The TV Gifts I Got This Fall

November 29, 2012

Fall is always a busy time for TV viewers, with the onslaught of new shows competing for our hearts and attention. It’s especially so now that cable shows are usually lingering into the fall or having their own premieres, making our DVRs want to implode from overuse. It’s extra busy for us baby writer types who have to know what’s happening on every show on every network in case we get called in for a meeting with someone who works on it!

Amongst my returning faves, I’ve been especially thrilled to see that my top new show from last year, “Person of Interest,” continues to just get more and more incredible every week, and that the big hook-up on “Castle” has only made that already fabulous show even more fantastic and fun.

There are numerous new programs I’ve been enjoying, and a large slate of returning and new shows coming in 2013 that I’m super excited about (“Justified,” “Southland,” “Dallas,” “The Americans,” and “Monday Mornings,” I’m looking at you! — Wow. How much of my time is TNT going to get?) But there are a few gems from the fall that I wanted to take the time to blog about quickly for those of you who haven’t checked them out.

“Elementary” — CBS, Thursdays, 10 PM — I had read this pilot and really enjoyed it and was very pleased with all the casting before getting to see it. But what has truly made me fall hard for this show is the pacing. The bits and pieces of character reveal we get of Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) and Watson (Lucy Liu) each week are weaving together intriguing people that I already care so much about. In fact, the way in which we’re getting to know this small group of main characters, Aidan Quinn’s Gregson included, reminds me a lot of “Person of Interest” last year and the way I became so invested in the characters so quickly because the core of who they were was revealed through actions and responses to situations early on in the storytelling.

Of particular note was the confessional scene in which Sherlock admits his addiction to Gregson, which not only revealed the depth of Sherlock’s respect for the NYPD captain, but also Gregson’s insight into who Sherlock is. It’s also been great to watch Watson come into her own as an investigator, both on the cases of the week and when it comes to peeling away the defenses Sherlock has mounted to keep his emotional self safe.

“Vegas” — CBS, Tuesdays, 10PM — This show had a unique writing challenge from the start. Michael Chiklis’ mobster Vincent Savino and Dennis Quaid’s Sheriff Ralph Lamb were both such strong characters, keeping them from being in a constant state of tense standoffs was clearly going to be key to the way the show played out. But as they’ve interacted, both needing and hating one another, a grudging respect has grown between these two men which infuses their scenes with an energy that has numerous layers beyond that initial tension. Their humorous and informative exchange over a bottle of scotch this past Tuesday told you more about this relationship and where it stands than pages of exposition could. And the end beat, with a report of a body being found and, off of Lamb’s look, Savino quipping “don’t look at me” is a sample of the humor working its way into the dynamic of this odd duo.

But the biggest surprise of “Vegas” is the women. Oh, these ladies! Such a mix of personalities and yet they are all strong and smart and destined to be pained by the men they love (or want to love.) Maybe it’s the fact that the show is set in the ’60s, maybe it’s because of the overuse of clichés I’ve seen in mob movies, I’m not sure, but I didn’t expect the healthy dose of savvy these ladies bring to the table. Mia’s (Sarah Jones) business smarts and cool exterior are sure to be tested by her attraction to Deputy Jack Lamb (Jason O’Mara), especially with her volatile mob boss father Rizzo now in charge of the casino; A.D.A. Katherine O’Connell’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) affection for and understanding of Ralph has been clear from the start, and she brings out something in him that always adds nice color to Quaid’s portrayal of Lamb.

And the most unexpected revelation… mob wife Laura (Vinessa Shaw). After responding to Vincent’s honest admission that he needed her to make his Vegas dreams come true, Laura not only moved to town but became a full partner to her husband. She just helped him engineer a mob-backed mayoral victory for a candidate that had zero chance of winning at the start, and her honest but clear response to meeting Vincent’s former mistress revealed a great deal to us about this marriage and both husband and wife.

