Dear TV Writers: Your Fear of the Moonlighting Curse is Killing Your Show

What is the Moonlighting Curse, and why is it such a big deal to television writers? Read this in-depth look at the crippling phenomenon and find out!

Getting Rid of the Stigma: Mental Illness in Young Adult Fiction, by Megan Mann

In this piece, Megan brilliantly discusses the stigma of mental illness in literature and how some young adult novels are helping to change the landscape for this discussion.

In Appreciation of the Everyday Heroine

A mask does not a hero make. In this piece, I discuss why it's wrong to dismiss characters without costumes or masks as superheroes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Good Place is Back with Twists, Laughs, and More Blake Bortles Jokes [Contributor: Jenn]

(Image credit: NBC)

The Good Place became one of the breakout and darling hits of NBC, with good reason. Its sharp, bright humor was a stark contrast to so many dark and cynical comedies that have circulated television in recent years. While dark comedies have value and some truly are exceptional, there is something to be said for watching a show where characters learn to become better versions of themselves through unlikely friendships.

I've had the privilege of watching the first four episodes of the newest season of The Good Place (the premiere on September 27 is an hour and therefore two episodes), and am constantly impressed with this show's ability to tackle overarching plots while also seamlessly blending in the smaller plotlines of the season. Expect there to be some time jumps (that are well-handled), and revelations that will ensure you stay off Twitter if you're unable to watch a live airing of the episode.

I won't spoil anything for you, but I'm going to talk about a few of the reasons why this season of The Good Place is still great.


Like any good Mike Schur comedy series, the heart of The Good Place has never been the actual afterlife. While the jokes are funny and there are meta references aplenty, what keeps audiences returning to the comedy series is its heart and core — namely, the relationships between Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Michael, and Janet. In season three of the series, we get to see Michael and Janet's connection and dynamic develop, while we also watch the relationship between four virtual strangers re-develop.

The great thing about The Good Place is that even though the characters have already been through resets before, watching them rediscover their friendship is never dull or wearisome. I feel like in a show with literally thousands of resets, we should be bored by now. We should be exhausted of the same game. But we're not. Or at least, I'm not. And I think it's because with every reset, there is a purpose. The Good Place delivers incredibly well-developed twists that are character-centric and advance the plot. They're not just cheap ploys. Because of that, watching Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason find each other on earth and learn to be better versions of themselves doesn't feel like a rehash of the past two seasons — it's new.

And that's truly what allowed me to realize the core and heart of the show was the characters. I knew this, of course, but in season three of The Good Place, we're largely back on earth where there are no flying shrimp or trains to a "medium place" or cosmic tricks. Because the core characters are so well-developed though, this fact doesn't feel boring or dull. We watch our characters study and succeed and fail and experience their own sets of difficulties that can only come through being alive and breathing in a less-than-perfect world.

(Image credit: NBC)

What drew us all in to The Good Place was the brightness of it all — the beautifully weird, wonderful world that Mike Schur and his team imagined. But when this make-believe fades away, the characters themselves still shine brightly. In a lot of ways, we're getting to glimpse them for the first time; or at least we're getting to glimpse the characters in their new/old earthly lives. I love that Eleanor is still the deeply-sarcastic loner, but we do away with watching her eyeroll through Chidi's lessons and see what led her to want to become a better person by actually SEEING her become a better person. We get to watch Chidi's life actually unfold, as he deals with decisions and consequences of decision (or indecision). We see a different side of Jason on earth in certain moments than we've seen in the past, and we get to understand more about Tahani as a person — including a kind of compassion and truer happiness than we've witnessed thus far.

What really is fun (and I don't think this is spoiling anything) is that Michael and Janet have their own stories but are constantly overlapping in fun, unexpected ways with the rest of the characters. Speaking of: I love the way that Ted Danson has played a very complex being like Michael. There's a sort of desperation in him that you'll witness in this season's first few episodes that begins to unravel a little into madness.

(Image credit: NBC)


But what would heroes be without villains? The Good Place has always been great at constructing external villains while also reminding its audience that internal villains (or at least forces of opposition) are just as damaging. You'll see both in season three, and I think the most interesting thing to me thus far is that some villains are clear-cut but some villains — like our personal insecurities, pasts, the struggle to try and be a good person in a very flawed world, and traumas — are a lot more difficult to spot and label as "bad."

