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Category Archives: Television

(Writing) Episodic Pacing

Writing 150I LOVE the rhythms of episodic storytelling. There’s the anticipation of setting the scene, the cold open that makes the play for your attention and emotional investment right away, and the momentum that builds through a number of scenes, action set-pieces or conversations that build to a climax that ties the entire episode together through theme, action or consequence. And, of course, the final scene or image that teases the fallout from what’s just occurred so you just have to know what’s going to happen in the next installment.

Like most of the rabbits in my generation, I grew up learning the ebb and flow of these kinds of stories. Each episode broken up into three or more acts; each act fulfilling a purpose that is necessitated by the act that follows; each scene establishing or deepening character motivations, developments and setting in order to provide the biggest payoff for what’s coming at the end of the episode, the run of the season, or an entire series. I’ve always been fascinated by the trick of keeping forward momentum, of knowing where to place the scenes that slow things down to keep things from moving too fast, of mastering the speed you move through plot so that turns are sharp but not derailing.

The best TV shows and comic books know how to work within the limitations of their allotted space and format, even turning these restraints into features that enhance the storytelling. Say what you want about LOST and Battlestar Galactica, but at the height of their stories there was almost nothing better. Each week — each commercial break — was an interminable gulf through which you had to wade in order to learn how the story ends.

Great episodic storytelling is as much about building anticipation as it is rewarding it with satisfying the wait. I love shows and comics that can pull me into the story so deeply that I’m completely immersed in it while I’m there and I totally forget that it’s set to end until, suddenly, it does — and then I have to think about how everything that’s happened will lead to even more intense consequences for the characters and the world they live in. It’s such a sweet agony. I love feeling that anticipatory, excited impatience.

This is something that I’d love to learn how to cultivate with the Jackalope Serial Company. The first serial, THE CULT OF MAXIMUS, features a pair of police officers caught up in an investigation that uncovers — what else? — something that’s been lurking in the shadows of their city for some time. The more they uncover, of course, the weirder things get…and the more the protagonists are irrevocably changed by their experience.

The premise is to submit an “episode” of 1,500 – 2,500 words each week, with four or five episodes bundled together to make up a distinct ‘chapter’ of the story. Committing myself to that kind of deadline has been all kinds of educational for me; it’s helped me to learn exactly what kind of space there is in that word count, how each scene needs to pull its weight within the limits of that format, and how to build momentum in a story arc while maintaining interest in what’s happening right there and then. The demands of episodic storytelling are surprisingly varied and strict, and I don’t think I really understood just how good you have to be at managing the pacing of the story until I started doing it.

It’s interesting to find myself developing a whole new appreciation for the craft by attempting a version of it myself, and I’m glad to talk about it — even if that means it might not be the best commercial for the Jackalope Serial Company itself. Even still, I’m glad that I’m realizing what I am and that the lessons I’m learning through the experience are being applied to the story in real time. As I write each part and move through the outline, I’m finding that my grasp of character, dialogue, plot and momentum grows steadily more sure. I’m a fair bit away from being a really GOOD storyteller, but the enthusiasm I have for the story and the craft involved in telling it is pulling me through this first little bit. I’d like to think that that translates into an enjoyable tale that has its flaws but is worth the time regardless, but we’ll have to see. I do think it’s getting better all the time, which is the most important thing.

In the meantime, looking at the television shows that I’ve been really impressed by and trying to reverse-engineer them to see how they work has become a favorite pastime. How *does* Daredevil manage to explore its main themes without feeling like it wallows in them? How does Breaking Bad put its protagonist through such a clear arc from season to season? How does Battlestar Galactica tell such a sprawling, epic story while still keeping itself grounded in these flawed and fascinating characters? And how can I use those lessons to inform my own writing? This is all wonderful stuff to think about — but it’s even better to talk about.

What are your favorite episodic stories, and what lessons of writing have you taken from them?

