When I started the CBS Diversity Writers Mentoring Program, we had to submit a little bio about ourselves.  Mine started off like this:  “Niceole Levy has watched more than 700 prime-time television shows in her lifetime and often jokes that her Master of Professional Writing degree from USC was simply a way to justify all that TV time as ‘advanced research.’  Now she also calls it work, her position as a closed captioning supervisor providing access to hours of drama and comedy programming for her viewing pleasure.”

A few clarification points:

1. The actual number of television shows has just hit 746.

2.  I really do get paid to watch TV, so a lot of those shows were watched for income, though some of those were certainly enjoyable and a few became favorites.

3.  I know it’s hard to believe after seeing how much TV I’ve watched, but I do not spend all my time sitting in front of a television.  On top of the obvious — writing — I cook, bake (a lot), do Pilates and dance workouts, walk, shoe shop (more than I should), spend time with family and friends, and go to a lot of summer movies where pretty boys blow up lots of things.  In other words, I actually have a life that doesn’t involve TV.  So how do I manage to watch so much?  I apparently sacrifice sleep over a chance to hang with my favorite characters.

So, yeah, there’s been a lot of TV.  I love it… not a bad thing to love the industry you want to spend the rest of your life working in, right?  But out of that 746 shows (Wow.  That really starts to look like A LOT of TV when I keep typing it), there are 5 key shows that had the biggest impact on the writer I have become and the one I continue to strive to be.  And clearly I’m about to tell you what they are and why, but with this note — your 5 is probably different, and more power to you.  There are some amazing shows that I love that won’t make this list (“China Beach,” “The Unit,” “The Sopranos,” “Boston Legal,” and the single-season gem “Terriers” to name but a few.)  But these are the ones that, as I sit down to craft pilots, I think back on in the hope of trying to create something that is even a fraction as well-drawn, moving, and memorable.

1.  “Hill Street Blues.”  One of the most striking things about Hill Street to me is that really, if you could CGI in modern clothes and switch out the giant hand-held portable phones for smart phones, the subject matter holds up remarkably well.  But one of the best things about HSB was that they were never afraid to reveal awful things about characters you loved… recovering alcoholic J.D. LaRue seemed to always be one step away from self-destructing, and even Renko’s friendship with Bobby Hill couldn’t always keep his old-school racism at bay.  The writers also didn’t hide from the emotional costs or the life-and-death realities of what it meant to live your life on a beat, and often delivered that message with a punch to the gut for viewers.  In a spoiler-free world, I had no idea Ed Marino’s Joe Coffey was going to be gunned down, and it absolutely broke my heart.

And to top it off, Frank and Joyce… who were the first couple I saw on television that made me think about what a real relationship should look like outside of all the romance and perfection so many other shows put on display.  What did it really mean for two strong adults to try to put their two lives together and make a marriage work?  I’m not sure I’d ever thought about that before these two forced me to think about relationships in more grown-up terms.

2.  “Homicide: Life on the Street.”  The true testament to the power of this show in my life can be summed up with one episode title:  “Three Men and Adena.”  The episode is so brutal and so upsetting that I have barely been able to rewatch it more than once since I first saw it.  Because if Frank and Tim are right?  If they’re right, then their inability to bring Risley Tucker (played by the always amazing Moses Gunn) to justice is injustice at its worst.  And if they’re wrong?  They destroyed a man emotionally and still couldn’t close their case.

Those were the stakes the cops of “Homicide” faced every week, and they pulled no punches, not when one of their own committed suicide or faced losing a part of himself after a stroke on the job, and not when one of Baltimore’s finest becomes a murderer rather than let a murderer go free.

3.  “NYPD Blue.”  I know, another cop show!  But while Blue yet again dealt with cops, it was the character arc of one Andy Sipowicz that made it one of the shows I cherish most.  If anyone had told me in year one that I would come to care so much for Andy, I’d have laughed at them.  He was everything you’d come to expect in the disillusioned depiction of a cop… a racist, a sexist, a bad husband and father, a drunk.  And yet piece by piece, we watched Andy’s life be rebuilt… destroyed… and rebuilt again.

