Hey, writer peeps!

While I was moving some files onto my external drive, I decided to see if, by some miracle, I could find my applications from the years I got into the CBS Writers Mentoring Program and NBC’s Writers on the Verge.  And shockingly — I found them.

I’m not sure if this is remotely helpful or not, but I know the letters/statements of interest and the essay questions are often people’s biggest concern. So what follows is my letter of interest for the CBS program and my essay questions for WOTV. If you find some guidance here that helps you along the way, fabulous. I am not correcting anything — so forgive any typos or poor grammar.

And good luck to you all!

CBS Letter (2010):

As a female writer of color, it’s been encouraging to see both my gender and my ethnic group represented more onscreen and behind the scenes.  My ability to broaden that presence comes from a diverse life experience.  I grew up in a small town, but moved to the city to put myself through college. I’ve worked in jobs as generic as hotel operator and as intense as police dispatcher.  I come from a military family of Southern descent but was raised in California because my father wanted his kids to experience more freedoms than he’d grown up with.  It’s these elements of my history that I try to weave together to create stories that resonate for me as a 21st century woman.

One fascinating aspect of TV writing is the relationship that develops between writer and audience as a show progresses through weeks and seasons.  My motivation to study writing came directly from the impact shows like “Hill Street Blues” and “thirtysomething” had on me, and it’s my hope to someday have that same effect on viewers through my writing.  I feel that a tour with the CBS Writing mentors would allow me to put a final polish on my work and to become another flourishing representative of what a strong and capable woman of color can do in the writers’ room.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

WOTV essay questions (2011):

1. What from your background do you bring to the table as a writer that provides a
fresh perspective in your storytelling?

When I think of what I bring to my writing that is unique to my experiences, there are two main things that come to mind. One is my own experience growing up in a very racially and religiously diverse family. When we moved to my father’s last military posting at China Lake Naval Weapons Center in the middle of the Mojave Desert, there wasn’t any other family in town that looked like mine. Over time that changed, but in those early years, that sense of being so different, even amongst the ethnic group I was identified with, gave me a strong desire to write material that not only shows what diversity looks like, but also peels away the facades we put up to hide what being different in any way really feels like.

Later, after moving to Los Angeles, my years working in law enforcement and post my own involvement, sharing stories with my friends and relatives that still work on the job, I gained a very personal insight into the impact that crime has not just on the victim, but on the family of the victim, and on the people who are pulled into the aftermath, be they sworn officers, civilian personnel or volunteers exposed to some of the ugliest things people can do to one another. I try to maintain that awareness whenever I write projects involving crime or disaster and the aftereffects.

2. What television show most inspired you to become a television writer and why?

The list of television shows I’ve watched is almost too long to be admitted in public, but of all the different dramas I’ve been a fan of, the one that most fueled my desire to write television was “NYPD Blue.”

The story arc of Andy Sipowicz was one of the most compelling character studies I’ve seen, and his transformation from alcoholic racist on the verge of losing his career to a compassionate, sober husband and father, and a respected leader of his precinct was a years-long roller coaster that exemplified the kind of involving storytelling I strive for. Along with Andy’s ever-evolving story, we were invited to view every aspect of life at the 15th precinct, where things could be hopeless one week and touched by the possibility of hope the next, where the cops, lawyers, victims, and perpetrators who walked through the doors could be simultaneously heroic, human, evil, and yearning for redemption.

A scene in which Andy relates a horrifying story about a murdered child to his fiancée Sylvia always comes to mind when I think of “Blue.” It was a one scene out of hundreds, and yet it was moving as he tried to explain to her why his faith had been destroyed and how she had given a little of it back. Those are the moments I think make a great show, and it’s that level of complexity I hope to achieve every time I begin a new piece.

 

So it’s official.

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is ending after season seven.

I mean, I figured – I work in TV. I know how to spot the signs. And I’m immensely grateful to have gotten past that emotional but “felt oh so final” finale of Season five when I thought it really was “The End” and gotten more time with my favorite crew of government secret agents.

The good news – we’re still three episodes away from the end of season six – and we don’t officially lose our Agents until next year when the final season airs.

But for the men and women who have made this show day in and day out for seven seasons – the end is coming soon. They’re filming their final episode. And then it’ll be time to say goodbye.