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Television, Writing

 

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(Writing) Marvels of Character

Entertainment 150One of the benefits of holding myself to a regular writing schedule is being able to quickly identify the things I should be working on. The first couple of chapters of THE CULT OF MAXIMUS feel a little boring to me, and that’s mostly because my main character — Officer Thomas Beck — is so inert as a protagonist. I had initially envisioned him as someone who was “Indiana nice,” to steal a phrase from a friend — polite to a fault, treating the “if you don’t have anything nice to say‚Ķ” adage as a life-or-death value, but being fairly judgemental inside his own head. The events of the story would identify that as a problem and force him to speak up about the things he felt; he’d then have to actually engage with the world, become a part of it in a way he mistakenly believes he shouldn’t in order to be a good police officer. In some ways, it’s a lesson that’s top of mind for me right now.

But in the first couple of chapters, Thomas is a little…quiet and reactive. He’s observant, but writing the act of observation doesn’t really offer us any insight into his character — how he thinks and feels. It’s something that I’ve been focusing on in chapter three, and when I rewrite the first two for general consumption that is definitely the thing that I’ll be focusing on; that and seeding themes and events happening later in the story here.

It’s clear to me now that the “discovery” style of writing didn’t quite work for this story — that isn’t to say I won’t try it for another, but with a long-form project like this you have to at least have *something* pinned down. If not your character, then the plot, and if not your plot, then a solid world, or a theme, or something you really want to say.

Since characterization has emerged as a big deal for me, I’ve been paying closer attention to it in the stories I’m reading or watching, too. It’s struck me that Marvel comics and their cinematic universe excel at this — being able to create, communicate and maintain distinct and engaging characters across the board.

The husband and I recently finished the first season of Daredevil, the first entry into their “Hell’s Kitchen” corner of the shared universe with Netflix. It’s an astonishing series that draws a dangerous and shadowy world over thirteen episodes, fully populated with wonderful, mesmerizing characters. My favorite TV shows are often a series of conversations between two people with distinct points of view and a sharp wit; Daredevil‘s characters may not be the lightest in the world, but oh man are they earnest. Every single one of them enter a scene with clearly-drawn desires, and the stakes for them are increasingly high through each episode. They’re earnest, good at communicating, and incredibly strong-willed. Looking at them, you understand who they are and why they want the things they do.

This treatment doesn’t stop at the heroes — Matt Murdock, his partner Foggy Nelson and their assistant Karen Page. Wilson Fisk has emerged as one of the best villains I’ve seen on television in a long time, thanks to the incredible attention paid to his inner world by the writers’ room. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a hell of a performance, too. His character journey is utterly fascinating as we learn who he is, how he made himself from who he was, and who he thinks himself to be. He’s a truly tragic figure who is also incredibly dangerous.

Daredevil has taught me a lot about how characters are shaped by what they say, what they do, and how they say and do it. I love it for that, and I can’t wait to take that lesson to my writing.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is about to wrap up their third season later this month and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of that as well. I know a lot of folks sampled it through a comparatively slow first twelve or thirteen episodes, but the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier kick-started it into a higher gear that it hasn’t slowed from for the remainder of its run. The series is now focused on the Inhuman corner of the Marvel cinematic universe, all while constantly reshuffling the deck when it comes to SHIELD and its nemesis organization, HYDRA.

What Agents does particularly well is balancing a pretty brisk plot with deep characterization, making really effective use of limited screen time for its massive cast. Each scene between its characters does multiple things — often expanding, progressing or revealing a character’s motivation while also establishing another link in the plot’s chain. When someone makes a choice, you understand what it means for them to do that AND know how it’s been forced by circumstances AND wonder how it changes the direction of consequences for everyone involved. The sense of forward momentum creates this complex, unpredictable world that’s forever evolving; you see how Coulson and his crew are forced to change in order to keep up, and the toll that takes on everyone. Even more impressive, the protagonists aren’t solely reactive; their experiences give them this drive to enact these missions or change their views enough that they make pro-active (or rash) choices that are understandable, even relatable, but clearly mistakes.

Agents of SHIELD is a great marriage of character work and tight plotting in an ensemble cast. There’s almost no weak link in the show, and that’s really impressive for a story of its scope. I can take that lesson to THE CULT OF MAXIMUS, too — now that we’re nearly finished with the establishment of the characters and the world, I can use the show as something of a template for how the action moves forward, and how it’s formed by the inextricable threads of character and plot.

I’m genuinely grateful to be living in this Golden Age of Television — learning how to tell engaging, complicated stories in an episodic format has developed into a really great art, and watching the work of people who are really good at it helps me with my personal storytelling development.

