaplan to create an appropriate format for the project.

His plan, which he explained first to Amato, then to Lundquist, involved a brief intro by the Doc, speaking directly to the camera, followed by three psychological interventions, then a parting wrap-up by Dr. Clark, ending with either a homily or an affirmation.

The set-up, which he outlined for his star at a coffee house near the psychologist’s office, went as follows: “You’re about to head to the airport with your lady friend (whom Kaplan had learned was a sitcom actress of some note) for a long-anticipated trip to Paris when you realize you’ve left your passport on your office desk. Making a quick detour, you discover a patient who’s in hysterics, or incredibly despondent, or even borderline suicidal, camped at the door. You’ve got seven-and-a-half minutes maximum – not a split-second more – in which to help, or else you’ll miss your plane.”

The irony of the entire situation was that Kaplan, who had precious little production experience, had even less in the realm of psychotherapy. Yet it was he, a guy from a blue-collar town in Jersey where psychotherapy elicited laughter and scorn, who found himself not merely spearheading the show’s production, but also shaping its psycho-therapeutic aspects.

When Kaplan stated that run-throughs were needed in order to allow Conrad Clark to get comfortable with the urgency imposed by the seven-and-a-half minute time frame, Amato’s suggestion, which was seconded by Paul Lundquist, was that actors be brought in to play the role of patients.

Fearing that that would introduce a level of fakery into a venture that should strive for honesty, Kaplan balked. Insisting that he wanted only “Real people with Real problems,” Kaplan established ground rules for the show while also spontaneously coming up with its much-needed title.

Equally important, since the future of “Real People, Real Problems” – if it was to stand any chance of having one – would depend upon a flow of real people in trouble or in need, the search for those who could, or would, participate in run-throughs would also be a harbinger of what to expect in the future.

Though Amato and the people at the production company were dubious, Kaplan, together with an assistant named Shea, reached out to mental health organizations, hot lines, and free clinics, then placed ads in several free weeklies.

The results far surpassed both their expectations and hopes. And the influx of potential patients reflected favorably on the show’s chance of success. But Kaplan couldn’t help but think it was also a sad commentary on the state of mental health in Southern California.

Though challenging, dealing with those with psychological and emotional problems was nowhere near as trying or difficult as Kaplan feared. What he had not anticipated, however, were the demons that proved to be lurking inside the man chosen to be “Real People, Real Problems” fountain of wisdom and guidance.

After appearing entirely composed during the selection process, Dr. Conrad Clark started to display a more troubling side of himself during the stretch of episode run-throughs, which took place on successive Tuesday afternoons.

What concerned Kaplan was not so much that the psychologist began to seem distracted, moody and impatient, but that more and more there was the unmistakable smell of both alcohol and weed on his breath.

Fearing that the entire project would capsize if his star’s problems were to become known, Kaplan, in addition to producing “Real People, Real Problems,” assumed additional roles –  that of Clark’s confidant, plus, at times, his keeper. Upon learning that the psychologist’s personal life was falling apart at the very worst moment, it was the fledgling producer who became a shoulder to lean on. Dr. Clark’s children from two failed marriages were causing mayhem galore. His actress girlfriend was threatening to leave him so she could return to the New York stage and his writing partner on his books was proclaiming that their writing partnership was coming to an end.

Despite being both over-worked and under-equipped, it fell to Kaplan – and Kaplan alone – to serve as the shrink’s unofficial shrink, which meant countless hours listening to fears, insecurities, and tales of woe in assorted coffee houses, bars, and all night diners, then dispensing whatever advice he could muster.

During the course of the run-throughs, while Conrad Clark became familiar with, then internalized the ticking clock of the seven-and-a-half minute time frame, Kaplan got a sense of the kind of cases would make for the best viewing. What mattered most, he came to realize, were not just the kinds of maladies, neuroses, or predicaments from which people suffered, but more importantly, the personalities involved. In other words, the most bizarre or sensationalistic problem in the world could be undermined by a “patient” who proved to be bland, tongue-tied, or withdrawn. But no trial or tribulation seemed generic or uninteresting if and when it involved someone who, in show biz terms, had what was known as “it.”

