31 January 2012

Some things I learned from M2 Hockey videos

I learned a lot from watching Hockeyshare's YouTube video channel.  They have a lot of great drills which are actually demonstrated on the ice.  I also really liked their tips on general tactics like breakouts and defense.  Here are some things I learned:


Backwards quick starts

You do two quick crossovers.  Do one crossover, followed by another crossover in the opposite direction.  This evens out your direction.

Forward stride

Make sure you flick your toe at the end of the stride.  If you don't do this, you'll lose a lot of power.


Forehand passing & receiving 101

Pass with the puck in the middle of the blade. You don't want the puck on the heel, because it will be prone to elevation (like in a saucer pass). With the puck on your blade, push your arms forward in a straight line, roll your wrists, and point the toe of the stick towards your target. While you catch the pass, you should be looking for the next target where you'll be passing.

When receiving the pass, don't bring the puck too far back. You want to finish receiving the pass so you are in a good position to make your next move. After you receive the puck, avoid stickhandling. Each "stickhandle" costs you a half second.


One timers

Typically, you want to receive puck somewhere between middle of stance to back foot. Drop your body and get low. Pro players often "sit" down or even go down on one knee for the one timer. For a "slap" type one timer, you are relying on the flex of the stick to generate power. In game situations, you don't usually get the puck in your favorite place. The puck may come slightly in front of you or slightly behind you. You need to learn how to adjust your position on the ice.

Shooting from a D to D pass

Don't take the shot if you don't have a lane. Nothing is worse than our shot hitting a shin pad and causing an odd man rush the other way.

Catch the pass in front of you by stopping the puck right off your outside foot. Then turn your body, open up your body, and immediately step into the shot. Don't stickhandle. Try to do this sequence of motions as quickly as possible so you get the shot off quickly and avoid hitting any traffic.


Strong-side breakout fundamentals 

There are three options for strong-side wings breaking out:
  1. Post up at the hash marks and jam your skate against the wall. Position your outer skate so that when the puck bounces off your skate, it will be directed to a good position. Open up your body a bit so that you can accelerate when you catch the pass. Your skates should be in an upside down V position. You don't want to face the defensive zone straight on, because that is a difficult position to accelerate out of.
  2. Skate forwards towards the net, then transition to backwards, and curl towards the boards.  As you transition, sneak a look back at the ice to see where everyone is.  You are facing the defensive zone, looking for a pass. Open up your body for a pass near the hash marks.
  3. Skate forwards towards the net, make a hockey turn towards the boards, and accelerate up the ice, looking for the pass. Only do this when you are confident there is no pressure or when you're on the powerplay.
Receiving a breakout pass

You have four options when receiving a breakout pass:
  1. Pass back to defensemen or pass up to another forward.
  2. Skate the puck after receiving the pass. Preferably you'd like to catch the pass with speed. You can do this by skating down towards the defensive zone and transitioning. Make two hard steps and look to make a play.
  3. Chip the puck off the boards out of the defensive zone.  Don't chip the puck towards the defenseman.  Bank the puck off the boards at an angle so it goes around the defenseman.  If you're playing on your strong side, shovel the puck up with your backhand.  Otherwise, you can lift the puck with your forehand.
  4. Eat the puck. If you get the puck and can't make a play, jam the puck up against the boards with your stick and protect the puck with your body.
Always sneak a look to see where everyone is before you catch the pass.

Some tips on receiving a hard pass wrapping around the boards.  Jam your skates up against the boards.  Don't put your heels perpendicular to the boards.  Stand with your skates making an upside down V.  The skate closer to the net will be positioned to allow the skate to bounce out towards your stick.  Your body will be slightly opened up so that you can get a good quick start.


Offensive escape move

If you're a forward skating down the ice with the puck into the offensive zone and you don't see a play, you can curl around towards the boards. This slows down the play and gives you time to look for more options.

Attacking the point

This is about how to pressure the point when you're a defensive forward.  You'll either be on the boards as the strong side winger or in the high slot as the weak side winger.  If you're coming from the high slot, angle  the point towards the boards, away from the middle.  If you're coming from the boards, you want to curl around to push the point towards the boards.  This isn't always possible.  In that case, put direct pressure on the point by skating straight at them.  Don't follow the path of the defenseman.  Take the straight line path.

