Law and Order in the Midst of Chaos: My COVID Gap Year Working on Set

By Sophia Meloni

Much like everyone else’s, my world came to a screeching halt in March of 2020. I had just gotten over the adjustment period that is the first semester of freshman year and was finally settling into my life at Wesleyan University. Then, the pandemic hit, and I immediately flew home to Los Angeles, where I started the second half of my semester trying to acclimate to attending Zoom University and navigate the uncertain early days of pandemic life. When I finished my classes in May, I was under the impression that we’d take the summer to wrap up this whole COVID business and I’d be back on campus in the fall under nearly ordinary conditions. But as time wore on and the virus continued to rage, it appeared doubtful that that would really happen.

July rolled around, and still Wesleyan insisted that its students would go back to campus in the fall. I was skeptical, but since no one could say what would happen with the virus anyway, I went with it. Then, during the first week of August, the administration sent an email outlining the new rules for life on campus. Reading through it, I quickly realized that the existence it described was not one I wanted to be leading for the next several months—and, being an individual with a propensity for making reactionary decisions, I emailed my dean telling her that I would be deferring for a year. Call it an admirable leap of faith or an ill-informed and rash decision—it was done. I had no plans and no indication that anything positive would be coming my way, but me being me, I figured that things would sort themselves out.

The pandemic gave me two options for my gap year: I could try to get a job, or I could sit at home attempting to break my own personal record for how long a person can wear the same pair of sweatpants before descending into madness. I chose the former, and in September I started working as a Production Assistant on Law And Order: Special Victims Unit. It was my first real job in the middle of a pandemic in New York City on NBC’s longest-running primetime drama—what could go wrong?

The experience of entering the workforce was not dissimilar, I would imagine, to being hit by a bus. I was working 14 hour days on location in the rain, learning absolutely everything through trial by fire. Everything about the situation was inopportune—the industry was operating in a completely new paradigm, the line of production had been turned on its head and everyone was learning to adapt—and there I was, thrown in the mix with no experience, trying my best to make television in the middle of a global pandemic. I knew nothing, but I was learning, and that’s all I really wanted. I often say that the greatest thing I learned in my 14 years of traditional education was how to make it look like I knew what I was doing when I had no clue—a skill that I found carried over to my experience on set, where half the battle was learning how to fake it till you make it. Soon enough I did get the hang of things, and a few months in, I was an old pro. I had 2 walkie talkies, I was hanging out with the camera department, and I knew Ice T’s lunch order by heart.

Though atypical and born of a spur-of-the-moment decision, my gap year has been the most educational experience I could have hoped for. I like to consider it my low-stakes trial run of the real world: working 14 hour days, scrambling for a social life, and trying to write as much as possible gave me a glimpse into my 20s that I was perhaps unprepared for. I also took away lessons from the set that I could never have learned without having had so much responsibility thrust upon me: I had to communicate with people in a way I never had in order to persuade them to do exactly what needed to be done in the most timely and economical way possible; constantly strike the right balance between the creative and the practical when managing the needs of the director and the producers; and learn how to wire a monitor, jam a slate, and change out camera batteries (impressive achievements for someone who can barely operate an email app). By the end of my time on set, I was having dreams of being on that Emmy stage telling my come-up story to an adoring crowd of fellow industry phenoms.

Overall, my gap year experience has demanded more personal growth and reflection than I would wish upon anyone, but despite the challenges, it has been an exercise in experimental decision-making that is entirely my own—and for that, I couldn’t be more appreciative.