Feeling the weight of a production company eager to roll, plus the pressure of sustaining his star, Kaplan set a shooting date. Then, with the help of Amato, a studio was booked, which allowed for the signing of a director, a production designer, a cinematographer, and the rest of what came to be known as “their team.”

Night after night, with production nearing, Kaplan worked himself into exhaustion, falling asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.

Finally, with shooting one day away, Kaplan went into overdrive. First he set, then sequenced, those who would be “treated” live – choosing men and women of different ages and ethnicities with contrasting tales of sorrow, from whom three would be selected during editing to appear in the pilot. Then he oversaw a production meeting with Amato, the director, the cinematographer, and the rest of the team, before sitting down for a “Win One For The Gipper” motivational chat with Conrad Clark.

Convinced that he had done all he could to prepare, Kaplan had a quiet dinner with an on-again-off-again girlfriend, then climbed into bed for some much needed rest.

But in contrast to the previous night, sleep did not come quickly, for he came to be plagued by an unexpected fear.

What if, Kaplan found himself anguishing, someone asks what I’ve produced?

Though aware that that kind of question was not only unlikely, but at that point a non-issue, lying under the covers with his mind racing, Kaplan was not in any way, shape, or form thinking rationally. Responding more like the off-balance patients who had participated in the run-throughs than like a man who had so dexterously crafted the show’s pre-production, Kaplan found himself ever envisioning the collapse of both the project and his career.

Come morning, frantic and fatigued, Kaplan arrived on set determined to mask his anxieties so as to make the shooting a success.To get things going in the most controlled way possible, he had filming commence with an intro from Dr. Clark.

“What you are about to see, is not scripted, simulated, or reenacted. These are real people brave enough to confront their all-too-real problems.”

“Great!” shouted Kaplan once the camera had stopped rolling, His praise was immediately seconded by the director, then by Amato and Lundquist.

Then, deliberately out of sequence, they went into the final wrap-up.

“As you’ve seen today, self-acceptance is the first step toward freedom. With that in mind, I’d like you to consider incorporating an affirmation into your daily routine. Every morning, every evening, and every time you feel yourself growing uncomfortable, try repeating the following: I accept every part of me – even the parts I’m just learning to like. If you do this, I promise you’ll see and feel the results.”

Once more, Kaplan was first in line with praise for the Doc.

Then, after a coffee break, it was time to get down to the heavy lifting.

The first “victim” scheduled was a woman named Cynthia, whose romantic history had a repetitive quality that invariably led to disaster. She would work out obsessively, she told Dr. Clark, all the while eating a carb- and sugar-free diet, until she was blessed with sufficient sleekness and confidence to start a relationship with a handsome guy. But just as the affair heated up, she would find herself going haywire, to the point where, on top of her binge eating, she would make a daily run to a supermarket to buy a container of prepared cake frosting, which she would devour while sitting in her car. The result, once she ballooned, was always the same: the object of her affections fled for dear life.

“Tell me what you’re afraid of,” Conrad Clark asked with the kind of presence and command Kaplan had first discerned in him.

“That the guy I’m involved with will dump me.”

“With the result that the fear becomes self-fulfilling.”

“So what am I supposed to do Doctor?”

“How about instead of yielding to the suspense….”

“By turning into a hippo….”

“You try to enjoy each and every moment.”

“Of the relationship?”

“It’s either that or the frosting,” Dr. Clark said as gently as possible. “I suspect you’ll find that being present – being with this gentleman instead of worrying about what might or might not happen – proves to be far more satisfying for you and for him.”

As the seven-and-a-half minute marked neared, Cynthia sighed, then suddenly smiled beatifically, as though years of storm clouds had suddenly disappeared.

