The Atlantic's Good Television Playwright Rod McLachlan Talks F-Bombs and the Fakeness of Reality TV
McLachlan is an actor and playwright whose new play about a documentary TV show mirrors his own wife's experiences as a field producer on the real-life Intervention.
When actor Rod McLachlan decided to try his hand at playwriting, he was drawn to the drama within a subject that was close to home — his wife's experiences as a producer on the documentary-based reality TV show Intervention. The show at the center of McLachlan's new play, Good Television, is titled Rehabilitation and, like Intervention, profiles the struggles of drug addicts and rewards participants with all-expenses-paid treatment.
The play is very loosely based on the adventures of my wife, who was a field producer — what this industry would think of as a director — on Intervention. And as I was deciding that I wanted to try my hand at writing, I realized that in most of the entertainment industry there's always a point at which someone kind of shrugs and goes, "Look, it's not brain surgery. We're not curing cancer here or anything." And the thing that struck me was that, in a way, my wife was. The stakes were life and death for the people she was working with.
What was your goal for the play?
I think if I had any point at all, it was about letting people get more in touch with what they're doing when they watch a reality show. The real part is not really what's shown. The real part is all the stuff that's edited out or massaged in one direction or another.
I did want to raise as many questions as possible. We tried to make it as not black-and-white as possible, so that everybody was culpable for something but everybody also had a kind of nobility.
What was your research process like?
It was a lot of my wife coming home and complaining after work. That was my primary resource. I also utilized my wife and some of her compatriots in that world to fact check. You know, what is the legal status of this, that, and the other thing?
How does your wife feel about the play?
It's kind of a funny story, because I wrote the first draft, and she did not know I was writing it. So I kind of left it on her desk at our house back in Los Angeles and said, "Oh, by the way, I've written something and I'd love for you to just give it a read and tell me what you think."
And she went upstairs and said "Oh, this is so long. I'm never going to get through this right away, honey." So I said "Just read a few scenes first and then just let me know if it's reading okay." So she went up and she disappeared for about two and a half hours before she came down. And she was, deliciously, pretty gobsmacked. She said, "You were really listening to me all those months when I was complaining."
I said, "Yeah, I was paying attention."
How does being an actor affect your playwriting?
I think actors who write love to give actors juicy things to play. I think I strive to make scenes have a certain kind of punch to them that lets an actor know what their building towards — what the arc is. And I try to give them dialogue that fuels character creation. The piece is not, I would say, terribly literary. It's much more organized around what people would really say. There are lots of F-bombs and, you know, people speaking the way people really talk in those offices.
Does your work as an actor affect the way you feel about unscripted television?
Oh, it's the enemy. It's the enemy, and now unscripted television is as scripted as anything else. It is sort of formatted improvisation for amateurs. I have a line in the script about media whores slapping each other while producers wink off-camera, and that is exactly how I feel about almost all of it. The show Intervention was documentary. They struggled to show what actually happens in a way that's much more rigorous than almost all other reality shows. So yeah, believe me, if my humble effort in writing for the stage can somehow chip away at the prevalence of reality shows, I'll be quite content.
Do you watch reality television yourself? If so, what are your favorite shows?
I actually loved Intervention. I loved it the way an actor loves it, because on Intervention you did see real people in extreme emotional states in a way you rarely see outside of true documentary. When I would teach, I would even say to acting students to watch it, because on TV there's an acting style that I call "no-mistake acting," in which actors basically undersell everything. I call it that because if you do nothing, you can't make a mistake.
But then you watch real people who are being filmed, who are really in the moment of extreme emotional distress, and you see that they are waving their arms and making big faces and raising their voice. They're really loud and they're not pretty and they're extreme. I loved watching that to remind me of the way people actually behave.
But apart from that, you know, my wife and I will sometimes unwind watching the singing-competition shows or Dancing with the Stars. But I can't really do more than ten minutes before I'm off the couch and looking for a book to read.