Friday, December 25, 2015

My Top 12 Shows of 2015

It's time for my annual edition of My Top 12 Shows of 2015 (for past editions, check out the Top 10 TV tag):

1. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX- There’s little chance that the show will receive

the awards recognition it so bluntly told us it didn't need in "The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award" but, for my money, this is the most sophisticated comedy on TV and deserves even more credit for continuing to be one of television’s most innovative shows after its 100-episode mark. The tenth season featured a drink-a-thon on a cross-country flight, a "Birdman" homage which followed Charlie for a continuous nine-minute shot (with commercials pre-empted), a cult created by Dennis (later co-opted by Dee, Frank, and Dee again), a fight to claim Frank’s bloodline, and an appearance by the gang on Family Feud. With the character beats becoming richer and more complex, It’s Always Sunny not only has one of the most well-developed comic voices on television, but it also has TV’s most finely tuned ensemble.

2. Last Man on Earth, Fox-A Twilight Zone premise wrapped in the sensibilities of an SNL sketch,
Will Forte plays a guy whose makeshift solutions to being the sole survivor of an epidemic-induced apocalypse are building a kick-ass margarita pool and befriending an array of volleyballs. It's an entertaining enough show but the game changes entirely when he meets Kristen Schaal and the show morphs into an Adam-in-Eve situation in which Eve is a shrewish nag and Adam wants to run away from responsibility. And so on and so forth. The novelty of the premise allowed the show to switch gears with new cast additions and subtractions which leant itself to one of the most unpredictable rides on television backed by one hell of a comic performance in Will Forte as the ever-evolving post-apocalyptic schlub Phil Miller 1.0 .

3. BoJack Horseman, Netflix-Move over "Togetherness" and "Happyish": The most psychologically resonant exploration of happiness and depression didn't come from some prestige cable show but a cartoon about a talking horse. BJH started out as a Hollywood satire and while it hasn't lost any of its funny in the Netflix show's sophomore season, the journey of its central character is heart-wrenching but grounded in such truth that BoJack's highs are well-earned and the lows are deeply felt. The show is also doing an incredible job at world-building with meatier story lines for the side characters, the addition of Lisa Kudrow as an owl stuck in the 80's, and too many other anthropomorphic strokes of genius to mention here. The show creators even tried their darndest to explain the lingering question about where meat comes from in this all-animal universe.  

4. Orange is the New Black, Netflix-Continuing its exploration of oppressed womanhood through the lens of a woman's federal prison, OitNB's new season continued utilizing every facet of one of 
TV's best ensembles to achieve a finely tuned balance of the humorously quirky (i.e. Cindy's attempts to convert to Judaism, Angie's escape attempt), the heartwarming (i.e. Crazy Eyes' crush, the budding friendship between Boo and Pennsatucky), and darker territory (i.e. Pennsatucky's rape, Soso's suicide attempt, Sophia's discrimination) culminating in a glorious free-for-all prison-wide stampede into a neighboring water reservoir for a moment of careless joy. Overlying all this is the clash of idealism verse reality in Caputo's pragmatic attempt to best his predecessor in having a net positive effect on prison conditions. If there is one disappointment to be found in Season 3, it is unclear whether the showrunners are aware that Piper (and Alex) no longer has the potential to be the show's most interesting story line in any given episode. That's just a testament to the strength of the ensemble. 

5. The Brink, HBO-Hampered by early unfavorable comparisons to "Dr. Strangelove" and "Veep", the political black comedy did a wonderful job of amassing fans and silencing haters as its disparate story lines weaved together, the characters got more and more absurd (the sexy no-nonsense Israeli consulate, non-sequitors Vanessa and Martin, the hyper religious ambassador and that's just the side characters), its stakes escalated consistently, and its running gags started hitting with increased frequency. The first season followed a pair of distractable fighter pilots (Pablo Schreiber and Eric Ladin), a low-level State Department attache and his driver (Jack Black and Aasif Mandvi) and one of TV's best comedic performances in Tim Robbins as a hell-bent secretary of state. Maribeth Monroe (mastering the diplomatic walk-and-talk in a manner that would make Aaron Sorkin proud), John Larroquette, and Carla Gugino round out a hyper-talented ensemble.

6. Narcos, Netflix-Narcos is the classic study of power corrupting that's been told many times by De Palma, Scorsese and Coppola but it feels fresh when this tale is transplanted to the leadership vacuum of Colombia. 
Pablo Escobar isn't a Ray Liotta character who fell under the allure of crime and turned cold. Instead, Escobar was a man who grew up in an environment where evil was the norm and he just exploited it better than anyone else. Narcos makes the case that Columbia's drug empire was born out of a dog-eat-dog world. Chance is also a key thru-line that runs through the series: It was through mere chance that the "cockroach" surveyed a Chilean death squad and picked Pablo Escobar for his goldilocks qualities (not too murdery, not too soft) out of the three cartel chiefs in Medellin.

The story is one of the few TV shows where over reliance on narration is welcome and if you listen closely, you'll notice that the narration is a character in his own right (not at the Ron Howard level on "Arrested Development" but maybe it soon).

7. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix-Tina Fey and Robert Carlock attempt to mine
humor out of one of the darkest sitcom premises imaginable -- a woman readjusting to life after being trapped for 15 years in a psychotic preachers' bunker -- and succeed wildly in their sophomore follow-up to "30 Rock." Ellie Kemper (the only actress who seemed like she was trying in the latter seasons of “The Office”) shines as a heroine who drops an odd mix of naivette and spunky enthusiasm with every line of dialogue. Casting Tituss Burgess and Carol "Mrs. Latka Gravas" Kane as Kimmy's sidekicks are both strokes of inspiration and, rounding out the cast, Jane Krakowski proves game at once again poking fun at imagined aristocratic mores as a boomerang bigot (she's secretly Native American). The show regularly delves into absurdity and the direction often breaks the fourth wall, but it never loses site of that underlying "Mary Tyler Moore"-like storyline of a girl trying to make it on her own. 

8. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, CW-Genre-savvy Rachel Bloom has made a name for herself by wielding an axe through the conventions of musical theater in a series of deliciously subversive YouTube videos and hasn't missed a beat in transferring her style of comedy to the small screen. Bloom plays Harvard-educated lawyer Rebecca Bunch who gets a lot of mileage out of being so wonderfully neurotic that she's an unreliable narrator in her own story. Is she really in West Covina for Josh? Is she aware of her illness? The vagueness of her situation lends itself perfectly to the reality-bending nature of the integrated musical and there's a lot of fun to be had. The show also deserves credit for developing all sides of the Josh-Greg-Rebecca love triangle. Greg (Santiago Fontana) is jaded without being unsympathetic and Josh (Vincent Rodriguez) is a sincerely sweet guy who just happens to have not yet caught onto Rebecca's loopiness. Both characterizations are hard to pull off. Other highlights include Donna Lynne Champlin as Rebecca's desperate-for-friends coworker and (my personal favorite) Vella Lovell as a neighbor who could give "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"'s Chelsea Peretti as TV's ditziest character a run for her money.

