You Should be Watching Agent Carter

What makes a movie star? They aren’t just strong actors. They are people so charismatic that they elevate every part they play. A movie star is someone who can sell a movie just be being in it. Haley Atwell is just such a star, only she’s acting on TV.

I can remember watching Captain America: The First Avenger and being transfixed by her. There was something about her. She was beauty, she was grace, she could punch you in the face.

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At the end of the movie, everyone knew what would happen to Captain America. He was set to appear in The Avengers. Peggy, however, was left behind in the forties. We didn’t think we would ever see her again.

Since then, Marvel premiered two TV series on ABC. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is on for most of the season and stars, well, a lot of people. Every season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to add more and more cast members as if that will fix its problems. The show is flawed, not bad, it just tries to tell epic stories in a world where all the best ones are happening in the movies.

Agent Carter is different because it has a star, Haley Atwell, and is thus laser focused on her character. As we have learned from the Marvel Netflix series, televised Marvel is best when it is about a single character. Agent Carter was the first series to prove this.

It followed Agent Peggy Carter who, after Captain America died and World War II ended, went to work with the Strategic Scientific Reserve. The organization that would become S.H.I.E.L.D. Unfortunately, she lives in a time when she is expected to serve coffee and grab lunch for the men in the agency.

When her friend Nathan Stark, the future father of Iron Man, has his stash of super science gadgets stolen, he asks Peggy to track them down. She agrees, the only problem being that the SSR thinks Stark sold them to the Russians. She starts working against the SSR to clear her friend’s name.

What follows is some good old fashioned spy versus spy storytelling, courtesy of showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazikas, the women who brought us Reaper. Peggy fights mobsters, other spies, calls on the Howling Commandos, and eventually gains the respect of the other agents in the SSR.

I’ve gushed over Haley Atwell as Agent Carter enough. The series co-stars James D’Arcy, who played many people in Cloud Atlas.

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The one on the left

Dominic Cooper, who gets around, but all that comes to my mind is Need for Speed.

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Chad Michael Murray who– you know who he is.

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Enver Gjokaj, from Dollhouse!

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The one on the right

Shea Whigham, who you may know from Fast and Furious and Fast and Furious 6

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And most villainously, Sin Rostro herself, Bridget Regan! Which you should know, since you should be watching Jane the Virgin.

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Season Two starts tonight on ABC! Here’s a trailer:

Agent Carter and the team reunite to be best friends forever in LA! Or something like that. Agent Carter is an excellent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. Season One was just taken off of Hulu, to my great chagrin as I was trying to watch it at the time, but maybe it will soon be on Netflix? Please? Otherwise, I leave finding episodes up to your own devices. It’s a great watch that easily fits into your schedule by being only eight episodes long.

Season Two will be another eight episodes long, Tuesdays at 9. You should be watching.

-JP

PS – I admit I am biased in favor of Marvel TV and Film. But only because they are excellent.

One Year Gone By

January 10th, 2015 was my first full day in Los Angeles.

As of January 11th, 2016 I have been living in LA for a year.

On that first day I woke up on my sister’s couch. I had spent the night there before my apartment would become available that first day.

Today I woke up in my bed, in the bedroom I sublease. I have been living here since September and will stay here until at least August.

On the first day it was raining, but still around 60 degrees outside.

Today it didn’t rain, but it was still warm out.

I hung around for most of the day, waiting until my apartment would finally be available.

I woke up early to go to a morning shift at my job.

The only occupation I had was “student”, and I hadn’t secured an internship for my semester in LA yet.

I am currently a “Magic Maker” at Lolli and Pops. I sell candy. Today I came in before opening to clean bulk candy bins.

When I finally moved in to my apartment I met my roommates for the first time. They were almost complete strangers, and I knew only one other student in the program ahead of time.

Now I have many friends in LA (about 53 if Facebook is to be believed), both from my semester here, other graduates of Temple University, roommates, and some other friends I have made along the way.

We took our first trip together to buy groceries, bonding over food and plans to cook more than in the past.

