The FedEx man arrives with flowers at the apartments in the 200 block of North 35th Street. The medical examiner's minions are just removing an old man's body. Is the sender psychic?
Nope. It's another collision of reality and fantasy on this cool, sunny day. TV majors in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design are shooting a scene with the dead-man dummy on the last day of season three of Off Campus, the Drexel University sitcom. The flower delivery is to a real person in an apartment next door.
At Drexel, each season is one half-hour episode, and this one will turn up on TV in the fall, after postproduction. The first two are to air back-to-back Friday on the university's DUTV, Comcast channels 54 or 62 and Fios channel 37 in Philadelphia, beginning at 8:30 p.m.
Planes buzz overhead repeatedly. Trucks lumber loudly by on nearby Powelton Avenue. Motorcycles, street rods with glass-pack mufflers, junkers with no mufflers - they all cruise noisily up 35th, drivers curious about the cameras. At least the guy on the clackety-clack skateboard has the decency to hop off and carry his board quietly by.
"In a real shoot, probably, I would shut the street," says executive producer (and Drexel television professor) Andrew Susskind, who has a 20-year string of TV credits behind him, including time as president of television at Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment. But a "real shoot" would have lots of Hollywood bucks to pay for police to man the detours and provide security for Natalie Portman or Bruce Willis or whatever big name had come to town.
Instead, Off Campus has local actors in front of the cameras, and scads of students and noisy vehicles behind.
What do you do, soundman Rich Mach, a sophomore from Norristown, is asked: "You pray . . .. Sometimes, you have to edit and dub the dialogue back in, but we try not to."
Mairin McKinlay, a junior from Cheshire, Conn. who, at 5 feet 6, handles the boom mike, is s-t-r-e-t-c-hing as tall she can with her arms overhead to keep it out of the shot.
She could have worked in costumes or writing or more "appropriate" fields for a woman, but it is 2011. "I know production's a male-dominated area, but this mike isn't that much heavy lifting, and I prefer being on set."
Off Campus is a cross between Friends and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with more serious moments, filmed in single-camera style on location, unlike most classic sitcoms, which are done on a stage before a studio audience. At Drexel, sometimes it really is a single camera, as production jiggles along this day while somebody goes off to find the Steadicam.
The show stars Kat Catanakis, Jamie Kerezsi, Chris Ready, Jay Robins, and Tom Saporito - the only paid help besides professors - as roommates out of college and just beginning life in a not-so-real world. And it's two things in one, not a floor wax and a dessert topping, but a TV show and college class: TV series production.
The course is designed to give students an experience as close to real TV as possible, and in all aspects of production, even things like budgeting. But it's a little different. No blocked streets, for instance, and no craft service, which is the specialized department on a TV or movie set that supplies the snacks.
Today's treats are provided by higher-ranking employees: the supervising producers, juniors Kristina Massie of Fairfax, Va., and Laurel Chadwick of South Berwick, Maine. "Our job is to see that everything runs smoothly," says Massie. "Part of that is making sure everyone is well-fed on the set."
Ian Abrams, cocreator of the CBS drama Early Edition (which starred Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler) and current director of Westphal's screen writing and playwriting program, oversees the student-written scripts. Some of their ideas turn out to be worthy of big-time broadcasters.
Two new shows this fall, ABC's Apartment 23 and Fox's The New Girl, are about roommate relationships, while Tim Allen in his new series, Last Man Standing, complains, as does one of the Off Campus characters, that he's standing right next to people discussing his character foibles as though he weren't there.
Off Campus is a good gig for a rising actor.
"The production value is really outstanding," says Saporito, who plays the annoying mooch and who Susskind says could be on network TV soon. "We've gotten some great demo-reel footage from this . . . something impressive to send to agencies and directors and people like that. The money's great, but there are all these connections. All these kids are going to be working in the industry at some point. Some of them already are."
Joe Haesler, here to help the students, many of whom are his friends, is one of them. He interned at the CN8 cable channel while at Drexel and has worked on America's Got Talent, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and other shows since graduating in 2009. Because of his college training, he says, "I can do just about anything on set, so anytime I get an offer, I can take it."
The show's pretty funny, occasionally poignant, and better than several new fall network series, but it will never make millions in syndication for Drexel. Haesler, and graduates like him, are the more significant university product.