To block the shot, you need to put your body between the puck and the net.  Don't skate up with your body to the side and stick in the shooting lane.

Attacking the low seam

The low seam is the goal line in the attacking zone.

In this situation, you are at the hash marks.  (You might be catching the puck off a cycle.)  You skate down the wall over the goal line, then do a hockey turn back toward the goal line, then a second hockey turn toward the net and shoot.  Always protect the puck from the defense, with good body positioning and by keeping the stick and puck wide.  Make sure you accelerate out of each turn, either with a heel drive or a crossover.

(update 7 Oct 2012)


Defensive positioning

Stay between the forward and the net at all times.  If you see a good opportunity, you can try to pin the attacker along the boards.  As the attacker moves, move laterally with them.

Defensive zone pickup

While you are skating back as a defenseman to pickup the puck in the defensive zone, you want to do two things before you even pickup the puck.  First, sneak a look back to see where your forecheck pressure is and where your pass options are.  Decide whether you are going strong side or weak side.  Second, angle your path depending on whether you chose the strong side or the weak side.  Make sure you pick up the puck facing the sides, not the end boards.  If you face the end boards, you won't be able to see incoming players.  When you actually pickup the puck, minimize stickhandling.

If you go strong side, either pass immediately or use a two-touch movement to bring the puck to your forehand and then pass.  Avoid wrapping the puck around the boards.  It's too difficult to control for the wingers.  The amount of time the winger needs to control the puck can be the difference between breaking out and being stuck in the defensive zone.

If you go weak side, your defensive partner should be dropped behind the net for a D-D pass.  Check what hand your partner has.  If his/her blade is next to the boards, you can try a direct pass.  If he/she is the other hand and the net is in the way, you can bounce the puck off the wall.

A last option is an escape move.  You angle your path as if you are going weak side.  Skate all the way to the net, using the net to block forecheckers.  Then hockey turn towards the wall, go up the strong side, and pass a pass quickly.  Try to make the pass right out of the turn. Don't stand flat footed after making the turn.

Defense neutral zone transition options

This discussion covers what to do if there is a loose puck in the neutral zone and you are a defenseman skating back to pick it up.

The first option is a quick D-to-D pass. Your defenseman partner should be positioned 1-2 stick lengths behind the puck. This gives you a good passing line and makes it harder for your opponents to forecheck. After you make the pass, get open as support, in case your defensive partner wants to pass back to you.

A second option, if you have more time, is to skate towards the puck and do a 180 transition, so you face up-ice. This option gives you great vision of the ice, but the puck is in a slightly awkward position. You'll need to pull the puck back towards your body to put it in a good position for passing.

A third option, if you don't have time, is to skate towards the puck, pick it up (protecting the puck with your body), and immediately pass it while you are still facing the defensive zone. If you pick up the puck on your forehand, it's straightforward to make a pass up off your forehand. If you pick up the puck on your backhand, you want to do a hockey turn and lean in, as you do the backhand pass. This will give your backhand pass some strength. You don't want to be in the situation where you are standing stationary and doing a shoveling style, weak backhand pass.

It is essential to make quick passes. The opposing team won't have time to setup their defense. And you'll generate lots of scoring opportunities for your team.

Defense recovery

Suppose you are skating backwards playing defense on a forward. You know you are beat when the forward's shoulder comes in line with your own shoulder. To recover, turn your body and skate towards the net, to cut off the forward's angle. Don't make the mistake of skating towards the forward or following the path of the forward.

Net protection for hockey defensemen

When you take the puck around the net, hug the posts so there is no room for a forward to pressure you on that side. You use the net as a protective barrier.

Defensive Lateral Movement Tips & Drill

This discussion concerns defenseman playing point when their team is in the attacking zone.

If you are trapped on the boards, you want to move laterally towards the center of the ice. As you move towards the middle of the ice, you get a much better shooting angle on the net. You also create space for your forwards. Another option is to move laterally towards the center of the ice, drawing a defender off the boards. You can bait this defender towards you and then bounce the puck off the boards around them to one of your forwards. As you moving laterally, you can keep your feet outside of the blue line as long as the puck stays in the offensive zone. This will give you another 5-6 feet of room to make a play.