“Thank you, Dr. Clark.” she gushed gratefully.

Though elated by the handshakes, pats on the back, and high-fives generated by the filming of their first real case, what pleased Kaplan most was something that he could not bring himself to share with others.

After a night filled with trepidation, he no longer had to fear questions about what he had  – or hadn’t – produced. If asked, he had a perfect answer: “Case #1: Cynthia.”

More comfortable with himself and the world around him, Kaplan congratulated Conrad Clark, then readied the troops for their next patient.

The morning brought another segment which the Doc handled ably. In dealing with a tattooed man named Angelo, whose uncertain sexuality had caused him to move three thousand miles away from his Brooklyn-based mobster brother, Clark made a key point.

“No matter how far you travel,” he said, “you’ll always find you there.” The key, he explained, was not distance, but self-acceptance. “You can’t expect approval from someone else if you don’t approve of yourself,” he stated. “Learn to like yourself, to appreciate yourself, and most of all to respect yourself. I promise you, the rest will follow,” he said.

Angelo’s response was a hug.

Next up was Nicola, an attractive British blonde torn between two jealous lovers. One was a married comedy director of a certain age whose “generosity” enabled her to live comfortably despite minimal other means of support. The second was a stuntman significantly younger than not just the director, but of Nicola as well, whose prowess in bed was, as she put it, “Startlingly awesome.” Claiming to want to replace the histrionics in her life with something resembling stability, she asked which route to go. “Neither,” replied Conrad Clark. Terming both situations make believe, he explained that a bond based on a commodity – be it money, sex, or fame – is not real, and therefore cannot last. “A relationship,” he explained, “must be based on feelings, mutual affection, and respect. If it’s something enduring you want, not just temporary comfort or pleasure, you need someone who appreciates you for what you are, more than for the services you provide.”

Once more, a pronouncement from Dr. Clark was greeted with thanks, and Nicola walked off the stage with a satisfied look on her face.

Though aware that the on-set energy level was beginning to flag as the taping droned on, Kaplan was not the least bit concerned, given his knowledge of the fourth and final case.

Wearing horn-rimmed, granny glasses and an unflattering, earth-colored dress, with no makeup and her hair in a bun, Abigail, who looked like a middle school librarian, hardly seemed destined to get the crew’s blood pumping. Yet everything changed the moment she described her problem.

Abigail was addicted to violent sex. Her desire to be pummeled, debased, tied-up, and even strangled almost to the point of suffocation led her to pick-up men with adrenaline highs: cops after high-speed chases, firemen following blazes, race car drivers at the end of the final lap, stunt men surviving acts of derring-do.

Yet in addition to fearing that one day things would go too far, a part of Abigail – one that she could neither silence nor deny – wanted something far more mundane: a cozy little house with a white picket fence, plus a sensitive guy with whom to listen to Mozart and cuddle.

“I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways,” Conrad Clark told her.

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“Nor is it fair that some kids go hungry. Or that there are people without a roof over their heads. Or, on a personal level, that I’m not 6’8″ and playing in the NBA. The simple fact is that the world’s not fair. But is it worth whatever excitement you feel when you’re justly terrified about dying?”

“Almost,” Abigail replied with a grin so suggestive that Kaplan could sense the rush felt by the crew.

“The world,” Dr. Clark went on, “is based upon the principle that for the sake of safety, we surrender certain desires. Even if I enjoyed such things, which I don’t, I wouldn’t rape or pillage because I know there’d be consequences. That’s called a social contract. In your case it means that if you want to be spared death or serious injury – and hopefully get a cute little house, plus a gentleman who cares about you – you’ll have to forget about sex laced with violence and danger.”

“What about just once in a while?” Abigail asked playfully, drawing nervous laughter from crew members.

“It all depends upon what’s important to you. Are we on the same page here?”

“Yes,” said Abigail, with what appeared to be heartfelt humility.