It’s hard to say which of the tragedies Andy suffered broke my heart more… the day he found his son was the victim in the murder he’d responded to, the loss of his best friend Bobby Simone, or the death of his beloved Sylvia.  But there is no doubt what my favorite Andy moment of all was… the last one, with Andy, now a fully-realized, strong, sober, happy man, in charge of the squad he loved after putting in all the hard work it had taken to earn the job and the respect that went along with it.  It was one of the most amazing journeys I’ve ever been on with a character, and hey, as you know from the TV show total, I’ve been on a lot of them.

4.  “Once and Again.”  Gone far before its time, this show’s depiction of the complexities of life post-divorce, of falling in love again, of blending families, and of growing older never failed to move me.  There were no perfect people anywhere to be found in this tale, no white knights riding in on horses to save the damsel.  But there was such a level of honesty in how they revealed each layer to their characters, some hidden so deep that even in the final episode, Rick and Lily were still realizing that after they’d said I do and supposedly set out on their happily ever after, there was still a chance that they might want different things out of life, and what did that mean for their family?

Even when I wanted to yell at them, because everyone on this show could be a jerk, (because seriously, who can’t?)  I felt their confusion and their struggle with whatever was motivating the jerky behavior.  Years after the final episode, I still think of how much I would’ve loved to see Rick and Lily have their baby and face squeezing one more person into their already bustling lives or what a joy it would’ve been to see Karen finally… finally allow herself to be happy with Henry Higgins or how amazing it would’ve been to see this extended family that always found a way to tell the truth, even if it took a few lies or omissions to get there, discover and accept Jessie’s sexuality.

5.  “Friday Night Lights.”  The most recent entry to my Fantastic Five, but no less beloved than the others, from the very first episode of FNL, I knew I’d love this show forever.  Something about the way you felt everyone else’s reaction to Jason Street’s injury told you about what this show was and what you could expect from it, and even that one little misstep in season two (okay, not so little, but still, we all got over it, right?) did nothing to diminish my devotion.  This show faced the task of replacing treasured characters as the originals “aged out” and graduated, and I remember being so worried that I’d never feel for Vince Howard the way I had about Matt Saracen.  Who could touch my heart the way 7 had?  And yet I went into the final season of the show worried sick that Vince’s past might come back to destroy him and hoping against hope that he would stay on the path Coach Taylor had set him on.  And could I love any character more than Tim Riggins?  He was every guy you’ve ever known who is good at heart and can’t seem to catch a break.  And yet finally, even Tim Riggins seemed on the path to a good life because of the town that never forgot him and the people who loved him.

Much has been written about the Taylor marriage in FNL, and it is truly one of its finest aspects.  I won’t belabor it by repeating everything great that’s been written about it except to say that it was inspiring at every turn.  But one of the biggest things I will take away from FNL is the spirit of the show.  Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.  It wasn’t just Coach Taylor’s winning philosophy.  It was a summation of what you can do when you write from your heart and tell a great damn story.

So as my latest pilot outline goes to script, many of the things I consider on the journey will be those I’ve mentioned here.  How can my couples’ relationships be as meaningful and as important as the ones I loved so much?  How can I write an episode that someone will remember years later and think, “and that’s when I knew I’d love this show”?  Find the honesty, find the thing no one’s expecting, mine the layers to reveal something no one can see in the character until you peel back the skin, write an episode so powerful, it’s almost unwatchable… those will be my goals… and now, off to write I go.

P.S. If you haven’t seen any of the above — get thee DVDs!  You won’t regret it.  And, fellow writers, what are the shows that made you want to write?  Hit the comments and share!  I can always use new inspiration!

As far as I can tell, everyone I know has been victimized by what I like to call “mom’s favorite phrase.”  Of course, most of us have a different one to relate… a mom’s response to how you dress (You’re really wearing that?) or how you do your hair (Did you see that on some TV show and think it looked good?) or that thing she says that makes it seem like she lives to embarrass you (Oh, I know she doesn’t like it, but I’m her mama, so I get to call her “baby doll” no matter how old she is.)

My mother’s favorite phrase is guaranteed to lift my shoulders to my ears, tense up my neck, and make me clench my teeth.  “I could be dead by… (insert necessary time frame here).”

