There are now more reality TV stars in the United States than citizens of Wyoming, and sites like IMDb and Hulu allow television to permeate our lives even when the television is off. Leave it to Northwestern to take it to another level. This quarter brings us Sidekicked, a fully formed TV show set to spring out of a Northwestern class by the end of the school year. One hundred percent student-produced, directed and acted, Sidekicked has students in the RTVF department truly living the American celluloid dream.
A not-so classic class
Sidekicked began as a seed in the mind of RTVF professors Erik Gernand and Carla Waddles. Waddles is a former LA-based television writer and NU alum. Gernand is a professor in the RTVF department whose films have been featured at more than 100 film festivals around the world.
This spring, Gernand decided to take material written by students in Waddles’ winter screenwriting class, called Writing Sitcom Series for Production, to a level of production beyond anything the department has offered before.
“We selected three producers from that group of writers,” Gernand said, “and the Dean of the School of Communication generously donated the funds to make the course happen.” The resultant course, straightforwardly titled Producing the Sitcom, is the first of its kind at Northwestern and perhaps the national undergraduate level. In fact, it’s hardly a class in the traditional sense – the course’s work and content have consisted entirely of the production, direction and release of three sitcom episodes.
“Right now we’re in production,” said Communication junior Alison Ho, a student in the class. Ho is one of three executive directors selected by Gernand. She explained that the goal is to have three episodes wrapped up by the end of Spring Quarter.
It’s been tricky. As any sickeningly involved undergraduate student knows, scheduling the life of a single human at Northwestern is a job unto itself. Creating a calendar for something as vast, collaborative and complicated as a television sitcom requires an exponential increase in commitment and brainpower.
“There’s probably over 80 students involved in some way,” said Communication senior Greg Porper, one of the show’s three head writers. “I personally spend at least five hours every day working on [the show] in some capacity.”
Although he made sure to pick students who were able to handle the rigors of production, Gernand agreed that the class has required strong commitment. “We picked producers with a lot of production experience," he said. "This is a huge amount of material that students are shooting in a quarter.” Along with Porper and Ho, every student involved is balancing the class as one chunk of a full course load with the full range of extracurricular and social obligations that most students shoulder.
Far from being a burden, however, Ho and Porper see the consuming nature of the class as its most positive feature. Along with its real world stress level, Ho cited her beyond-obligatory workload as a chance to be creative, gain firsthand knowledge and get a little bit obsessive.
“We’re really putting our all into it, [because] we just like working on it," she said. "If we want to do something, we go all out."
Porper agreed, revealing that the show has opened some pretty incredible doors.
“We got flown out to L.A., where we got to pitch some ideas to [an agent],” he said. Porper’s eventual goal is to become a television showrunner, a head writer who has full creative control. He looks at his position on Sidekicked as a step toward what he wants to do when he grows older.
While in L.A., the producers were also invited to observe the production of the Modern Family season finale, scheduled to air on May 23.
“We were [on set] for most of a production day,” Gernand said, adding that Modern Family director Steven Levitan was on set and willing to talk to students about the process during their visit. "It was actually very beneficial."
Plot and pitfalls
On a surface level, Sidekicked's plot is compelling and easy to follow. Eighteen-year-old Evan Meadows has been dominated by unequal relationship power dynamics for most of his life. His best friend RJ is the son of movie star Jake Jacobson, a hyper-masculine action film star. With a father whose posters decorate his friends’ bedroom walls, RJ is the big man on their high school campus, and as a result, Evan often feels the pressure of his friend’s mile-long shadow. When Evan leaves for college, a prestigious university ostensibly in the Midwest, he sheds his sidekick status in favor of a more individualized skin. Things are finally looking up, but Evan’s “Sidekick Saga” has in fact just begun: Evan enters his dorm room as a wide-eyed frosh only to find his best friend lounging on the bottom bunk.
So far, Sidekicked has all of the classic elements of a successful sitcom, including a romantic plot line and running gags. For instance, Jacobson, Porper noted, is supposed to evoke comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“He’s a really bad actor, and he does all these really intense films,” he said. In the posters, Jacobson is portrayed as “Renegade Judge,” a curly-wigged action hero with a gavel as a weapon of justice.
There is a gaping hole in the plot, though: How in the name of modern technology could Evan have failed to perform the roommate stalk? I can personally vouch for the stalker-like mentality with which my friends and I attacked the Internet post-roommate reveal. Google searches and Facebook profile crawls barely scratched the surface of the depths to which some incoming freshmen will sink to uncover their roommates’ various quirks and lifestyle choices.
Despite this, the show’s premise is cut and dried, a positive sign in the sitcom world. Simpler is almost always better – just take a look at Seinfeld, the famously self-designated “show about nothing.” Or Scrubs, the hugely popular dramedy about bromance and hospital life with Northwestern’s own Zach Braff, which Ho cites as an inspiration for Sidekicked.
“We shot this scene where we threw knives at someone,” she said. “We’re not holding back on being ridiculous.”