Today I went in search of picture frames and a lamp to turn my house into more of a home. I try to cook as many meals of mine as possible, even if that is only a sandwich. I make a pretty good sandwich.

That night I crawled into bed, in a room that I shared, anxious about the next day and the semester to come.

Tonight I will get into bed, in my own room with a door that locks and everything, with no pressing fears or nerves. There are no more classes or programs. The only homework I have is that I assign myself. I know exactly what I’m doing tomorrow, and I feel completely stress-free about it.

After living in LA for a year I am astounded by how much has happened. I have lived on my sister’s couch and Burbank and my sister’s couch and Carson and my sister’s couch and North Hollywood. I have seen temperatures range from 50s and comfortable all the way to 100s and unbearable. I still can’t recall feeling an earthquake. I have interned with both a production company and management firm, I have been unemployed, I have found a job for minimum wage, and now I eagerly search for a better one. I have more friends than I expected to have within a year here. I know my way around my area and am working to improve my lifestyle even more.

With one year in LA under my belt, I am ready to take on my second. Realizing how much has happened in this past one I can’t imagine everything that’ll happen in the next.

A Beginner’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons: D&D&YOU

Dungeons & Dragons.

To say Dungeons & Dragons gets a bad rep is more than a simple understatement. It’s a massive shadow hanging over the entire tabletop game industry. As someone who was a nerd growing up, it even took me a while to get into D&D, although to be fair I came in through the side door.

My first experience with D&D was a campaign my friend, a long time player, decided to start with almost all beginners. It didn’t go well. It wasn’t until I played with experienced friends in a sci-fi D&D setting, that of the Mass Effect video games, that I really sunk my teeth into these types of games.

I honestly believe D&D has made me a more capable person. It has given me a great amount of practice in improvisation, something that has made me smarter and faster in conversation. It has improved my writing abilities, making me more aware of what makes a fully formed character and what to do when they behave in an unexpected way. I made my best friends because of D&D and it has in now way diminished my social life. With the right group, anyone can have a great time and not be caught up in a disappointing stereotype.

After spending about a year without playing, I started my own group here in LA. We are seven sessions into our current campaign and I’m coming off a bit of a high from running our best session. With that in mind I have decided to write my own little beginner’s guide to Dungeons & Dragons.

So let’s get started with the basics.

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

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Dungeons & Dragons is unequivocally the world’s greatest roleplaying game. For anyone who plays a good amount of video games a roleplaying game, or RPG. is nothing new. However these video games really do come from D&D. At their core you the player take on the role of another character and become more powerful by leveling up.

In D&D you play in a classic fantasy world. You create a character and act through them in this world. You interact with the story via improvisational roleplaying and dice rolls.

Whoa whoa whoa. Dice?

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Oh yes. D&D uses seven different dice. You probably know a six sided die intimately, here referred to as a d6. Well D&D also uses a d4, d8, d10, d12, d100, and your new best friend, the d20. What are the rolls (teehee) of each of these dice? Well, your character’s thoughts, decisions, and actions are the only things you control. However whether or not you succeed depend on both the roll of a d20 and the control of the Dungeon Master.

What is a Dungeon Master?

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In all D&D games, one player steps up to be, well, god. They create the people, places, and things the other players encounter in the game. It is a Dungeon Master’s job to take the players on a series of adventures that make up a campaign. Whether the plot of the campaign is as simple as one misadventure to the next, or as complex as holding the fate of the world in the balance. A Dungeon Master can be kind, giving away special items and bending rules for the player’s benefit, or they can be cruel, with a rigid grip on the rules as written and a penchant for sending the party up against threats to great for them.

What is a Party?

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A party, or D&D group, is made up of you and the other players with characters in the game. Typically a party ranges from three to six players. Groups have been known to have more, but too many players can have a detrimental effect on how much fun everyone has.