“Last Resort” — ABC, Thursdays, 8PM — Yes, my heart is already grieving this show, which will not get extended beyond its original 13-episode order, but while you can, I encourage you to watch. Andre Braugher is, well, Andre Braugher, which means he’s amazing, but the constant ability of this show to push characters into game-changing situations to reveal bits of them to us has kept me enthralled from the pilot forward. Most refreshing? That Navy wife Christine (Jessy Schram) is not some poor victim being manipulated by the government but is instead smart enough to have figured out on her own that she was being played and brave enough to from an alliance with Washington insider Kylie Sinclair (Autumn Reeser) in order to do what she can to help save her husband the rest of the crew aboard the U.S.S. Colorado.

I especially love the scope of what creators Karl Gajdusek and Shawn Ryan tried to do with this show and how the characters are able to reveal themselves at the most unexpected times. I literally jumped out of my chair when Admiral Shepard killed to try to save his daughter’s life, and the way Scott Speedman communicates X.O. Sam Kendal’s conflicted feelings about his captain continue to express how torn he is between friendship, duty, and just wanting to go home. I will be here till the end, and I will miss it when it’s gone.

“Major Crimes” — Returns to TNT for Season 2 in 2013 — While technically a summer premiere, MC wrapped up its run this fall, and before it comes back next year, if you didn’t get a chance to see it, I highly recommend catching the reruns on TNT.

No one was more worried about the idea of a spin-off of “The Closer” than I was; my love for that show runs deep and my pride in the spec I wrote for it (which helped me get into two network writing programs) remains high. But creator James Duff pulled off a major feat here. Not only did “Major Crimes” have to debut immediately after the finale of its mother ship, with no time in between to help the audience transition, it had to take largely the same cast and acclimate us to a new standard operating procedure in the unit, with new leadership and new agendas all over the place.

This succeeded for me largely because all the differences between Mary McDonnell’s Sharon Raydor and “The Closer’s” Brenda Leigh Johnson became the tools by which we saw the unit work through the same feelings we were having and allowed us an insight into Raydor outside of work that humanized her greatly. When Flynn (Tony Denison) has to point out to the former I.A. captain that you need to refer to homicide victims by name or the other detectives take it wrong and criticizes one of her former policies, which has complicated their case, Raydor not only takes in the critique, she ends up turning it into a moment to win some respect from Flynn when his advice helps her solve the case. And her refusal to allow disgruntled Provenza (G.W. Bailey) to retire because she knows she needs his expertise was handled beautifully, allowing us to see how much she has learned about this team and how they tick.

The added storyline of Raydor fostering former street hustler Rusty Beck (Graham Patrick Martin) provided some hugely emotional moments in the first season, none of which was more palpable than her having to let him leave for a weekend with his biological father, the choked back desire to warn him to be careful instead coming out as “have fun” when you could see she just wanted to run and grab him and not let him go. The squad, too, have all become family to Rusty… watching Flynn, Buzz, and Provenza, for instance, talk through how to handle his first dinner with his biological dad was a great chance to see how this group have all become invested in his well-being. And the finale scene with the entire squad signing off on Rusty’s paperwork (watch it; I don’t want to ruin the build-up) was a great way to end this first year of the show.

What are some of your favorites and why? Share in the comments, and if I haven’t seen them, I’ll try to check them out!

Recently I got to see a screening of “Things Never Said,” by writer and director Charles Murray. Charles and I met when he came to speak at the CBS Writers Mentoring program during my time as a mentee, and those of you lucky enough to know him, well, you know how awesome he is. If you haven’t had the pleasure and you’re ever around when he gives a talk about writing in Hollywood, go listen, He’s a real dude and he’ll tell it to you straight.

I’ve been following his journey with this film for a while, and even got to go be an extra for a night of shooting. So to finally get to see the finished product was exciting, and not just because I was going to get to see what I’d been hearing about for so long, but because I knew what a personal accomplishment this piece of work is for Charles.

The film is a love letter to his mom, and it’s a strong, well-told story about the ability women have to change their lives. In this case, the woman in question is Kalindra, an aspiring poetess in a broken marriage trying to find her place in the world.

