Saturday, August 15, 2015

Ten of my Favorite Journalism and Blogging Experiences

Ten Great Stories of Mine (Part 1):
 I hope to do a series of stories about the journalism process and my particularly journey in journalism by highlighting some of my stories. See the FAQs and Journalism tags for more of my writings on the topic. It goes without saying that not every story I do is an amazing experience. There are quite a few stories that never saw the light of day or didn't go the way I wanted them to (this happened more earlier in my career). Of course, all of these projects are possible through editors who allowed me to write and publish these stories so thanks for them.

1.       Interview with Greg Garcia, Northern Virginia Magazine (2015)
Hometown heroes can provide a way to interview stars if you’re primarily locally-based as a freelancer. Among the people who come from my hometown is Greg Garcia, who created My Name is Earl, Raising Hope, and The Millers. I first heard he went to my high school when new broke out that his cousin (who went to school with us) moved to LA to work on the show.
Interviewing Garcia became one of those big ideas I had on reserve for when I needed to pull out a big pitch to impress a magazine. After publishing my first article in Arlington Magazine, I suggested the Greg Garcia idea to my editor and they were partially open to it, but never really green lit it. Meanwhile, I called a magazine across town called Northern Virginia Magazine and an editor told me that they had been trying to get Greg Garcia, as well which was basically an open invitation to track him down though I didn’t have his direct contact information either. 

I looked up the relevant party on the CBS website and asked for an interview. My request came back with, “Thanks, but we’ll pass.”  I also tried Yellow Paging Garcia’s production company and narrowed it down to a building in LA. The best I could do was call the building manager and he said he didn’t give out tenant information. My friend Will Harris, who has interviewed a ton of people for big publications, suggested that I contact Garcia’s talent agency, and before I knew it, Garcia called back. What’s funny is that he didn’t even know that I had requested an interview with CBS.
That I knew his cousin helped ease our rapport, and we had a pretty easy-breezy conversation for about an hour and a half. We then had another hour-long conversation, in which I basically picked his brain to my heart’s content. I asked him questions not just as an interviewer but also as a fan of one of his shows. The most incredible part was that I learned how My Name is Earl would have ended if it had stayed on the air. I also met him and his family at the Memorial Day Parade.
Northern Virginia Magazine demanded a high word count but the editor was very generous and helpful in the process of writing it, and I pulled something pretty good out of it in the end. Garcia’s family was also very nice and cooperative.

2.       Coyote Sightings, Arlington Now (2013) Link
This was a great story to write and I learned a lot about local wildlife. There are foxes, coyotes, and wolves in my corner of suburbia. I consulted with four or five different wildlife specialists and incorporated quotes from all of them in the article, making it one of my thoroughly sourced articles. I wrote about a certain type of invasive animal that was threatening pets and the like. It was a real community issue that yielded a lot of disparate opinions. I also remember some of the comments from this article being highly amusing. 

 3.       Bethesda Vapor Company, Bethesda Now (2015) Link
This article was written within a few hours of getting hired to write for Bethesda Now. I had my "job interview" for the news site in a coffee shop and at the end of said interview, we agreed that I would do human interest stories to compliment the breaking news on his site.

Because I wasn’t familiar with Bethesda, I decided to use that afternoon to do some scouting. Within a block of walking, I came across something interesting: a surf and skateboard store. I asked the employees a bit about themselves  and they were amenable to having a story written about them, but I’d have to come back later during the off-peak hours.

While waiting, I walked upstairs and met a guy who owned an electronic cigarette shop with his three friends. He was generally amenable to being the subject of an article, but had to check with his business partners. It turned out that I only had to wait half an hour before his senior business partner came in. Then, I was ready to roll at pretty good speed. The shop owners were fascinating and generous people, and their self-reliance in building the business of their dreams was equally impressive. I got a sense from them that there’s a large subculture of E-cig smokers or vapor-smokers out there. They let me stay on their couch while I wrote the story over the course of an afternoon. I was also free to ask for quotes from people walking through the shop.

