The surprise in entertainment reporter and TV critic Maureen Ryan’s new book, Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, is not the horrific behavior it describes from those who make TV.
That’s because Mo—who I’ve known professionally as a TV critic since the 2000s—has been reporting on this for years, from the lack of diversity among directors to who gets killed off on scripted shows.
When the fiasco that was Survivor season 39, Mo tweeted that it was “just exhausting” to have “yet another high-profile example of this mentality: ‘We will not act on a woman’s clearly stated, documented instances of harassment until multiple women come forward long AFTER a toxic, harassing atmosphere has been created and allowed to flourish'”.
The book, which is in bookstores and on Kindle today, surprised me because of how much deeper her reporting goes. It pulls back layer after layer, giving detail after detail, again and again, show after show.
For example, in an excerpt published in Vanity Fair, Ryan reports on what happened behind the scenes of Lost, the hit ABC drama that was inspired by Survivor, and it’s horrifying and on-the-record reporting about some appalling actions on the part of the show’s revered executive producers.
Mo told me that “a big part of why I wrote this book was because—as we’ve seen for several years now—a lot of important information and a lot of crucial voices got left out of some conversations. And I’m just trying to basically kind of go back, and I don’t know if I would say correct the record, but maybe revise the record.”
While some people have been held accountable, Mo told me that problems can persist. “There are still people in the industry [who], for the most part, didn’t get the training and mentorship they needed to be good leaders. What they did get were examples of terrible behavior: the example you should follow is the screaming, shouting person.”
“It’s just been this enormously long history of many things that are inappropriate, unprofessional, abusive or plain wrong got put under this heading called ‘creativity’ or ‘artistic temperament’ or ‘passion,'” she added.
Despite great, recent reporting about this kind of bad behavior, Mo said there’s more work to do: “I don’t think you take an industry that, for a long time treated people as disposable cogs, have a few years of even more rigorous reporting from even more sources, and then call it a day. Because the examples that people were told to follow in terms of who won the awards, who got the accolades, who got the press coverage—quite often those people were behaved inappropriately or abusively in the workplace. So the conflation became, well, if I behave like that, maybe I’ll win an Oscar.”
“There’s art, there’s creativity, there’s collaboration that’s going on. These are also workplaces,” she said. “Whether you’re working in a network or a studio or on set, or in an edit bay for a reality show, people are working. They are working jobs for money. And the majority of people, as you know, aren’t earning that much. They’re getting by.”
I asked Mo who she hopes the book will reach. Who was she thinking about while she wrote?
“It’s for anyone who cares about storytelling and how storytelling comes into our lives,” she told me. “It can be the actor, the person who wrote the script, the person who edited that episode of the reality show. All of it’s storytelling, right?”
“I think it’s for people who care about storytelling and for those who want to consume commercial storytelling without the people who made it to be hurt or harmed on a systematic basis,” she said.
“A lot of people in Hollywood, the way that they turn a blind eye: what they’re trying to put out there in the world—overtly or covertly—is that people being damaged in the course of making movies and films and TV shows is inevitable. They’re trying to put forth the narrative that it’s inevitable. Well, conflict between humans, yes, that is an inevitable thing, but how we handle that conflict, how we handle [the way] power is used and abused? Those are choices.”
“It’s not inevitable that the powerful have to abuse their power or the art can’t get made,” Mo added. “That’s just a big pile of nonsense.”