How about you lovely writers? Are there shows that have storytelling aspects that have influenced you bunches? Which stories have you used for inspiration or lessons in how to deepen your own craft?

 

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Take a Trip to Wayward Pines

Entertainment 150There is a town in Idaho you can only get to by car accident. After you wake up in the hospital, you’re patched up from your injuries and given the location of a hotel you can stay at while you recuperate. A few days later, a realtor comes by and gives you a house. Then you get a letter that congratulates on the new job opportunity that’s just opened up. Your neighbors, perfectly polite people whose smiles don’t reach their eyes, provide a warm and inviting community for you to fall into. All that’s asked in return for this idyllic life is that you follow a few simple rules. Don’t try to leave. Don’t talk about your life before. And always answer the phone. Welcome to Wayward Pines.

I’m a fiend for a good small-town mystery, especially if it’s tinged with the supernatural. A seemingly perfect town surrounded by ominous, atmospheric woods, populated with a cast of characters who each harbor a secret? Sign me up! After Twin Peaks crashed into our collective consciousness some 25 years ago, there’ve been a number of series that have cribbed that template. Some have been successful (American Gothic!) and others…not so much (Persons Unknown!).

Lately, though, it feels like the supernatural mystery show has been more miss than hit. There were at least a dozen shows that failed in the wake of LOST, and this latest offering from Fox (which seems to be trying to translate the success of the event miniseries to network TV) just looked like another high-concept series doomed to failure. M. Night Shyamalan featured heavily in the promotional material, and any marketer that doesn’t know not to use that guy as your big gun clearly doesn’t know what they’re doing.

But the pilot of Wayward Pines hooked me. Secret Service agent Ethan Burke woke up in the middle of the woods with no idea how he got there, and wandered into the sleepy town of Wayward Pines. Not only was he trying to piece together the puzzle of why he was where he was, he was also trying to find two of his own that have gone missing. The townsfolk are strangely vague about his direct questions, to the point that a sinister edge begins to leak from just beneath the surface. As Ethan becomes more frustrated, he begins to act out — and the power structure of the town escalates as well.

What follows is a series that is one of the best examples of pacing episodic television that I’ve ever seen. Wayward Pines is using the compressed nature of its run as a feature; knowing that there’s only so much space to work with allows them to move the story along briskly, while still being careful enough that the world feels grounded and the atmosphere is allowed to settle around its audience. Through the first five episodes, the tightrope walk has been managed just about perfectly.

Another thing that Pines has working in its favor is the fact that the story had been completed; the show is based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch, who is helping adapt them for television. There’s no holding pattern waiting for the ending, and there’s no waffling about the true motives of the characters; the writers know exactly how everything plays out, and they can use that knowledge to inform how the story is told.

So what you get is a show where Ethan is believable in his dogged pursuit of the truth; where he comes across as competent and resourceful even as he becomes increasingly desperate; and where his actions uncover hidden answers that actually look like progress. The antagonists within the town are certainly shadowy and menacing, but not omnipotent; they’re consistently surprised by what Ethan is willing to do to achieve his goals.

Each episode focuses on a more-or-less immediate goal that Ethan hatches, and moves through the planning, execution and success or failure of that plan. The stakes are clear, the consequences (both intentional and unintended) are revealed naturally, and the new avenues that are opened up feel well-connected to what’s come before. The series actually feels coherent, and the twists shock without feeling like they break the premise once you stop to think about them.

The most impressive trick of the show is its timing. It knows when to slow down enough to make the atmosphere oppressive, and when to ratchet up the action. There isn’t a scene that feels indulgent or wasted; they’re all imbued with a momentum that makes you want to know what happens next. And the revelations come at just the right time for maximum impact. It’s firing on all cylinders.

Wayward Pines is only halfway through its run, but barring a structural collapse in the story on the back half I feel confident in saying that a worthy successor to Twin Peaks has come along at last. If you’re like me and have been burned too many times by mystery thrillers that collapse under the weight of their own stories, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find in Wayward Pines. Shyamalan, Crouch and showrunner Chad Hodge are confident in the story and their ability to tell it, and it shows on the screen. I’m glad I gave the show a chance; hopefully, you will too.