9. Fresh off the Boat, ABC-Simultaneously a throwback to and a riff on TGIF family-style sitcoms, "Fresh off the Boat" has a modern edginess in the vein of "Everybody Hates Chris" or "Malcolm in the Middle." More than those two shows, however, the show approaches 90's sitcoms with an ironic self-consciousness without omitting that genuine sweetness that those sitcoms were known for. More often than not, 11-year-old protagonist Eddie Huang learns a lesson in a roundabout way.

Featuring the first Asian-American family on network TV in 20 years (if you don't count TBS, and who does?), the show is unashamed to be a product of its place and time and half the fun is ironically reliving the 90's references that the show is so generous to sprinkle out. Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan infuses the plots with labyrinthine storylines that are reminiscent of the looniness she brought to the sitcom with "Don't Trust the B----" but the results are enhanced with the sincere performances of Randall Park and Constance Wu. In particular, Wu qualifies as one of the breakout characters of the season with her wry delivery of some of TV's best lines of dialogue.  

10. Casual, Hulu-Shows centering around flawed people dating are generally problematic because
it's hard to empathize with the trials and tribulations of good-looking actors with active sex lives. Few shows have highlighted the emptiness of sex like this show which features the talents of SNL's biggest firing mistake of the century in Michaela Watkins. Watkins plays a recent divorcee cohabitating with her brother (Tommy Dewey) and trying to get herself back in the field. As a psychiatrist, she has an impeccable grasp on relationship problems but can't get over the hump that involves herself.

Jason Reitman directed the first two episodes of this show and his penchant for combining a light comedic (or as they say "dramedic") tone and truthful character work is in full form here. With Tara Lynn Barr's character pushing the envelope of the bratty teenage daughter trope; Eliza Coupe as a manic pixie sexual nightmare, and one of the most meaningful sibling relationships on TV, there's a lot of great character work being done here.

11. Empire, Fox-With it's two instantly iconic leads in Terrence Howard and Taraji P Henson and a kinetic pace, Empire's first season was entirely worthy of being the buzziest show on TV.. In an age where TV critics are becoming increasingly difficult to please as a de facto diversity police of sorts, Empire has been transcendent in its ambition to tell an Orson Wellesian version of the modern African-American narrative. The modern portrayal of the rags-to-riches myth as a hip-hop empire is given its proper due here. Unfortunately in the second season, the show started shuffling alliances and plot sequences with too much carelessness to maintain any consistency. A groundbreaking first season and a shockingly disappointing second season average out somewhere around 11th place.

12. Homeland, Showtime-After skipping a season and a half, it's relatively comforting to jump in on
Season 5 and see it's not impossible to get back in stride with this show. With Brody's story line having run out of steam (along with, you know, his being dead), the show has turned a new chapter (complete with an exciting new atonal opening credit sequence). As the show relocates to Berlin, the show takes on the aura of a neo-Cold War thriller. Saul, Rupert and Dar Adal return in roles that stretch them (particularly Saul) in new scenarios while Miranda Otto as Saul's cunning new right hand woman and Otto During as a high-powered business man with a big heart are among the new characters added to the mix. What's refreshing about the 5th season of "Homeland" is that there's a normalcy to these characters while there's plenty of room to make the principals squirm.


Honorable Mention:
12 Monkeys, SyFy-"Honorable" is the key word here. The show started strong out the gate with wonderfully loopy time travel plots (I'm a sucker for that kind of thing) and a tangible chemistry between leads Amanda Schull and Aaron Stanford. The show started to muddle itself up by going in tangential directions and I have yet to complete it, but we'll always have the show's great start.

Adam Ruins Everything, TruTV-Of all the sketches from CollegeHumor's catalogue to turn into a TV show, this is a winner. Adam Conover's know-it-all skeptic is a fully-formed comic character who succeeds in both entertaining and enlightening, but much of the credit also goes to the way the show makes full use of the cinematic possibilities of the half-hour format.

Better Call Saul, AMC-It's a breath of fresh air to revisit Vince Gilligan's version of Albuquerque without having the expectations and elevated prestige of "Breaking Bad" and Bob Odenkirk certainly didn't let us down in his new role as series lead. The character work and sense of place were both rich as can be but the storylines weren't as memorable so many months later.

Billy on the Street, TruTV-One of my favorite discoveries of 2015, Billy Eichner is raw, hilarious, and fearless. His obsession with pop culture taken to violent extremes is something that I suspect a lot of us see in ourselves (I know I do).

Daredevil, Netflix-Probably, my #13, Daredevil was a highly satisfying trip that really succeeded at being grounded in an age where every other superhero blockbuster tries to hammer the point in that their hero is an everyday guy. The cast of Charlie Cox, Elden Henson, Vincent D'onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll, Rosario Dawson, Ayelet Zurer, and Toby Leonard Moore produced some of the richest characters on TV.

Grace and Frankie, Netflix-Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin can act circles around all the young guns on TV so their arrival to serialized TV this year was a welcome surprise. The show is one of the few examples that shows about older people don't have to be tailor made for the AARP crowd. The trials and tribulations of Grace and Frankie were transcendent for all generations.

Inside Amy Schumer, Comedy Central-One of the most distinct, edgy and consistently funny sketch shows out there. "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" can stand up against any 30 minutes of TV this season but so many smaller sketches like the "Friday Night Lights" parody and the "I'm Sorry" sketch were inspired pieces of satire as well.

Last Week tonight with with John Oliver, HBO-Oliver made my list last year and he continues to make me laugh and inflame my passions in equal measure.

Modern Family, ABC-In recent years, I joined the critical chorus in proclaiming the show's arrival into the land of diminishing returns, but the show seemed to have a revival as of late. The Andy-Haley storyline has been deftly handled and the show continues to find inventive uses for the comedic talents of Ty Burrell and Sofia Vergara. In all honesty, I'm not suggesting this show is groundbreaking but with an uptick in writing quality, it is one of my most consistently enjoyable viewing experiences week in and week out.

Sense8, Netflix-A highly ambitious global soap opera and superhero show from the Wachowski Brothers that feels tonally different than any other superhero show out there with it's more humanist and global tone.

