ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

High school geek to Hollywood chic

This might be one of the sweetest revenge-of-the-nerd stories you've ever heard.

Mind you, our protagonist does not carry herself as a geek, what with her long, wavy blond hair and strapless, funky dress with a skull-and-bones imprint and gold flip-flops. But she insists she was a nerd in high school, and we'll just have to take her word for it because it's landed her a spot on the ABC prime-time lineup.

In the brutal TV production world, it's rare for an unknown writer to pen a script at home, show it to a few people, land a United Talent Agency agent and a full-time gig on a hit show within a month and have her own series within a year. But that's what happened to Caroline Williams, the creator of ABC's "Miss Guided," a single-camera documentary-style comedy, starring Judy Greer as a woman who returns to her high school to work as a guidance counselor.

"Every step of the way, I was like -- oh well, they'll buy it, but they'll never make it," said Williams while lunching on a turkey sandwich at Bloom Café last week. "Well, they'll make it, but they'll never pick it up. Then, no, they'll pick it up, but they'll never put it on the air. Every step of the way, I was convinced it was dead and I was ready to become an assistant again."

Now, that would be a little drastic. But when your résumé lists your first gig as a writer on "The Office," a position you abandoned to produce your own show, chances are your days picking up Ben Stiller's dry cleaning (her first Hollywood job) are over. Williams studied theater at USC, where she wrote one-act comedies, and later in 2004 earned a graduate degree in film and screenwriting from UCLA.

According to sources close to the negotiations, a bidding war over "Miss Guided" prompted Katalyst Films ( Ashton Kutcher's company) and 20th Century Fox Television to pay "six figures" for the script, an unusually high sum for a new writer's first effort.

"When I was in school, I never even thought of this as an option because a lot of the TV writers I was familiar with were from the Harvard Lampoon, or it was a total guy's club or they were stand-up comedians," Williams said.

She owes all of it to those four years at University High School in Irvine in the '90s, feeling like an "outsider" and a "loser," envious of a brunet she admired for being "beautiful and smart and fun."

"I think people who love high school and had a great experience end up different people than people who hated it," Williams said. "You have more empathy for losers. You feel more sympathetic to the dorky side of life. I see myself more as a nerd, even though in Hollywood no one is a nerd anymore. I think it informs my comedy."

A fan of "The Office" even before she worked on the show and a lover of documentaries, Williams said she wrote the "Miss Guided" script as a comedic documentary in which the characters were always aware of the camera. Focusing on her nostalgia for those four landmark years, Williams played with the notion of doing it all again "only this time, I'd be the coolest, most popular person there" and created Becky (Greer) from that idea.

"Becky is me, kind of," Williams said. "And [actress] Brooke [Burns] is the beautiful brunet who I don't want to name because it will show how much of a loser I am. But the idea is that I know that I'm not the only person who thinks about high school."

Williams credits director Todd Holland ("Malcolm in the Middle") with the show's style and format, which retains Williams' documentary vision but also incorporates traditional television storytelling techniques.

"In my script, it was explained that she is doing this documentary to show the world how hard it is to be a teenager but in the series she never says that," Williams said. "There are certain segments where you get the impression that they know the camera is there. We'll have to decide if the show moves forward what we're going to explain versus not explain. But we have ideas for that."

ABC ordered seven episodes of the series, which the network's president of entertainment, Stephen McPherson, called "an easy greenlight" because of Greer, Holland and Kutcher. The network, which has struggled in the comedy arena, is hoping the combination translates into a hit. The show premieres tonight at 10:30 and then moves to its regular time slot on Thursday, with back-to-back episodes at 8 and 8:30 p.m.

"Given that we're working with a strike-altered season that presented some challenging launching scenarios, we felt that 'Miss Guided' provided the best companion to itself," McPherson said through a spokeswoman.

Now, Williams, who has been watching a lot of John Hughes movies and "High School Reunion" on TV Land as part of her "research" in case her show beats the odds again and is renewed for fall, must steel herself to receive feedback from TV critics and viewers.

"In this day and age, with reality TV being so popular, it's so hard to get a comedy on the air," Williams said. "I feel so lucky. We're not expecting it to be a ratings powerhouse. The point is to see if people like it because it is a little different, especially for ABC."

But the best part of her success, Williams said, is that she can go to her next high school reunion. She missed the 10th-year event "because I didn't want to tell people that I cleaned up after celebrities. But now I can go! Now I can go back!"

maria.elena.fernandez

@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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