30 January 2012

Link of the day: Alex Gansa walkthrough of Homeland's first season

I was delighted to find that AV Club posted an extensive interview with Homeland's co-creator and co-showrunner Alex Gansa. In it, Gansa goes through all twelve episodes of the standout first season. This is part of AV Club's "Walkthrough" series. The site has conducted similar interviews with other showrunners. The Homeland walkthrough was an incredibly interesting read and I came away being even more impressed with the writers. I'll list a few of the particularly interesting remarks.
  • Gansa didn't think there was anything positive about doing network TV (as opposed to cable). What about reaching larger audiences??
  • Mandy Patinkin was specifically asked to grow a beard. A commenter on the article said that he grew a beard and his wife told him he was much harder to read. "With the beard, you have to read most of his emotions through his eyes and in my opinion it works so well..."
  • Gansa regretted killing off characters (e.g. Lynne Reed, Faisel, Tom Walker) too quickly before they had a chance to develop them.
  • Gansa said that the riveting scene where Saul puts together the colored timeline was actually shot after the episode had already been wrapped. They realized they needed that extra scene after the fact. Gansa remarks that it's a testament to Mandy Patinkin's skill as an actor that he made the sequence so interesting, the way he tears the paper, etc. I've noticed that about outstanding actors. They can make anything seem interesting, make any line of dialogue seem interesting.
  • The writers planned far in advance. They had decided that Dana would be the one to pull her dad back from terrorist activities. And that's why they carefully developed Dana's character and slowly gave Morgan Saylor (the actress who played Dana) more and more to do until she could play the pivotal phone scene in the finale.
  • An interesting remark about TV writing:
    One of the things you learn very early in writing for television, especially, is that compressing the story is always a good idea... And what we realized we had to do was, whenever we could, swing for the fences and not save story, but put the cards down.

    That was the part of the season where people were like, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen next? What are the writers going to do next? I’m worried. Can they sustain the show? Are they telling the story too fast? How are they going to keep this going?” And, interestingly enough, that’s what people are saying at the end of the first season, too: “Well, where can they go from here? How can they move on from here?” One of the things that I learned from Howard on 24 in terms of plotting out these thrillers is that if you sit in a room long enough with smart people, there is a way the story can be told compellingly.
  • More observations about TV writing. The scene discussed here is Carrie and Saul's interrogation of the Saudi diplomat.
    Here’s another example of a scene that everybody’s seen a thousand times, and the question was, “What spin do you put on it? How do you make it different? How do you make it interesting?” The way we chose to make this interesting was, the very thing Saul and Carrie think that they have over this guy [the fact he's gay], and that’s going to be the trump card, doesn’t work. That’s what turned the scene on its head all of a sudden...

    If you have more than one thing going on, a scene is always better, so what’s going on in this scene is that Saul has turned over the interrogation to Carrie and trusted her to do it... So the dynamics between Carrie and Saul are just as important as the dynamics between Carrie and the diplomat, and that’s what adds the richness and the complexity to the scene, and makes it feel different and unexpected.

    And always, whenever you’re writing a scene, whenever you can do something that comes purely from character but that is unexpected, that’s the gold. That’s when you’ve mined something that’s really worthwhile.
Frankly, I'm amazed by the amount of insider information we get nowadays about TV shows. I really enjoy this open dialogue between creator and audience. Apparently, there is a significant appetite for this kind of thing; otherwise, season walkthroughs, TV critic websites, and people like Alan Sepinwall wouldn't exist. Gansa must really respect AV Club to spend so much time granting this exclusive interview.

29 January 2012

Slow TV vs binge TV

What's the best way to watch TV? Getting the DVDs and marathoning dozens of episodes at a time? Watching as the show airs, one episode a week?

I've seen arguments for both. Mary Choi of Wired argues "In praise of binge TV consumption." Over at AV Club, Todd Van der Werff argues "In defense of slow TV."

