Who Writes Those TV Shows, Anyway?

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to actually write a TV show? We have an excellent book on the subject at the library!

Just the Funny Parts by Nell Scovell talks about how the author went from college to a few years in New York and then began a career writing for television in Los Angeles. The highlight of her career (so far!) was being the showrunner (head writer and all around show boss) of Sabrina The Teenage Witch.

It’s not exactly an “anyone can do it” type of story. She went to college at Harvard and freely admits that the connections she made there had a lot to do with her success. I still found it fascinating to read about how writing for a television show actually works and to follow her personal journey, especially since she is a woman in a very male-dominated business.

She says the career of a television writer has four stages:

  1. Who is Nell Scovell?
  2. Get me Nell Scovell!
  3. Get me a younger, cheaper Nell Scovell!
  4. Who is Nell Scovell?

There’s some fun name-dropping in the book as well (she’s been close friends with magicians Penn and Teller since she was young).

Old Dogs New Tricks

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been watching a lot more television and I’ve been drawn to lighter shows with some comedy. After a year at home, it’s becoming harder and harder to find new TV shows with lots of episodes to watch.

Lately we’ve been watching a British crime series that we’ve been enjoying very much. We discovered it on streaming and I was delighted to notice that we have Season 7 on DVD at the library. It’s called New Tricks and stars four great English actors (Amanda Redman, James Bolam, Alun Armstrong and Dennis Waterman).

Three retired English police officers return to work to hunt bad guys in a new unit called UCOS (Unsolved Crimes and Open Cases squad), reporting to a much younger female officer. They use old-fashioned police work and their decades of contacts to solve cases that defeated other squads. The characters are fantastic:

Jack is the executive, suit-wearing type – who has his beloved late wife buried in his back garden! His nightly talks to his wife (with her headstone surrounded by candles) are intriguing.

Brian has a photographic memory and recalls details of every case and person he’s ever heard of, as well as being the team’s computer guy. He has a hard time socializing with actual people but has a devoted wife.

Jerry has been married and divorced three times and has a daughter with each wife – they have formed a close-knit family unit and all regularly have dinner together. He’s the ladies man of the group and has good contacts on the street.

The tone is light-hearted and loyal – and they always solve the case! There are 12 seasons of the show, but the first 8 seasons are the only ones that contain all of the original cast, and these seasons are by far the best.

Them Bones

One of my favorite types of TV programs is the solving-a-mystery-while-being-funny genre, shows like Castle and Psych. Recently, I discovered a not-so-new entry in this genre which is perhaps the best one I’ve run across, Bones.

The premise of Bones is that the world’s foremost forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance Brennan, helps the FBI solve murders through the examination of victims’ bones. Brilliant but sadly lacking in social skills and tact, Dr. Brennan, or Bones as she’s called by her FBI agent partner Seeley Booth, finds clues in the most unlikely places. Small scrapes on a rib or an indentation on a femur can indicate murder weapon, time of death or even a murderer’s identity. The other members of her team specialize in flesh, bugs and facial reconstruction among other things, each specialist hovering loftily at the top of their field.

A sad fact of television mysteries is that the “rules” of mystery telling and constraints in time often make it obvious who perpetrated a murder. I generally can identify a TV murderer by how they’re introduced or whether suspicion is cast on them. There’s no need to pay attention to the investigation to solve the case. One of the beauties of Bones is that it’s not so strongly bound by these conventions. Sometimes the killer is a newer character who we don’t meet until late in the episode. Other times storylines take abrupt turns that could not be anticipated. The writing is a cut or four above most procedurals.

Now perhaps you don’t care about murder solutions or quality of writing, but you are a fan of gore. Wellsir, Bones is the show for you! Because Dr. Brennan specializes in bones rather than the meat portion of bodies, she’s only called in on cases where the victim’s body has deteriorated significantly. This leads to liquification, intense maggot activity, limb detachment, exploding abdomens and so on. In other words, the bodies are waaaaaay gross. I can only imagine that the visual effects people had a field day working on this show.