–We try to plan a visit to my brother’s family in the fall.  “But I could be dead by October.”

–I invite her to spend Mother’s Day with me in the city.  “But I could be dead by that weekend.”

–A friend invites her on a road trip to Nevada.  “Well, she wants to go in April, but I could be dead by April.”

Why is that the phrase I wish I could get some higher power to permanently ban from usage where my mother is concerned?  Well, because frankly, I don’t like to be reminded that there will be a day when she will be dead by…  I know it’s inevitable, I know it’s the way things are supposed to work, but really, who wants to think about that?

She gets mad at me every time I remind her she’s not allowed to say that to me, and tells me that I take everything she says too seriously.  I’m sure that’s true to some extent.  She is, after all, the person who could pronounce a death sentence over my social life for days, week, and months at a time for an 18-year period of my life… I learned to take what my mother said very seriously during those 18 years.  And I know that what she really means is, “yes, let’s make plans, but just know that things can change and don’t get mad at me if they do.”

Recently, though, I’ve had a new thought about the dreaded “dead by” phrase.  And I think it’s bothered me my whole life not just because every time she says it, an image conjures of a world without my mother in it, but because those words have always sounded like a reason not to do things… not to make plans or chase a dream.  Instead of hearing it the way she meant it, I heard, “why bother?”

As I worked on my pilot “Thin Air” and as I struggle through the outline for my latest, I’ve realized that’s the question that interests me most about all my characters.  Why bother?  Why would I bother to write them?  Why would you bother to watch them?  What is it that makes them say “to hell with that, buy the plane tickets and let’s make the plans”?  And what makes them shake their heads and say “why bother”?  Exploring those issues with my detectives in “Thin Air” and with the driven and yet incredibly vulnerable McKellar family in the “in progress” script has led to whole blocks of writing time spent self-debating why a son comes home to a father he no longer believes in and why a daughter can’t begin her future until she confronts the worst moment of her past.  It’s finding those answers that reminds me, I’d do this every day for the rest of my life, even if no one ever paid me (but really, someone should pay me!)

As it turns out, for all my moaning and groaning about it, even when my mom says IT, she usually gives in and makes the plans.  Oh, there’s a lot of bitching and me having to plead and sometimes get a little snippy, but we usually end up on the plane to my brother’s, or she comes to the big city for a week of shopping and running around crazy with yours truly, or she accepts her friend’s invitation and goes on the road trip, which leads to her annoyance when I tell her to remember to call when she gets where she’s going (Since when do I have to call you?  I am the mama here).

Because sure… things can change, plans can blow up, and the risks… oh, torturous!  Technically, she’s right.  She could… we all could be dead by… but making the plans… making the plans means we hope we’ll still be here… which is why I like to think she always ends up making them.

And you know what she never says it about?  She never says it about the day she gets to see “written by Niceole Levy” on her TV screen.  She has definite plans to be here for that.  And I’m plotting away at this laptop, doing my best to deliver.

 Let’s make the plans!

Hello there, and welcome to what you could call “Niceole unplugged” but what I think of more as “rambling with purpose.”  Too many stories to share — that’s my problem, so I decided, hey, blog some of them!  But first… let’s have proper introductions.  If you’re going to jump on board this train and enjoy these nuggets o’ silliness in the proper context, there are a few things that you should know about me.

1.  My body is a character in my life.  Seriously — it has a mind of its own that is wholly separate from Niceole’s mind.  Friday night, for instance, I knew I had to go for a walk and my mind was in total agreement — no skipping the work out!  My body?  Not so much.  It filed three formal protests–a back spasm, a flare of knee pain, and just for good measure, a cramp in my calf muscle that remained post stretching.  My body’s mind is evil and it often does not like me.

2.  My family is crazy… but crazy in the good “hi-larious” kind of way and not the way that ends up with a Lifetime movie “based on a true story.”  I love them dearly and yet often threaten to give them up for adoption.  I’m sure they feel the same way about me, they just don’t blog it, so I get to live in denial.