Take note of some of those internal villains, because they're really what shape the core characters and cause them to make some of the decisions they do. 

(Image credit: NBC)


Have we run out of Blake Bortles references yet? Nope! Don't worry — there are plenty of them within the first few episodes alone. As is customary in The Good Place, some of the funniest jokes are the ones that take a re-watch to spot. (See if you notice some of those when characters go to an American-themed restaurant in Australia.) What makes the show funny is its absurdity, coupled with realism. Nothing brings those two things together quite like season three which boasts jokes and one-liners and physical comedy from everyone (Chidi loses sleep during one episode and what results is that William Jackson Harper gets to deliver some of his funniest lines and physical comedy bits to date). 

The Good Place's comedy is still diverse in form — Jason is funny because no one plays well-meaningly dumb quite as perfectly as Manny Jacinto. Tahani is funny because of her matter-of-fact way of delivering lines (shout-out to Jameela Jamil for a lot of things, like "I Weigh" but also her ability to name drop as Tahani with flair) and inability to relate to anyone because of her status. Chidi's ability to go from zero to panic button is still funny, and no one can do "Arizona trash bag" snark quite like Kristen Bell. Ted Danson's wonderful, as always with Michael's intense energy, and D'Arcy Carden gets to do some fun work as Janet adjusts to new people and scenarios.

The Good Place is still absolutely delightful — with twists, laughs, and even more jokes about Florida. I'm just as enamored by it as I was two seasons ago, and I think you will be too.

Out-of-context quotes and funny things:
  • " ... Sorry, I've been flying for like, 40 hours. This is Australia, right?"
  • Ted Danson has an Australian accent in an episode for a bit and it's great, and then a British accent for another.
  • "One of them is hot enough to be on The Bachelor AND smart enough to never go on The Bachelor!"
  • "Good luck, dad. Nope, also weird. Just go."
  • "Are you from Florida?" "Jacksonville." " ... Yeahhhh."
  • "Do you think taking a spider in an MRI machine will give you superpowers?"
  • There's an American-themed restaurant in an episode that nails everything terrible about America.
  • "That is... technically an idea."
  • "I guess I could kick him with my soft feet."
  • You'll come to understand why The Greatest Showman exists and why the Jacksonville Jaguars are actually good in our version of reality.
  • There's a giant stuffed bear named "Blake Beartles" in an episode. That is all.
Be sure you don't miss the one-hour season premiere of The Good Place called "Everything is Bonzers" on September 27 at 8 p.m.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Million Little Things is No This Is Us — But That's Not a Bad Thing [Contributor: Jenn]

(Image credit: ABC)

Trigger warning: Brief discussions of depression and suicide to follow.

If you're anything like me, you probably watched the first trailer for A Million Little Things and thought: "Did ABC assume I needed another This Is Us in my life to emotionally compromise me each week?" The good news that I have for you with this advanced review of the new drama series is that while there are shades of a This Is Us-esque penchant for making you reach for the tissues, that's about where the similarities end.

Because where This Is Us is all about what connects us, A Million Little Things is all about the secrets we carry — and how they separate us from people. Now, don't get me wrong: that might seem like a cynical reading of the new ABC show, but it's not. I quite enjoyed the pilot, in spite of some of its issues. While both dramas tackle similar topics, tonally, the execution of A Million Little Things is distinct enough from This Is Us that you can watch both shows without a feeling of whiplash or deja vu. Within A Million Little Things' pilot alone, you'll be able to feel the weight of soapy drama — a titular feel for most ABC dramas.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though: let's backtrack momentarily to discuss the plot of the pilot. A Million Little Things focuses on four people who became friends because they were trapped in an elevator together years prior. The group consists of Gary (James Roday), who has battled cancer, Rome (Romany Malco), an aspiring filmmaker, Eddie (David Giuntoli), a recovering addict and guitar teacher, and Jon (Ron Livingston) who, as you might know from the trailer, takes his own life at the start of the series.