When you get a chance to see this film, and I hope it’s soon (Charles is working on finding a distributor for this little gem of an independent and keep your eyes peeled for some film festival listings), you’ll see some great performances, especially from Shanola Hampton (“Shameless”), Elimu Nelson, Omari Hardwick (“Dark Blue”), Tamala Jones (“Castle”), and Michael Beach (“The Game,” “Sons of Anarchy”), and I’d go on a lot more about their performances, but this blog isn’t really a film review. Just trust me… see it!

What this blog is about is what it was like to sit in a theater after months of hearing about this project and watch it become a reality. The totality of what Charles pulled off was inspiring in a way I’m not sure I can accurately describe. Because it’s not just that he wrote and directed a very good movie… it’s that he pulled together this super-talented, hard-working group of people who dedicated themselves to doing top-notch work on a bargain-basement dollar. And that happened not just because Charles has a talent for making friends… it happened because he never lost that young man’s dream of making a movie he wanted to make on his terms, even through years of struggling to get a break, through working his way up, and while creating a beautiful family along the way.

 It was a fantastic reminder that our dreams are what brought us to this business, and that it’s our responsibility to stay true to them, even if it means deciding to do it on our own, friends in tow, on a shoestring budget.

It’s a business full of business, to be sure… but it’s fueled by dreams, and I hope you all get to share in Charles’ very soon.

 Learn more at: https://www.facebook.com/ThingsNeverSaid

In the midst of staffing season, a little life reality check on what matters beyond having a job you love and following your dreams… family. My niece is getting married in less than two weeks, which seems impossible to me, and yet… here it comes.

You can imagine she’s heard a lot about being so young and is she sure and couldn’t they wait a little while because, well, that’s what folks say these days when you’re under 25 and getting married. And they’re good questions to be sure. But I have to admit, I didn’t ask any of them.

The truth is, I’m a little in awe of her. This beautiful young lady that is so much of everything good that our family had to offer is ready to jump into the idea of sharing her life. And sure, she’s young, and maybe that makes it easier because the baggage she’s carrying around is a little lighter. But she’s also hopeful and certain and confident. She’s all the things you’d hope someone would be when they decide to walk down an aisle and promise to love and cherish forever, because wow… that’s a lot to promise.

She has faith in love and a belief that things can work out. Not in happily ever after… so much as choosing to be happy and working to stay that way.

I’m a true-blue marriage-phobe to this point in life. Not because I don’t think it’s awesome… I know some folks who have great marriages… not perfect, but great, the kind of relationships that make you realize the effort you put in is worth it. But the whole faith in love thing is a little harder for me.

So yeah… I’m a little awed by her bravery and her strength and her heart. And I’m sure to be a crying mess when I watch my brother walk her down that aisle.

And I can’t deny, I’m hoping a little of that faith rubs off on me.

I mean, it certainly can’t hurt, right?

I know, I know, I disappeared from the blog!  The overtime at work combined with the awesome-but-hectic Writers on the Verge schedule has kept me hopping, but I was determined to write some kind of entry before the year was out.

I’m not a resolution type of person.  I feel like I set goals all the time, and they don’t get bogged down with the implications of January 1st and a new year, so rather than think about what’s to come, I thought I’d take a minute and think about the five best things I did in 2011.  Some of them were fun, some were about hard choices, but all of them helped make this a huge year of change and growth for me that I am incredibly grateful for.

1.  Mother’s Day at the Greek

My mother isn’t really a concert person, but I felt a very strong urge to do something really memorable for Mother’s Day this year.  I was worried that when I proposed my great idea, she’d turn her nose up at the whole concept of coming to LA for a girls’ night out.  So imagine my surprise when she said yes… and not only agreed but was excited about the prospect.  So I scored us tickets to Wavefest at the Greek Theatre, which in a few short years of patronage has become my favorite LA concert venue.

We had our moments to be sure… she does not like having to walk anywhere, and it’s always a walk, even from the new unstacked parking, and she refused to stand still while I tried to find our way back to the car, leaving me terrified she’d fall in a hole along those terrible dirt patches and make me rush her to the hospital (both typical conflicts when Mama Levy and I are out together; that’s just how we roll).  But those little downs were nothing compared to the ups.  She thoroughly enjoyed the E Family, one of the main draws because we both love Sheila E.  And then she became an instant fan of Macy Gray, who is a phenomenal live performer.  It was a great night; well worth the effort it took to make happen; and a memory I know I’ll hold on to forever.