Over the 12-year run of the show, characters become more than just coworkers. Of course there’s the usual everyone-dates-everyone-else nonsense, but these people have intense loyalty and affection for one other. At the core of it all is the deeply profound partnership between Booth and Bones. Booth is a man of intuition, a specialist in reading people and a devout Catholic. Bones relies on evidence, does not make assumptions, disdains psychology and is a card-carrying atheist. Other members of the team bring a wide variety of philosophies, personality traits and socio-economic backgrounds. But above all, each team member respects and cares for the other members of their team/family.

If you’re looking for humorous, unpredictable and gory mysteries, look no further. And with 12 seasons to choose from you’re guaranteed over 200 hours of viewing bliss! So lean back in the recliner, pop the tab on a fresh kombucha and prepare to be entertained.

Women’s History Month Readfest Ideas

To kick off Women’s History Month, let’s journey through a list of women authors with stories featuring women or girls. These titles–fiction and nonfiction–feature stereotype-busting women characters facing, among other challenges, racism, war and writer’s block. Check them out at the library!

Dear Miss Kopp by Amy Stewart

The sixth installment of the smart, top-notch Kopp Sisters series follows the adventures of the Kopp Sisters as they head overseas to help in the World War I effort, each in her own personal inimitable adventure. They are separated for the first time, and the sisters write to each other with their news. This is a smart, light-hearted series based on the sisters’ true story. Early in the 20th century, Constance Kopp was named one of the first female deputies in the nation. The sisters lived what was considered at that time to be an unconventional life. The three lived alone on a farm in New Jersey, and despite Constance working as a deputy sheriff, it was frowned on to not have any males around to provide and protect. Occasionally the trio piled into the horse and buggy for a day to visit their brother and his wife, and I wonder if he will show up in the series, at some point. The seventh book, Miss Kopp Investigates, arrives on library shelves this year. 

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

A cast of characters make up the community of ‘Conjure Women,’ and Miss Rue, a healer and midwife like her mother, is its center. Because the story’s structure is deftly threaded forward, past and during, you can pluck from this absorbing read the connection of secrets and fallible humans, which plays out in different eras of the Civil War. Miss Rue cares for a community of freedmen, some closer to her than others. She has cared for many people in her life, including a strange kinship she has with a baby who had a difficult birth. When she is accused of witchcraft, she says she just “knows things.” While she is privy to secrets about the plantation owner’s daughter, she knows exposure of her own secrets is a very real possibility. 

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Markham, a British adventurer, covers growing up in Kenya in the early 1900s and beyond. In 1936, Markham became the first woman to cross the Atlantic east-to-west solo, and the first person to make it from England to North America non-stop from east to west. In 2004, this memoir, first released in 1942, landed in the number eight spot out of 100 best adventure books by National Geographic. I gobbled up this aviation pioneer’s memoir like it was a gastronomic garden party. She may have had lauded careers as a bush pilot and a racehorse trainer; however, readers are fortunate that it is because she was also such a talented writer, her compelling adventure stories have endured.

Anybody Can Do Anything by Betty MacDonald

Betty MacDonald spent a good chunk of her younger and teen years in the Roosevelt District of Seattle. In her four primo memoirs, details from this madcap family portrait occasionally come bubbling out, and it’s crackling good fun to read. Descriptions of antics and arguments the close-knit family experience attest to their ability to think beyond bleakness. I suppose that’s why the buoyant Anybody Can Do Anything was a surprising delight to read. Betty and her sister, Mary, were job hunting in Seattle during the depression of the 1930s. From what I knew, I expected a glum read. It was not. The family was far from depressed, especially Mary. She saw the economic situation as a personal incentive. Mary’s fearless outlook triumphs and leads Betty into one zany job after another. A groove-restoring read.

The Egg and I, MacDonald’s best-known memoir, was also a successful movie. It was based on the four years she and her husband spent deep in the Olympic Peninsula raising chickens on their remote farm. Alas, the marriage ended. Could it have been that the farm had no running water or electricity, but plenty of endless work starting with the rooster’s crow at 4am, year after year? While she didn’t answer that question in the book, her take on the experiences make for a light-hearted, witty read. Readers bought one million copies in the year after it was published. It was then made into a popular 1947 movie starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert. Betty’s neighbors down the road a bit from the poultry farm, Ma & Pa Kettle, had audiences guffawing so hard, they got their own movies. 

