Sunday, August 30, 2015

Another Period Review

This is an admittedly slapdash review I'm posting here although I wouldn't classify it as my best content. Unfortunately, I'm saving my best content for HiddenRemote at the moment. 

To say the show "Another Period" is rich with talent is an understatement. David Koechner is the family patriarch, underrated character actress Natasha Leggero lends her talents in a rare staring role as one of the two sisters Brian Huskey, Paget Brewster and Brett Gelman are all excellently cast in character roles. Christina Hendricks (who's mostly known for period drama) dives into her role as a scheming servant with an unexpected amount of enthusiasm. Michael Ian Black really sticks out (even in poor episodes) as a character who really puts the "serve" in "subservient" with the character of Peepers.

Peepers is a rich character and fully-formed but seeing him on screen only serves to remind about how deficient all the other characters. Peepers' desire to serve the other characters in the story makes little sense because pretty much everyone else is an extreme caricature. Either that or they're the most inhumane collection of people in history. Watching Michael Ian Black as Peepers is like watching Peter O'Toole act opposite third graders or evil scamps determined to ruin his scene.

The main drawing point of the show (and what keeps it watchable) is that it's a fun period piece and it's very rare to see "fun" and "period piece" in the same sentence of a synopsis. Although "Another Period" doesn't have the production values of a grandiose epic, there is a superficial veneer that shines through. Like any unfocused take on history that is trying to say as much as possible about its setting, nearly every important figure from the 1900's makes their way to the Bellacourt manor with juicy stunt casting. Matt Besser plays Leon Trotsky, Kate Flannery plays Annie Sullivan, Ben Stiller plays Charles Ponzi and Chris Parnell plays Sigmund Freud in clever historical twists although it's fairly clear that these historical figures aren't researched beyond what will earn an easy laugh. Similarly, the show also presents us with a hyperactive Gandhi and though Clone High already went down that road a dozen years ago, it's good enough for a chuckle. 

The show is too sloppy to be taken as much of a satire and its characters are too cruel to be taken sympathetically or even seriously. The bloated ensemble also leads to episodes that are overly crammed for the thirty-minute running time. Despite these flaws, the show is still watchable and worthy of a laugh here and there.

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.