I find that thriller, plot driven shows are better watched via DVD marathoning. If I had watched Alias as it aired, I would have been incredibly annoyed about the constant cliffhangers in the first season. Densely layered, character driven shows are better watched slowly. I have no discipline, so it's a lot easier for me to watch as the show airs. I'm not the kind of person who given a stack of DVDs, can limit myself to watching one episode per day.

When I blitz through a show on DVD, I miss a lot of details and it feels like a blur. That's no big deal if it's a mediocre show, but not so great if it was a good show that I actually wanted to delve into. (The problem with mediocre shows is that finishing them becomes a tedious chore.) Binging is frequently unsatisfying, in the same way I feel about gorging on a huge bag of popcorn. Not to mention the unhealthy aspects of watching TV all hours of the day, neglecting hygiene, and forgetting to eat.

The higher quality the show, the more I want to watch slowly. I still have fond memories of watching Battlestar Galactica as it aired (with the exception of Season 1 which I had to catch up with on DVD). I would run down to the basement TV room to catch episodes on Sunday nights. I remember being inspired by the episode "Flight of the Phoenix" -- at how people could find moments of heightened joy in the darkest situations.

Currently, I've been watching Homeland as it airs. I would usually make a first pass on each episode. This would satisfy my need to find out what happened next and I would register the highest emotions on the first pass. (This makes me think of how shocked I was to watch Carrie's manic episode in "The Vest" on my first viewing.) I would read the responses from TV critics, read audience comments, and peruse conversations on forums. People would mention details I'd missed. Then I'd go back watch the episode a second time. The second pass would be my detail sweep. Then I'd wait for the next episode and repeat the process. I wouldn't normally go to all this effort, only for a special show. It's a lot of work, but if it's a great show, I learn a lot. In this way, TV watching becomes a rich experience and not just a trivial diversion.

28 January 2012

Link of the day: Coaching like a creative writing instructor

While in the bookstore sitting out a fire alarm, I picked an issue of Sports Illustrated. I came across the annual Sportsman of the Year issue. This year, the award was bestowed on college basketball coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt. I was especially intrigued by descriptions of Krzyzewski's style of coaching. Writer Alexander Wolff claims that he thinks of coaching his players as writing a story.
For someone who doesn't read, Krzyzewski coaches an awful lot like a creative writing instructor. Two weeks ago, before Duke played Kansas in the final of the Maui Invitational, Krzyzewski gave his inexperienced team a kind of grammar to moot the burden of conscientiousness he feared they'd feel. The shots presenting themselves that night, he told them, wouldn't be their shots. "I told them they were my shots, and that I wanted them to take them," he says. "That they should shoot whenever they felt a shot, and I'd live with the result. Young players, if they thought of shots in a big game as theirs, they might hold back."
Krzyzewski tries to teach his players to see themselves honestly, to see themselves the way he sees them. That truthfulness helps them grow.
"I could recite a definition or quote some famous author on ownership, and they would never feel it," Krzyzewski says. "You tell stories, and you have a chance to feel the word."

Krzyzewski teaches his Blue Devils by arraying things around them that they can see. "If one of my guys can see himself honestly, that's the rite of passage to the place where he and I can have a trustful relationship," he says. "In a moment on the bench, he can see himself through my eyes. I'd say I've had that relationship with most of my players. Sometimes they never give you themselves. But sometimes they give you themselves that first day, and it just gets bigger."
The Sports Illustrated piece recounts a particularly poignant story about US Olympian Kevin Durant.
In August 2010 in Madrid, Krzyzewski gathered the U.S. national team before an exhibition game with Spain. As he addressed his players he noticed forward Kevin Durant staring at the floor. Afterward he took Durant aside to tell him the importance of eye contact.

"Coach," Durant replied, "I'm a shy person."

"Kevin, you can't be a shy person. I need you to be great. We need to be great together."

That night the U.S. beat Spain in the final seconds, and the next morning the team reconvened to view film. When he rolls tape, Krzyzewski often stops the action to make nontactical points—to flag a facial expression or a phrase of body language. And here was Durant in freeze-framed glory, looking like a basketball god come down in vengeance.