Wayward Pines airs Thursday nights on FOX; the show is on hiatus this week, making it a perfect time for you to shotgun the first five episodes before it returns June 25th. Full episodes can be found on FOX.com.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2015 in Reviews, Television

 

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(Storytelling) The Breath of Life

Myth 150I watched the series finale of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland a few days ago, and I have to say that the ending of it kind of encapsulated what was wrong with the series as a whole. There were a number of surprisingly dark moments but they paled in comparison to the writers’ commitment to making sure that there were almost no lingering consequences to them and the characters who should have been affected most by them didn’t really need to deal with them at all. By the end of the hour, the villain had been vanquished, anything bad that had ever happened to the protagonists had been rectified and “rewarded”, and everyone got to live happily ever after.

It was frustrating. There was a much more interesting and inventive take on Wonderland somewhere inside that show, but it only got to shine infrequently and was immediately snuffed out. I certainly don’t mind the idea of a family-friendly adventure show — in fact, it’s what I was hoping Wonderland would be — but there’s a weight to the series that was sorely missing.

The characters really stood out to me as a central problem. Alice, while portrayed admirably by Sophie Lowe, was pretty much a walking cliche generator about the power of love. The only thing that defined her was her dedication to the cursed genie Cyrus. Her giddy optimism seems completely unmoored from her experiences within the series; when we first meet her, she’s been mentally beaten down in an insane asylum, and is just about to admit that her time in Wonderland is completely made up. Throughout the series, we find out that Alice’s relationship with her father has suffered mightily, and she’s been all but replaced by a new stepmother and sister in the meantime. These are character-defining tragedies, but we can’t trace the Alice of the series back to what we knew of her before her latest stint in Wonderland.

The Knave of Hearts, Alice’s stalwart companion in this adventure, doesn’t fare much better. Throughout the series we learn that he left the fairy-tale realm of Sherwood Forest with a girl named Anastasia because of her disapproving mother. They live a hard-scrabble existence in Wonderland before Anastasia is seduced by the Red King while attempting to steal his jewels. She promptly abandons him, marries into royalty and becomes the Red Queen. There’s little to make us understand why she would do this, and why she would eventually change her mind on her wedding night. The Knave, so heartbroken by the betrayal, asks for his heart to be removed by the Red King’s mother (?). Then he goes on about his business before breaking Alice out of the asylum.

The Knave is supposed to be a cynic/pragmatist, but there’s clearly still a beating heart underneath that. He wants to do the right thing, and it’s clear that cynicism is a bad defense mechanism that never really fit. But if any semblance of emotion was literally ripped out of his chest before the events in the series takes place, where does this morality come from? Is there something beyond emotion that provides a person with a sense of right and wrong?

This could be an interesting thing to play around with, but Wonderland never does. The Knave goes from a cynical foil for Alice to a love-lorn romantic to little more than a plot device over the course of the series; the more we learn about him, the less clearly defined his character.

The others in the series — villain-turned-ally Red Queen/Anastasia, super-villain Jafar, and living MacGuffin Cyrus — don’t fare much better. We’re given a series of events that justifies what each of these characters want, but we have little sense of why they want it other than being implicitly asked to buy that they’re supposed to. We know what they want, what they need to do to get it, but no idea who these people are really.

But it’s not for lack of trying, I suppose — the writers try hard to make sure their characters are distinct, that their stories are told functionally well. It makes me wonder what exactly is missing with Wonderland’s characters, why they don’t feel like living, breathing people.

That was a question that gives me pause; in general, what do you look for in characters to make them feel whole? For me, it’s got to be the stuff in the margins — little things that point to deeper character traits, that make those characteristics feel ingrained, almost subconscious. Let’s say that the Knave is a bit of packrat because being surrounded by a lot of stuff comforts him; he spent a good bit of time poor with Anastasia, and anything that reminds him of that reminds him of how sucky it was and that he lost the love of his life. Maybe there’s some secret bit of him that believes if he accumulates a lot of wealth he just might be able to win her back. Or, say, Alice has a very hard time being alone, or being accused of lying is one of those things that will send her off to a rage. Maybe she has a hard time opening up to strangers because of her experiences with her stepmother.

