Prime Time Conspiracy

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by Ryan McSwain, © 2017

Samantha Cho fidgeted in her new chair in the writers’ room as Katrina Graham started the meeting. Filming wouldn’t commence on the fifth season of Taste of Justice for a few months, and the rest of the studio offices were quiet. The atmosphere felt different here. The show’s popularity meant more pressure from the executives than Samantha was used to on her other jobs. At least the other writers were nice.

Katrina looked her way. “And she’s a little late to this season’s party, but I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Samantha Cho to the Taste of Justice team.” After the other writers applauded politely, she said, “Sam and I got our start together on The Channeler—”

Eddie Valdez and Aaron Brooks finished for her. “Which was recently voted the twenty-seventh best cult television show of all time.” The others laughed.

Katrina rolled with it. “What can I say? Those were the glory days. I’ve been trying to scoop her up since Codex ended its ten-year run. Glad to finally have you in the bullpen, Sam.”

“Thrilled to be here.” Samantha shot an awkward thumbs up. “I just wish it was under better circumstances. I was so sorry to hear about Leslie Adler. We worked together a few times, and she was a special person.”

“A damn shame,” Aaron said. “She was a class act.”

“Truly the best of us.” Chris Jones lifted his Taste of Justice coffee cup. “To Leslie.”

“To Leslie,” the room agreed, toasting their ceramic mugs and plastic bottles.

“This is a good time to remind everyone the studio has grief counseling available if you need it.” Katrina drummed on the table. “I’d like to get through the day without crying, so let’s try and hash out Chris’s script before lunch.”

As they read through another food-themed adventure with Detective Jackie Bledsoe and her informal partner Chef Anton Pepin, Samantha asked herself again what she was doing here. She hated these formulaic, by-the-numbers dramas. The scripts were as creative as a late-season episode of Scooby Doo. But Taste of Justice had a big budget and somehow thrived in the Friday night death slot. After living hand-to-mouth trying to get her own projects off the ground, Samantha could use consistent running water.

Eddie nudged her. “You look like you’re thinking pretty hard. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you’ve got something.”

Acutely aware of everyone’s eyes, Samantha swallowed. “Okay, so what about this scene where Jackie and Anton have the deli manager in the interview room. Just to be more realistic, shouldn’t the guy have his lawyer present?”

The room erupted in laughter. Eddie wiped a tear from his eye. “Hoo boy. Kat wasn’t kidding about your sense of humor.”

Katrina interrupted. “Let’s keep it going, kids. Eyes on the prize.”

Samantha tried to continue, but Katrina ignored her. Two hours later, when they finished running the final scene, Chris asked what everyone thought. To Samantha’s surprise, the other writers loved it.

“Great job on the will-they-or-won’t-they stuff,” Aaron Brooks said. “Of course, we’ll have to edit the kiss out. We can’t let Jackie and Anton do that onscreen yet. Not if we want to reach season seven.”

“That’s easy to fix,” Katrina said. “Loved the gimmick with the cheese. I’ll have to check, but I don’t think we’ve used cheese much lately. We should be able to send this to the lawyers for vetting by tomorrow.”

“Wait a minute,” Samantha said. Everyone else stopped speaking. Her voice cracked as she continued. “I’m not sure it makes sense.”

“What are you talking about?” Eddie said. “It’s a solid hour of forensic drama.”

Samantha rifled through her marked-up copy of the script. “Maybe we could beef up the crime solving a little? You know, have Detective Jackie actually do some deducing?”

Eddie looked to the other writers for support, but he only received shrugs in return. “What are you talking about?” he asked Samantha. “The script has everything it needs.”

“But they didn’t solve the crime! They just happened to recognize the same type of cheese at the supermarket. And that ending! Their evidence barely qualifies as circumstantial. Why does the guy confess?”

“What are you doing?” Aaron asked. “You’ll get us all killed. Kat, what the hell? I thought you said she was on board.”

Katrina stood, tipping her chair backward on the floor. “This was a productive morning, folks. How about we take a two-hour lunch, come back ready to do the same again?”

As the other writers gathered up their bags, Katrina grabbed Samantha by the arm, hard enough that her fingernails broke the skin. Samantha followed her eyes, which were focused on the smoke detector above them. Under her breath, Katrina said, “It looks like we need to talk.”

Katrina blasted Top 40 tunes as they sped along Santa Monica Boulevard in her Porsche. She ignored all attempts at conversation. When they crossed into Beverly Hills, Samantha couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Tell me where we’re going or I’m jumping ship.”

“Lunch. Don’t worry, we’ve got time. It’s not like they can start without the boss, anyway.”

Katrina parked behind a new Maserati and tossed her keys to the restaurant valet. Samantha ran to catch up. “Kat, you know I can’t afford this place right now.”

“It’s on me. Least I can do for dragging you into this.”

After Samantha ordered the most expensive sandwich she’d ever seen on a menu, Katrina ordered a scotch with a side of nothing. The waiter walked away, and Katrina sighed.

“I’m sorry about this, I really am. Since you were on Codex, I assumed you already knew how network cop shows work.”

