Even if you haven’t seen Fatal Attraction, you almost surely know the plot. A husband played by Michael Douglas is left alone for a weekend by his wife and children, and he meets a woman who subsequently becomes obsessed with him. As her obsession grows and becomes more violent and unwieldy, the husband increasingly fears for the safety of his wife and family. It all ends up with the wife shooting the girlfriend dead in the family bathroom.
That’s the version we all saw. The original ending included a violent suicide, a murder frame-up, and (in one version) an unresolved mystery. But each version was screened in front of test audiences, and each time audiences responded unfavorably to the endings. So a new ending was shot, and when test audiences saw Anne Archer plugging Glenn Close, they cheered and applauded. Hollywood may not be great at real-life things like ROI and shareholder value, but we’re great at the fake stuff. We know how to reshoot an ending.
A few years ago, I produced a half-hour comedy pilot for a cable network. It was a terrific pilot—I know, I know, but trust me, I don’t always say that about the shows I’ve done—and the audience loved it, and when I was driving home after we wrapped production, I thought to myself, Well, this one is a sure thing.
Which it wasn’t, as it turned out. The network chose a different pilot to order to series—a comedy that followed its main character from the home to the office, where the lessons she learns in one place informed her actions in the other, or something. The only thing I remember about that show was that it wasn’t mine.
“Lackluster!” I shouted gleefully to a friend of mine, pointing to an article in Variety that described the Other Show’s mediocre debut. “Did you see that?” I sneered. “Isn’t that great? You know what that is? That’s karma!”
“I don’t think you understand the meaning of karma,” he said. “It doesn’t really refer to what happens to a television network that picked someone else’s pilot.”
“You’re ruining this for me,” I said. “Look, all I want is for them to put up a giant billboard on Sunset Boulevard apologizing for their mistake and begging my forgiveness.”
“No,” my wise friend said, “what you really want is to reshoot the ending and have them pick your pilot instead of the other one.”
I must have felt a bit like former NBCUniversal Vice Chair Ron Meyer felt when he learned a few weeks ago that NBCUniversal’s CEO, Jeff Shell, had been abruptly fired. The news came on a Sunday, which always signals dramatic, over-the-weekend board meetings and morning conference calls taken in pajamas. Shell was fired for an “inappropriate relationship” with an on-air CNBC personality—something that had been going on for years, apparently, and included allegations of harassment, threats, career-advancement promises, and a lot of other sloppy declarations.
The fun twist in this Hollywood story is this: In August 2020, Shell fired Ron Meyer for a sex scandal of his own. Meyer was revealed to have been paying off a former girlfriend—someone, it must be specified, who was never an employee of NBCU—and Shell canned him immediately.
Meyer had been at NBCU for 25 years. He was a respected and well-liked figure in town, and a reliable confidant for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars on both sides of the screen. When Shell dismissed Meyer for what was seen around here as a purely private transaction—giving a former girlfriend a bundle of cash to go away quietly is Hollywood’s demented definition of “chivalry”—he earned himself a lot of bad juju. So when the news broke of Shell’s own messy scandal and immediate dismissal, I’ll bet Ron Meyer called up one of his friends and shouted, “Did you see that? Isn’t that great? You know what that is? That’s karma!”
My friend would disagree, of course. That’s not really what karma is. But in a show-business sense, Ron Meyer had reshot the ending. Instead of a story about his marital infidelities and secret payoffs, the tale now has a bigger, richer, more satisfying finish. It’s now a story about a power-mad hypocrite getting his richly deserved comeuppance.
This version of the story is terrific. It’s even got a better money angle. NBCU paid Ron Meyer a severance fee of around $20 million; Jeff Shell lost $45 million in stock options when he was shown the door. Now that’s an ending that will test very well with audiences in the 310, 213, 818, and 424 telephone area codes.
The ouster of Jeff Shell would have been a major story, except that it was squashed the following day by an even bigger HR earthquake. Tucker Carlson, the white-hot superstar of Fox News’s prime-time lineup, had his show removed from the air in a lightning-fast move by—if the rumors are correct—the owners of the company themselves. The exact reasons for the termination are murky, though the recent settlement of the Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox News Network lawsuit, in which the owners of Fox News paid the voting-machines manufacturer nearly $800 million, must have factored in there somewhere. Also part of the calculation were the dozens of released and redacted messages from Carlson to his prime-time Fox News colleagues, his producers, and his employees. These messages were profane, intemperate, insulting to his corporate overseers, condescending to his audience, and touched with racial, um, insensitivities. Reading through all of that, it might have seemed clear to the owners of Fox News that the $790 million was just the beginning.
When the Murdochs sold 20th Century Fox to Disney in 2017, they were overjoyed to have left the entertainment business. Too many divas, they told anyone who asked. Too much money, too many egos, too many grandees in the executive suites and nutjobs among the talent. They dumped it all to focus on the news—and then immediately re-created the exact same conditions in their prime-time lineup. Whatever else you can say about Fox News at the 8, 9, and 10 p.m. hours, it’s got a lot of the same stuff going on as a typical Hollywood enterprise. One of the most important things to know about the entertainment industry is when you’re in it. And if you have a lot of popular but out-of-control, bigger-than-life personalities making zillions for themselves and you, you’re in show business. You may not like it, but you are. Proceed accordingly.
The only thing left to do, in the case of Tucker Carlson v. Momentarily Slightly Poorer Murdoch Family, is to reshoot the ending.
The people who hate Tucker Carlson shouted with glee at the news of his firing. “See that?” they sneered. “That’s karma!” But so did millions of Carlson’s enraged fans when they saw Fox News prime-time ratings decline in response. Tucker Carlson is an immensely talented broadcaster who will (probably) go on to big things. Fox News is now slightly more liberated from the Krazy Kloud it’s been under since 2016.
In other words, we don’t know yet who is ultimately going to be the Michael Douglas in the reshot ending, or the Anne Archer, or the Glenn Close in the bathtub. We’re going to have to wait patiently for the next few years, as the test screenings emerge. We’re going to have to do what Ron Meyer did and wait for the Hollywood equivalent of karma to reveal its hand. That’s how show business works. And, increasingly, it’s how the American elite lives.
Photo: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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