We, as people, contain multitudes of ideas and ideals. We’ve been touched by so many different things that influence us. It makes sense for habits, conscious and otherwise, to arise from these influences. When a character can be boiled down to one trait only, that character won’t be interesting enough to carry a serialized TV series, shortened season or no. The fairy-tale characters of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland should probably be steamlined, heightened into archetypes, sure — but when you have 13 hours to tell your story there’s got to be room for a little more texture in there.

As it stood, the characters seemed relatively inert, bouncing from event to event with little in the way of an internal life to influence their trajectories. As a result, the characters felt like pieces being moved on a chessboard; while the game being played here might be interesting in a thought exercise kind of way, there just wasn’t much of an emotional hook to really get me to settle in.

The lesson to be learned here is that you need to make your characters as real as you can with the space you’re given. If you’re telling, say, a 30-minute story in an anthology episode or something, that’s one thing. Not a lot of real estate for detail, so you strip the character down to their essentials. But if you have a lot of time with a character, it really helps for us to slow down and take a look at them away from the story, to give them texture and room to breathe. Once we understand why characters relate to certain ideals in the way they do, we engage with them more deeply. When we understand what they want and why they want it, we want it for them much more readily.

But for now, I’ll open up the floor: when do you notice yourself becoming really invested in a character? What are some of your characterization pet peeves?

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in Reviews, Television, Writing

 

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My Wildly Inaccurate Oscar Predictions 2013

Entertainment 150As almost every cinephile knows, the Academy Awards will be held this Sunday, capping off a few months of hype and speculation about which movie will be crowned the best movie Hollywood made all year. Whichever film takes the honor will have quite esteemed company, joining the ranks of Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lamb, and others. We’ll honor the actors, actresses, directors, technical wizards and other behind-the-scenes guys who worked tirelessly to bring us stories that entertained, provoked and amazed us. I love this time of year. It’s the movie lover’s Super Bowl.

And just as sports writers prognosticate on which teams will hoist the Lombardi Trophy and why, movie buffs make their guesses about who’ll be carrying home those Oscar statues at the end of the evening. It’s fun to test your knowledge of not only the movies being nominated, but the political game behind Oscar — it’s a curious, fizzy mixture of sheer talent, personal perception and industry buzz. To me, the perception of the nominees is almost as fascinating as the work they’ve done to get to the big dance.

I thought I’d take a moment to write down who I think will win and who I think should win in the major categories this year. Keep in mind that these guesses aren’t based on any sort of expertise or insider’s knowledge. I haven’t even seen all of the Best Picture nominees, and much of my perception is based on picking up what’s in the echo chamber and throwing it back out there. Don’t use me for your office Oscar pool, whatever you do.

BEST PICTURE
Should Win Life of Pi. Though it wasn’t perfect, Life of Pi was certainly the most ambitious of all this year’s nominees. It told a spiritual fable in a way that was accessible, engaging and beautiful, and hit all of the right notes at the right time. The story was long thought to be unfilmable, and three different directors gave it a shot and passed before Ang Lee hammered it into shape with extraordinary patience. While most of the other nominees this year have a bit of emotional distance built into them (with the exception, perhaps, of Django Unchained) Life of Pi encouraging engagement as well as a more intellectual pondering. It’s the perfect blend of storytelling, and a worthy entrant into the ‘time capsule’ of movies that have won Best Picture. It tackles age-old themes in a thoroughly modern way, creating a snapshot of the way we think and feel in this day and age.

Will WinArgo. It’s been riding a wave of good will ever since the perceived snub of Ben Affleck for Best Director, and I see no reason why it won’t ride it all the way to the end of the evening. It looks like it’s shaping up to be a two-way race between Argo and Lincoln, and people just seem more passionate about this movie. And that’s fine, I guess — it’s engaging and very competently directed. Affleck has come a long way from his string of flops, but I think The Town and Gone Baby Gone were both more gripping.

