The first thing I hear from one of the staff as I arrive at the stage on a Friday afternoon in May (exactly one week after the first elimination panel): "They behaved themselves in front of the children."
Well, that's a relief. After the first few judging panels, in which many of the contestants acted like petulant children, sniping and fighting among each other like schoolyard brats, a little civility would be welcome. (Although as it turns out, taking too high a road would turn out to be one contestant's downfall.)
I get a sense today isn't an ordinary one when I'm told the kids are upstairs "in school," and they're not talking about the wannabe producers for once. They're talking actual kids, child performers, who took part in executing the latest challenge. (I don't get to meet them, but that's not a surprise, as the show's producers tend to keep us away from the actual process.)
As we get ready for the taping of the judges' panel, we're joined by our guest judges, the ebullient Claude Brooks and his producing partner, the elegant and charming Gelila Asres. I recognize Claude from his days as a young TV actor in the '80s, when he made the rounds of shows like The Cosby Show, The Facts of Life and Amen. His detour into producing really paid off with the hit pre-school music/education show Hip Hop Harry, which airs on Discovery Kids and TLC. The third person in their group, David Joyner, doesn't stay long. And it isn't until after he's left that I learn that we were sitting around with the guy who for years put on that purple costume to play Barney the lovable dinosaur! You really never know who you'll meet in Hollywood. (Joyner gamely put on the suit as Shelby the Sea Turtle for America's Next Producer this week.)
Watching "Shelby's World" is probably the most pleasurable viewing experience we've had yet- except for a sound glitch when the musical segment is played for us the first time. We can't hear anything, prompting floor director Paul Hogan to quip, "Which one of US do you want to send home?"
Mostly, we like what we see, which makes judging more difficult. But Claude, one of our more opinionated and forceful guest judges, notices a few technical glitches that only a veteran of the kids-TV biz might spot, such as a visible voice/microphone pack on Shelby during some of the more energetic sequences. Breaking the illusory fourth wall in children's TV is a real no-no. Claude also says he was prepared to grade on a curve for the scripted segment, but he actually likes that one better than the musical scene. (Watching the episode, I wonder if they'd had more time and more takes to pull off the musical number if his opinion would be different. The time pressure on this challenge is insane.)
When I see Schliz stand in front of us with a devil-horn hat and shorts, at first I wonder about his professionalism, but then I get it: He's a big kid at heart, perfect for this challenge. (And everyone agrees he was great around the kids, no big surprise there.)
Making the best impressions this episode: Jessica for sure. She named Shelby (as in "shell," as in "Come out of your shell") and came up with the "clean, green, self-esteem" concept. Being able to brainstorm and present ideas that effectively and quickly is the hallmark of a strong producer. Also, this was the week when I first began to coin the phrase "Zo knows." As in: Zo knows how to produce. He wrote not only the music but oversaw the lyrics and supervised the recording session for the musical segment. This guy delivers, and he brings passion to the game (also, of course, conflict, and if you couldn't predict that he and arch-nemesis Evie would pick each other to send home, you haven't been watching). Choosing a winner between Jessica and Zo isn't easy, but Jessica's ideas win the day.
Eliminating someone is made trickier than usual by the fact that no one really failed this time- the closest would be Daniel and his time-management problems, allowing too much time during the rehearsal phase for the musical segment, but not enough production time for the same piece. Still, it's hard to punish him for leading the entire group on one of its most successful challenges yet.
What the decision ultimately boils down to this time is potential, in leadership and producing. Ananda asks each player to make a tough call and select a contestant to be let go if the budget for this hypothetical children's show demanded it. Is this even a fair question to ask? According to all of the professionals around me, including David Hill and the team of Brooks and Asres, the answer is a resounding yes. A producer is always forced to deal with the economic realities of show business, and when Adam ducks it- twice- he becomes a target. And while nobody actually singles Adam out when asked who they'd let go, during the actual episode he runs afoul of both Evie ("Adam is scattered") and Jessica ("Adam drives me up a wall").
And for the second week in a row, Adam prompts a classic David Hill-ism: "I don't think he could produce his way out of a paper bag."
Which isn't to say Adam lacks skills as a comedy writer, where he's more in his element, and there were times later in the competition when I would wish he was still around so we could see just what he was capable of.
But in choosing not to give anyone else the ax, Adam fell on his sword. Turns out that being a producer, or even being on a reality show about the making of a producer, is anything but child's play.