"Kevin! That's what I'm talking about!"

Krzyzewski wheeled on point guard Russell Westbrook. "Russell, when Kevin looks like that, how does it make you feel?"

"When Kevin looks like that, it makes me feel like we're gonna win," Westbrook replied.

"Kevin, if you look like that, before you make one shot or grab one rebound or stop one guy on defense, you've created a mood of winning."

Durant went on to dominate the worlds, averaging 33 points over the final three games. In his coach's judgment, no American has ever played better in an international competition. "Kevin had been lumped in with his peers and didn't know how to separate himself," Krzyzewski says. "Sometimes you have to show guys."

27 January 2012

Link of the day: Why soccer seems boring

I've always wondered why soccer seems dull. The ball bounces back and forth all over the field and not much seems to happen. I love playing and watching hockey, which is similar to soccer. I played soccer as a child. Yet, I've never gotten into watching soccer, the only exception being the sensational 2011 women's World Cup final between Japan and USA.

Finally, I found this great essay on Grantland which answers exactly my questions.

First, why is soccer so dull?
There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole "maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can't use your arms and hands" element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it's a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that's uniquely adapted for long periods of play where [the ball bounces around chaotically and nothing seems to happen]...
Second, if soccer is dull, why is it the world's most popular sport? Why the crazed fans?
Following soccer is like being in love with someone who's (a) gorgeous, (b) fascinating, (c) possibly quite evil, and (d) only occasionally aware of your existence. There's a continuous low-grade suffering that becomes a sort of addiction in its own right. You spend all your time hoping they'll notice you, and they never do, and that unfulfilled hope feels like your only connection to them. And then one day they look your way, and it's just, pow... I watch soccer to be amazed.
Oh, and check the footnotes of Brian Phillips's fantastic piece to hear his meditations on how American sports (football, baseball, etc.) have rules which promote regularity and prevent the kind of chaos observed in soccer.

26 January 2012

Thought of the day: Why the head needs the heart and vice versa

It's a cliche in film and TV: the cerebral character who doesn't seem to believe in emotions. Or less common, the wild reckless character who never stops to think. I think in situations that seem to demand an overwhelmingly intellectual response, feelings act as a good filter to weed out information. Conversely, when there are a million emotions running through your head, it's a good idea to reach for your brain and trust what it tells you. Not that any of this is new, but I thought I'd share my way of saying it.

24 January 2012

Song of the day: "The National Pastime" by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

I just watched the pilot episode of NBC's new TV show Smash. My favorite song is "The National Pastime", which alludes to the Marilyn-Joe DiMaggio relationship. It's a sly, double-entendre, throwback number -- which I love. You should watch it live with the beautiful choreography. It reminds me -- where have you gone Broadway dance? The last great dance routines I saw were on a revival of West Side Story.
MARILYN: (spoken) Fellas!
CHORUS: (spoken) Yeah?
MARILYN: (spoken) Fellas!
CHORUS: (spoken) Is it?
MARILYN: (spoken) Hey, team!
CHORUS: (spoken) Off the benches, it's Marilyn!

I just got a date
She's just got a date
With baseball's Joltin' Joe
That lucky so-and-so
So run me 'round the bases,
Put me through my paces,
And teach me all the things a slugger's lover
Should know!

What's that there?
That's the pitcher's mound
Have you ever seen a shape
That is so perfectly round
Batter up
Play ball
You better give it your all
'Cause all men like to play at
The national pastime.

Who's that man?
That's the first base coach
Have you noticed that he signals
Every time I approach?
Kill the ump
Throw him out
Because there isn't a doubt
That all men like to play at
The national pastime.

When I was just a little girl
I liked being dainty and purty
But now that I'm giving sports a whirl
I feel I kinda like to get dirty

Baby, what's that there?
That's the team's bullpen
And I like the odds I'm seeing
No girls, all men
Hit the deck, look alive,
Beware the lady's line drive
Yes, my skill and my passion'll
Elevate the national --


Hot dogs!
Cracker jack!
I don't care, I don't care,
If I ever get back!


When the season's over
The play won't end
'Cause a baseball diamond is a girl's best friend...
Yes, her style and her fashion'll
Elevate the national pastime!