BEST ACTOR
Should Win — Daniel Day-Lewis. Hands down, one of the finest actors working today, if not the very best. He makes Lincoln seem alive, to use the cliche — there’s humor, anger, wit and weariness all written across that craggy make-up of his. A lot of the movies best moments come down to Day-Lewis’ delivery; he knows when he really needs to sell a scene and when he needs to pull back. All in all, it makes for the most accessible, humanized Lincoln I’ve ever seen. Joaquin Phoenix comes close for his role in The Master, but Daniel Day-Lewis quite simply stands head and shoulders above even that.

Will Win — Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m not sure there’s even room for a “dark horse” candidate. In a weaker year, Bradley Cooper could have charmed his way to the award for Silver Linings Playbook, and again Phoenix can’t be ignored for The Master. But no one expects them to upset. Day-Lewis has got this locked.

BEST ACTRESS
Should Win — I’ve only seen two out of five Best Actress nominees, so this is the major category I know the least about. Of the two, I can only imagine Jennifer Lawrence being a serious contender; Quvenzhane Wallis is just happy to show up. And everything I’ve read says that Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Naomi Watts and Emanuelle Riva all turned in incredible work. I probably won’t have much of an opinion on who should win until I catch up on Zero Dark Thirty and Amour this weekend. Sorry to cop out on this one, guys!

Will Win — Emanuelle Riva. I have a hunch. People really feel like this one goes to Chastain or Lawrence, but there’s a very strong undercurrent of praise for Riva’s work in Amour. Both of the other front-runners are great actresses with long careers ahead of them, so I believe they’ll get another shot. Riva is my pick for the “surprise” of the evening.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Should Win — Tommy Lee Jones. He was having such an obvious blast in Lincoln, he nearly walked away with the movie. He anchors the scenes in Congress, serving as a fiery, wonderfully crotchety senator that’s Lincoln’s best worst ally. The nomination field is full of similar roles this year, and this one worked best.

Will Win — Robert De Niro. As good as Jones was, it feels like the wind is blowing De Niro’s way. He’s been getting a lot of buzz for his role as a dad with OCD (maybe?) in Silver Linings Playbook, and many people see it as a welcome return to form after a decade of paycheck movies.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Should Win — Anne Hathaway. Have you seen her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”? It feels like Les Miserables was building up to that moment early on in the film and the rest was just interminably long denouement. It was a searing performance that came out of nowhere to basically rip your heart out, much like Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar-winning turn in Dreamgirls. Amy Adams was excellent as a severe, zealous wife in The Master, and Sally Field was quite good in Lincoln, but no performance this year was as indelible as Hathaway’s. I was crying every time she appeared on screen. The look on her face when Valjean tells her he’ll take care of her daughter? Her return at the end of the movie, radiating love and peace for an elderly Valjean? Forget about it.

Will Win — Anne Hathaway. Almost as much a lock as Day-Lewis; she’s pretty much swept every award she’s been up for until now, though that might mean that Field could sweep in and take the award. She has plenty of respect and admiration, and people love to root for the underdog.

BEST DIRECTOR
Should Win — Ang Lee. While I definitely admire the work all of the nominees did this year, I don’t think anyone’s had it harder than Ang Lee. The production of the Life of Pi had to have been a circus, and he was a dedicated, extraordinarily patient ringmaster. Dealing with the complexities of the metaphysical story, a cast of unknown actors, an incredible amount of CGI while making sure everything was not only understood but connected on an instinctive, emotional level is no small feat. It’s a minor miracle that Pi is as good as it is, and it’s all thanks to Lee.

Will Win — Steven Spielberg. This is another ambitious production, and there’s a lot of admiration for what Spielberg has done with Lincoln. I’m thinking they’ll split the prizes this year and give Lincoln the Best Director statue as a consolation prize for losing to Argo.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Should WinWreck-It Ralph. Why are we even having this conversation? It was everything you could want in a cartoon — sly, sweet, with a fan’s knowledge of the video game world created around the story. It’s so good, it’s hard to believe it didn’t come from Pixar.

Will WinWreck-It Ralph. Brave was good, but it didn’t have the heart, joy and je ne sais quoi of Ralph. It has a lot of things going for it — it’s from Pixar, there’s a lot to like about the heroine, the other three films aren’t quite as Oscar-worthy — but unless people just vote for the Pixar movie out of habit, it’s hard to imagine it winning.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Should Win — I have to say, I really have no idea in this category. I’ve only seen one of the nominees, and I think it’s the one that will win. Hopefully I can see two more by the weekend!