2.  Farewell Modesty Blaise

When I was 13 years old, my mother bought me my first Modesty Blaise book… “Last Day in Limbo.”  She bought it largely because she was tired of hearing me go on and on about some clearly important moment in my teenaged life and sent me off to find a book to read so she could enjoy her own trip to the bookstore, and since it was the only book I asked for, she couldn’t say no.  Neither of us knew that she was introducing me to my favorite fictional character of all time.  In the years since, I have hunted down both classic copies and new printings of every Modesty Blaise adventure and even have a collection of some of the comic strips.  But a few years ago, one of my best friends bought me the final collection of Modesty Blaise short stories, and while I tore through the majority of the book within a week or two, I left the final story unread, knowing that the end was really the end.

But this year, I was in this great groove of finishing things and moving on and letting go (more on that later,) and so I picked up “Cobra Trap” and finally… finally… read the last story.

It was a little heartbreaking to be sure, and I am incredibly sad there will be no new Modesty tales to come.  And yet I’m so grateful that Peter O’Donnell made the choice to end his character’s story in his own way and let her go.  Because one of the main reasons I’ve always loved the way he writes her is also the main reason I think no one has made a good adaptation in film or TV of the material… everyone else focuses on Modesty’s badassness–her criminal history, her physical strength, her ability with weaponry, her use of sex to get what she wants.  But O’Donnell always perfectly balanced all of those elements of Modesty with the very complete woman who survived a hellish childhood and emerged determined to live a full life.  She loves, deeply, built herself a family of treasured friends because the world had stolen away whatever biological connections she’d once had, and her later life, spent largely saving strangers and her loved ones from all kinds of nefarious characters, is rich and as often tinged with laughter and the ridiculous as it is shrouded in danger.

But now I know how Modesty’s story ends.  It suited her.  And thanks to the vivid books he left behind, Peter O’Donnell has made sure that just like Sir Gerald and Willie Garvin, I can always find her when I need her.

3.  Writing. Portfolio. Explosion.

Considering there have been years where I worked upwards of 65 hours a week, I used to feel pretty darn good about myself if I got one solid spec out in a year, let alone two.  So this year, thanks to the inspiration from the CBS Writers’ mentoring program and the demands of the NBC Writers on the Verge schedule, I got myself kicked into a new gear. (It didn’t hurt that my life just demanded I cut back on work hours and hover somewhere around a much more livable 48-hour-a-week range).  So I will exit 2011 with four specs and three pilots and two other pilots in stages of plotting and/or outlining.  And I can’t wait to see what my brain and keyboard conspire to come up with next.

4.  Balance, balance, and more balance

I was born with a workaholic gene, and while it has been of fabulous use to me during the years I was working my way through school or taking on a ton of responsibility that required a lot of sacrifice at my various jobs, it has tended to make it hard for me to just throw my hands up and say “yes, I want to do that” sometimes when my friends want to run out for a spur-of-the-moment happy hour or when a great opportunity for adventure appears out of nowhere.

This year, I made a promise to myself I’d do better; and I did.  I found enough Saturday evening dinners and Sunday morning brunches to stay in touch with my incredible friends, I got better at texting for the friends who love to communicate that way, I gave in and bought the last-minute tickets to see Idina Menzel (also at the Greek) for my birthday because I deserved it, and even if I had to cut down a workout from 60 minutes to 30 because of some other personal or work demand, I gave myself credit for doing the 30 minutes and stopped lamenting what there wasn’t time for.

Balance made some very hard days in 2011 much easier to endure because I had the reserves to get through them.  It made it easier to come to terms with letting my baking business go because my writing career is simply demanding too much of my attention (which is to be celebrated and enjoyed, believe me!).  And when a day was really bad… I let it be bad.  Because I knew the next day, I could take a deep breath and start all over again and maybe that day would be better.

I’m going try to do even better in 2012.  I sense some travel in my future… because in 2011, I also FINALLY got a passport.  Yeah, I have no clue how that never happened before, but now it’s time for some stamps!