21 January 2012

Improving the public image of science

I think sometimes about how to improve the public image of science. There are a million things going on in people's lives, things that worry them; children have so many ways of occupying their time, whether it's sports, Facebook, or video games.

I want people to believe that science literacy is important the way that reading is. You wouldn't tell someone you can't read. Yet people have no problem saying that they're "not good at math."

I want to see people doing amateur science whether it's on the computer, looking at stars, or performing experiments. I see all these people buying $500+ dSLR cameras. Thanks to the advances in digital photography and the huge drop in the price of equipment, anyone is capable of taking pro level photos if they work at their skills [1].

Some ideas I have
  1. Take better photos of scientists. I've never really seen many good portraits of scientists [2]. On that note, why can't we make a documentary or a music video that will convince people that scientists are heroes?
  2. Get the public more involved in science. Make them feel like they can make a contribution.  We need more initiatives like Galaxy Zoo.
  3. Find ways to get children more interested in science. Maybe high school kids could be allowed to write software for the library. Have kids do Make Magazine projects.
  4. Show people how they can use science and math to great benefit in their lives. I have to admit, I don't really know how to do this. I've always liked how you can use statistics to expose cheating in polls and things of that nature.
[1] Not that I'm saying amateurs are actually pros.  The professionals can take a much higher percentage of good photos than an amateur can.
[2] This one from the New York Times is not bad for an environmental portrait.

20 January 2012

Notes on transitions/pivots in hockey

Forward to backward
  1. Glide forward on both skates.
  2. Shift your weight to the front of your skates.
  3. Turn your upper body and hips approximately 90 degrees.
  4. Shift your weight to the back of your skates.
  5. (advanced) Do a backwards crossover.
  6. Skate backwards. 
Can be done on a curve or on a straight line.

Keep your body low and your feet wide. Keep your head up! That will ensure that your body is square.

The key is the part where you turn your upper body and hips. This does most of the work. Don't try to turn your feet. Turn your upper body and hips first, and your feet will follow. As your turn your body, keep your body square -- your shoulders should be level, your body weight centered over your skates. You shouldn't be leaning backwards or forwards or dropping one shoulder.

Concentrate on shifting/transfering your momentum from forward to backward without losing speed. The pivot is similar to the pivot in the hockey stop, but you don't want to do the stopping part! Ideally, you want to accelerate out of the transition.

Backward to forward
  1. Glide backwards on the back inside edge of one skate, on an arc. Keep gliding until your body faces 90 degrees to your original direction of travel.
  2. Open up your hips and hold the other skate in front of you and off the ice.
  3. Now turn your upper body and hips towards the skate that is off the ice. Your body should be an open, V-shaped position.
  4. Shift your weight to the other skate. Put that skate down on its back inside edge.
  5. Skate forward. 
Can be done on a curve or on a straight line.

Keep your body low and your feet wide. When you are gliding on the back inside edge, keep your feet close together so you can really put your weight on the back inside edge.

Remember to keep your head up!

Imagine that your feet are skating on an arc. When you do the backward to forward transition, your skates need to be on a deep inside edge.

Don't change feet too early. Keep gliding (for what seems like a long time) until your body faces 90 degrees to the original direction of travel. Then rotate your upper body and hips, not before.


In game situations, transitions are used so that you always face the puck and never turn your back on the play.

Forwards might use transitions when going down low on the breakout. This way they don't turn their back on the puck when making themselves available for the defenseman to pass to.

Defensemen probably use transitions the most.
  1. They might be skating forward with the puck. They can't see a good play to make, so they buy some time by transitioning to backwards.
  2. Your team is attacking and you skate forward into the offensive zone to help out. But then your team loses possession of the puck and you need to switch back to defense. So then you do a transition and skate backwards to cover the defensive zone.
  3. You are skating backwards playing defense against a forward. Then you use the backward to forward transition to cut off the attack and push the forward towards the boards.
  1. Do transitions around a pair of cones.
  2. Do transitions around your own stick.
  3. Do transitions on a slalom style course. 
  4. Have the defenseman skate forward towards an attacker, then transition from forward to backward and play defense against the attacker.
  5. Have the defenseman skate backwards while an attacker skates forwards. When the attacker gets close, the defenseman cuts off the attacker using the backward to forward transition and pushes the attacker towards the boards