Will WinDjango Unchained. Tarantino’s latest film wasn’t nominated for very much, and the dialogue is his usual mix of snap, crackle and pop. (Whatever that means.) It might be too vulgar for the Academy voters, though, in which case it might go to Zero Dark Thirty instead.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Should WinBeasts of the Southern Wild. This is an indie darling that garnered a few nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) but will more than likely go home empty-handed, which is a shame. But if Beasts of the Southern Wild takes home any trophy on Oscar night, it should be this one. The movie is a strange mix of mythic folk, near-future dystopia and downright fairy tale, and its initial inscrutability dissolves into a complex, breathing story with plenty to say. Ryan and I had a great time discussing it after we saw it, and Life of Pi was the only other movie we could have that kind of conversation about among this year’s nominees. I really admire David Magee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, but in my dream world, this would win.

Will WinLincoln. Tony Kushner cobbled together letters, accounts of the time and passages from Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin to create a fascinating account of the passage of the 13th Amendment. It makes politics seem as messy and muddled back then as it was today, which is somewhat relieving if you ask me. Still, it’s great work that deserves to be recognized, and I think it’ll be one of the statues Lincoln takes home on Sunday.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how wrong I am on Sunday evening. In the meantime, have a good weekend folks!

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Movies, Politics, Pop Culture, Television

 

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My Love Affair with Parks and Recreation

I gave Parks and Recreation a miss when it premiered on April 9th, 2009, because I made the mistake of thinking that it was just trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice. The mockumentary-style comedy was becoming a thing after the success of The Office, and it just felt like NBC wanted something that worked just as well without understanding what made it so good in the first place. I didn’t know that much about Amy Poehler beyond the fact that she was partners with Tina Fey and the wife of Will Arnett, both very funny people.

Then I started watching it. Ryan and I were looking for something new and relatively quick to watch, and we’d heard enough good things about it to give it a shot. What attracted me to it at first was its good-natured silliness. Poehler’s Leslie Knope was a little ditzy (like boss Michael Scott in The Office), but she was so naively optimistic it was hard not to fall in love with her. The rest of the staff of Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation Department were doofy in their own way, but most of them didn’t have that same bite you find in The Office. It made the show a brighter, fluffier companion to the folks in Scranton, PA, and right away it showed itself as a good complement.

The first six-episode season focused around the filling of a pit behind the house of Ann Perkins, a registered nurse. The plot served as a great introduction to the process of getting anything done in local government, as well as establishing the personalities and relationships of its main characters. There are a number of roadblocks that make Leslie’s goal of filling the pit and turning it into a park difficult, but the sheer tirelessness of her optimism and her surprising resourcefulness win out — she manages to pull it off, earning a small win for herself and her band of broken people.

From there, the stakes raise throughout the season and Leslie and co. have to pull off increasingly difficult projects while navigating professional and romantic entanglements. In order to stave off a government shutdown, Leslie has to put together a Harvest Festival to prove the worth of the department. Out of that success comes the chance to run for City Council, fulfilling one of Leslie’s lifelong dreams — running for public office. The campaign and election takes up the entirety of season four, and it’s here where Parks and Recreation becomes one of my favorite comedies of all-time.

The first three seasons are all great, don’t get me wrong. The ensemble cast clicks in almost no time at all, and as Leslie’s character goes from being optimistic ditz to hard-working, unbelievably good person her transition elevates the entire show. Leslie’s beliefs and her commitment to being true to them through her actions form the backbone of the show, and the supporting characters rally around that. Through the first three seasons, you see these people become inspired by Leslie to raise their own personal standards and learn to not only tolerate, but support one another despite their differences.

Season four’s campaign storyline is the culmination of that. You see these people — the stupid but earnest Andy Dwyer, the apathetic goth-girl April Ludgate, the man’s-man Libertarian Ron Swanson, the excessively happy health-nut Chris Traeger — form a tight-knit community that completes them in some way, and forces them to see the world beyond their small bubble in it. Helping Leslie achieve her dream leads them to finding and chasing their own, and they get a better sense of themselves through it. That secureness in their own character enables them to interact with people who would normally be their antithesis. In so many ways, Parks and Recreation illustrates the best of what government can do: help us find a way to live together despite our different ideas.