To let you know what exactly I did watch this year so you can see the pool I chose these TV shows from (some of these are in fact, pretty good, too):
2 Broke Girls, CBS, American Dad, TBS; Agent Carter, ABC; American Horror Story, FX (only the 1st episode); Americans, FX (only about 4 episodes, might have made the list if I finished the season); Another Period, Comedy Central; Archer, FX; Bates Motel, A and E; Ash vs Evil Dead, Starz; The Awesomes, Hulu; Big Time in Hollywood Florida, Comedy Central; Blind Spot, NBC; Bloodline, Netflix (only 3 episodes); The Comedians, FX (only 2 episodes); Daily Show w/Trevor Noah, Comedy Central; Difficult People, Hulu; Documentary Now, IFC; Dr. Ken, ABC; Elementary, CBS; Family Guy, Fox; Fugget About It, Hulu; Garfunkel and Oates, IFC; Glee, Fox; Gotham, Fox;  Grinder, Fox; Halt and Catch Fire, AMC; Humans, AMC; Impress Me, Pop TV; Key and Peele, Comedy Central; Librarians, TNT; Late Show with David Letterman/Stephen Colbert, CBS; Late Show with James Corden, CBS; Master of None, Netflix; Man Seeking Woman, FX; Middle of the Night Show, MTV; Mom, CBS; Other Space, Yahoo; Playing House, USA (only 3 episodes); Project Greenlight, HBO; Real Time with Bill Maher, HBO; Review, Comedy Central; Rick and Morty, Adult Swim;  Seth Meyers, NBC; Seven Days in Hell, HBO; Schitt's Creek, Pop TV, Silicon Valley, HBO; Sing it On, Pop TV; SNL, NBC; Toddrick, MTV; Togetherness, HBO; Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, NBC; True Detective, HBO (only the 1st episode)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Directorial Progress Report 2015

New Additions in Bold, Favorite film in italics

18 Alfred Hitchcock-Family Plot, Torn Curtain, Rebecca, 39 Steps, North by Northwest, Saboteur, The Wrong Man, Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, Topaz, The Birds, Psycho, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), Rear Window

14 Stephen Spielberg-Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Temple of Doom, Color Purple, Last Crusade, Schindler's List, Jurassic Park, Bridge of Spies, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, Terminal, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

14 Woody Allen-Hollywood Ending, Curse of the Jaded Scorpion, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Small Time Crooks, Sweet and Lowdown, Mighty Aphrodite, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Melinda and Melinda, Midnight in Paris, Sleeper, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Bullets Over Broadway

10 Billy Wilder-Spirit of St. Louis, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Irma la Douce, Double Indemnity, Sabrina, Ace in the Hole, Major and the Minor, 1,2,3, The Front Page
10 Clint Eastwood-Mystic River, Unforgiven, Bronco Billy, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Invictus, Gran Torino, White Heart Lonely Hunter, Play Misty for Me, J. Edgar, Bridges of Madison County

9 Joel and Ethan Coen-Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Ladykillers, Man Who Knew Too Much, Intolerable Cruelty, Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, True Grit
9 Mike Nicholls-Primary Colors, The Birdcage, The Graduate, Working Girl, Charlie Wilson’s War, What Planet Are You From?, Postcards from the Edge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff, Regarding Henry
9 Jay Roach-Austin Powers I-III, Meet the Parents, Mystery Alaska, Dinner for Schmucks, The Campaign, Game Change, Trumbo

9 Martin Scorsese-Color of Money, Age of Innocence, Goodfellas, Aviator, The Departed, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island, Hugo, Wolf of Wall Street

8 Howard Hawks-Sgt. York, Bringing Up Baby, Big Sleep, Ball of Fire, Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Perfer Blondes, Monkey Business
8  Rob Zemeckis-Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future I-III, Contact, Romancing the Stone, Flight

7 Vincente Minelli-Meet me in St Louis, American in Paris, The Pirate, Brigadoon, The Band Wagon, Kismet, The Sandpiper 
7 Rob Altman-Mash, McCabe and Mrs Miller, California Split, Buffalo Bill and the Indian, The Player, Dr. T and the Women, Prairie Home Companion
7 Steve Soderbergh-Erin Brockovitch, Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 12, Full Frontal, Good German, Ocean’s 13, Informant
7 Ivan Reitman- Ghostbusters, 6 Days 7 Days, Old School, Space Jam, Fathers Day, Beethoven, Beethoven’s 2nd, Ghostbusters II
7 Chris Columbus-Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Stepmom, I Love You Beth Cooper, Rent, Pixels
7 Terry Gilliam-Time Bandits, Brazil, Fisher King, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brothers Grimm, Baron Munchhausen, 12 Monkeys
7 Ron Howard-Apollo 13, Beautiful Mind, Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Angels and Demons, The Paper, Cocoon
7 Bryan Singer-Usual Suspects, X-Men, X2, Superman Returns, Valkyrie, X-Men Days of Future Past, The Apt Pupil
7 Tim Burton-Batman, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factor, Alice in Wonderland, Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride

6 Frank Capra-It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, It's a Wonderful Life
6 Stanley Donen-Take Me Out to the Ballgame (most sources insist that he really was the director, not Bugsy Berkley), On the Town, Singing in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade, Bedazzled
6 Stanley Kramer-Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Wold, Ship of Fools,  Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

6 Barry Levinson-Tin Men, Rain Man, Sleepers, Good Morning Vietnam, Man of the Year, Wag the Dog
6 Mel Brooks-Spaceballs, High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, History of the World Part I
6 Roland Emmerich-ID4, Stargate, The Patriot, Day After Tomorrow, 2012, White House Down

6 Rob Reiner-Stand and Deliver, Princess Bride, Rumor Has It, American President, Ghosts of Mississippi, Misery
6 Gore Verbinski-Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3, Weatherman, The Mexican, Rango
6 Brett Ratner-After the Sunset, Rush Hour 2, Family Man, X-Men 3, Red Dragon, Tower Heist
6 Frank Oz-Bowfinger, In and Out, Stepford Wives, The Score, What About Bob, Housesitter
6 Peter Segal-Naked Gun 33 1/3, Tommy Boy, My Fellow Americans, Anger Management, 50 First Dates, Get Smart
6 Wes Anderson-Rushmore, Royal Tannenbaums, The Life Aquatic, Darjeerling Limited, Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom
6 Johnothan Demme-Silence of the Lambs, Melvin and Howard, Manchurian Candidate, Married to the Mob, Rachel Getting Married, Rikki and the Flash

5 Orson Welles-Citizen Kane, Lady of Shanghai, Othello, Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil
5 John Ford-Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Hurricane, How Green was my Valley, The Whole Town's Talking
5 Tony Scott- Enemy of the State, Déjà Vu, Crimson Tide, Top Gun, Taking of Pelham 1,2,3; Unstoppable
5 George Lucas-Star Wars I-IV, American Graffiti
5 Peter Weir-Witness, Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show, Master and Commander,Year of Living Dangerously
5 Christopher Nolan-Batman Begins, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, Inception, Interstellar
5 Blake Edwards-A Shot in the Dark, Pink Panther, Return of the Pink Panther, Great Race, What Did You Do in the War Daddy
5 Sydney Pollack-Sabrina, Out of Africa, Tootsie, The Interpreter, Slender Thread

