The backdrop for Jennifer Weiner’s latest best-selling novel, “The Next Best Thing,” is the world of television sitcoms—and fans of Weiner’s work will quickly be able to trace its origins to Weiner’s failed sitcom, “State of Georgia,” which ran on ABC Family for just one season last summer before being canceled by the network.
“The Next Best Thing” is the story of a screenwriter who gets the green light for a show about a plus-size chef trying to make a name for herself. Ruthie, the heroine in “The Next Best Thing,” dreams of writing a show “about an imperfect woman who gets great things … who isn’t the babe, but who gets the guy, who gets the job, who wears the great clothes, who makes the great jokes,” as Weiner explained in an interview with NPR this past summer.
“State of Georgia,” meanwhile, was intended to be the story of a plus-size actress from the South who packs her bags and heads for the big city to become a star—only to find her larger-than-life personality isn’t enough to break through stereotypes of what a Broadway star should look like.
But just as both Ruthie had her heart broken as her dream television script was cycled through Hollywood production, so did Weiner.
Parallels Between Story and Life
For example, in “The Next Best Thing,” the actress chosen by the network to play Ruthie’s star character drops 70 pounds before the pilot and even more weight before the full season is shot—and has to wear a fat suit during production to come close to looking like she did during the pilot. Actress Raven-Symone, who starred in “State of Georgia,” also dropped a lot of weight before the pilot began shooting and afterward—and had to wear pads to look like she did when the pilot was shot. “I said, ‘One, the show shouldn’t really be about weight.’ I said, ‘Eventually, I really don’t want to wear pads,’” Raven-Symone said in an interview.
Both Ruthie and Weiner dreamed of a show whose starring role would break television stereotypes of what female main characters should look like, they are both urged to “think of other ways to tell the story you want to tell” when network executives settle on a beauty who could bring in viewers who remember her previous work with affection.
They learn the fate of their shows in similar ways (e.g., not from the executives who greenlighted their projects). And just as the demands of shooting her dream show take a toll on Ruthie’s relationships with those she holds most dear, Weiner found herself flying coast to coast with her preschooler in tow, working in California during the week and flying home on weekends, while her older daughter, then 8, stayed at home in Philadelphia with her father. “It’s tough,” Weiner told a Chicago audience of her efforts to balance work on the show with motherhood and family. “I’ve felt a lot of guilt about it. I beat myself up a lot.”
Joy Amidst Heartbreak
For much of Ruthie’s life, “What you dreamed was never what you got.”
A car accident when Ruthie was a toddler killed both her parents and left her face permanently disfigured. From that point on, her grandmother never left her side, caring for her through countless surgeries and moving with Ruthie to Los Angeles so Ruthie could pursue her dream of her own: She’s getting married—and suddenly, Ruthie feels abandoned.
It doesn’t help that her boyfriend has just broken up with her, her crush on a fellow screenwriter ended badly, and the making of her first pilot has been nothing like she’d imagined. At 28, Ruthie scarcely feels ready to be on her own—and understands just how ridiculous her fears would sound to anyone else.
But Weiner has sweet surprises in store for Ruth, in the form of a relationship she never sees coming. And that relationship is as compelling for readers as the behind-the-scenes look at what making a television show is actually like.
“There was suffering, and there was joy, and maybe, just maybe, amid the wreckage of what I’d thought I wanted most, there was still a chance for me to grab some happiness, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat,” Ruthie says.
For more information about Weiner, visit her website or interact with her on Twitter. Read the short story that “The Next Best Thing” was based upon for free online.