In another excellent read, The Plague and I, MacDonald writes about the nine months she had tuberculosis. It is very contagious. During that time, she stayed in a Seattle sanatorium waiting to be healthy again. 

More absorbing reads by women starring compelling women:

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende. “Two refugees from the Spanish Civil War cross the Atlantic Ocean to Chile. This decades-spanning drama is readable and engrossing throughout.” –Kirkus Reviews

Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict. Check out Benedict’s other under-celebrated women in history. The Only Woman in the Room, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, and others.

How to Order the Universe by Maraia Josae Ferrada. A traveling salesman and his daughter traverse Chile.

Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

Life After the Afterlife

One recent rainy Sunday, bored and scrolling through Netflix, I landed on a six-part documentary series examining death and what comes after. It sounded like a sure-fire opportunity to watch an obvious bunch of hooey, so I settled in. As I later learned, the series is based on the nonfiction book Surviving Death: a Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife by Leslie Kean .

The approach in the series turned out to be more scientific and historical than I expected, although Kirkus Reviews said of the book:

Those given to believe in ghosts, heaven, and white lights will find this a fine example of confirmation bias, while those who are not will not be swayed.

While I haven’t read it, reviews seem to suggest the book doesn’t lean on a believer-centric foundation and does a better job presenting evidence to suggest that consciousness survives death. 

As part of episode one of the Netflix series, viewers are whisked off to a Seattle meeting of IANDS (International Association for Near-Death Studies), an open support group for those who’ve had near-death experiences (NDE) and others who wonder about loved ones who have died. Both types come together–now meeting online–to hear the NDEs directly. The series explores other paranormal phenomena including apparitions, contemporary mediums and reincarnation. 

Compelling case studies involving unlikely, level-headed persons (a spine surgeon, and an Oklahoma law enforcement officer, to list two). A historic look at many aspects of the unworldly–including fakers, debunkers, cheerleaders, medical doctors, academics and organizations–makes for an entertaining binge watch. Who knew the case to continue research to lift the veil between life and the afterlife could be mysterious and informative? Netflix did.

One I wouldn’t have guessed to be interested in parapsychology was William James, known as the father of American Psychology and the first to offer a psychology class in the U.S. He co-founded the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) in 1884, the oldest psychical research organization in the United States dedicated to parapsychology.

Check out Kean’s book now. The Netflix series, which launched in January, is not available on DVD at this time. If it becomes available, the library will purchase it.

If you liked Surviving Death, you might want to read The Hairbrush and the Shoe : A True Ghost Story by Jeanne Stanton. When a workman in her home is pushed, Stanton takes action. The former Harvard Business School case writer embarks upon a rigorous search to learn what is happening, which makes for an absorbing, creepy and sometimes funny read.

Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot by Bruce and Andrea Leininger. This story details how the authors finally accepted that their young son was the reincarnated WWII fighter pilot, James Huston. This account is also featured in the reincarnation episode of the Netflix documentary series.

Life with the Afterlife : 13 Truths I Learned about Ghosts by Amy Bruni. In this autobiography, Bruni, co-star of the popular paranormal show, Kindred Spirits, discusses what she has gleaned from ghosts, her unique approach to paranormal investigations, and tips for amateur ghost hunters. 

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach. Science writer Mary Roach–Everett Reads! author a few years back–moves on from the cadavers in her book Stiff to what happens after death. From Kirkus reviews: “Truly deft handling of the (mostly) daft.”

Whether it’s buying and demolishing what he believed was a ‘demon house,’ hanging out at his popular haunted museum in Las Vegas or starring in the widely popular Ghost Adventures on cable, Zak Bagans knows how to stay in the spotlight. He’s done it for a long time. Last year, for instance, he released his third book, Ghost-hunting, part of the For Dummies series, and turns out it could be just the guidebook you need if you have a hankering to investigate spooky stuff. He also relays an assortment of unearthly experiences, much of it one of a kind.

Life After Life by Raymond Moody. Originally published in 1975, this remains essential reading. Moody, considered the grandfather of the Near Death Experience (NDE) movement, introduced the world to the phenomenon.