What I think is most interesting about this story is the circumstance by which Bethesda Vapor Company was chosen as my subject: They were within a block from where I started walking when I sought out a story. What gets in the paper and what doesn’t often has to do with what’s in a reporter’s vicinity. I thought about doing my next story downstairs at the surf shop (or at the diner I found a block away) before I considered that maybe readers would realize that I’m only writing about places within a one-block radius because I’m a lazy pedestrian.

4.       Andrew Dumm Wins the Marine Corps Marathon, Fairfax Times (2008) 
I originally planned to run the Marine Corps 10K run in 2008, but I ended up not going through with it because my training got broken up. Instead, I volunteered at a booth, tracking runners for people who wanted to know where their friends and relatives were on the course. While I was monitoring the race in progress, I noticed that a runner in his early twenties was in the lead. I recognized his name from my time covering the cross-country and track beat for my college newspaper at James Madison. 

Dumm was a UVA runner from Northern Virginia who wasn’t particularly impressive in high school but ended up rapidly improving in college to the point of becoming the ACC champion. I instantly thought that this was a great story and called a friend of mine who ran for UVA and asked him if that was the same Andrew Dumm I remembered. The marathon was run on a Sunday and I decided the next day I'd make a call to the Fairfax Times.

To me, the impressive thing about this story is how the cards all fell into place. Normally, stories require advanced planning, but this one came together really easily and quickly. I called the editor of the Fairfax Times the next day and convinced him to give it a shot. Within a day, I had contacted Andrew, his brother, his mom, and his high school coach. The high school coach was the hardest to work with since I had to catch him during the school day when he had a free period, but I lucked out pretty quickly on that front.

Speed isn’t the ultimate goal in journalism, of course, but considering the fixed pay of freelance articles, it is a very good thing to be able to do a story quickly. I also get a sort of focus when doing a story in one continuous bout that I wouldn’t trade.. Lastly, there are the issues of deadlines and timeliness, which mean that being on your game as a journalist means being able to do a story with quick turnaround.

 5.       Twelve Most Disastrous Events of the Olympic History, Mental Floss Magazine (2012)
Around early 2008, I got the idea that I should write for Cracked—but deciding you want to do something and actually making that dream a reality are two different things. When I first started pitching ideas on Cracked’s message board, I got laughed at, derided, and none of the editors liked my stuff. I even got a message from an editor (after begging for feedback) saying something along the lines of that I wasn’t a very good writer (A very generous author named Kristi “Here in Idaho” Harrison advised me to stick with it and treat any response as positive).

Everything I pitched got rejected except for an idea about disastrous events in the Olympics (I tend to get obsessed with the Olympics every four years) that had some editorial note saying it was good but too late for the 2008 Olympics. Hey, that wasn’t complete rejection.

Four years later, I still had the research I’d compiled for that pitch, and I had published an article or two with Cracked. I re-pitched the Olympic disaster idea, but editorial put me through a tremendous amount of hair-pulling frustration as they repeatedly rejected different parts of my article and sent me back to look for more examples of outrageousness. I felt like I had combed through the entire Complete History of the Summer Olympics.

I was ready to give up when I pitched the article to Mental Floss Magazine during the first few days of the London Olympics. I had been pitching to Mental Floss for three or four years with no luck at all but this time I caught the editor’s attention on Twitter. Pretty soon, he got in touch with me and said he was in immediate need of Olympic material. We had an extremely good relationship and he let me publish my original article with pretty much complete creative freedom regarding which events I wanted to feature. This led to me publishing several articles through Mental Floss, including two more about the Summer Olympics and one about the Winter Olympics in 2014 (I strategically withheld the Winter Olympics entries because I anticipated I might use it down the road).

6.       George Mason High School in Falls Church Copes with Grueling Schedule with Smiles, Run Washington Magazine (2012)
In 2011, I did a Fall Preview of five or six different sports in a massive 1,400-word article for the Falls Church News Press. I interviewed a cross-country coach who was enthusiastic enough to get me interested in her program. One thing about her that stuck out to me was that her school , George Mason High, was in the smallest schools division because of accidental gerrymandering. The tiny city of Falls Church is no less dense than the larger surrounding municipalities (Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax) but because Falls Church is so small, its school population is less than half the size of neighboring high schools’. As a result, the team has to drive one-to-three hours to compete against schools in its same class, most of which are from rural areas.