5 Adam McKay: Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, Anchorman 2
5 Robert Rodriguez-El Mariachi Trilogy, Spy Kids and Lava Girl, Sin City
5 Curtis Hanson- LA Confidential, Wonderboys, In Her Shoes, Lucky You, 8 Mile
5 Barry Sonnenfeld-Men in Black I, II, Wild Wild West, Big Trouble, MiB III
5 Cameron Crowe-Almost Famous, Jerry MaGuire, Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown, We Bought a Zoo
5 Joel Schumaker-Time to Kill, 8 MM, Batman and Robin, Batman Forever, The Client
5 John Glenn-5 Bond films
5 Tom Shadyac-Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty, Patch Adams, Evan Almighty, Ace Ventura

5 John Lynn-Whole Nine Yards, Trial and Error, Sgt Bilko, Whole Ten Yards, My Cousin Vinny
5 Peter and Bobby Farrelly-Kingpin, Dumb and Dumber, Fever Pitch, Shallow Hal, Osmosis Jones
5 John Lasseter-Lady and the Tramp, Toy Story 1, Cars, Toy Story 2, Cars 2
5 Jon Favreau-Elf, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys and Aliens, Chef

4 Sidney Lumet: Network, 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
4 David Lean-Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Passage to India, Summertime
4 John Huston-Beat the Devil, Key Largo, African Queen, Man Who Would be King
4 Alexander Payne-Election, Sideways, Descendants, Nebraska
4 James Cameron-Terminator, Terminator 2, Titanic, Avatar
4 Terrence Young-Wait Until Dark, 3 Bond films
4 Harold Lloyd-Safety Last, Feet First, The Freshman, Kid Brother
4 Guy Hamilton-4 Bond movies
4 Kevin Smith-Chasing Amy, Mallrats, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Dogma
4 Penny Marshall-Awakenings, Rennisance Man, Big, League of their Own
4 Christopher Guest-For Your Consideration, Mighty Wind, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman
4 Sam Raimi-Spiderman 1-3, Oz: The Great and Powerful 
4 Ernst Lubitsch-Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka, Merry Widow, Trouble in Paradise
4 Lasse Holstrom-What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Hoax, Cider House Rules, Shipping News
4 Michael Moore-Roger and Me, F 411, Sicko, Capitalism: A Love Story
4 James Mangold-3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line, Kate and Leopold, Knight and Day
4 D. Herek-Mr. Holland’s Opus, Three Musketeers, Mighty Ducks, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures
4 John Turtletaub-Cool Runnings, National Treasure, National Treasure 2, Last Vegas
4 JJ Abrams-Super 8, Star Trek, Star Trek into Darkness, Star Wars VII
4 Sam Weisman-George of the Jungle, Dickie Roberts Former Child Star, Out-of Towners, Mighty Ducks 2
4 Dennis Dungan-Happy Gilmore, Beverly Hills Ninja, Big Daddy, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
4 Spike Lee-Do the Right Thing, Bamboozled, 25th Hour, School Daze
4 David O Russell-Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Joy
4 Bill Condon-Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Dreamgirls, Mr Holmes 
4 Shaun Levy-Cheaper by the Dozen, Big Fat Liar, Night at the Museum 2, The Internship 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Top 25 People of the Year

People Magazine made a list of the 25 most intriguing people of 2015. If it didn’t have People’s sensibilities (where people’s ability to sell the front page of a tabloid magazine factored into it), it would have the potential to be an interesting artifact of our times. As far as I can gather, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Garner, and David Beckham made the list because they’re celebrity favorites of the soccer mom audience although they didn’t really do much this year other than look after their kids. I imagine there are at least 110 million people in the US doing just that. 

Still, the magazine got away with a few familiar names (Barack Obama and Taylor Swift) and made the case that these two really were emblematic of 2015 and not 2009-2014. The magazine also made some good choices with people I overlooked like Chris Pratt (who did become a blockbuster star in 2015 if you consider Guardians of the Galaxy a fluke), Tracy Morgan (you have to admit, he had quite the comeback), and the three Americans who prevented a terror attack in Paris. 

In the end, this is all subjunctive.
When I asked some people on a message board to chime in their own opinions, one commenter chimed in with a Boston media sensation called Baby Doe I’ve never heard of but must have been a big deal for someone in the Boston area.  

Another person countered with what might be considered an anti-People list with a lot of intellectual entries. Here are a few examples of some of them:
Juhari Idusuyi - This 23-year-old African-American woman read Citizen: An American Lyric throughout a televised Donald Trump rally. On camera. She was seated so that she was visible just over Trump's left shoulder for the entire event. Simple nonviolent protest at Trump's lack of ideas about governance.

Rotana Tarabzouni - A 26-year-old Saudi Arabian woman, terribly scandalous in her homeland for singing about taboo subjects, like driving and crises of faith, and performing unveiled and immodestly (meaning she dresses mildly sexy by 1980s American standards). She's getting buzz around LA - she might be one to watch out for on the national airwaves in a year or two.

Robert Epstein - A psychologist whose research suggests and explains how Google could rig the 2016 elections. By modifying which results come first for a given result, a search engine can determine which candidate one votes for, all other things being equal.

Another person posted a list which the board moderator called the best list he’d seen:
Serena Williams, Megan Phelps-Roper, Ava DuVernay, Ijeoma Oluo, Rowan Blanchard, Amandla Stenberg, Ahmed Mohammed, Edward Snowden, Johnetta Elzie, DeRay McKesson,
Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, Bree Newsome,
Saladin Ahmed, Michael Ian Black, Natasha Vargas-Cooper, Sean O'Neal, Don Lemon, Aziz Ansari, Rabia Chaudry, David Simon, Oscar Isaac
I asked him about Sean O’Neal (a senior editor at the AV Club) and he replied that he was just surprised that O’Neal just had a kid (reproducing really does get you points it seems). He also conceded that Michael Ian Black’s comedy was starting to strike a chord with him so subjectivity creeps in pretty much everywhere.