3.  I really love what I love and I really hate what I hate.  I can listen to you tell me why you love what I hate or hate what I love objectively and respectfully, just know that it will not change my mind.  For reference, see “Faux ‘Battlestar Galactica'” and my friends who love it but know this O.G. “Battlestar” girl will never watch a minute of it.  Also see The Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins.  Nothing will ever make that hate go away, even if a few of my friends wish it would.  But I love them in spite of their poor football fandom and university choices, and they love my USC- and 49er-loving ass right back.

4.  I love shoes… more than someone should love shoes… and chocolate… and coffee… and television… and football.  These topics will probably pop up often, sometimes no doubt as part of or as a result of (see coping mechanisms) one of the crazy family stories.

Given all that, if you’re still reading, here’s the first crazy family story.  File this one under “parental contribution to the child becoming a writer.”

July 4th made me think a lot about my dad because I spent it watching documentaries.  One was “The Tillman Story,” which was great, though it broke my heart to watch this family have to fight so much ridiculousness just to get an answer to the question “how did Pat die?”  The second was “Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good,” which detailed Gary Sinise’s work to support the troops, much of which involves his band, the aforementioned Lt. Dan Band, performing shows for the troops and their families at home and overseas.

My dad was a 22-year Navy man, and he told me about some of the shows he saw while he was in the service, so I know how important it is for anyone with talent and the will to share it to go and entertain our servicemen and women.  My friend Jackie Kashian, who is a great comic, has done so as well, and I admire her more for it than I could probably convey (though I hope the homemade “welcome home: you’re awesome” cookies were a decent attempt).

Anyway, thinking about the military reminded me of my dad, and brought to mind this day when I was probably about 4 years old.  I noticed that my father was mostly bald, and then I noticed that he was bald in every picture we had in the house, no matter how young he’d been.  He had a halo of dark, curly hair, but mostly, the whole top was bare as could be.  And being a kid who asked questions, I walked up to him one day and said, “Daddy, what happened to your hair?”

“Well, (embarrassing nickname withheld to protect the innocent),” he said, “when daddy was over in Vietnam, one day this grenade flew over top of my head.  And right when it blew up, it grabbed all my hair and just pulled it right out.”

I know what you’re thinking.  But in my defense, I WAS 4!  What 4 year old thinks her daddy would lie to her about anything?

A few years later, I was busy playing some form of cops and robbers on the playground when suddenly that story popped into my head, and I had that moment of “wait, what?! if a grenade went over his head, how is his head still on?”  I got my Mama to call my dad’s older sister and told her the story, my mother trying not to laugh in the background, but my aunt couldn’t keep it in.  She laughed till she cried and said, “Girl, don’t believe nothin’ that man tells you.  You know how he lost his hair?  He walked some girl home in the freezing cold with his head all out, and then didn’t listen when I told him he had frostbite and not to put hot water on his head.  He put that damn hot water on there, and all his hair fell out, and it ain’t never come back.”

For the record, I think my dad was just cursed with a receding hairline that took its toll by the time he was in his teens.  Which is not to say I haven’t Googled “scalp frostbite baldness” in about twenty combinations just to double-check.  I like to cover my bases.

When my dad got home that day, he was met with my stern little face, arms crossed in front of me, body planted on the front porch stairs.  No doubt my hair was in two super tight long black braids, one on each side of my head, which was my mom’s favorite way to do my hair and which probably made me look a lot like a furious munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Daddy, you lied to me.  No grenade tore your hair out.  Auntie said you got frostbite and that’s how you lost it.”

He laughed and shrugged.

“Well, I never told you it was the truth, now did I?”

Yeah, get hit with that when you’re 6 or 7.  I became super fact-check girl before I could write my name in cursive.  Suddenly every story my family told me was suspect… haunted attics in New Orleans?  Yeah, that needed research.  Mysterious graves with chains on them in Mississippi?  Someone would have to show me that in person before I believed it.

But I suppose my research skills had to come from somewhere.  A goofy story from my father about his bald head seems as good a place as any.  It’s just too bad I didn’t know about my dad’s love of a good fib before… like say when my siblings decided to tell me I’d been found in a trash can.  But that’s a story for another blog.

Stuff to check out:

http://www.tillmanstory.com/

http://www.ltdanbandmovie.com/

Jackie Kashian, Stand-Up Comedian