Boss is King: Meritocratic​ excuses of wage theft by above-the-line workers in semi-embedded deep texts

shervelAfter seeing a fan mash-up of Sherlock with House M.D. on YouTube, I was curious what CBS’s Elementary might offer as an updated, American version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. I searched for an interview with one of Elementary’s female producers, and landed on Liz Friedman, a very accomplished television producer and writer who executive produced both Elementary and House M.D.  I was interested in this podcast interview with Friedman because female voices unmediated by men are not often heard, and this was an interview between two women in the industry. I wondered if Friedman’s minority status within the industry as a woman (a gay woman at that) would influence her representation of her work. The podcast was created and hosted by Jen Grisanti, a former TV executive who now seems to make her entire living off of paid seminars and speeches on “making-it” as an industry writer. By analyzing the subculture of “insider” discussion in Jen Grisanti’s podcast interview of Liz Friedman, I will explore how above-the-line work privileges the needs of the industry over individual laborers by using such deep texts as what Derek Johnson (2016) calls “regimes of truth,” enforcing the ideology of Hollywood meritocracy. 

John T. Caldwell characterizes “how to make it in the industry” panels as “semi-embedded deep texts/rituals” because as “professional exchanges” their content is somewhat targeted to those with an interest in the film/TV industry, not meant for broad public consumption (2008, p. 346). Analyzing the dialog between two “insiders” can reveal more about the conditions and negotiations of TV labor because “a form of embedded theoretical ‘discussion’ in the work world takes place in and through the […] rituals and narratives that film practitioners circulate and enact in film/video trade subcultures,” (Caldwell, p.345, 2008). This particular podcast has an intended audience of people who seek to be in the film/TV industry as writers, which speaks to Johnson’s (2016) point about the cottage industry that has built up and profited from the Hollywood “making it” industry lore. Grisanti’s podcast appears on some level to be a marketing tool to add credibility to her “insider” claim, but it is not without insight, particularly as a deep text.

While clearly morally dubious, Friedman consents to be a part of Grisanti’s business of exploiting the hopes of would-be film and television writers by purporting to make star writers out of everyday people. Friedman representsliz herself in a way that is in line with industry preferences by sharing a quintessential “breaking-in” story that hits on all the major notes that Johnson said “validate the worthiness and status of those who already ‘made it,’” (Johnson, 2016). As an executive producer, she is rewarded for facilitating the creation of content with a high market value in the least expensive way. In her above-the-line role, she benefits from furthering the idea that unpaid hard work for an above-the-line worker (as she says she did for Sam Raimi) is essential to “making it.” By convincing potential industry laborers that this is the path to success, future workers can buy into the ideology of meritocracy—that they don’t deserve to be paid, that work with prestigious people is its own reward, that people like her who “made it” deserve to be where they are and make all the money—and thus Friedman’s representation of her work helps secure a cheap workforce.

This kind of privileging of market value over morality is characteristic of the neoliberalism of the post-network era, and CBS’s work is no exception. The Wikipedia page for Elementary alerted me to a minor controversy over what some fans and producers worried would be copyright infringement on the BBC’s modern Sherlock Holmes by CBS. I call it minor because such things are now par for the course. The British newspaper, The Independent, quoted a producer for the BBC show as saying that CBS had expressed interest in potentially buying their show format, but then opted to make their own. It’s obvious that CBS was influenced by the BBC show (can be seen in the fan mash-up below) yet, in a morally problematic move, they opted not to give it any credit by changing the concept just enough to not technically violate copyright. With Elementary, CBS doesn’t have to pay the creators of Sherlock and retains all future profit as the sole producer via CBS Television Studios. That is in keeping with their economic strategy of building up brand value and exclusive content for CBS All Access, and a potential future as an à la carte network in a skinny bundle. It seems the boss and the market are king.


[There is tons of cultural convergence with Sherlock vs. Elementary]



Caldwell, J.T. (2008). Production culture: Industrial reflexivity and critical practice in film and television. Duke University Press.

Johnson, D. (2016, April 7). Lecture. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Madison, WI.

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