It’s a beautiful thing to watch. In so many ways, it’s more a liberal, escapist fantasy than The West Wing. That show featured incredibly intelligent people circling the wagons against a hostile world that wants to take them down. Everyone’s on the same team, and it’s just a matter of watching them engineer defenses against attacks. It’s great to watch, if you’re on the same team as well. But what makes Parks and Rec greater than that is having people coming from so many bizarre directions forced to work together. Not only that, but they have to learn how to do it well. Through hard work and constant effort, they manage it. They overcome every obstacle thrown at them by building a better community that accommodates everyone.

This is the kind of story we need right now. Our political process has become fundamentally broken because the national conversation has devolved into shouting matches between two teams who cannot see the value in learning to be civil with one another. Parks and Recreation shows us just what we can do when we come together for the good of our neighbors, and how much doing so enriches our lives. Leslie Knope is a model citizen to that end, and a model politician. She believes in the power of government and bureaucracy to make the places we live better, and she’s not content to simply hope for that to happen. She goes out to make it happen, and she encourages the people she works with to make it happen, too. And it’s a genuine joy watching her.

 
 

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Literary Television Episodes

When I first discovered the Internet, one of the things that I immediately took to was the many different ways you could use it to disseminate information. Stuff like Wikipedia is great, and the fact that I could theoretically find out how to make just about anything by looking it up is stupendously awesome. If you’re interested about the basics of woodworking, or the finer points of baking, or studying mythology in different ways, there’s a place on the internet for you. If you learn by reading, or watching, or discussing, then you can find an article, video or community that suits your needs. It’s truly awesome.

It didn’t take me long to find that you could play around with how stories are told as well. Back when LOST was first airing, there was an alternate-reality game centered around the passenger manifest of Oceanic Flight 815. It was absolutely engrossing, a way to bring you deeper into the world in a way a TV show never could. LOST was one of the very first television shows to bring in the interactive element, and I can tell you now it was one of the reasons I became so terribly addicted to that show. To this day, I’ll go to the mat to defend it — mainly because the story it told took advantage of new technologies to push my buttons so, so well.

The internet has changed how we take in information and stories quite a bit — at least, for those of us who spend a good chunk of our lives here. Alternate-reality games are all over the place, and it’s almost expected for a TV show or movie with any sort of geek interest to have an interactive element. Even for those of us who are primarily writers, the Internet offers us a great opportunity to stretch the form of storytelling in ways we never would have thought about before.

One of my favorite things about this isn’t anything quite as out-there as ARGs or blogs and websites that blur the line between fiction and reality. (Though those are almost always really interesting.) The thing that really gets me excited about online publishing is the rise of serialized fiction, and how feasible, even easy, it is to get stuff like that out there.

I confess that serialized, episodic storytelling is one of my favorite forms. It’s something that’s been played around with in the sci-fi/fantasy genre for a little while now, but I don’t think it really hit the big time until LOST came around. Tying character journeys around a big, over-arching mystery that takes years to complete is a fascinating process, and it’s something that people have taken and run with to create some truly great fiction. There’s The Sopranos (heck, just about anything on HBO), Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Shield. Each season is treated like a novel, with episodes comprising chapters in that novel. There’s an arc and a theme for each one, and the premise of the show turns a little bit (or a lot, depending) at the end of every season. You get invested in the journey of these characters over the long-term, and there’s enough growth from year to year that it doesn’t feel like anyone’s treading water. That is, if you do it right. It’s complicated and difficult, holding that many moving parts all at once, but when you pull it off there’s nothing better.

One of the things I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time now is take that format and apply it to short stories or small novels. You come up with a setting or a group of characters, you plot out a ‘season’ of stories to tell with them, and you release them one a week at the same time and place. I even have two or three scenarios where that would work fairly well, and I’ve arced out some character arcs that might actually do. The only trouble is, of course, that I have a devil of a time finishing anything I start.

But that’s an entry for a different time. For now, I’d like to ask you guys if you’ve found anything like what I’m talking about — a great story that’s been broken up into different episodes, like a television show. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them around, but I’m curious what other people have found out there. Share, share!

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Television, Writing

 

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