After I wrote my first article for Run Washington Magazine, I remembered this anomaly and proposed it as a subject for a second article. The article became something of which I was highly proud because I discovered a lot of new information along the way that fit perfectly into my article, such as the relationship history between Falls Church and its school district, and the dilemma of having kids double or triple up on extracurricular activities. It also helped that the athletic director, who was also the football coach, was very passionate and knowledgeable about the cross-country team and gave quotes that conveyed that passion.

The editor added a nice graphic but I felt he might have short-changed the article by insisting that a kid on the team needed to be quoted at the expense of some of the athletic director’s material.

I don’t mind admitting that Run Washington Magazine and I have parted ways in a non-amicable manner. My writing wasn’t a good fit for them. Translated in less tactful way, the editor did not like my writing style. Fortunately, Pacers New Balance loves my writing and continues to use my running material, so it has all balanced out.

7.        Mankiewicz Brothers Feature, Nostalgia Digest Magazine (2014)
The impetus for this article was a reader Q & A with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. I was struck by the fact that a reader asked him about his grandfather, Herman Mankiewicz, having co-written Citizen Kane. Ben corrected the questioner by stating something along the lines of, “Orson Welles DID NOT write Citizen Kane (family issue).” 
To give a little background, Citizen Kane is considered by many sources to be the greatest American film in history. Three people were involved in developing the story: the film’s wunderkind director Orson Welles, Jon Houseman, Welles’ producer from his days as a theatrical director, and a studio veteran named Herman Mankiewicz. After the film was written, Orson Welles wanted to claim credit as the sole screenwriter. Houseman acquiesced but Mankiewicz not only wouldn’t back down, but claimed that Welles didn’t write it at all.

I’ve always sought to make film history relevant to modern day audiences through my writing and here was a very literal example of film history’s importance: Why would a guy in the 21st century care about a feud regarding a 1941 film even if his grandfather was involved? By all accounts, Ben Mankiewicz is a very regular guy. He was a political reporter in broadcast news before being poached by Turner Classic Movies, and most will agree that he comes off as more of a TV host than a film obsessive. At the same time, he is a link to film history because his grandfather worked on Citizen Kane and his grand-uncle Joseph Mankiewicz is the two-time Oscar-winning director of classics such as All About Eve and Guys and Dolls. These connections make it all the more ironic when he introduces a film either of those two had a hand in with any sort of partiality.

I had already published an article with Nostalgia Digest but that involved previous research. For the Mankiewicz brothers article, I had to start from scratch. I checked out a couple of books from the library to just absorb and gobble up. I found a lot of interesting stuff, such as the fact that the Mankiewiczes were raised by a Prussian academic father who pushed them to perfection and indirectly led to at least three generations of incredibly successful people; the fact that each of the brothers had different vices (Herman had gambling and ego problems; Joseph was a womanizer with workaholic tendencies); the stories of Joseph’s incredibly life-draining shoot of the disastrous Cleopatra film and Herman’s early work with the rambunctious Marx Brothers, etc. 

I started the article in 2012 and because it didn’t pay much, I tossed the project aside when another article opportunity came along. The savior here is that I wrote out my notes and printed them out. A year later, I worked from those notes and submitted it to Nostalgia Digest. Nostalgia Digest had a loose policy of never guaranteeing placement in advance of the issue because they had no idea how much space each article would take. Since I had already typed up the article, I sent it in, although I didn’t like the risk of it taking forever to run, if it ran at all. 

Something fortuitous, happened, however. That fall, Ben’s father Frank Mankiewicz, who was famous in his own right as a speechwriter, passed away and his obituary was printed everywhere. This suddenly made my article relevant and it was printed in the very next issue.
8.       Arlington Inn Roads, Arlington Magazine (2013) Link
I have always thought hotels were interesting places, and in 2011, I pitched a story about the hotel district to the Connection. I didn’t think too much of it because I didn’t really have a solid story. There was one hotel along Route 1 in Crystal City that stood out when I drove past it because it had this old-timey, historic look. In 2013, I was writing for ArlNow and pitched an idea about the old hotel but it didn’t take. A few months later, after ArlNow didn’t have the budget for freelancing, I pitched the story to Arlington Magazine and they were interested enough to investigate it further.