5.  Embracing the New

This past year has brought so much new into my life… new demands, new people, new interests.  And I am welcoming it in and trusting that who and what are meant to stick will and that everyone and everything else will provide the lesson meant to be learned and then become a part of my past.

If you know me, you know that’s kind of revolutionary in my way of thinking.  Because new isn’t always my favorite thing.  But this influx of energy and experiences has been so important to me this year, giving me chances to be there for others, to find out how can I payback some of the kindness that’s been given to me, to enjoy the strength of some new shoulders to lean on when I need them, and to broaden my universe through the relationships that have come my way.

 

There’s a promise of a lot new to come in 2012… beloved nephews who are now old enough to drive, a niece who owns a wedding dress and is eyeing a “Mrs” at the front of her name, and another staffing season looms.  So thanks, 2011, for all that you brought to the party.

2012… what you got for me?

 

I recently picked up a copy of Sela Ward’s book “Homesick: A Memoir” because I’ve been missing my father a lot lately, and since Sela grew up in Mississippi, too, I figured it would, at the very least, make me smile.

It did, and it also reminded me of some of the silly and great things about our family visits to Yazoo City to see my father’s family.

Trips to Mississippi were always met with both a “yay!” and a groan in our house because as much fun as we knew we’d have once we got there, we also knew it meant the car ride from hell.  My parents weren’t into planes.  They flew when they had to for work or emergencies, but given the chance to drive somewhere, drive we did.

I don’t know if you’ve ever driven from California to Mississippi, but let me tell you, it is not fun.  We always had to go in summer because my parents would never let us miss school for a vacation, and so it meant heat that made the car feel like an oven even with the air conditioning on.  And my father was that father who only wanted to stop the car when he wanted to stop it.  That always led to some pretty tense moments between my parents, and inevitably, my mother asking me or, if they were on the trip, one of my older siblings, to tell him we “had to go” so he’d grudgingly pull over at a rest stop or restaurant.  For us, he would stop, but he wouldn’t be happy about it.

Texas… dear Lord, is there anything worse on a road trip than driving across Texas?  I’m gonna say no.  It would take us forever to get to the border into Louisiana (we were also visiting New Orleans to see Mama’s family, but that’s another blog entirely!), and on almost every trip, by the time we reached said border, my mother was no longer talking to my father, so I was in the front seat with Daddy, and we’d have a little celebration to mark finally being free from Texas as we made it onto Louisiana soil.

But the Texas crossing did bring one of my best and fondest memories of those trips.  After a long day of driving, we checked into a motel and went to get dinner.  Finding that they had “breakfast all day,” I excitedly ordered a full stack of pancakes and took insult when the waitress told my mother “you might want to get her the short stack.  They’re kinda big.”  My mom told her to let me have what I wanted, and then my dad ordered “the biggest beer you have.”

Oh, my goodness… the biggest beer they had proved that “everything is bigger in Texas.”  The mug was big enough to fit over my father’s head like a helmet, and it was filled to the brim.  I don’t even know how that woman carried it to the table, I just know even my dad had tears in his eyes from laughing over how ridiculously large that beer was.

Then my pancakes came… four of them, every single one an inch thick and about the diameter of a full-size dinner plate.  My mother eyed them and then looked at me, and we both knew the short stack would probably have been a better idea.  Still, I tried my best… but half that stack of pancakes never left the plate.

Another thing I loved about those trips was all the little roadside stores we’d stop at (when we forced my dad to stop) and the souvenirs I convinced my parents to buy me.  I loved these cheesy wooden games we’d find made out of tree sections and golf tees, and had I not lost them by the end of every trip, I’d have quite the collection.  But this was before DVD players came mounted in cars, and anything that kept me from asking 200 questions was a welcome friend to my family.  And of course, there was also the Whee-lo, which could keep me quiet for hours until the wheel eventually flew off and fell under my parents’ seat, and then it turned into my mother swearing a lot while she looked for it.

But then finally, we’d be in Yazoo City, where my family lived in three houses placed along the same street.  My grandparents house was up on this hill and I remember always being terrified I’d fall while trying to walk down.  My aunts, Joanne and Rosie, lived on opposite sides of the street a little ways down.