That is the most important thing by the way. To have fun. D&D is not a job, it is a game. It is a game with a great emphasis on improv as well. I have asked players to come up with their family history off the top of their head, and they have delivered. As a DM, you cannot write a D&D story like other mediums, because you cannot control the actions your players take. Every time I have encountered railroading, where players are forced onto one specific path, all of the fun is lost like air escaping a balloon.

How do I play?

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In any situation, the first thing that happens is that the DM describes the environment. Maybe it’s a bar. (Most campaigns start in a bar). Perhaps it’s an abandoned mine. Could be a nice meadow. Whatever the setting.

Next the players decide what they want to do. Seduce someone in the bar. Search for treasure in the mine. Stop and smell some flowers.

The DM tells you what happens as a result of your actions. You successfully secude the bar patron. You find an angry troll in the mine. You accidentally inhale a bee.

With any action a character takes, the results are not completely random. Yes, most of the time you will have to roll a dice, but the rest comes from the abilities your character has.

Next time: Building Your Character

Those First Five Minutes

I may have mentioned what a fellowship is before. It’s like a class you have to apply to get into, where writers help you improve your talents and by the end you’re likely to get a job offer. Your application is a piece of writing, usually something called a spec script.

A friend of mine sent me a link to the Sundance Episodic Storytelling Lab, a kind of fellowship with a slightly different application. For the first round I have to send in a pitch document and the first five pages of an original pilot. Which means I don’t have to write a story in any voice other than my own.

I have a couple of pilots I’ve started, but only really one that I’ve finished. But the thing is, it takes a few pages to get started. If I could turn in the first fifteen, I would feel comfortable, but in the first five pages not much happens. Here, I’ll break it down.

  1. In a patch of woods, a woman appears out of nowhere, hurt and scared. She performs some magic to heal her wounds and walks out of the woods to the back fence of a suburban house.
  2. In a room in the house, the main character wakes up and gets ready for work.
  3. She goes to the kitchen and has a forced conversation expositing her job. They also argue about sandwiches.
  4. She rides to work with her brother-in-law.
  5. She does her customer service job.

It’s literally at the bottom of the fifth page that the co-lead of the pilot arrives. The big event that sells what the series is doesn’t come until page eight! This means I have to do some restructuring to my first act to improve the pilot. This may not be a bad thing, since the script is currently sixty-two pages long, so speeding up that first act could be very beneficial. If Zombie Walter Kronkite needs to appear on page five, then so be it.

But all of this got me thinking about how important the first five pages, which translate into the first five minutes, of a pilot can be. Think about how all the great TV series start. There is always a tease, a hook, that’s designed to make you stick around for the rest of the show. That hook can be introducing the central mystery, introducing the central character in a compelling manner, or the world and mythology. Let me give you some examples, just ’cause.

Battlestar Galactaca opens with a man going to an outpost in deep space for a scheduled meeting with a Cylon representative. Helpful onscreen text gives you a rundown of the history of the humans and Cylons. And just when you have a grasp of what the rules are, Tricia Helfer walks in, makes out with the guy, and a giant Cylon ship annihilates the space station. Everything is about to change.

Blindspot opens with a police officer finding an abandoned duffle bag in Times Square. Next thing you know, the whole place is abandoned and an FBI bomb tech is going over to the bag. Except it opens on its own and a naked and excessively tatooed Jamie Alexander crawls out with no idea how she got there or who she is. That’s not just a great introduction to a series, that’s the best moment Blindspot has and ever will achieve. It peaked very early.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer starts by turning tropes against you. Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, break into the school at night. The boy wants to scare her so that she’ll get all hot and bothered and hold on to him tighter. Then she turns around with a demonic face and bites into his neck. From that point on you know the show won’t be playing by the rules.

Chuck, which you will discover over time is my favorite show, starts with a kick-ass action scene showing off the hightened reality of spycraft the series will be living in. It then jumps to two nerds hiding from a party where they don’t fit in. You get your desert first, and then the character stuff comes in once you’re already comfortable.

Fringe starts with an entire airplane full of people dieing.

Lost opens on the aftermath of a plane crash.

Veronica Mars starts with its titular character right in the thick of it. Full on noir mode.