When I looked into the hotel further, I found it to be fascinating for a number of different but linked reasons. The Americana Hotel and its large Art Deco sign were noticeable from the limited-access highway because at the time of its construction in the 1950s, that big highway was a regular road from which cars could turn off into hotel parking lots. The transformation from a normal road to a highway actually hurt the Americana because it could no longer use its front side as an entryway and it was much less noticeable from the backside. In the 1970s, a hotel boom changed the landscape in Arlington and today, Crystal City is dominated by some of the most glamorous hotels in the region. The Americana is the only relic from former times left on that strip. Furthermore, Arlington hotels are interesting in general because the Marriott hotel chain got its start in Arlington. I was able to tie the Marriott’s story into the story of the Americana.  

With sharp editing, I wrote this all in about 400 words. I thought that was pretty incredible.

9.       Reflections on Arlington from a Lifelong Resident, Connection Newspapers (2011) Link (Read on pg 7)
I had a neighbor who lived in Arlington forever and I always enjoyed hearing her stories. At one pitch meeting for the Connection (the only place where I’ve literally worked in a newsroom, not counting my first internship as a 17-year-old), I suggested this story with little confidence that anyone would like it, but my editors bit instantly.

My neighbor, who was around 80 at the time, inundated me with great stories but had all sorts of preconditions. She was a bit of a worrier about consequences, as a lot of newspeople are. She didn’t want the names of her siblings to be mentioned because they didn’t have a say about being in the newspaper. She also wanted to read the article beforehand, which generally isn’t something that happens, but my editor allowed a special exception. We ended up using a picture of her and mentioning her married name , initially against her wishes, but she eventually acquiesced. There isn’t too much to say about this story because it basically wrote itself really well.
10.   Glass Harp Player Jamey Turner, Connection Newspapers (2011) Link
Jamey Turner is a glass harp player who is famous enough to have been featured on the Tonight Show four times. He lives in Alexandria and when he’s not travelling the world doing concerts, he likes to play on the Old Town waterfront. He doesn’t need the money but likes to practice in front of a crowd of people and enjoys the audience’s reactions.

I can’t take credit for this initial story idea. At Connection newsroom meeting, one of the interns suggested writing a story about a guy at the 100 block of King Street who played a glass harp, but no one knew much about it. We walked all the way down King Street (our office was on the other end of Old Town at the 1600 block) and the two interns decided to break for either lunch or another story. I asked if they still wanted to explore the story about the glass harpist and they shrugged it off. When I got to the end of King Street, I found Jamey giving an incredible concert using water-filled glasses. He was incredibly friendly and amenable to being featured, and I got a fantastic story out of it. Moral of the story: Don't break for lunch because a more ambitious reporter might take your story away from you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

So much TV to watch: How to deal

This is a repost of an earlier thread about how to deal with all the TV there is to watch.

We're at a point in release beyond saturation where it's not just impossible for one human being to keep up with all the T on the airwaves, it's no longer possible to watch all the "Must Watch" shows out there.

Unless you're a professional TV writer, TV is a way to supplement your life and naturally it will be balanced with other time demands of your life.  You can adjust your answer accordingly if you fall under the category of aspiring professional, semi-professional or serious hobbyist, but unless you're veering into being irresponsible, we all have to abide by some sort of TV diet.

To compound the problem, we're living in a Golden Age of TV. As a result, there are going to be a great number of programs more worthy of your attention than programs you have time to watch.

But this isn't a curse. It's a blessing.  In contrast to people who say that TV is a waste of time and bad for your brain hi mom while praising other forms of art like cinema or live theater, I maintain that the capacity of TV to enrich you culturally, socially, and intellectually is greater than ever before. There's no greater evidence of that than the fact that the amount of enriching programs on the air exceeds our available time to watch them all.