My Grandma Levy was a character and a half, and I know much of my father’s no-nonsense personality came from her.  She was famous for responding to a greeting of “hey” with “Hay is for horses.”  My grandpa, who everyone called Daddy Red, loved that I loved to dig for worms for fishing trips.  It was one of my all-time favorite parts of our visits there… digging in that warm mud and trying to find the best worms for my dad and grandpa.

One of those fishing trips turned into another family classic.  My mother, who is nobody’s outdoorswoman, trust me, got a bite and pulled in her line.  But she hadn’t caught a fish… she’d caught a snake.  My father, much to my Aunt Rosie’s amusement, responded to my mother’s screams and, seeing the snake, put his hands in his pockets and said, “Well, what do you expect me to do about it?”  Me?  I was busy ducking because my mom was waving that thing all over creation.

One not so found memory?  I was helping my Aunt Joanne take some jars of something into the house… preserves maybe?  I can’t remember to tell the truth, though I have a good excuse.  I stepped on an area rug with my hands full, and said rug took off across the wood floor with me along for the ride.  I saw the edge of a wooden table coming toward me and then the next thing I knew, I was on the couch in my grandparents’ house, my dad saying “She’s fine, she’s fine,” my mother crying, and my grandma looking down at me trying to decide if I needed a doctor or not.  They opted for not, and I survived, so it must have been the right call.

Those summers were full of my crazy cousins trying to teach me tricks on their 10-speeds, which were way too big for me, and riding bikes with the local kids who lived up the street, and trips into town to buy Munchos (but never alone; Levy kids never went into town alone because our family was a little too racially mixed for anyone’s liking, and you never wanted anyone to catch you alone), and thunder storms that could scare the daylights out of a kid from the California desert.  And as much as I hated being eaten alive by the mosquitoes, I always hated leaving more because there was just something so amazingly freeing about being able to wake up in the morning, walk down the hill (without falling!), visit both aunts’ homes, and then run back up to my grandparents without ever having to tell anyone where I was going or have someone worried about where I’d gone off to.  It was a sense of freedom I never got to experience at home, where there was constant calling in to say I’d gotten here or was going there, and for those few days every summer, it was heaven.

I haven’t been back to Mississippi for years now, real life, school, work, and trying to build a career all taking up too much time to make the trip.  But as Sela’s book drew out my own memories, it made me want to go back again so badly, not just because I want to see what it all really looks like now compared to my memories, but because, I think, there is something oddly poetic about the fact that my father passed away in the town of his youth on a visit home.  I know that even though he’s buried in California in my hometown, the fact that Yazoo City is both where his life started and ended will always make it a place of special meaning.

Of course, if I do go back now, I’ll have to wear a suit of armor.  Turns out adulthood has made me allergic to mosquito bites.  Oh, and I’ll be flying… because you can’t drive and play Whee-lo at the same time.

Once, an acquaintance of mine overheard me telling someone a story about my favorite football coach.  When I was finished, she asked, “how exactly does someone end up with a favorite coach?”

I explained to her that football is one of the true deep loves of my life, and that while I admired many players and had a few beloved teams, yes, I did have a favorite coach because he’d not only changed the way I looked at the game, he’d changed the way I look at my life as a person and as a writer.

Tony Dungy is a man who lives in faith, and I respect him immensely for it even if my own relationship with it can best be described as “rocky” and “under construction.”  But he’s one of those people who walks the talk that comes out of his mouth, and as such, he coached both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts in the manner in which he lived… quietly, thoughtfully, earning respect by giving it, and by instilling a sense of discipline in those around him.

He didn’t scream at people to get them to do what he wanted, he didn’t curse at officials or badmouth management, even when he had good reason.  In fact, there were times I kind of wanted to see him lose it, but just when you’d think Coach was finally going to lay into a player who was putting self ahead of team — one of the biggest sins you can commit in Dungy football — he’d just get this look of utter disappointment on his face.