Also worth a check out: 

Between Two Worlds: Lessons from the Other Side by Tyler Henry

Near-death Experiences: Understanding our Visions of the Afterlife by John Martin Fischer

To find more information and materials all about this subject, try searching the catalog using these keywords and phrases: 

Near-death experiences.

Parapsychology — Investigation.

Ghosts.

Haunted places.

Ghosts — History.

Haunted places — History.

Parapsychology — Investigation — History.

Mediums — United States — Biography.

Clairvoyants — United States — Biography.

Sea Hunt

In 2020 people struggled with rapid and often unpleasant changes. Many tuned in to television shows from the past as a means of self-comfort. Indeed, lately I find myself watching more and more programs from the 60s and 70s, some that I watched during their original run and others that provide familiar scenery from childhood. There’s something wonderful about immersing oneself in the miasma of carefree days that preceded entry into the 9-5 world.

And I’ve been thinking of shows that sit in the crepuscule of my memories, fleeting images of safari from Daktari, of airboats gliding through the Everglades from Gentle Ben and of Lloyd Bridges scuba diving from Sea Hunt. Assuming that I’d never really watched it before, I checked out Sea Hunt from Everett Public Library with some trepidation, fairly certain that it would bore me into a coma. Well sir or ma’am, I could not have been more wrong! While the show is exceedingly dry in delivery (yet wet with water), it manages to create tension and excitement while teaching a thing or two along the way.

If you’re of a certain age, you remember watching films in elementary school that could be collectively called Help Me I’m Bored, Please Put an Icepick Through My Eye. No attempt to engage viewers, dry-like-the-driest-sherry narration and visuals that would not stimulate a sea cucumber. To some extent, Dragnet grew out of this tradition with its no-nonsense just-the-facts-ma’am narration. Sea Hunt feels like the undersea equivalent of Dragnet. It’s not a perfect analogy (the beautiful rapid-fire delivery of Joe Friday is nowhere to be found), but it’s a good starting point for understanding the show.

Episodes begin with diver Mike Nelson (which, c’mon, is the perfect name for a dashing male figure from the late 50s) narrating while he carries out his typical diving duties. Next, we learn the extraordinary circumstances he must deal with in today’s adventure. For example, a mine collapses and is filled with water. 30 miners are killed. Mike is hired to dive in the flooded tunnels (a dangerous undertaking) to see what the situation looks like.

Let me digress for a moment. I like to imagine the pitch meeting for Sea Hunt where creator Ivan Tors must have said roughly, “Half the show takes place underwater. It’s dark, murky and very hard to see. Divers can only move slowly and they don’t talk while diving. Another quarter of the show is Mike Nelson adjusting his diving gear.” In fact, networks turned the show down and it ended up being produced in syndication. And Sea Hunt is indeed visually unengaging, with long periods of narration explicating underwater escapades. Yet it still manages to generate gut-clenching thrills as we wait to see if Mike can save the world once again.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program.

As he dives through those flooded mine caverns, Nelson begins to hear a pounding that’s too regular to ignore. Emerging in a small air pocket he discovers two miners barely alive, soon to be dead if he doesn’t act immediately. Mike realizes that he can only take one of them back to safety! He decides to return as quickly as possible to help the other, but it will likely be too late…

Exciting stuff.

The show ran from 1958-1961, before my time, but I remember watching it as a young child and especially recall each episode’s ending, variations on the theme, “Hi, I’m Lloyd Bridges. I’ll see you next week for another underwater adventure.” Surprisingly, it’s become a show I greatly enjoy. Grab some popcorn, Maynard, and check this one out for yourself.

The Christmas Zone

Christmas is a time of cheer, family, sharing, snow and small-town comradery. At least it is in most movies. But today we cross the line into that dimension of time and space known simply as… The Christmas Zone!

Case in point: the Firpo brothers.

Trapped in Paradise spins the tale of three, um, less-than-genius brothers who decide to rob a small-town bank at Christmas time. The robbery goes without a hitch, but the trio finds themselves trapped in the town of Paradise courtesy of a snowstorm. Hilarity ensues. While I recognize the borderline quality of this film, and I typically do not enjoy Nicolas Cage or Dana Carvey, somehow I am tremendously amused by this offbeat Christmas story.