My list would go something like:
1. Eddie Redmayne-The first person under 35 to win a Best Actor Oscar since 2002 and THEN followed it up with an equally daring role that will likely net him another nod if not a lot of admiration for his gutsiness.
2. Amy Schumer-The buzziest comedian out there AND runs the buzziest sketch show on today. She certainly has something original to say, a hilarious way to say it, and 12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer was one of the landmark TV shows of the year. In previous years, Key and Peele would have definitely had this spot
3. Pope Francis-Here's an idea: Let's not be assholes to gays, divorcees and people with a history of abortion for the first time in our 2000 year history. Yeah, buddy, you got a spot!
4. Ted Sarandos-Netflix CEO is a complete game changer. So many genres of TV shows you didn't even know you wanted (a realism-infused living single show for seniors in Grace and Frankie, a new Daredevil, a parody cartoon with deep psychological leanings in BoJack Horseman, a racially diverse Seinfeld in Masters of None, A global soap opera with superheroes in Sense8 marking the Wachowski Brothers first success in over a decade, etc) are being done here and they might just get the first Oscar nominations for something outside of the theater distribution model ever
5. American Pharoah-With the way horse racing has turned into an Arms Race since the 1970's when the last horse won a triple crown (horses winning the Belmont stakes are generally resting through the other legs), American Pharoah's win was deemed pretty impossible after so many people who won the first two legs sputtered
6. Shia LaBeouf-He continues to have success (yes, I'll call it that) and spark discourse about the nature of fame with his experimental art projects and continues to rebound from failure in an exciting way
7. Serena Williams-Winning late in her career with grace maturity and garnering attention for her brand and social causes along the way.
8. Elon Musk-Well on his way to winning the space race, Space X became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the international space station in 2015. Other projects under his tutelage include building a self-funded solar city, developing artificial intelligence and searching for extraterrestrial life. Very few science fiction films are covering territory that Musk isn’t doing in real life.
9. Taraji P Henson-Empire was certainly among the 2 or 3 most buzziest things on TV and this character actress really found her groove and was a big part of that show. Her personality and quotability are definitely becoming iconic. It also helps that Empire debuted in 2015
10. University of Missouri Football Team-By refusing to play until the U of Missouri president resigned, it was probably the most effective thing anyone's done in the race wars going on this year. Their story touches on a lot of things: the privilege athletes are afforded, the disaster that is higher education, the unique geography of Missouri as a place which shouldn't be (you'd expect it to be the deep south) but is probably the most unresolved state in the country in terms of racial tension, and the aforementioned racial tensions these days
11. Lin Manuel Miranda-Combined history and rap and making it a smash success on Broadway. As Obama said during a post-performance speech, very few things can make Dick Cheney and Obama agree on anything. Hamilton being a great musical is one of those things.
12. Paul Ryan-I would be equally comfortable giving this spot to John Boehner who announced the death of partisanship in the House of Representatives by stepping back. Ryan is going to step in and clean up the mess.
13. Rachel Dolezal-Certainly a fascinating story about racial identity and politics these days
14. Jason Day-A golfer and sports person of the year candidate.
15. Francois Hollande-His leadership either caused further complications in the war on terror or presented a step forward in it
16. Ridley Scott-Interstellar and Gravity both had their strengths but his film was the kind of optimistic and imaginative sci-fi adventure that the movies were made for and that we don't see enough of these days. Apollo 13 inspired my sister to study astronomy in college and this could be it for a new generation. Additionally, Scott has been at the forefront of film making since 1979 and this is his introduction to a new generation
17. Kim Davis-Some will call her an idiot, but I kind of admire her at least on the level of doing effective civil disobedience. At the same time, I'm listing people regardless of whether I like them or not and I think she's the 2016 version of Joe the Plumber in the way her story is already being coopted by everyone in the Republican party as a litmus test for their voters' values
18. The election outsiders-Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson-There's too much focus on the election so rather than use up a bullet point on each one of these guys, let's just group them all in one. These three are surging in the polls at various levels despite probably being unelectable if the voters eventually care about experience.
19. Trevor Noah- This was a big year of talk show hosts, but James Corden, John Oliver and Seth Meyers really belonged on last year's list. I also love Stephen Colbert but I don't think 2015 is the year in which he's found his niche. Meyers has found his niche this year, but I'm not sure if he's making that much of a splash at 12:35 AM and he can no longer take ownership of the SNL era he presided over since he left last year. Trevor Noah is one change-up that has been working by my subjective opinion and his stand-up is pretty spectacular (also by my subjective opinion).
20. Joe Biden-His political capital is at an all-time high this year as evidenced by Stephen Colbert and everyone else practically begging him to run for president. His heartbreak with another family death resonated throughout the nation
21. Stephen Curry-Most of the time (in my experience), the upstart team in the regular season (Sacramento Kings in the early 2000s, Dallas Mavericks in the mid-2000s, the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers in the early 2010s) loses to the experienced team, but Curry's Warriors surprised everyone by not being busts. Curry dominated over reigning king LeBron James, showed a media friendly personality (partially due to his daughter), and matched his regular season record with clutch during the post-season.
22. JJ Abrams-If sequels and reboots are the currency of Hollywood in 2010, than this guy is the established master having turned both Star Wars and Star Trek into must-see events.
23. Justice John Roberts-Continues to frustrate anyone expecting him to be political by voting his conscience and he deserves recognition in a big year in which the Supreme Court upheld Obama care, ruled on freedom of speech laws (the confederate license plate case, the Gilbert, Arizona case), pollution regulation, gerrymandering and same sex marriage. In  a generation or two, the only notable supreme court cases that will appear in a history textbook will be Obama care and same sex marriage: One of which was upheld this year and one which was ruled upon.
24. Amy Poehler-Leslie Knope started out as one of the most awkward characters on a TV show that seemed doomed to wither out. Seven seasons later, Poehler has turned her into one of the most iconic and rootable characters on TV and that’s not all. She’s also written a biography, produced Billy Eichner’s comedy shows as well as Broad City, and is attacking the big screen again with Sisters. The only thing she didn’t do in 2015 was agree to host the Oscars and that’s our loss.
25.Justin Trodeau-I know Canadian politics aren’t worth worrying about to most Americans, but to the degree that they are, Trodeau’s election marks a major shake-up in a system that many feel had gone stagnant. Failing that, he’s dreamy-looking enough to sell a cover.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Big thank you 2015 edition

Journalism and writing requires help from others to get anywhere. Logically any job requires help in the form of someone hiring you but my work is a little different because I sink or swim at the mercy of a lot of people and while I would argue that this is a more exciting way to live, I have to depend on the kindness of strangers quite a bit.

I'd love to say that journalism is smooth sailing but from my experience some editors and fellow writers have not necessarily given someone like me the courtesy of reading a pitch in a timely manner or giving me a helpful response and there are at least a dozen ways in which someone else can make what I do more difficult. These people aren't necessarily bad or doing anything wrong but their main affect on me is that I have a need to give my appreciation to the people who have been helpful to me when they easily couldn't. I can't guarantee that these people aren't horrible either but to me they have all deserved a thank you.

So here goes:
Let me start out with the editors who decided to publish my work. A big thank you to Brent Baldwin at Richmond Style Weekly and Rachel Sadon at DCIST for making me feel like a journalist in the past few months when my work dried out. In addition, a big thank you to Alexandra at Reston Lifestyle Magazine (for giving me a second chance), Aaron at Bethesda Now, Christina at Washington City Paper, Scott and Dave at Inside Nova, Collette at the Skagit Valley Herald, Brendan McGinley (@brendanmcginley) at CBS Mancave, Carissa (@ModWildTV) at TV Fanatic, and the editorial team at Cracked for all the money you have given me. In all seriousness, I also want to thank work that you do in a shaky industry,your capacity to work with me and the validation you have all given me as a writer. There is also an editor named Steve Cahill at Fairfax Times who I wrote for seven years ago and was generous enough when I tried to reestablish contact this past Spring before his paper was suddenly bought out and management rendered him obsolete. While I have no reason to believe his successors aren't equally good, I do feel like giving an RIP to the career of a good editor.