And his players would tell us in interview after interview… disappointing Coach Dungy was the one thing you never wanted to do.  I remember one player saying he begged coach to yell at him after getting into some off-field trouble, but that calm voice remained steady, and the player said he’d never felt worse in his life.

I’ve often posted on Facebook after an episode of “Friday Night Lights” where fictional coach Eric Taylor was especially awesome that every kid should have a Coach Taylor.

Every kid should have a Coach Dungy, too.

Coach had lost his job in Tampa for not having the killer instinct, but found a job in Indy because Jim Irsay wanted a man to lead the Colts on and off the field, and he more than got his money’s worth.  And still those rumblings began again, because every year it seemed the Colts just had to finally be ready to win it all and then every year, they came up short.  So there it was… Dungy will never get them to the Super Bowl… Dungy’s too conservative… too nice.  Dungy doesn’t have the killer instinct…

Then the world reminded us there were more important things than trophies and win-loss columns.

When James Dungy took his own life at 18, Colts fans mourned with the Dungy family as best we could, but we all knew that they were facing a tragedy we couldn’t even begin to imagine.  And yet there Coach stood, delivering a eulogy for his son that celebrated the gift of the 18 years they’d received with James, and somehow lifting up everyone around him on what was surely one of the most difficult days of his life.

And then Coach went back to work, and the Colts didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.  In years past, that would’ve left me cussing out my television and hating on whoever had beaten them, wishing them defeat at someone’s hands so they could get what they had coming.  But in January of 2006, when the Colts went home, it felt like a relief… Coach could be with his family, the players had time to grieve the kid they’d known so well, and we could all just take a moment to hope that everyone left behind who had loved James would be okay.

The next year, Coach Dungy returned to his team, and the Colts returned to the playoffs.  But there was no week off in the 2006-2007 playoffs, no dominance that screamed the Colts were a shoe-in for the AFC title game.  First there was a wild card game against Kansas City; then the Baltimore Ravens, who routinely made it their life’s work to beat Peyton Manning to a pulp, but somehow… a win; and then… the New England Patriots, who lived to destroy the Colts’ playoff dreams.

The Colts were behind the majority of the game, and I couldn’t imagine that the team and the fans had come this far to not make it to the promised land once again.  My heart ached a little at the thought of watching Coach Dungy have to shake hands from the losing sideline again… not after he’d come back, not after what his family had sacrificed for him to have another shot at the big game.  And then one of my closest friends, who is also a huge football fanatic, said to me, “Just have a little faith.  You know they can do it.”

So I had a little faith… and just said over and over again, “they can do it.”

And they did.

Now I’m not trying to take any credit for that… no magical thinking here.  What was more important was the reminder from my friend.  The Colts had done everything the way they believed was right for them… they had followed Coach Dungy’s lead, held firm to their philosophy of how to win, and they had earned that win with every second of hard work they’d put in all year… in all the years since Dungy had come to Indy… through that final whistle.

Their belief was rewarded even bigger on February 4, 2007, when the Colts took home the Lombardi trophy and made Tony Dungy a Super Bowl winning coach.

And what in the world, you ask, does all this have to do with me, my life, or writing?  Well, it has to do with what I learned by watching Coach Dungy walk through his coaching life back from his assistant days with the Minnesota Vikings, which is where I first became acquainted with his coaching philosophy.  You don’t have to be the loudest, you don’t have to ignore everything else in your life except the job, you don’t have to listen when people tell you that you have to change who you are to get where you want to go if you’re sure who you are is the best person you can be.  You can instead keep working and moving forward and doing what you believe in your soul to be right.  And even if it takes a little longer… it will still get you to where you wanted to be all along.

This last year of my life has been filled with more excitement and optimism and more stress and disappointment than any year I’ve lived so far.  I like to think of it as the featured roller coaster in “Niceole Land,” and the ride is poised to continue.

But when it starts to feel like… well, like the downs are little more frequent than the ups… I think about Coach Dungy and how he got to where he wanted to be by doing the things he believed in his soul to be right.

It might take a little longer… but I’ll get there.  And I’ll still be me when it happens.

If you want to read something both entertaining and full of inspiration, pick up “Quiet Strength” by Tony Dungy.

What’s in a Name?