So if you have to give up on some critically acclaimed program like Mad Men or Dexter to be able to keep up with Justified or Enlightened, it's still a win-win situation. The only danger you have of "losing"  as a TV watcher is if you don't use your TV diet to challenge yourself. If you watch a soap opera, reality TV show, a standard procedural, or a sitcom that doesn't push the boundaries (i.e. Two and a Half Men, According to Jim), a rerun of something you've already seen, then you are just using the medium as comfort food and  guilty of eroding your brain like your parents (if they were anything like mine when I was younger) accused you of.  Of course, the degree to which something like Grimm, Raising the Bar, Royal Pains, or Southland transcends the procedural or whether a certain reality TV show has merit, is up to you the viewer to justify. But that's part of the fun. I've never bought the argument that Happy Endings has merit beyond the standard sitcom, but I did enjoy the process of my fellow film critics slowly discovering that Happy Endings wasn't a typical sitcom (Cougar Town also falls into this category).

It's not just a blessing, but a challenge.  Sure, it is really easy to fall back on TV as comfort food. It takes a little effort for me to explore something new than to fall back on a rerun of Futurama, Archer or Newsradio which are instant gratification for me. In fact, since the era of YouTube, my attention span has significantly shortened to the degree to which an hour-long  drama can feel like something of a chore. A show like Homeland is so suspenseful that I have no trouble jumping on board, but I've also challenged myself with shows that might not be immediately as rewarding like Scandal, Revenge, or (the now defunct) Terra Nova to develop myself intellectually [edit: What was I thinking when I wrote of Scandal as challenging? Perhaps 12 Monkeys or Humans would be better recent examples]. With a show like Hell on Wheels, it paid off heavily [Sense8 and The Bridge are a couple other examples of shows paying off heavily if you get past the slow burn].

As for discarding shows, I've never seen an episode of Dexter, Friday Night Lights, and have missed large swaths of Mad Men and Breaking Bad but I don't consider myself the lesser for it as long as whatever I'm watching grows me as a TV watcher. Sure, it might hurt my ambitions as a professional TV reviewer [edit: I am now slightly semi-professional as a TV reviewer, but the same still applies as I have larger ambitions], but there's a wealth of material I'm already exploring.

Monday, July 13, 2015

If I had an Emmy Ballot: Lazy Comedy Picks

This is the comedy series of my lazy Emmy picks. As I said in my previous post, this is where I make decisions about what I would submit on an Emmy ballot without having seen everything. I wish I had time to fill in some of my opinions, but I'm writing so much over at Hidden Remote.

Best Series:
Last Man on Earth  (Fox)
Mom  (CBS)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)
Fresh off the Boat (ABC)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Modern Family (ABC)

Best Actor:
Will Forte, Last Man on Earth
John Cho, Selfie (ABC)
Jeffrey Tambour, Transparent* (Amazon)
Jay Harrington, Benched (USA)
Ty Burrell, Modern Family (ABC)
Ken Marino, Marry Me (NBC)

Best Actress:
Zoe Deschannel, New Girl (Fox)
Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie  (Netflix)
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie 
Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)
Anna Faris, Mom
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Best Aupporting Actor:
Hugh Laurie, Veep* (HBO)
Taran Killam, SNL 
Charlie Day, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia 
Titus Burges, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Sam Waterson, Grace and Frankie
Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation

Best Supporting Actress:
Constance Wu, Fresh off the Boat
Chelsea Peretti, Brooklyn Nine Nine
Carol Kane, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Judith Light, Transparent*
Ariel Winter, Modern Family
Julie Bowen, Modern Family

Best Guest Actor:
Paul Giamatti, Inside Amy Schumer
Jim Carrey, SNL
John Hamm, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Chris Dianotopolous. Silicon Valley
Oliver Platt, Modern Family
Paul Scheer, Fresh off the Boat

Best Guest Actress:
Vanessa Bayer, Portlandia (IFC)
Reese Witherspoon, SNL
Mary Steenburgen, Last Man on Earth
Mary Steenburgen, Togetherness
Natalie Morales, Parks and Recreation
Jennifer Hasty, Selfie

Best Directing:
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Inside Amy Schumer
A to Z (Fox)
Modern Family

Best Writing:
Archer (FX)
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Grace and Frankie
Last Man on Earth
Inside Amy Schumer
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

If I had an Emmy Ballot: Lazy Edition Drama Picks

I preface the word "Lazy" with my Emmy predictions because I can't watch everything so I'm making speculative picks based on what I know of a show from past seasons or have heard of it.