Robby Glantz Secrets of Hockey Speed, Vol 1 - "Change of direction", 0:00
Laura Stamm - "Quick turns and transitions", 1:26

19 January 2012

Television in the 21st century

I'm amazed by how artistic television has become in the last decade. Critics say that this trend started with HBO's The Sopranos in 1999. This kind of television, with its heavy serialization, deep characterization, and overarching themes, has found its niche on cable TV, especially on HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX. (There aren't as many network shows of this kind; the outstanding examples are Lost and 24.)

New York Times film critic A. O. Scott argued that TV is just as good as film now and there is really no reason why films should be higher in the pecking order. (Unfortunately, film's prestige still lingers. Compare the coverage of the Oscars to the Emmys.) Some even think that TV is better than film now! Patrick Meaney wrote a very long piece citing the advantages of the TV format over the two-hour film. He pointed out that the length of the TV series allows more creative freedom and time to explore characters. On a TV series, with good material, an actor can showcase his/her diversity and range. More and more big name film actors are jumping into TV. Here's a sampling: Martin Sheen (West Wing), Alec Baldwin (30 Rock), Sally Field (Brothers and Sisters), Glenn Close (Damages), Claire Danes (Homeland). Recently, Dustin Hoffman signed on for HBO's Luck. He told the press that
You cannot get a shot at doing your best work in the studio system. There's committees, there's meetings, they're on the set ... they get involved in a quasi -- at least I think it is -- creative way. They buck heads with people they shouldn't be bucking heads with. And with HBO, once they give a go, there is no committee, there's no meetings, these guys are allowed to try to do their best work and they then give it to us.
Famous film directors are getting into TV, too. Martin Scorsese directed the pilot for Boardwalk Empire and Michael Mann is directing and producing Luck.

The biggest changes have come for writers and their audiences. If anyone is happy about the state of television, it's got to be the writers. Can you name any film script writers? In television, the showrunner (head writer) is truly the boss of everything and (provided that the network doesn't interfere) can realize his/her creative vision. The public has heard of David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire, Treme), Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica), and the nerd favorite Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse). Many playwrights are writing for television, to gain experience (and to put bread on the table, so they can go back to the theatre).

The audience has become a greater, more vocal participant in television. Fans gather on forums to extol the virtues of actors, or trash showrunners for clumsy plotting. By its nature, Serial drama invites discussion and analysis. TV criticism websites have proliferated, for instance, Television Without Pity, AV Club, and HitFix. (Again, TV criticism is still lower status than film criticism, but hopefully that will change.) There are wikis to keep track of complicated plot threads and numerous characters. Writers monitor forums and occasionally go onto boards to personally talk with fans. On learning the audience's reaction, they can adjust the series before the fans revolt. (Some crazy fans have actually become a nuisance for showrunners and networks -- demanding changes as if they own the show.)

Personally, I enjoy watching a great TV series unfold. Every week, I watch an episode, read the critic reviews, and participate in forums. It's a heavy investment of time, but well worth it, for the enrichening experience. I learn so much about the human condition (e.g. endurance in Battlestar Galactica), archane topics (e.g. horse racing in Luck), acting (Claire Danes in Homeland), and writing.

The massive serialization and strong audience participation remind me of the Victorian novel. Back then, authors like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy wrote in installments. It's hard to remember this, since we read these works as complete (and very thick) novels in our literature classes. Writing in installments meant that the lower classes could afford fiction and that writers had to keep their readers interested. In Dickens's Great Expectations, there's a line of dialogue where one character brings up another character out of the blue in the dialogue. My high school English teacher explained that the reason was so the reader wouldn't forget the named character later. Supposedly, Thomas Hardy inspired the term "cliffhanger"! Nowadays, the cliffhanger is a standard trope in modern television. Large ensemble casts and intricately woven plot threads in TV series like Battlestar Galactica remind me of my favorite novel, George Eliot's Middlemarch (which was also serialized).  The serial television drama really is the 21st century's version of the Victorian novel.

