Blog Archive

Past posts from sites I’ve contributed to. . .

Stream This: The West Wing

The West Wing is one of those shows that gets better with a second viewing (and a third). It’s so fast-paced that it’s easy to miss dialogue or even whole plot points on first viewing. Each episode is structured so the characters drop in pieces of information throughout so that sometimes the audience doesn’t get a full picture of what’s going on until the end, making even the most basic conversation a mystery until the writers reveal what the characters are actually talking about.

The whip-smart dialogue has a rhythm that can be mesmerizing and is worth focusing on solely as a lesson for aspiring writers. The incredible performances are easier to appreciate when scenes can be replayed simply to watch the impressive actors plying their craft. There are many reasons The West Wing works as a series and they become even more pronounced when a story arc can be viewed in hours instead of months.

Why Stream It Now? It’s fascinating to see how politics has evolved since the series premiered in 1999. We’re still fighting many of the same battles, but the arguments—and laws—over health care, gay rights, and the economy have changed in interesting ways. It’s an informative glimpse into how the sausage is made in the American political system during the seemingly endless modern news cycle.

The show is also interesting as a historical document in its own right. Comparing the episodes written before and after the events of September 11th reveals some of the ways that day changed American culture. The terrorist attack occurred less than a month before to the premiere of season three and it’s clear that the event affected the show. Themes of terrorism and turmoil in the Middle East take on a new focus, changing some of the tenor of the series from its first two seasons.

The Pros: The West Wing holds up, which should be no surprise. Although some of the subject matter is clearly dated, the show is as strong today as it was when it first aired. The acting matches and often surpasses the top-notch writing, which is some of the best in television. The cast is stellar right down to guest and recurring characters brought in to expand the world. But it’s not just the big name celebrities like Edward James Olmos and Glenn Close that make it worthwhile. The West Wing also brought exposure to a number of guest actors that would go on to bigger careers like Elisabeth Moss and Jorja Fox.

The Cons: The West Wing is unabashedly liberal from a distinctly American perspective, which may put off some more conservative viewers or those watching with a global viewpoint. There is also a current of sexism throughout the series that is partly inherent to the world of politics and possibly also related to criticism the series creator, Aaron Sorkin, has faced throughout his career. In spite of that, the show manages to craft some incredible, three-dimensional female characters, especially C.J. Cregg who remains one of the greatest characters of any gender in the history of television, due in no small part to the breakout work of Allison Janney.

Skip This: “Isaac & Ishmael.” Created in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attack, the well-intentioned third season episode was meant as primer on the situation in the Middle East and America’s involvement in what was considered a new world order. The hastily-produced episode comes off more preachy than informative and is much slower than the traditionally fast-paced stories. It’s also a total sidetrack in the resolution to the exciting storyline that wrapped up season two. Conveniently, the episode was created outside of the normal timeline of the series so you can avoid it completely without missing a thing.

Beyond that episode, the series takes a noticeable shift in tone following the departure of its creator Aaron Sorkin after season four. Still, the series soldiered on under the direction of John Wells, a fairly talented writer in his own right (See: ER, Southland, Shameless. . .) The West Wing does rebound by the end, but the final episode feels almost like it’s from a different series than the pilot. If you don’t have time for the entire run, it’s okay to take a break after the second episode of season five, “The Dogs of War.” At that point you’ll have the resolution to the prior season’s cliffhanger and can depart with that particular mystery solved.

Don’t Miss: The final episodes of the second season when the president reveals to the world a rather large secret he’s been keeping. (The storyline is ongoing throughout the first two seasons, but it really ramps up when Toby finds out that secret in the eighteenth episode of the season, “17 People.”)

The Christmas episodes of each season in the early years tend to be highlights as well, usually focusing on one of the actors in what was likely a submission for their Emmy reels.

What’s Next? Aaron Sorkin’s earlier series, Sports Night, is a good way to fill The West Wing void when you’re done.