For instance, although I have only watched two or three whole episodes of Mad Men, I know that it's the show's last run and I like Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks enough that I'd be happy to see them rewarded with Emmys despite the fact that I can't possibly judge their worthiness. Why don't I just watch Mad Men so I can definitively say whether they belong? My schedule is too busy to start watching every single TV series just for a simple personal blog entry.

In other cases, I like the idea of Downton Abbey as a show and I'm happy it's being watched. I just made a decision not to watch it because, like I said, so many hours in the day. At the same time, I can say without watching Mr Robot that it doesn't sound like a show I want to see rewarded, and while it's not a well-founded decision you should trust me on, them's the rules of this exercise.

Lastly, there are shows that I watched in past seasons that I didn't get around to watching this season. Synopses and previews have helped me determine whether these are shows I'd want rewarded. In the case of The Americans, I quit the show because I found Phil and Elizabeth's ability to fool everyone around then unrealistic. However, this season I heard from general buzz that their daughter Paige discovered their secret identities. Now that sounds like the show I was hoping for. Am I gonna go and backtrack through a season and a half? Hell no! The good news is that this not watching everything method is something you can all participate in, so here we go:

Best Series:
The Bridge (FX)
Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
The Americans (FX)*
Mad Men (AMC)*
Empire (Fox)
Boardwalk Empire  (HBO)
Good Wife (CBS)*

Best Actor:
Clive Owen, The Knick (Cinemax)
Terrence Howard, Empire
Jon Hamm, Mad Men*
Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul (AMC)
Charlie Cox, Daredevil (Netflix)
Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire

Best Actress:
Julianne Margulies, The Good Wife*
Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Dianne Kruger, The Bridge
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black*
Taraji P Henson, Empire
Hayley Atwell, Agent Carter

Best Supporting Actor:
Jeffrey Wright, Boardwalk Empire
Ben Mendelsohn, Bloodline (Netflix)
Jussie Smollett, Empire
Andre Holland, The Knick
Nick Sandow, Orange is the New Black
Donal Logue, Gotham (Fox)

Best Supporting Actress:
Yael Stone, Orange is the New Black
Christina Hendrichs, Mad Men*
Katja Herbers, Manhattan (WGN)
Emily Mortimer, The Newsroom (HBO)
Deborah Ann Woll, Daredevil
Olivia Cook, Bates Motel (A&E)

Best Guest Actress:
Juliette Lewis, Wayward Pines (Fox)
Margo Martindale, The Americans
Franka Potente, The Bridge
Annaleigh Ashford, Masters of Sex
Barbara Rosenblat, Orange is the New Black
Alysia Reiner, Orange is the New Black

Best Guest Actor:
Pablo Schreiber, Orange is the New Black
Terrence Howard, Wayward Pines
Zeljko Ivanek, 12 Monkeys (SyFy)
Frank Langella, The Americans
Beau Bridges, Masters of Sex
F. Murray Abraham, Homeland*

Drama Writing
Good Wife*
The Americans
Orange is the New Black
Boardwalk Empire
Downton Abbey*

Orange is the New Black
Sense 8 (Netflix)
The Knick
Agent Carter
The Americans
Boardwalk Empire

An asterisk indicates a show I didn't actually see.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Links to all my work at Hidden Remote

Since May, I have been writing for Hidden Remote as a TV reviewer.

I have not been able to blog here as much but I will use this space to highlight the work I've been doing there.

First off, here is my author page.

