Dear Gossips, 

Veteran television critic and entertainment journalist Maureen Ryan published a show biz book this month, Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood. It is at once an intimate portrait of the power discrepancies, discrimination, abuse, and toxicity behind the scenes of some of television’s biggest shows, including Lost, and a macro examination of the trends and self-fulfilling prophecies that dominate the industry, most especially the myth of the temperamental artist. Ryan is detailed, scathing, and deeply sympathetic to the people whose careers and lives were rocked by negative experiences working on these shows. It’s an infuriating read that requires frequent “gaze into the middle distance” breaks, but Burn It Down is a comprehensive look at the festering wound of power and abuse in Hollywood.


Vanity Fair, for which Ryan is a contributing editor, excerpted a chapter about Lost. As maddening as that single chapter is, it is also a perfect distillation of Ryan’s thesis about how toxicity proliferates in Hollywood. Basically, Lost was such a huge hit no one wanted to rock the boat. Rumors abounded that the writers’ room was a toxic, bullying nightmare, and there was enormous turnover among the writing staff especially in the early seasons—a sure sign of turmoil.  

There was also turnover among the cast, most famously Harold Perrineau’s exit at the end of season two, and allegations that the non-white members of the cast were not treated equitably, in story presence or compensation, as white actors like Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, and Josh Holloway. But no one intervened, not showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and not anyone from ABC, on either the network or studio side of production, because the show was too big to fail. Why risk the winning recipe, even if staffers are crying in the bathroom and high-profile actors leave abruptly?


But it’s not just Lost in Ryan’s crosshairs. She also details the toxicity behind the scenes on Sleepy Hollow, the high concept surprise hit of Fox’s 2013 fall season. The show starred Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane, resurrected in the present by magic, and Nicole Beharie as a modern-day, small-town detective, Abbie Mills. I loved Sleepy Hollow right off the bat, it was enormously fun, with an engaging mix of supernatural hijinks and mystery. And Mison and Beharie had amazing chemistry, with many fans, me included, rooting for a time-spanning romance between Crane and Abbie.

Turns out, in a classic Hollywood twist, Mison and Beharie allegedly didn’t like one another—Crane would bow to Abbie because, allegedly, Mison and Beharie didn’t want to embrace—and asked that their characters NOT have a romance, despite fan interest. Again, allegedly, it’s hard to argue with Ryan’s thorough reporting, but many sources remain anonymous or are given pseudonyms as they still work in the industry and fear reprisal, and in the case of Sleepy Hollow, neither Mison nor Beharie commented for the book.


But here’s the thing—all of this was visible to viewers. I’m old enough to remember people scratching their heads when Michael, Perrineau’s character on Lost, exited after season two, and frequent discussions online about how inequitable the storylines were between the characters, with clear white/non-white lines drawn in the proverbial story sand. And I remember the gossip in the 2010s about Beharie’s exit from Sleepy Hollow, and how after it became a breakout hit, the show not only steered away from Crane and Abbie’s romantic potential, but also started sidelining Abbie, all amidst swirling rumors that Beharie was having a hard time behind the scenes on the show. (Beharie talked about her experience on Sleepy Hollow a few years ago.)

Burn It Down traces patterns of abuse across decades and series and networks, but the common theme is the idea that some people are too talented to risk interrupting their creative flow—the temperamental artist—and that some shows are either too important to the network’s bottom line to risk, like Lost, or too much of an institution, like Saturday Night Live. But in every case, you can see the havoc on the screen. We might not know WHY a character is suddenly marginalized, but we see it happening and we gossip about it.  


If the point of never intervening in cases of toxicity and abuse on a TV show is to keep from killing the golden goose, it sort of doesn’t work. Sure, Lost ran for six years, but it has a conflicting reputation to this day. Youtube is full of video essays about “what went wrong” with Lost, many specifically mention the uneven storytelling between white and non-white characters. And it isn’t new, it isn’t kids today being oversensitive—again, we all saw this happening in real time in the 2000s, it was frequently commented upon, we just didn’t have all the details or context Ryan is providing now. What we have now is a better understanding of how these behaviors are enabled, covered up, and repeated over time.  

I highly recommend Burn It Down, even though it is a blood-boiler. Just give yourself plenty of time to gaze into the middle distance while reading, and have a cozy book on standby the moment you’re finished. I’m currently reading A Brazen Curiosity by Lynn Messina, in which a spinster investigates a murder at a house party in Regency England and inadvertently causes a duke to fall in love with her. It takes all kinds!  

Live long and gossip,