Reporting also involves not just the cooperation of editors but people you're writing the story about so I have to thank these subjects for their patience and generosity. Thank you violin maker Don Liester for trusting me with your story. Ditto to the Maryland Stamps and Coins (I know it wasn't easy), the Bethesda Vapor Company, the Berklee College of Music a capella group Pitch Slapped, the Louisiana Kitchen Conpany, Human Movement Management, that tae kwon do studo in Bethesda, John Lehr, Klezmer band Ahava Raba, Glen Carlyn Elementary (especially for trusting me to wander around the halls of your elementary school), the HB Woodlawn Theater Department (a special note: sorry for spilling iced tea on the HB Woodlawn auditorium although you probably didn't know it was me), the Jews that have gone Off the Derech, and the producers and directors behind Mercy Street (even as I flunked the impromptu quiz over whether I had watched the screener). Some of you guys were enthusiastic, some of you guys wanted me to go away, some of you lent me your couch for an afternoon and then some (BVP) but you all trusted me with your stories and that helps me a lot so thank you. If you click on all those links above and check out what all those organizations are about, you will have officially won the internet.

By far, my favorite subjects this year were the McCoy family of Washington State who had the time of their lives at the National Spelling bee and enabled me to experience their joy over the course of a week aside from being extremely good as interview subjects.

Then there's the people on the PR and event production side of things. In particular, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, The World Fire Games dodgeball tournament, the Ugly Sweater 5k, and the Mercy Street screening (where I went behind the scenes and interviewed the producers) were four of the coolest things I've ever been a part of, so whoever ran those events, keep doing what you are doing and thanks for letting me be part of the ride. The PR agency that allowed me to interview the talent behind Mercy Street: I have no idea why you left me in a room alone with actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, director followed by former Star Trek actress Roxanne Dawson, but be assured that all I did was forget quicker than usual what I was going to ask. I've had somewhat of a whirlwind covering FX's Archer and I appreciate the sincerity and honesty of a certain PR rep for FX networks in dealing with some tricky waters I had to navigate this past April. There's also good evidence that this particular person read my reviews and liked them which would have likely doubled my readership so yay.

Beyond that, I'd like to thank my friend Adam Spector for running his discussion group and making me feel like part of a community here. Adam was generous enough to cross-blog with me and incorporated that into a group discussion which was a thrill. Adam's film column is here.

To top it all off, Spector generously agreed to squeeze my friend Will Harris into the discussion schedule which brings me to the next name on my list. I was happy to meet Will Harris in person this year and give him a speaking gig but it's hard to truly repay Will for all his generosity. I have no idea how Will can even keep up with the constant barrage of questions I level at him and before I met him, I was fully prepared to believe that "Will Harris" wasn't an actual person but an internet call center in the Philippines managing a correspondence with me. To follow the incredible Will Harris and hear about his interviews with some of Hollywood's biggest stars, check him out on twitter here.

Speaking of other writers I know, I have to extend a thank you to a former videostore manager in Portland, Maine who now devotes all his time to writing named Dennis Perkins who was my "Halt and Catch Fire" doppelganger this past summer. Perkins has occasionally lent an ear to me over the past year over FB chat and twitter and telephone and Skype and visits to his house at 2 in the morning. Ok, the last three items on that list are not true but that doesn't make Dennis' contributions any less important. I'm making a special mention of Dennis here because, as far as I can tell, Dennis is just an intrinsically good person who doesn't realize how nice he is and so I have had trouble letting Dennis know that he  has been unusually kind to me. I thanked him for accepting my Facebook request and he simply said "of course" like befriending a writer you've never met before in life who wants advice on how to write like you is just no big deal. So thanks Dennis and if everyone else wants to also enjoy unusually good person Dennis, give him a big bear hug. Bearing that, follow him on twitter and cheer on his pwnage of the English language at @DennisPerkins5.

Speaking of people who you should enjoy on Twitter, there are a bunch of really important writers out there who I personally have enjoyed like Daniel FienbergEmily Nussbaum, Chris Becker, Cory Barker and Matt Zoller Seitz on Twitter (they're all big and enormously famous, so I'm sure googling them will reveal them and I'm too lazy to look up five more twitter handles). These guys have made a conscious effort to dole out advice and conversation to help a more small-time writer like myself and that's a big deal. Becker, in particular, has entertained me at my most bored moments by conversing with me on Facebook. There's also Daniel T Walters who doesn't consider himself big-time, so just follow him on Twitter anyway at @danieltwalters.

Over at Cracked, I have to give a thanks to an enigmatic writer known as Tara Marie who just popped up out of the blue and saw one of my entries to completion (pausing briefly to rescue several Metropolitan citizens from a burning building). I also have to give props to the interview team for giving me a chance to prove myself, Kier Harris (@notanotherkier) for tipping me off to another editor, and my friend Evan Symon, who like Will Harris, I had the pleasure of meeting this year. Evan has been a tremendous source of support through the tough times and you should give him some love by dropping everything you're doing and spending the next 6-8 hours reading all of his great work in chronological order. In fact, thank you to everyone at Cracked for providing an improved environment this year for me to work productively in.

Let's see, who else:
-Thank you to AV Club writer Mike Vago (@mikevago) for leaving some encouraging comments a couple of times about a personal phobia I have
-My friend Emily Jeffers has bothered to read my stuff and became my 28th follower on this blog. She has oodles and oodles of encouragement to give and is starting a wellness company so you should follow it on twitter, or give money to it, or sign up for it, or bake her a cake or whatever you do for someone who runs a wellness company. Apparently, Emily's middle name is Michael which is kind of funny. All the more reason you should donate to her?
-I'm really glad to have a new friend named Danielle this year who really has inspired me to stop bitching about how tough journalism can be sometimes. Follow Danielle as she shows the state of North Carolina how it's done at
-I have to thank editor Cody Schultz for never once complaining or having a negative attitude as the editorial situation at that particular publication was getting increasingly difficult. Thank you Sandra as well for your service as an editor. Sandra's work can be read here, and I have a hunch that you'll find Cody here (mostly because I put the link there myself, who knew?).
-Thanks to Shell Harris at TopTenz for making room for me on his pitching schedule. Hopefully, we can make that article work sometime in the future.
-Thanks to my friend Liz for making me a special guest on her podcast twice this year. I've never done a podcast before but I've watched other people brag on Twitter about being on a podcast, so now I have something to brag about too. Her podcast is here.
-My sister has a friend who if I'm not mistaken has recently read my writing and complimented me on it and has even agreed to help me with one of my latest articles.
-As always, I have to thank my sister Yasmine for not reading my blog. This has freed me of the responsibility of having to read her blog, because it is pretty boring. But, hey, judge for yourself, and maybe you'll like it: In all honesty, I'm really proud of my sister this past year, in addition to continuing to give a home to a dog, two children, and leading a brownie troop and being active in her synagogue, she has recently started a non-profit on top of her day job. What is this non-profit you ask? I have no clue because I can't find the link to it and she's not around, but be prepared to get your wallet on standby to drop it like it's hot when I announce that name at some point because you're gonna want to donate to that fantastic cause.