I started out with an essay on breakout stars from the Spring of 2015 that follows off my annual Top 25 Characters posts. I included probable Emmy nominee Ben Mendelsohn from Bloodline, breakout scenery chewers Constance Wu and Taraji P Henson of Fresh off the Boat and Empire respectively, Anna Faris of Mom, Carol Kane of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Charlie Cox of Daredevil, Emily Hampshire of Schitt's Creek and Charlie Day of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Will Forte for Last Man on Earth and recurring star Adam Devine for Modern Family.

I then did a critical reassessment of the 2003 Daredevil in light of the successful Netflix series. 

From there I reviewed 2 Broke Girls in the last two episodes of the season and had a lot of fun reviewing a show I feel has some redeeming qualities but is ultimately very crude and sloppy. In the second review, I had a lot of fun dissecting some of the bad jokes line-for-line.

After that, I looked at some of the Guest Stars You Didn't Know Were On It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

I also did a Season 1 review of Sense8 which I found a highly ambitious and unconventional superhero show that had a very impressive commitment to being a global show.

Currently, I am reviewing the first season of The Brink on HBO and the second season of Halt and Catch Fire on AMC. The Brink is a show that I have fallen in love with after five episodes but it's been particularly jarring to see other critics in disagreement with me. One of the most exciting things about reviewing TV is that you form opinions in a vacuum and I had no idea that other critics wouldn't respond the same way as I did when I reviewed the show. Halt and Catch Fire is a show I pretty much gave up on first season but because of the convenience of the premiere date (and a connection to one of the show's executive producers), I decided to give it a second try and while the show isn't among my favorites this year, it has markedly improved.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Episodic Highlights from 2015

Cory Barker's blog has a year-end roundtable where they ask panelists to name their favorite episodes. While I love the critical format of looking at a TV series on an episodic basis, it wasn't until I participated in Cory's roundtable last year that I ever thought of defining a year of TV by its best episodes. Although I don't plan to amass some big or definitive episodes of the year list, it seems worthwhile to put some thought into episodes that resonated with me as we near the midpoint of the year:

While I eventually got bored of the show and hobbled to the finish line of the show's first season, there's a lot to be said for how strong 12 Monkeys came out of the gate.  The show's first three episodes built up high stakes and set up the ground work for loopy sci-fi scenarios with promising speed and efficiency. The series' two main characters were also strongly established from the start and their chemistry intrigued me enough that I was still invested after the way-too-soon death of Leland Goines in the pilot episode.

Though Modern Family is seen by many as a show that has gone stagnant, I continue to consistently enjoy it and maintain my faith that the writers are able to bring it when the occasion calls. "Connection Lost," in which the entire story is told from a half-hour screenshot of Claire's laptop, is the kind of ambitious episode premise that's dynamite if executed well. Some might call the idea of using various apps to tell a narrative might ring to some of shameless product placement, but it's unquestionably innovative and has a high degree of difficulty. This episode reminds me of those art class assignments involving found art.

Fresh off the Boat's 5th episode, "Persistent Romeo". was one of those episodes with a comic hook-- the boys mistake one of those sexual harassment videos they show during orientation as a how-to guide for picking up women -- that was executed perfectly just as the series was finding its groove. The show harkens back to 90's sitcoms in both a meta way and as a stylistic preference. The innocent idea of a kid badly wanting to fit in with his friends and the suspense around whether he'll be able to pull it off with a halfway decent sleepover was also an idea executed well here. My review at TV Fanatic is here.

I've always been weary of praising bottle episodes. Are we celebrating your lack of a locations budget or your homage to some era in TV history few people care about when locations budgets were a big deal? Of course, that was before I saw Archer's bottle episode "Vision Quest" which plays off the character beats so masterfully and establishes new gags (Cheryl's claustrophobia, Cyril's masturbation habit, the uselessness of 911) that escalate enormously over the course of a half hour. My review at TV Fanatic is here. I also gave high marks to the episode "Pocket Listing" for dealing with the sexual chemistry between Lana and Archer so well, for letting Cheryl unleash her crazy, and for giving everyone someone to do in a grandiose comedy of errors.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia had another season that blew its competition out of the water. "The Gang Spies Like US" demonstrated the show's ability to mine tremendous comic depth out of a single comic misunderstanding with Dee causing such unparalleled destruction that it reminded me of some of the more well-executed set pieces in the Pink Panther series. "Charlie Work" was another one of those episodes that pushed the boundaries of a comedy and had the kind of innovative camera work that just won a film a Best Picture Oscar.