Once the director yelled “Cut,” Kaplan watched the aroused crew members dash from the set, whether to call their wives or girlfriend, or hookers, or to perform unnatural acts upon themselves.

After disappearing for a couple of minutes, Abigail reappeared, then shyly approached Kaplan.

“Thanks for including me,” she said.

“It was great having you.”

“Can I ask a favor?”

“Absolutely.”

“Don’t open this until you get home,” she said, handing him an envelope.

After stopping for a beer and a burger at a sports bar, Kaplan went home with the intention of taking a shower, then getting some much needed sleep. Only as he started to get undressed, did he remember Abigail’s envelope.

Due to his role as producer, Kaplan had received a perk the likes of which he had never before encountered: a slip of paper with Abigail’s home and cell numbers, plus several pubic hairs.

Post-production went surprisingly smoothly, with Kaplan choosing Cynthia, Angelo, and of course Abigail for the three segments, then overseeing the editing, the selection of graphics, and the musical score.

Not wanting to offend what he only half in jest referred to as the Show Biz Gods, Kaplan did his best not to buy into the giddiness displayed by Lundquist and even Amato, both of whom gloated over the fact that “Real People, Real Problems” was certain to make them rich. Yet even with a conscious effort to stay grounded, he nonetheless found himself dreaming at times of relinquishing his too small apartment for a house, and replacing his aging Volvo with something new and sporty.

With enthusiasm sky high, plans were made to take the pilot to the annual National Association of Television Production Executives convention. Then came an alarming piece of news. Two other pilots, they learned, had basically the same premise. Which, they realized, meant that only one might possibly sell.

While “Real People, Real Problems” was acknowledged by every publication covering the convention in San Francisco to be the best of the bunch, the two competing projects had far more of what’s known as Juice. One featured a psychologist who had a high Television Quotient thanks to multiple appearances on “Oprah” and other talk shows, while the other was produced by a Hollywood powerhouse with strong ties to every network. In a world that’s far from a meritocracy – where being best is not necessarily good enough – “Real People, Real Problems” succumbed to the show biz equivalent of crib death when a Variety headline read: Oprah’s Shrink Show Is A Go!

Determined to be philosophical about the experience, Kaplan did his best to be strong.  Embarking on a fitness kick – running, lifting weights, plus swimming twice a week at UCLA – he vowed to try his hand at the detective novel he had long dreamed of writing.

Those efforts, however, proved to be short-lived. Less than two weeks later, Kaplan was overtaken by gloom.

Leaving his apartment only when absolutely necessary, he wallowed in misery to the point where, in a moment of near total desperation, he almost placed a call to Abigail – a move he resisted only out of fear that, with the show not going forward, she, too, might reject him.

Growing ever more desperate, Kaplan gave serious thought to reaching out for some sort of psychotherapy. But that, too, was aborted due memories of all psychiatrists and psychologists he had interviewed.

Instead he scoured YouTube for the gloomiest songs he could find: Ray Charles’ “Drown In My Own Tears,” Bessie Smith’s “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt,” Nina Simone’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” Springsteen’s “The River,” and the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.”

Realizing at last that it was time to move on, Kaplan, on a Wednesday morning, went out for a three-mile run. Then, after a shower and a shave, he made a decision.

The following day, instead of diving into uncharted waters by trying his hand at the detective novel, Kaplan decided to put to use his foray into reality programming the best way he could, by beginning a screenplay about the strange, almost surreal experience.

But his plans were sidetracked by a call from Amato.

“Some guys who saw our pilot want us to do a show for them,” Kaplan’s erstwhile partner announced. “Only yours truly has not a single idea.”

“Is There A Doctor In The House?” Kaplan found himself blurting out.

“Meaning?”

“House doctor at the Beverly Hills Hotel.”

“Call you right back!” Amato shouted gleefully.

Wondering what he had gotten himself into, Kaplan took some solace in the fact that he would never again have to fear a question such as, “What have you produced?”

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