Office Christmas Party features an excellent cast that should fill me with delight. But Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon and T.J. Miller cannot save this vehicle from itself. Once again it’s Christmas time, and the Chicago Zenotek branch is facing massive layoffs. Most of the movie is devoted to a, wait for it, office Christmas party which reaches new levels of decadence every few moments. Then, just as the mayhem hits dizzying heights and comes crashing down, a happy ending descends upon Chicago and there is peace and decked halls for all. Not a great movie, but it is filled with charming performances. If you’re looking for something outside of the typical Christmas fare, this just might be the ticket.

Yes Virginia, there are Christmas horror movies. Gremlins combines the cuteness of furry little critters with the unquenchable bloodlust of monsters. What could possibly go wrong? Without giving the story away too much, the town of Kingston Falls is attacked by gremlins on Christmas Eve. Chaos ensues, people die, and an effort is made to stop the gremlin threat in its tracks. The movie also sports an element of black comedy to take a bit of the people-dying-in-the-streets edge off. Will there be a Christmas miracle? Tune in to find out.

Perhaps you long for a Christmas zombie musical? Anna and the Apocalypse is a difficult movie to describe without giving it all away. Picture a typical zombie movie, but with fun little pop songs and happy teens who are somewhat oblivious to what’s going on around them. Add a touch of carnage, a soupcon of choreography and a dash of holiday celebration to the mix and you have one of the stranger Christmas movies to hit the bricks in some time. As always, don’t forget your towel.

So if you find yourself unable to view Santa Claus Conquers the Martians this holiday season, take a look at what’s available at Everett Public Library. You just might start a new and awkward tradition.

Classic TV

Even as a person who was raised on sixties television, I can be put off by the thought of watching shows produced during that time. Acting styles, writing, pacing and sets were often different from today’s standards. And, hold on to your girdles, programs were sometimes shot in black and white! My brain often decides, on its own, that these shows are inferior, and thus I hesitate to watch them.

But every now and then I’ll talk myself into taking a chance. My latest find is Ironside starring Raymond Burr. Now, I’m a long-time Perry Mason fan, but for some reason Ironside never appealed to my finer senses. Well, let me tell you: It’s fabulous!

Burr plays the San Francisco chief of detectives who, in the show’s first episode, is shot in the spine and rendered unable to walk. Robert T. Ironside is a firecracker of a person, not one to accept physical limitations, and he’s soon working as a special consultant to the SFPD. Along with officers Ed Brown and Eve Whitfield and personal assistant Mark Sanger, Ironside looks to crack a case each episode.

Plots are well-crafted and fascinating, often delving into issues of race and discrimination. At a time when freedoms of Americans are potentially eroding, it’s pretty eye-opening to see a 50-year-old tv show embracing diversity. It’s also educational to see how much the world has changed in those 50 years. One episode features a criminal who steals a machine that issues payroll checks. He uses it to forge checks and then takes them to about 20 grocery stores each day. In San Francisco 2020, I’m guessing you’d be hard pressed to find a grocery store that would cash a payroll check from a stranger.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ironside is the man himself. If you’ve ever watched Nero Wolfe, you’ve seen a character who is set in his ways, unwilling to bend, brilliant, unpleasant and prone to tirades. There is nothing particularly likable or sympathetic about him. Ironside, on the other hand, has many of the same qualities, but his bluster is tempered with a side of compassion and sarcastic humor. The result is a character who you like and admire, perhaps fear a bit, but definitely respect. I’ve not seen another TV character of this same ilk.

Over the years, I’ve not heard too much buzz about Ironside. But let me tell you uncles and aunties, it’s a cut above most of the crime shows that have been produced for television. Intelligent, often riveting, not too predictable, a breath of fresh air in my TV viewing world. As Bob Ironside himself might say, “What’s your flaming excuse for not watching it?!?”

The Bookshop on Film and Page

At the start of the film The Bookshop it is 1959 and a young widow living in a small English town decides to open a bookshop. After six months of negotiations, she is able to purchase an old building that has been vacant for years. That’s when the town grande dame decides that she wants that building for an arts center and tells the young woman that she will have to find another building for her bookshop.