TV isn't the end of the story. New players are emerging in this media game. Felicia Day stars in and produces The Guild, a web series about gamers fully funded by donations. Netflix just committed $100+ million dollars to two seasons of a Kevin Spacey drama without even seeing a pilot. YouTube is trying to become more than just a streaming video site and commissioning several original series.

The only danger now is that we'll have so much good material to watch that the audience will splinter into niches. I actually know a substantial number of people who've watched Battlestar Galactica or The Wire. That's because there were only a few shows of that caliber at the time. It's a little like how everyone watched Walter Cronkite because there weren't any alternatives. In the future, there may be so many good TV shows that everyone will watch their own thing or be desperately trying to catch up on the huge list of "classics." (Exactly the situation we have with books.) The last decade of television has proven that there is no shortage of talented writers, actors, and crew. I look forward to see where we go next.

17 January 2012

Link of the day: "Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player"

I follow Cal Newport's blog, whose theme is something along the lines of how to live your life, so that you are creative and get a lot of (real) work done while staying sane.

I liked one of his recent posts where he discussed a piano player's strategy to becoming better. The strategies of "Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy; To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder; Systematically Eliminate Weakness" -- they all fit the general strategy of deliberate practice, which I've discussed in the past here and here.

The last strategy "Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness" fits into the general strategy of visualization. In sports, coaches talk a lot about visualizing your success or visualizing your strategies to deal with a particular situation. For example, if you are a forward playing ice hockey, you could visualizing the three different moves you'd use to score a goal on a breakaway. But visualization can be extended to so many other situations beyond athletic and musical performance. When you get up in the morning, you can script your day and visualize how you want things to go.

12 January 2012

Thought of the day: Presentations are a form of writing

I've come to realize that presentations are just another form of writing. The critical thinking skills you use in writing words on a page are the same ones you use when you "write" your presentation slides. You need to map out what you're going to say, come up with a logical flow, provide supporting evidence/data for your points, etc. The main difference is that presentations are written to be performed. In that sense, they are similar to plays, movies, and television. A presentation can be a very personal work because you are both the sole writer and sole performer. Since I've started watching television with a critical eye, I want to write a post explaining how you can use ideas from TV writing to improve your presentations. If you are a good writer, you are probably a good presenter and vice versa.

09 January 2012

Claire Danes on long distance relationships

Now that Homeland is over for the season, I have nothing better to do than search for "Homeland Showtime" and "Claire Danes" in Google News. Well, it wasn't a complete waste of time. I came across a transcript of an interview with Claire Danes on the Piers Morgan talk show (CNN).

I found this part interesting, where Claire discusses how tricky it is to maintain a relationship long-distance.
MORGAN: And you've been married what, two years now?
DANES: Yes, two years.
MORGAN: Spent any of that time together or was it basically --
DANES: We've been really fortunate, actually, in the formative stages of our courtship, of our relationship, we -- our schedules were kind of amazingly compatible. Lately, we've not been so lucky. I've been, obviously, filming a series, and he's doing a play in New York right now. So he's stationed there.
But we talk a lot. We text a lot. We send each other photos of our toes. I mean, I don't know.
MORGAN: Your toes?
DANES: I don't know. Dumb stuff. We try to make it --
DANES: I think it's dangerous when you go into a reporting mode, when you just kind of list the things you've done that day. Sometimes you just have to act as if you're with each other and not say anything terribly significant.
I've done that a lot, where I go into "reporting mode." Maybe I can try what Claire suggests and talk to someone over the phone as if they were there with me.

05 January 2012

New Zealand leads the way in energy conservation

I was recently vacationing on the South Island of New Zealand.  The attention to conserving energy there was impressive.  Here are a few things I noticed:
  • Signs reminding people to turn off the lights
  • Skylights in bathrooms allowing use of natural light during the day
  • Two buttons on toilets for light and heavy flushes
  • Cloth towels instead of paper towels in bathrooms
  • Switches on all power outlets
  • Possum fur used in clothing (possums are a pest they are trying to eradicate in NZ)