Stream This: Veronica Mars

A (not so) long time ago…

In past twenty years few characters have entered the pop cultural zeitgeist more so than Buffy Summers and Veronica Mars. Neither of their series got stellar ratings when they initially aired but both characters have lived on long beyond the demise of their shows. They have influenced—and continue to influence–society. In the young adult publishing industry, for example, these two characters are constantly held up as examples of “strong female characters.” It’s not unusual to hear “she’s Veronica Mars as a cheerleading assassin” or “it’s Buffy meets James Bond” as a way of pitching a book or praising a character even though both of their shows went off the air while the YA target audience was in kindergarten … or before some of them were born.

Veronica Mars is not simply a “strong female character.” (Neither is Buffy, but this article isn’t about her anymore. Moving on…) She is a fully realized three-dimensional young woman with as many flaws as redeeming qualities. And that’s why we love her. A series of horrible events turned her life upside down and hardened her in ways that most teens on television never experience. Or, if they do, their problems are solved before the next episode. Her outlook on life has become much darker as a result. She is constantly motivated by that darkness, and yet she can’t help but also find the light.

Veronica Mars, the series and the character, are about a deeper kind of teen girl detective. It is a film noir examination of the class struggles of a California town where the underbelly of society can be found on both sides of the tracks (to mix some metaphors). The series takes the usual high school struggles with fitting in and adds murder, sexual assault, and corruption to the mix. Then it achieves the seemingly impossible task of presenting these dark and disturbing subjects in an entertaining way. Veronica Mars is so good at blending the darkness of noir with the light of teen dramas that it’s one of the series more than worthy of repeat viewings.

Why Stream It Now?

The private eye has come full circle with the reunion film and a pair of books co-authored by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham that serve as sequels to the movie. Graham likely performed the bulk of the work on the books, but she captured the tone of the series perfectly. It makes for a great addition to the Mars universe and a fitting way to continue Veronica’s tale while waiting for whatever may get her back on a TV, computer, or movie screen again in the future.

Fans of iZombie who haven’t already met Ms. Mars, should check out the series that effectively kicked off the careers of writer Rob Thomas and actress Kristen Bell.

The Pros: Veronica is an utterly unique character in that she is a total pessimist that still gets shit done. The hardships she’s faced haven’t completely shut her down, rather she uses her adversities as motivation to make things right in the world. Even more interesting is how she still manages to possess a glimmer of hope in spite of her stating her mindset succinctly in the pilot when analyzing Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” by declaring “life’s a bitch until you die.”

The entire cast—with maybe a few weak points—is comprised of fully realized characters that are more than your standard teen tropes. Many people watch Veronica Mars for the love story or for the wonderful father/daughter relationship, but her relationship with Wallace is one of the best friendships presented on television, in spite of the fact (and maybe a little because of it) she’s constantly using him to get what she needs. At least it’s usually for the greater good.

If you come for the characters, definitely stay for the story. It pulls no punches, unafraid to find the darkness beneath the bright California sunshine.

The Cons: Hate. There are characters in this show you will come to loathe with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns. If you prefer your television where everyone is happy and gets along, this show is not for you. And neither are most things on TV these days. Also Paris Hilton guest stars in the second episode in a fairly significant role, which may seem like it’s setting a tone for future episodes, but it’s not. Say what you will about the celebutante, but she simply doesn’t have the range to pull it off. Don’t blame the writers. Her appearance was forced on them.

As for more significant “cons” the biggest one is that the resolution to the second season mystery undoes a lot of the strength first season ender. It betrays what the audience knew in a way that may be in keeping with noir, but is still problematic storytelling.

It should be noted that all three seasons carry a huge trigger-warning as the show does not shy away from the topic of rape at all, exploring various effects and repercussions of the horrific act. This is not so much a “con” of the series (far from it, in fact), but a warning that some might find the show disturbing at times.

Skip This: From beginning to end, Veronica Mars is one of the best series on television, but there’s no question that seasons two and three do not live up to the quality of season one (with the third season generally considered the weakest of the bunch). If you only want to watch the premier season it’s okay to depart after the finale, but you will be missing out.