The grande dame is accustomed to the villagers simply acceding to all her demands, no matter how unreasonable. This time, the young woman decides to fight for her dream of opening a bookshop in that building. Big mistake. The grande dame and her husband, a former general, begin an all-out campaign to destroy the young woman who dared to defy them.

This independent British film is available on Kanopy, one of the library’s free video apps. It stars Emily Mortimer as Florence Green, the young widow; Patricia Clarkson as the village grande dame; and Bill Nighy as a reclusive, book-loving widower (who isn’t actually a widower at all).

This is a beautifully made film with a superb cast – the stars all turn in exceptional performances and so do the supporting actors.

If you like British films, you might enjoy The Bookshop.

This film is based on the novel The Bookshop by British author Penelope Fitzgerald, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. We have the novel available in our digital collection as an e-book and also as an audiobook.

Streaming Video

Streaming video has become old hat these days. Still, it’s nice to know that the library has streaming services available. Recently, I took it upon myself to see just what kind of offerings Hoopla has available for patrons of the Everett Public Library. And what I found might amaze you! Well, not really. In fact it’s not that surprising at all, but here it is.

Many of the movies offered by Hoopla are not first run blockbusters. In fact, popular fiction titles are few and far between. But for a person such as myself who is entertained by bad movies and can find good in mediocre movies, there’s a treasure trove of entertainment to be viewed.

Take for example The Radioland Murders. I discovered this movie some years ago and was never able to locate it again. Here we find a murder mystery set in the 1930s with lots of Art Deco, live radio broadcasts, full orchestras in the studio and a killer on the loose. The cast includes a variety of talented actors and the script is well written and entertaining. If you like live radio shows such as The Shadow, you’ll get a kick out of watching the shows be produced, seeing how the sound effects are made, and witnessing the stress of actors receiving scripts just moments before they have to speak the lines. In brief, if you enjoy murder mysteries this movie is well worth checking out. Thank you, Hoopla, for finding this treasure for me once again.

Another title I tried out was The Red House starring Edward G. Robinson. The movie was listed under film noir and I thought it might be based on a mystery by A.A Milne that I had read a few years back. This 1947 film, which in fact has nothing to do with the Milne book, focuses on middle aged siblings who own a small farm. Locals refer to them as the mysterious Martins. Next to their farm stands the Oxhead Woods, which turns out to be the real center of the mystery.

When high school senior Nath goes to work for the Martins, he simply wants to earn some cash. The couple’s adopted daughter Meg obviously has feelings for Nath, but he is planning to marry his girlfriend Tippy and doesn’t even notice Meg’s interest. Early on it becomes apparent that Mr. Martin, Pete, is obsessed with the woods and he tells everyone to avoid them. Something happened in his past in a red house in the woods and Pete hears screaming whenever he’s in those woods. But we don’t learn more about this for quite some time.

Ultimately, the movie is a psychological thriller and I don’t really want to give any more details so as not to give away the thrill of it to. Suffice to say, any time you watch an older movie that apparently has the soundtrack from a hygiene film, well, you know what you’re in for. Kidding aside, The Red House, while sometimes predictable, is still an enjoyable ride.

My final foray into Hoopla came in the guise of a spy thriller/action/comedy titled Operation Endgame. In this movie featuring a talented cast, the director couldn’t decide what type of movie he was making. While the original intent was probably for a spy spoof, the humor never grew much beyond occasional funny dialog. The action seems fine, the gore level adequate. The plot, involving a secret American intelligence group whose members are all trying to kill each other, was sufficiently twisty to satisfy my need for surprise and novelty.

It’s difficult to say much about the plot of this one without giving too much away. What I liked best is that anything could happen, any character could suddenly die. This took away the predictability that this type of movie often suffers from. I moderately recommend this film to anyone who enjoys spydom.

So there you have it. Oh, and let us not forget the best feature of Hoopla: It’s free! So you can take a chance on a movie that may or may not be outstanding. And, I recommend that you do so. But please, do not start with Nude Nuns with Big Guns (I did not make this up!). Slide into an easier title first before tackling the big guns.