This is the kind of writing that gets a reader to keep going, and despite the time traveling woman in the woods, I have to do more. It’s where the writer comes on to the scene and shows what they are best at.

What am I best at? Dialogue? I used to think so, but then I realized I only write how my friends and I talk, which is nothing like how normal humans speak. Description? Maybe. I can get a little heavy handed implying visuals to the reader though, and that can be a negative. Action? Probably. But even I know I need to improve in that aspect.

Maybe I’m my worst critic. Hell, I know I’m my worst critic. But that doesn’t change the fact that, when I told my sister about the first five pages being the application, she made a crack about not having the characters talk about sandwiches.

And then she remembered that’s exactly what I wrote.

– JP

PS, when they said write what you know I took that as a sign to write complete insanity.

My New Year’s Resolutions

To say 2015 was a disappointing year for me would be appropriate. It’s through no fault of World events or pop culture, it’s just that 2014 was a banner year for me. I took classes at a Grad student level as a college Junior, I studied abroad in London, and as the year came to a close I had been accepted to study in Los Angeles in the final semester of my Junior year. Every year my family’s Christmas card bears a short blurb on what we all did over the past year, and that one was easily my favorite.

To paraphrase my blurb from this year, “John graduated college and now works part time at a candy store for minimum wage.”

What happened? Well, a number of things I could control and enough that I couldn’t. People keep telling me I shouldn’t take it so hard, but I refuse to hear this life for another year.

Which brings me to my new year’s resolutions. There’s really one blanket one, but I want to get in depth about it since its such a broad thing.

Get my life together

That’s basically it. And that will mean changes for me personally, physically, socially, and most importantly professionally. So let’s break these down.

Get my personal life together

This is where the least work is needed in my opinion. Somehow, even in this personal low point, I still like myself decently enough. If anything, I would like to look into finding a good therapist. I’ve seen enough depression in my time to know the importance of looking after my emotional health. By the end of 2016 I would like to have found a therapist.

Get my physical life together

This is another easy resolution. To be honest the only reason I currently feel bad about my body is because I spent the last 10 days eating holiday meals. Delicious, delicious, holiday meals. Now that I’m returning home where I can only afford large quantities of nuts and oatmeal, that’s going to change. However, I am increasingly aware that my personal fitness has hit a bit of a plateau, not to mention my poor nutritional health. So, in 2016 I would like to find a new direction to take my exercise as well as learn to eat and especially cook healthier.

Get my social life together

I spent too many nights last year veging on the couch watching TV. I feel like I’ve been losing friends since graduation, not gaining them. I’m not an introvert, not all the time, I’m more like a pendulum that swings back and forth. Although I’ve put lots of effort into maintaining my relationship with old high school friends, I feel like I’m not putting the same effort into my college and adult friends. Don’t even get me started on 2015 in my love life either. I’m unsure how best to tackle this one. I guess I’d like to spend 2016 going out more with friends. More lunches and dinners and shows and just things to do. Maybe I’ll even throw a party.

Get my professional life together

Here we arrive at the big one. I know exactly where to start with this resolution, and it is much more specific. In January, I would like to get a better job. Requirements for a better job include, over $9/hour in pay, literally any other uniform (or better yet, no uniform), and not much else. By April, I would like a job in the TV industry, full time. In the meantime, I will be writing every single day this year. Whether that is a script or a post here, I would like to be producing content as opposed to only absorbing like I have the past few months. Within the first quarter of 2016, I would like to have applied to as many writing fellowships as possible. By the end of 2016, I would like to have written a feature, two more pilots, and a short film. I would like to make that short film as well. What I want most of all, is to become less financially dependent on others. I’ve got a wedding to go to this Summer, and I would like to afford my own plane tickets.

Am I biting off more than I can chew? I don’t think so. Like I said, I know my own limitations. I like to be busy, I want to have something to do instead of being bored during my few days off. Keeping up with all of this, which anyone who knows me can feel free to kick my butt over, will make 2016 my best year ever.

-JP

PS, did you miss me?