Don’t Miss: The pilot episode, the last two episodes of the initial season, and everything in between. Seriously, don’t miss a minute of the first season. Sure, there are weak episodes. The show isn’t perfect. But the overarching mystery and the way clues are dropped in at seemingly insignificant times along with the fascinating character development as Veronica works to get back some semblance of a normal life are some of the best moments on television.

Specifically, don’t miss “Weapons of Class Destruction.” The mystery of the week itself isn’t all that exciting, but this episode . . . well, you’ll know why when you see it.

What’s Next? Series creator Rob Thomas was also working as a young adult author as he was breaking into television. While all his books are excellent, it’s Rats Saw God that is a must read for any Marshmallow.


Five Things I Learned from Writing My First Comic Book

#1 A comic book script is the most concise form of writing I have ever attempted. The average comic book is about 22 pages of content. Sometimes the story will continue over an arc of several comics, but each individual issue (as any story) should have some kind of beginning, middle, and end to it. For me, outlining is absolutely necessary in this process.

The first thing I do when approaching a new issue is I create a table in Word that is two columns wide and twelve rows long. Then I break it out as if it were the layout of the comic book. The top row is the inside cover and page one. Second row is pages two and three, and so on and so on. Then I fill each box in the grid with the basic action that will take place on that page. This allows me to move things around, control the pacing of the story, and generally get a visual on where the big reveals will be. All reveals happen on even numbered pages so that when you turn the page–BOOM–something interesting should be happening on the left page, as here in the U.S. we read from left to right. (Mind you, you can’t just make every even page “exciting” because a story has a natural flow.)

#2 The obvious rule: Every panel can only hold one action. You can’t just have someone go to the refrigerator, open it, take out some string cheese, shut the door, open the packaging, peel off a tasty string of cheese and eat it in one drawing. That’s seven panels. (It’s also a very boring comic book.) You have to find a way to link the panels by highlighting the important action. Panel 1: The person reaches into the refrigerator for the string cheese. Panel 2: Eating of the string cheese ensues.

#3 A comic book page is only so large. You can only fit so many panels on one page. You can only fit so much information into one panel. You have to envision the page as you want the artist to draw it, balancing out the number of panels with the amount of information each panel reveals. Then you have to link the panels into a story.

This is where you get to have fun. Some pages can be packed with panels. Some might only have two or three panels. In rare cases, you can have one panel equal a whole page. And in really special cases, you might have one panel stretch out over a two-page spread for a really big reveal. This is where the pacing comes in. Sometimes you set the pacing and other times the pacing sets you depending on how much information you need to share. A big two-page spread might be fun to have the artist create, but if you need to reveal a bunch of information over those two pages, it might be best to use multiple panels to do it.

#4 The artist is not a mind reader. You have to be very careful how you describe the art that is going to be drawn. That’s a risk with novels as well. When I’m describing something to a reader in a novel, I can’t get into that reader’s mind and tell her what to think. There’s always a chance the reader will imagine something differently than I intended. With comic books, if the artist draws something that does not match your intention the reader will only see what appears on the page.

#5 You have to be able to let go. Comic books are a collaboration. No matter how in sync you are with the artist, some things will not be translated the way you pictured them. If you’re lucky enough to see the art before it goes to print (which is not always the case) you can’t nitpick every little thing. You have to focus on the big stuff. The things that affect the story. Because if you do start getting all nitpicky you should be warned that the artist may want to kill you. But sometimes the changes may be worth placing your life in jeopardy.


Top 10 Signs that I’m Up Against a Tight Deadline

#10 I have not set foot outside all day…
#9 Which is fine, because I’m still in my pajamas…
#8 And I haven’t showered…
#7 And I’m not really sure what day it is anyway.
#6 My caffeine intake has tripled.
#5 I keep moving from my home office to the living room just for a change of scene.
#4 I’m searching for places to pick up printer ink after midnight. (Because I like to edit on actual paper.)
#3 I’m already at the computer before The Today Show comes on.
#2 I take inexplicable breaks to blog because my mind is mush and I guess it needs to focus on something else.

And the #1 sign that I am on a tight deadline:
I’ve run out of Pop-Tarts.