If you want to see me rant a whilwind of thank yous like Halle Berry at the Oscars in past years,  check out the Friends of Blog tag at the bottom

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Six More Favorite Journalism Stories

This is a continuation of a series talking about some of my favorite journalism and writing experiences that began with this post.

1. Lining Up for the Harry Potter Premiere, Connection Newspapers (2011) (Link)
For the midnight screening of the final installment of the eight-part Harry Potter series, an intern (who took pictures because my camera was broken) and I went to the local multiplex and interviewed a bunch of costumed moviegoers about their fandom. The midnight screenings of a new film are generally when movie going has its most communal aspect and for this much-anticipated screening, Harry Potter fans went positively berserk with costumes and revelry. Movie writing and local journalism don't intersect often but this story was a fun exception to the rule that turned into a great scene piece.

I also have a lot of fondness for this story because I don't believe Box Office Mojo tells the full how and why of why people make their way to the movie theaters and I used this assignment as an opportunity to dig deeper into a cross-section of Harry Potter watchers and discover their entry point into the fandom.

2. Newt Gingrich Rally, AOL Patch News Service (2011) (Link)
This marks the only time I've covered politics outside of a county board meeting. I did a couple articles for Patch at this point after having just left The Connection and I heard about a Newt Gingrich rally taking place at the Key Bridge Marriot (my gym at the time was on the bottom floor) so I pitched that.

This ended up being a last minute assignment. I don't follow politics as much as I should (if memory serves, this was the only presidential rally I've been to period) but I learned as I went along that Newt Gingrich was trying to get himself on the ballot for the Virginia primary in late 2011 and was trying to get legitimacy from the Mitt Romney (the eventual presidential candidate the next year) campaign and get him to agree to a debate.

The event itself was a whirlwind of activity and it helped that some of the other reporters filled me in as I went along. There's a good chance that I will recognize another reporter if he is in Northern Virginia but political reporters are a different species entirely. 

The person who helped the most was a guy dining at the hotel bar with the other political wonks.  I asked him for a quote and when he seemed amenable,  I asked him for further assistance in clarifying what I had just seen. It turned out he was a former campaign manager of Christine O'Donnell (who was parodied on SNL and other comedy shows for claims of practicing witch craft) and it was interesting to hear his take on the reality of the person verse the caricature.

I had little chance at getting close to Newt Gingrich that night as there was a blizzard of people trying to shake his hand and get his autograph. The only time I've ever seen a famous person at an airport, it was Newt Gigrich approximately 10 months later in October of 2012. He watched the Romney-Obama debate analysis on TV in the Delta Lounge (that he could have been in if he played his cards right) then walked down the concourse like any ordinary joe. It was just so sad that everyone wanted to get close to him and no one even cared ten months later that he was walking through the terminal with them.

3. A Day on the Set of Parks and Recreation, Washington City Paper (2012) (Link)
I am on the DC Film Office's e-mail list and got a notice about filming for Parks and Recreation and because I felt like I had a good idea where they'd be, I decided to take my chances, blindly e-mail the editor and commute into the city to see if I could catch the production.

Up until I got to the location, I had no idea if any of this would work or if the editor would write me back saying "thanks but no thanks." What I'm about to write is a pretty cool story but keep in mind if you think my livelihood is as cool that there are a lot of stories that start off this way and end up not materializing. In place of this exciting tale, I could fill pages of extremely boring stories of ideas that did not pan out.

In any case, this was a time where everything did work to plan. They were filming on the far end of the National Mall (a wide open space) so I walked several blocks seeing this camera crew turn from a blip into the thing I was looking for.

All at once, I was part of a lively zoo of activity despite the fact that the only shots being done that afternoon were talking head segments with Chris Pratt (Aubrey Plaza was on hand as well). I was in the mix of several dozen D.C. office drones playing hooky from work so they could catch a glimpse of their favorite show (I suspect the bureaucratic satire angle of Parks and Recreation plays well with D.C. wonks). At one point, I was an unapologetic fan boy myself shouting "hey Chris!" at Pratt. I was even an extra on the set (because they had one of those signs saying "if you cross this line into the shot, you are now an extra, hope you're OK with that").

Moreso, within approximately five or ten minutes of arriving, I was officially a reporter on the scene as I got an e-mail giving me the green light. From there, it was a pretty easy process of just absorbing everything around me and there was a lot of activity to go off. At one point, I got a couple minutes with director Dean Holland: I just asked him what he was shooting and whether he had figured out that DC has an ample amount of P & R fans. The latter was fairly apparent because their DC shoot had been ambushed by fans all week. I got to yell at Aubrey Plaza, "Could you move a little to the left?" as I was trying to take a picture of her meeting Mayor Vincent Gray (she complied). I also got a minute with Chris to say I loved his character and got to take a picture with him.

4. Maccabeats Come to Town, Richmond Times Dispatch (2012) (Link)
I moved to Richmond in January 2012 and lived there on and off for approximately nine months. It wasn't until I moved back to Northern Virginia that I broke into the Richmond newspaper market. I lived on the fringes of the Jewish Orthodox community of Richmond and thought that was a fascinating subculture but I never succeeded (despite some talks with Richmond Magazine) to publish anything about the Richmond Jewish community during my stay there.

What newspapers generally need is to be able to pin a cultural phenomenon to an event. When I first moved to Richmond all the buzz my first weekend was about an a capella group of Orthodox Jews called the Maccabeats that came from Yeshiva University which is the preeminent Orthodox University in the country. When the Maccabeats came to perform they apologized that one of their members, Ari Lewis, couldn't make it down. Lewis was a local and it was a sign of how tight the community was that nearly everyone in the audience knew him and lamented his absence. They also said that they'd return next year which gave me two crucial things I needed for easy story placement: a local angle, and a date to pin the story to.

For the first time, Richmond Times Dispatch (the largest paper I would write for at the time) greenlit a story. One snag was that Ari's mother had known me as an attendant of the Jewish Community Center where she served as the arts director but hadn't known that I was a reporter so there was an understandable degree of caution that she had about entrusting her story to me. She wanted final approval of my draft which newspapers do not generally provide. She and the JCC called the newspaper to double check about my status. This could have been a red light but arts editor Cindy Creasy said I did work there (despite only being a freelancer who'd never written anything for there) and backed me up completely. This was an extremely kind gesture of hers that got the story moving along and turned it into a success for everyone. On another story, Creasy took time out of her day to meet with me personally to help revise my story.

