Washington script doctors

How the government rewrote an episode of the WB's "Smart Guy."

Topics: Drugs,

Like much of network television aimed at a youthful audience, “Smart Guy,” a WB network sitcom that went on the air in April 1997 and was cancelled this past spring, was full of lessons about growing up. It told the story of T.J. Henderson, played by Tahj Mowry, a genius of sorts who finds himself in high school at the age of 10, grappling with the pressures that beset his older peers.

But in the case of one episode, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) thought “Smart Guy’s” moral instruction could be made even more explicit — and, with the active cooperation of the show’s producers, the government proceeded to do just that.

The original script of the episode, which eventually aired May 19, 1999, placed T.J. at a kids-only party, where he encounters two older boys he’d known before he skipped several grades in school. As first conceived, the two boys were the life of the party, their coolness evidenced among other things by their precocious ability to score some beer.

They convince an impressed T.J. to indulge. He returns to the party sloshed, makes a fool of himself and spills a soda all over a girl he’s trying to dazzle. Hung over the next day, he compounds his sins by lying to his father about his condition. Later, his new friends drop by with some peppermint schnapps. Dad walks in on their debaucheries, and all hell breaks loose.

The episode was written primarily by freelance film and television writer Steve Young. Young first pitched the alcohol-themed story in 1997. It was rejected, he believes, at least in part because Disney (the show’s partial owner) recoiled from having its young character involved with booze. But well over a year later, Young suddenly received a phone call from “Smart Guy” executive producer Bob Young (no relation), who told him, “Remember that show we said we’re never going to do? We’re doing it.”

The booze-themed script was revived after WB senior VP for programming John Litvack suggested a drinking or drugs episode to the “Smart Guy’s” producers. (While most of the shows that the drug-policy office influences deal with drugs, the office permits about 10 percent of them to be alcohol-related.)

Says “Smart Guy” creator Danny Kallis: “The WB came to us and asked if we’d consider doing a drugs or drinking show.” Tahj Mowry’s mother would have objected to a show concerning drugs. But
fortunately, the producers had on hand Steve Young’s previously rejected script.



Once the script was resurrected, Kallis recalls that the WB “put us in touch with the White House, with Alan Levitt [the drug-policy point man for the media campaign].” “Smart Guy” producer Young says that show staffers spoke to three or four outsiders on “the most effective way to reach teens,” including Levitt and other social-marketing experts whom Levitt referred them to.

ONDCP and its consultants offered “a few dictates,” Young says. No mention of beer brand names. T.J. had to be “clearly inebriated” and the negative consequences of drinking had to be emphasized, including — worse even than T.J.’s embarrassment with the girl — his breach of trust with his father. And father and son had to (eventually) have a heart-to-heart talk.

Writer Young recalls that the scenes in which T.J. is counseled by his father were crafted with the government consultants’ input. He says the show’s producers were “concerned that we didn’t say anything that diverges from” the consultants’ paradigm.

Among the consultants Levitt steered Kallis, Young and their writers to was George Carey, president of Just Kid Inc. of Stamford, Conn., an expert on effective youth marketing. Carey says he consulted with ONDCP on “a couple of shows.” Around last February, a couple of months after the decision to revive the beer episode, Carey participated in a conference call with the producers of “Smart Guy.” He says, “The holding company [the WB] was looking for ways to fulfill the match” — i.e. make the show palatable to the drug czar’s office.

In that phone conference, Carey delineated a few more specific themes dear to the drug-policy office’s heart: Parents need to take an active role, not just assume kids can handle these issues on their own; “resistance skills,” that is, saying no to drug or alcohol inducements in a face-saving way, are crucial; and, as always, the overall negative consequences of drugs and under-age alcohol use.

Producer Young recalls two or three other ONDCP contractors augmenting Carey’s ministrations to “Smart Guy.” By the time everyone was done shaping the script, it had changed significantly. The two older boys were turned into goofy and unappealing clowns, one of whom T.J. remembers from the “slow-reading class.” Instead of trying to ingratiate himself with a couple of winners, as the original script had it, T.J. finds himself dragged down to their inferior level. A second drug-policy office contractor who worked on the script says, “We showed that they were losers and put them in a utility room [rather than out in the main party]. That was not in the original script.”

Asked whether it’s proper to have government consultants shaping a TV program’s scripts, WB programming chief Litvack says, “Sure, absolutely. It’s a good idea if he knows more than we do.”

Daniel Forbes is a New York freelancer who writes on social policy and the media.

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