The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner

Given the shot at producing her very own TV series, a young woman scarred in a childhood accident tries to remain to true to herself while succeeding at the Hollywood game.

I haven’t actually read any of Jennifer Weiner’s other books but I had a good idea what I was getting into when I started The Next Best Thing. I have a soft spot for frothy chick lit with dishy Hollywood atmosphere, and because some of her books have been made into movies I was expecting some really sharp insider stuff. I was disappointed.

While I appreciated what Weiner was trying to do by making Ruth such an outsider because of her physical appearance, but I really found it hard to believe that someone with such an evident lack of ambition and drive could be successful in TV. Weiner sets Ruth’s journey in Hollywood off with a job interview where the two producers in the company tell her outright that they will help her any way they can, based on a short story she published while still in college. It just felt really implausible to me, and here’s why–I have worked in film and television for almost 15 years now, in various jobs, including as a TV writer. I have been the recipient of the kind of mentorship that Ruth experiences, and like Ruth I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if someone with power hadn’t taken an interest in me. But the idea that a person would be handed that kind of opportunity in an interview is just much too hard to swallow. The concept of paying dues is deeply ingrained in the culture. No one makes that kind of carte blanche offer to a new employee. It was just a little too convenient.

I also couldn’t buy that Ruth would be named showrunner with no real experience to speak of in the writers’ room. She never even had a staff job. It would be more realistic if the Two Daves were named showrunners and Ruth got the head writer job–that in itself would be an amazing coup for a young woman. But to get to be a showrunner on the basis of a script alone? It has to be a really special, unique situation–I’m thinking of Lena Dunham and her show GIRLS–where there is a strong, original creative vision. And in most cases that comes because the writer is also a performer and a director.

I also couldn’t get past the fact that I just can’t picture Ruth’s show as described as making it very far. It just didn’t feel special to me, mostly because the dialogue all felt like I’d heard it before. In the case of the jokes, none of them were original–they were all jokes that have been around for a hundred years. So Ruth doesn’t prove herself to be a sparkling comedy writer. And the emotional stuff felt canned as well. So I wasn’t rooting for Ruth to be able to preserve her original vision because her vision didn’t feel all that original to me.

I couldn’t help but compare fictional Ruth with real-life Tina Fey the way she depicts herself in her memoir Bossypants. Like Ruth, Fey is not conventionally pretty by Hollywood standards; unlike Ruth, she has comic chops and business acumen. I just wanted Ruth to be more special in the creative department–I needed to respect her as a writer and as a potential player to really be on her side.

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