Although Creasy never let up on rejecting most of my story ideas, she did go out of her way on a couple occasions to help me and I would love to say that I continue to have a relationship with her and the RTD. Unfortunately, Cindy passed away of a heart attack in July of 2014. RIP

5. Richmond Violinist, Richmond Style Weekly (2015) (Link)
After Cindy's passing, there were no other editors at the RTD who knew me made it difficult to continue an association to the newspaper. I essentially had to get in the door again and didn't have luck.

In mid-2013, I went to the Richmond folk life festival: Partially to get out of the house and partially to search for stories. Among them was a fiddle player who had made his own fiddle and had a business making violins from scratch.

It wasn't the fact that he made violins (a profession that most towns have) but that he made his violins from scratch and sourced his own ingredients. It was also the explanation and enthusiasm he had for his craft that made him a good story. If someone can explain something about themselves in a detailed and interesting manner, it's going to help your story because you'll have ready-made quotes and they will be able to fill in the gaps in your research well.

The most interesting thing about this story is that it took nearly two years to see this story in print. At the time, I thought I might have a chance to sell stories to the Richmond Style Weekly or the Richmond Times Dispatch as I had written for both of those publications. Aside from Cindy's passing at RTD, the editor at the Style Weekly had moved to the Washington Post leaving one of my articles stranded in transit along with any other pitches (including this one).

The Style Weekly was kind enough to give me a small kill fee for the article that had been submitted before the editor left, but the newspaper was too busy reshuffling its organization to receive my stories. I randomly called them up a year later and a guy who was the new style editor heard my pitch and basically said "sure."

Another interesting thing about this article was that it was done remotely. Being on site is crucial to articles some times. In this case, I had a hard time grasping some of the terms he was using in violin making and his process in general. To better understand this, I visited a violin shop in Baltimore when I was passing through that area and asked that store's proprietor for a little tour of sorts. He wasn't enthusiastic that I was writing about a violinist other than him, but he eventually obliged.

6. 12 Classic Movie Moments Made Possibly by Abuse and Murder, Cracked (2011) (Link)

Cracked is an internet offshoot of the old humor magazine that specializes in listicles packed with heavy doses of sophomoric humor and the kind of interesting tidbits of trivia that ordinarily require deep research. I fell in love with Cracked in 2007 and decided to try to write for in 2008. They have a policy that anyone can pitch for them on their forums but it wasn't until the 2010's that Cracked had an orderly process for going about it with intermediaries between the editors and writers called moderators.

Before that, it was the wild wild west and civility wasn't particularly strong either. I was laughed off the boards when I first tried pitching ideas and otherwise ignored by editors unless I could get hold of them through a personal message. One editor named Kristi Harrison gave me a whiff of encouragement after I left a complimentary comment on her block but that was about it.

A couple years later, I had an article idea about great directors that were hell to work with citing John Ford, Michael Curtiz, Gene Kelly and one-time director Marlon Brando. Generally with Cracked, you make the connection that two or three pieces of trivia in your head are grounds for an interrelated topic and then research from there. I was so unsure of myself, that my introductory message read:

"I have an article that could be very funny because there are some pretty far-out stories here and they aren't particularly well-known either. People know the names of many of these famous directors and it's a valid assumption that directors can sometimes be temperamental geniuses on set, but the extent of some of these directors will surprise.

I got all the research, I've got the article, I've even got the outline of something funny. So much of being funny, however, comes down to wording...choosing the right words for hyperbole and the like-and I haven't proven that I can do that yet to the satisfaction of the cracked team and have had no articles published to date."

What I didn't know was that in 2011 when I pitched this, Cracked had become a much more civil environment so they just responded with a blunt response here:

"It doesn't work that way... Pitch it. Get feedback. If it works, and the worst comes to the worst, the editors are dick joke ninjas." [ed. note: I'm just quoting the responder, I have no idea what the last three words mean]

From there, people surprised me by giving me helpful feedback on formatting and notes and eventually I got the attention of editors who pared me up with other writers which eventually lead to my first completed article. Because it was my idea, I was considered the lead writer, but many of the entries were written by other people and even the content on my article was spruced up by the editors (especially in the humor department). The article ended up getting 6 million views and there have even been a couple people in real life who knew of my article before knowing I wrote it. Despite all that, I'm generally prouder of the artices the consist more of my own words or original intent. Yes, 6 million page views for something with my name in the byline but the byline doesn't tell the whole story.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Modern Family: Phil's Sexy Sexy House

Though it's still reliably watchable and well-made, it's hard to make the case that Modern Family is still innovating enough in its seventh season to be rightfully called great TV. It's not a knock because the show is doing exactly what it was designed to do:  Produce consistent and interchangeable episodes so that it can make a killing in syndication. 

At this point, it's rare for Modern Family to surprise us but this was certainly one such episode for a couple reasons: 1) The show's deft handling of Hailey and Andy and 2) the classic comedy of errors plot that was elevated by a very game Phil Dunphy at its center.

Steve Levitan and company smartly decided in the first season not to shoehorn the extended Dunphy-Pritchett-Delgado-Tucker clan into every plot because it wasn't realistic, but the advantage of numbers can make a comedy of errors like "Phil's Sexy Sexy House" stronger.

Make no mistake: "Phil's Sexy Sexy House" isn't really a team effort. Mitch and Cam are acting as typical as ever, Sexy Claire has been done in this exact capacity before, Luke (hallelujah: the writers have given him a beer plot rather than a girl plot) is forgettable, and Alex's plot is such an afterthought we never even see them sneak into the house.

Instead, all these characters just add to the absurdity of Phil's aloofness. Seven seasons in, Phil Dunphy is an extremely durable comic character. Ty Burrell's commitment to the character's aloofness and his endless pursuit of dork-related activity rachets his presence up to eleven. 

As far as Andy and Hailey were concerned, Adam DeVine is underappreciated for the convincingly endearing brand of dorkiness with which he infuses Andy. For Hailey, it's a creepy case of "like father like love interest" but for a popular girl who was started out on the shallower end of adolescent TV characters, her relationship with Andy has been a tangible source of growth which is why their relationship has had a surprising amount of meat and bones.

Hailey and Andy make a "mistake" here but the episode provides enough wiggle room to make it a lapse in judgment as far as the future is concerned. The show has so far managed to portray a missed connection here with real-world grounding. The emotional and logistical costs of cancelling an engagement that is already in progress, is portrayed through Andy's explanation that his love has strengthened for Beth once he decided he was engaged to her. It sounds like an open doorway to a runaway groom scenario but it's also a sensible explanation and one hopes that the show doesn't abandon that practical middle ground. 

The other ploys didn't really do much. I really had no idea what Jay and Gloria were doing and I didnt care. Manny has had so many love interests at this point, he's cycling through girls with the speed of a Seinfeld character and he's not even halfway through high school. Just think: There must be a well over a dozen girls at his high school who can form a club based on romantic contact with Manny. Considering he's not the dreamiest guy in his class, how many romantic options can there be left for the guy? Can we at least get one of the old girls back?