Codex? For real? That wasn’t a cop drama. Oh my gosh, you hired me without even watching my show!”

“I know you, Sam, I didn’t need to read every scrap of poetry you ever wrote. And I watched the Codex pilot. Most of it. There was a murder. Cops were solving it.”

“Before the first commercial break! That guy died experimenting with the weird plants from the Voynich manuscript. The whole show was hunting weird creatures, solving riddles and cyphers. No interrogations. No contrived confessions!”

“Keep your voice down. You have no idea what’s going on here. These cop shows, they’re a big deal. Like a big deal for the government’s alphabet soup agencies.”

“You mean like the FBI?”

Katrina slammed her empty glass on the table. “Try the FCC. What do you know about Leslie Jones’s death?”

“Not much. I know she killed herself. Sad stuff.”

Katrina pulled a quivering cigarette from her purse. She put it in her mouth, started to click her lighter, but instead returned the cigarette to the pack. “Leslie would never kill herself. How many suicides have you heard of where a woman locks herself in a duffel bag? Because that’s how they found her.”

Samantha leaned across the table. “Are you telling me the government killed Leslie? Do you know how crazy that sounds?”

Katrina twisted her napkin into knots. “All the major cop shows, even one like ours with goofy sidekicks, they’re part of a program. Been that way since Dragnet. It’s our job to make it look nearly impossible to commit a crime, and even harder to get away with it. Everyone gets caught on traffic cameras, or there’s something in their emails. And if you commit the crime, we’re supposed to make it look suspicious if you get a lawyer. No one gets a lawyer! And then, at the end, a confession. Tie it all up in a bow. Teach everyone the right way to react if they commit a crime. Or even if they’re just strongly suspected.”

“That’s the worst conspiracy theory I’ve ever heard.”

“You think so? Ask Leslie what she thinks. The FCC has surveillance everywhere. Leslie couldn’t take it anymore, said she was going to tell the press everything. So they took her out of the picture.

“That’s insane.”

“Is it? Who benefits the most from people waiving their right to an attorney? Definitely not lawyers. But it makes the job a hundred times easier for police and the feds. It was the same thing when I worked on that medical drama. That’s why you never see any of the good guy doctors successfully sued for malpractice—it makes it easier to pass tort reform. And you never, ever hear one of those attractive doctors say anything positive about the single-payer option. Too many major players have too much to lose.”

Samantha took a long drink of water. “Your crazy must be catching. I’m starting to believe you.”

“I can’t say for sure, but I think they’re doing the same for the espionage thrillers, where the hero tortures people like it’s his favorite hobby. Everybody knows torture is bad, but if you stop a fictional bomb destroying a made-up school every week in prime time, you get the public on your side.”

“Wow. If that’s all true, why did they leave us alone on my goofy puzzle show?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Think about it. You were making up codes for characters to solve, right? Maybe they recruited natural cryptographers by monitoring online discussions on the show. Sounds like a major opportunity to me.”

“Let’s say I believe you about the TV-show mind control. What am I supposed to do now? I can’t work like this. Sorry, Kat, I really am. But I have to quit.”

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry. You can’t quit. Once you’ve worked on a cop drama, you can’t do anything else. They won’t let you.”

Samantha’s shoulders slumped. “Then what can I do? I can’t do something that makes the world worse than it already is.”

“Do you really mean that?” Katrina’s eyes darted around the room.

“I do.”

Katrina leaned across the table. “Look, I’ve known you a long time. I trust you. Some of us have put together a plan to fight back. Maybe you’ll want in.”

Four months later, Samantha plopped the second scoop of Cherry Garcia in her bowl. Eating ice cream and watching shows she wrote had always been a guilty pleasure in the past. She’d hoped going through the usual motions would help, but tonight her hands shook as she washed the ice cream scoop.

Her ice cream sat untouched on the coffee table as Deep Blues Something sang the theme song for Taste of Justice. Detective Jackie Bledsoe frowned as often as possible. Chef Anton Pepin made one horrible food pun after another. Together they found the cheese and busted the perp.

But Samantha leaned forward as the duo interrogated the middle-aged cougar who had murdered her young lover.

“We know everything,” Detective Jackie said. “You might as well tell us why you did it.”

The debutante raised an eyebrow. “Are you crazy? You’ve got nothing. I’ll wait for my lawyer.”

The door to the little room opened. “I’m h-h-h-here!” stammered a veteran character actor. His cheap suit was three sizes too large, and his glasses hung off the end of his nose. “D-d-d-don’t say another word!”

The lawyer tried to enter the room, but tripped. His prat fall was perfect—they’d definitely gotten their money’s worth out of the actor. His brief case exploded, shooting papers all over the room.

Detective Jackie leaned over to Chef Anton. “This is gonna be too easy,” she said.

Chef Anton winked. “You could even say… over easy.

The lawyer chased his papers around the room as the murder suspect hung her head in despair. The screen faded to black and the credits rolled.

“It’s not much,” Samantha said to her empty apartment. “But it’s a start.”

As she took her bowl of melted ice cream back to the kitchen, someone knocked on the front door.