August 3, 2011

Naming characters is part of what we do as writers, and while I have a few names that I have to constantly remind myself to not use again (I have a thing about Gabriel and Emma… I constantly have to steer myself away from those for some reason), I mostly enjoy the process of figuring out what moniker goes with the latest characters I’m crafting.

I do try hard, though, not to spell names too oddly, which is a byproduct of my own name, no doubt.  I used to joke that my parents spelled it the way they did so I’d have to spell it for the rest of my life.  And in fact, I have to spell it and explain it constantly.  So for the record it’s pronounced Nicole but spelled Nice*Ole.  That’s how I teach people to spell it… “It’s Nice and then Ole.”  I still get all manner of spellings, though, and mispronunciations… most commonly, I get something that sounds like Neecee-ole, or Nichelle, and for some reason, people will look right at my name and call me Michelle.  That one’s just weird.

I found out a few years after I moved to Pasadena from my French chiropractor that mine is the antique French spelling of Nicole, before they dropped the extra “e.”  That makes sense… my mom’s people in New Orleans are the ones who came up with the spelling.  I love them, so I try not to be too mad, and really, everyone notices it, so I guess for a girl who got involved in entertainment, it worked out okay.

For some reason, Niceole was never hard for me to spell.  But my middle name?  There were many hours spent trying to comprehend how Rachel could sound like RayChul and not be spelled Raychel.  I used to get red check marks on my papers because I was sure everyone else was wrong and kept spelling it with the “y” until finally my favorite teacher managed to convince me to let it go.

Of course, Niceole and Rachel both pale in comparison to the spelling and nickname nightmare my life would’ve been had my mother gotten her way about naming me.  The woman gave birth to me, and did so at great risk to her own life… I realize this. (My parents were Rh incompatible, and thus, my siblings and I should not exist, and yet, we do).  But had my father not shown up at the hospital in time to thwart her, my name would’ve been, I kid you not, Sacagawea.  It’s a lovely name if you are a historical figure who helped blaze a trail in the new world.  But consider it… my name would have been Sacagawea Levy.  You can see how, by comparison, being tortured with spelling Niceole over and over again is nothing.  Especially since I’d probably have massive therapy bills from growing up being called by every permutation of “Sac” imaginable, everywhere I went through childhood and adolescence.

By coincidence, at least, so says my mother, I discovered while I was in grade school that her two favorite soap opera characters were Nicole Drake on “The Edge of Night” and Rachel Cory on “Another World.”  But she swears that has nothing to do with the name I ended up with.  I’ll let you all draw your own conclusion, but I think you can guess what I think of that denial.

While we’re on the topic of names, a tip to my fellow writers… did you know that until your character is referred to by name on screen so the hearing audience has heard it, your closed captioners cannot use their name to identify them?  Yeah… I once had to identify a main character in a show as (woman) for three episodes because no one would say her name.  Just a little fact to file away for when you watch cuts of your pilots before they finish post.

So what are some of my favorites from the character names I’ve come up with?  Tops is from a short story I wrote called “How to Be a Man” about a young boy learning how to pick his battles thanks to a story his grandfather tells him about a legendary moonshine runner named Shamus Amos Jamison.  And you always had to call him by all three names… never just Shamus.  I’m also pretty fond of the lead in my pilot “Thin Air” because Emerson Carter’s name somehow conveys the weight she carries on her shoulders.

And what about my favorite character names from that long list of TV shows I’ve watched?  Here’s a few I really loved:

Frank Pembleton… Tim Riggins… Addison Montgomery… Sonny Crockett… David McNorris… Denny Crane… Jonas Blane… Miss Parker… Liz Lemon… Wilhelmina Slater…

I could go on and on.  But of course, no name will ever top one I have loved unconditionally since hearing it… a gem from my love of cheesetastic movies which may be one of the most unforgettable monikers ever:

Sho’Nuff, The Shogun of Harlem (God love you, Julius J. Carry III).

And OMG I just discovered you can watch “The Last Dragon” at Crackle — get the to the cheesetasticness!

http://www.crackle.com/c/The_Last_Dragon/The_Last_Dragon/2460332