Last month, Anne Ahrens received a phone call asking if she could work as a set decorator on an upcoming TV project. The week in May when networks announce their new shows always involves a big scramble for jobs, she explained, as they look to quickly staff the picked-up series before they start production over the summer. But Ahrens turned down the offer.
“I said, ‘Oh, I’m going back to “Roseanne,” so I’m not available,’” she recalled.
Ahrens got another call on Tuesday, from her assistant, who wondered if she had seen what Roseanne Barr had tweeted that morning. He scrolled through Twitter as they spoke and discovered within minutes that ABC had axed the show after its star called former Barack Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett a product of the “Muslim brotherhood” and “planet of the apes.” Just like that, someone’s racist tweet cost Ahrens her job for the latter half of the year: “So, yeah. That happened.”
She doesn’t deny that it was the right move on behalf of the network, whose president, Channing Dungey, deemed Barr’s words “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values.” But Ahrens is also one of the couple hundred people who have lost the opportunity to work on what became one of the top-rated shows on broadcast television. The cast and crew must find new gigs, having missed the scramble by just two weeks.
Some might emerge from the brouhaha financially unscathed. Three of the series’ stars – Sara Gilbert, who spearheaded the revival, plus Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman – had recently negotiated deals to receive $300,000 an episode for the 11th season, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and expect to be compensated for at least 10 of the 13 planned episodes. Details are fuzzier for the writing staff, who coincidentally had reconvened to start planning the upcoming season the same day news of the cancellation broke. The writers probably didn’t have the same clause the actors had in their contracts, and executive producer Dave Caplan told the magazine that several “did pass on other jobs to take this job, and nobody really knows yet what kind of compensation they’re going to get.”
Ahrens and veteran production designer John Shaffner anticipate that the art department will get hit hard. Shaffner noted that these crew members generally operate as weekly hires, meaning the producers could theoretically fire them at the end of any week. Loyalty unofficially acts as a long-term contract in these situations, he said, but the network and producers do not have a written obligation to provide compensation.
“The disparity of pay in our entertainment business has reached levels that are almost unimaginable,” Shaffner added. “I love Sara and John, and I’ve worked with Laurie in the past. These are amazing talents and deserve everything they get. But when you think of them walking away with as much as $3 million for not working and nobody else getting a penny, it’s, like, what’s wrong with this world?”
(ABC has not yet returned The Post’s request for comment on whether the cast and crew will receive severance pay. All of the main cast members and several writers either declined to speak about the cancellation or did not respond to inquiries.)
Neither Ahrens nor Shaffner had heard from network directly, though several outlets reported that Disney-ABC Television Group President Ben Sherwood lamented the loss of work in an email sent to ABC staffers on Wednesday.
“Not enough … has been said about the many men and women who poured their hearts and lives into the show and were just getting started on the next season,” he wrote. “We’re so sorry they were swept up in all of this and we give thanks for their remarkable talents, wish them well, and hope to find another way to work together down the road.”
Shaffner detailed the arduous process of creating the “Roseanne” revival’s set with Ahrens. Twenty years had passed since viewers last visited the Conners’ home, and it only made sense that the family would have spruced things up. Perhaps they got new wallpaper for the kitchen or a different sofa for the living room. Dan Conner (Goodman) is a contractor, Barr noted, so how about new windows, too?
The art department put together a cohesive presentation for Gilbert and co-showrunners Bruce Helford and Whitney Cummings, who, according to Shaffner, threw their hands up and said, “Oh, my God. We’ve made a terrible mistake. We have to (get) as close as we can get to the original.”
And so they did. Ahrens, Shaffner and costume designer Mary Quigley had to create much of the furniture and wall coverings from scratch, as not many of the original series’s design materials are still manufactured. They bought sofas on Craigslist and cut one in half to become the living room chair; found the right fabric type from a dealer in the Midwest and repainted some of the stripes so it looked like the old couch; and had the wallpaper custom-made.
The work was tiring but certainly worth the trouble. After all, Ahrens thought at one point, the show had an explosively successful premiere – which was seen by more than 18 million viewers on its first night – and would likely have a long future, right?
Er, maybe not.
“Now that’s all in storage and probably will be sent to Timbuktu,” she said. “It’s a lot of work that’s now down the drain.”
But that’s show business, according to Shaffner, who added that the cancellation is a step in the right direction. He has designed multicamera programs since around 1980 for shows such as “Friends” and “Golden Girls” and has seen a number of performers “be equally self-destructive on occasion.” Shaffner admires that networks such as ABC are less willing to accept this behavior nowadays, though admits that this time it was at the expense of a great number of people.
“Sometimes you have to accept that’s the way it is in a freelance universe,” he said. “None of our jobs last forever in the work that we do. Everything is dependent on a show being renewed … And when it’s done, you’re unemployed.”
Some jobs – like Shaffner’s and the camera operators’ – didn’t necessarily require a full week of work and allowed those crew members to contribute to other TV shows, too.
Nevertheless, property master Jeremy Armstrong, who worked on both the original series and the revival, said the cancellation made him feel like “there has been a death in the family.” (He declined a longer interview.) Shaffner similarly mourned the writers’ inability to continue stories like those that dealt with conflicting political views, a surrogate pregnancy and a gender nonconforming child.
“Besides the jobs and, of course, the sadness of when you watch a major star sort of set themselves on fire … I’m really mostly sad for the fact that the stories being told were really, really valid,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to miss the most – the opportunity to read those scripts and imagine them coming to life.”
Sonia Rao/The Washington Post