The inclusion to this list of Wayward Pines' second episode, "Do Not Discuss Your Life Before", is a testament to the potential it squandered by tipping its hand too early. The show is a mystery with an all-star cast and a solid premise, reminiscent of the best Twilight Zone episodes, about a sheriff trapped in a town where people have a habit of getting lost and staying in place for years. The show started out with promise and the second episode really heightened the tension by teasing out answers that seemed attainable but out of reach. The relationship between Juliette Lewis's Beverly and Matt Dillon's Ethan was also starting to give the protagonist a much needed sounding board. Unfortunately, the episode's end solved what I considered the most intriguing mystery (whether the town was in cahootz) and ended the storyline of the much-needed confidante. As a season finale it worked wonders, but the problem was it was the second episode.

I'm a fan of Silicon Valley but I'm generally enjoying it for the strong character work and sense of place and would disagree with an assessment that the site is consistently a laugh-out-loud comedy. The show's humor is generally long-form which can occasionally yield a home run like last year's season finale (which I cited on last year's list of favorite episodes). This year's "Homicide" was another such episode with a hilarious plot (Richard dealing with a client who secretly hates Ehrlich) and an even more hilarious side trip for Dinesh and Gilfoyle (although it's always a given those two will have the funnier plot) enhanced by another visual gag for the ages. On top of that, it was also a meaningful development moment for Richard as he first shows some backbone here. 

Inside Amy Schumer's "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" is an incredibly ambitious long-form sketch that pays off in droves. The key to the humor is the extreme attention to detail combined with the way accomplished actors Paul Giamatti and John Hawkes tackle the inanity of the subject with utmost seriousness.

My favorite episode of the year, to date, would be "The Gang Beats Boggs" from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  The show's black comedy elements-Frank practically murders a kid, airplane security is jeopardized- were next level uproarious, the confined space of the airplane lent to a great comic intensity, and the running gag (of keeping score) held up throughout. This was the gang at their unruliest and the show at its most hilarious.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Quintessential Minnesota Film: The Mighty Ducks

This is part of a series I worked on at one point combining my geography major with my film writing. 

The Quintessential Minnesota Film: The Mighty Ducks

The films of Joel and Ethan Coen have a strong sense of place as evidenced by their portrayals of Mississippi (my last entry, O Brother Where Art Thou), Hollywood (Intolerable Cruelty), a quasi-modern day Louisiana (Ladykillers), Texas (No Country for Old Men) and Washington DC (Burn After Reading). They are perhaps best known for their portrayal of their home state of Minnesota in 1996's Fargo.

I spent a summer studying in Minneapolis and visited my sister multiple times around the year when she lived in St Louis Park for 6 years. This is the same Minneapolis suburb that the Coen brothers are from and the shooting location of A Serious Man. Bonus points for A Serious Man for mentioning Red Owl store.

In Fargo, I appreciate the spot-on accents and the portrayal of the bitter cold of Winter. It truly is a kind of cold that demoralizes the population. You get the sense that these people are committing murders because they have nothing better to do but I feel like the portrayal of Minnesota as a bleak and dull winter land is inaccurate.

Courtesy: Sheryl Wallace
Minnesotans are among the healthiest, happiest and most civically active people (they actually rank #1 in voter turnout) in the nation. They also have great state pride.

In light of these virtues, what could better representative Minnesota than a sports film about Minnesota's most beloved sport? The protagonist, Emilio Estevez's Gordon Bombay, is a disgraced ex-hockey player ordered by the court (see the civic pride tie-in) to coach a youth hockey team.

This is a state in which nearly every Minneapolis suburb (that I saw) has its own community center with a hockey rink. It's also worth noting that in the land of 10,000 lakes, ice skating isn't just done in the ice skating rinks but on frozen lakes as well. Minneapolis has hosted the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships annually since 2007.

It's also a film which features St. Paul's famous ice carnival in the background.