So first, I just wanted to say this…

THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was not a true believer as I freely admit (mostly because my friends know and will call me on it if I try to front). Despite the involvement of writers I respected and talent I adored (have you seen me swoon over Ming-Na Wen? Because it happens – a lot)… I wasn’t sure I believed this new “Marvel TV” experiment would work. But I really wanted it to. And then I didn’t love it. Not at first. And I walked away like so many other frustrated viewers.

But then a few good friends of mine (take your fanboy bows here, Steve and Phil) convinced me to try again. “Just start with episode 13. If you have questions, we’ll fill you in. But I really think you’ll love it now.”

So I watched episode 1×13.

AND IT WAS OVER.

Melinda May being a total badass, making moon eyes at Phil Coulson? Fitz and Simmons suddenly more than the baby agents I wasn’t sure I loved early on? The cool twisty villain turns I’d craved?

Yep, I was hooked. It was all over.

By then the big OMGWHAT episode that followed “Captain America: Winter Soldier” had aired, so I watched all the available eps on demand. And that was that.

I was in. Thrilled beyond belief that Ward was a bad guy (because he was way more fun as a bad guy,) loving Skye growing up into a more mature young woman because she finally had a family. And did I mention the Coulson and May heart eyes, because… WHAT?!

After that, my love was true and unshakeable. People love to tease me about how much I love this show, and my response to the naysayers is: “I’m sorry. It’s not my fault you don’t know what’s good.”

And the cast just kept winning with great adds… Adrianne Palicki, BJ Britt, Henry Simmons (DO YOU SEE MY HEART EYES RIGHT NOW?!), Nick Blood, Blair Underwood (HEART EYES, AGAIN!) Jason O’Mara (MORE HEART EYES)… I mean, it just goes on and on, and they’ve all been so great.

And if you heard a very loud, joyful, ridiculously gleeful scream when Mike Peterson hero strolled onto the base in the 100th episode – that was DEFINITELY me.

Not that this show hasn’t routinely ripped my heart out. Oh, so many times… but in all the best ways. Even just recently, when Daisy (formerly Skye for those who don’t keep up and missed the name change) ran over and grabbed Melinda May’s hand when they thought they might die? I mean… I am powerless not to feel my heart swell at that mother/daughter moment?! (And May is 100% her mom. I don’t care who gave birth to her, okay?!)

It has always peeved me a bit that somehow the remarkably stunning diversity of this show has gotten the short shrift in the media. The theme of the show has always felt, to me, that “anyone in the world can be a hero” and they’ve reflected that in their choices of heroes: men and women of all ages, women of color, men of color, a gay inhuman with badass powers… and the stories about people who feel the need to attack “others” have always reflected the moral fiber of the Marvel universe to perfection: we protect the “others” because we are all living beings and we deserve to be treated the same.

Also… this show gave me Melinda May to admire – someone who’d been through unspeakable tragedy and yet opened herself up to loving this crazy, mixed-up family she put together to protect Coulson. (P.S. — a testament to the little things, when “Nat” showed up on Melinda May’s call history? Fangirl freakout: May and Black Widow are friends!)

And it gave me a host of flawed, all-too-human heroic beings who sometimes failed — and worse, sometimes gave into their worst instincts – only to find their way back to the person they wanted to be and the family they couldn’t leave behind.

And maybe, emotionally, more than anything, I want to thank AOS for always bringing that same beautiful theme that made me fall in love with the Marvel MCU, starting with “Ironman”: no matter its problems, the world is worth saving.

But maybe most importantly, I need to thank AOS for teaching this then baby writer how to enjoy the ride. The writers, producers, cast, and crew have been incredibly generous with their time on social media, at conventions, and anytime I have encountered them in public. They have shared the love and fun they had making their show with all of us who enjoyed watching it – and that is a lesson I take with me into a future without this group cracking wise on Twitter and making me laugh on Instagram.

When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered, no one knew if Marvel TV would be a thing that made it and lasted. And someone had to go first – so also, I thank them for being the start of something that led me to “Cloak & Dagger” and one of the best jobs any nerdgirl fangirl writer could ever ask for. I got a piece of that joyous work experience on our show, and I treasure it like a gift someone picked out especially for me.

So THANK YOU – to everyone who has written words, marked marks, set up cameras, fed the set, hung lights, ran errands, edited footage, killed it on the special effects, figured out how to blow things up on a network budget, touched up make up, fixed some hair, designed a costume, dressed a set, dreamed up a set… and on and on and on.

Your work was loved. You will be missed. And I hope your AOS memories are wonderful for a lifetime.

<lifts a shot glass to you all>

SHIELD

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!