Most of the pilot hinges on Jon's suicide and how it impacts his friends and family, including wife and two children. In the pilot, at least, Jon's decision to take his own life seems to be linked to depression, and there is a scene featuring a frank discussion between the core characters about how they could have missed depression and its signs in Jon's life. Some characters acknowledge that depression doesn't often manifest itself in the ways that we expect and we can't blame ourselves for not seeing or noticing signs.

I'd forewarn anyone who is sensitive to suicide and/or discussions of it and depression — or any similar subject matter — to avoid watching the pilot. Though A Million Little Things doesn't necessarily try to sensationalize suicide (this certainly is not 13 Reasons Why), the show does fall back on a character's cliche of, "everything happens for a reason" in order to make sense of silent struggles and Jon's death. While it was a trait and line given to the character, I might be a bit too cynical in hearing it associated with suicide and mental health to see it as significant. To me, that statement is just as empty as "thoughts and prayers" are without action tied to them.

Speaking of cynical: Gary is the group cynic, but Jon's death causes him to make a pretty bold statement about the friendship between him, Rome, and Eddie — they're only friends because they (along with Jon) got trapped in an elevator one day, and that since that day, they never talk about anything real with one another; they haven't in years. A Million Little Things is centered on friendship and connection in relationships: it opens with a quote that says, "Friendship isn't one big thing... it's a million little things." While that sentiment is accurate and pretty, Gary is also right when he drives home his cynicism in the pilot. Each member of the group has kept their fair share of secrets; their friendship, while real, has become more shallow over time — and Jon's death is Gary's reminder of that.

(Image credit: ABC)

Jon's life and death affect everyone differently. As the series progresses, I am sure we'll begin to learn the extent to which his life impacted others, but in the pilot we get glimpses into how each friend and family member handles his passing. And this is where ABC's knack for soapy drama and air of mystery kick in. Though I won't spoil exactly what each person's dark secrets are (some you know through the trailer, others you might be surprised by), A Million Little Things is as much about what happens when we don't share our burdens as what happens when we do. While Gary notes that the group has slipped into surface-level friendship pretty easily (and surmises that this is why none of them knew or saw what Jon was going through), it'd be easy to end the narrative there.

But when people unburden themselves to those they're closest to, healing and transformation happens. There's an especially powerful scene toward the end of the pilot that's evidence of this. The characters we meet at the beginning of the pilot are a lot more complex than just their baggage or issues; you might form different opinions about them by the end of the episode, honestly. And though I'm not entirely sure exactly how far down this road of soapy drama the show is headed (but because of the network and the set-up in the pilot, I suspect my answer is "pretty dang far"), the drama is also not without purpose. Secrets and lies (even ones of omission) will illuminate the character of these individuals.

By far, the performances of James Roday (those who watched him in Psych will notice a similar biting sarcasm and wit of Shawn Spencer; I'm beginning to assume this is just Roday's natural persona because of the ease with which he slips into it) and Romany Malco are stand-outs, and I look forward to seeing them grow in these roles.

A Million Little Things is not a perfect series, and it'd be easy to write it off as a series trying to be This Is Us. But because there are so many little intricacies and complexities to the new ABC series, give it a chance — as long as you feel you are able to do so, safely.

Pilot Grade: B+

A Million Little Things premieres September 26 at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Cute, Heartwarming Ensemble Comedies Still Exist! Exhibit A is Single Parents [Contributor: Jenn]

(Image credit: ABC)

I'm a sucker for an ensemble sitcom.

Case in point: my favorite comedies of all-time include Parks and Recreation, Friends, Scrubs, and New Girl. The Office is in my list of favorites too, and How I Met Your Mother (before its disastrous finale). The trickiest thing about an ensemble comedy is that the characters — while needing to function as a group — need to have enough autonomy to be able to carry scenes alone and with any other character in the ensemble. The ensemble is both, in a sense, its own character and also a collection of separate ones.

A true ensemble comedy mirrors real-life, reflecting the fact that we have inclinations to gravitate toward certain people in our friend groups more than others, while also recognizing that part of the reason a friend group exists is because the group itself — no matter how close an individual is to any one person in the group — manages to click, somehow.

Single Parents is already off to a great start with its pursuit of becoming a true ensemble. (ABC has a habit of cancelling my favorite comedies, so hopefully this little sitcom manages to stay around long enough to fully explore how funny everyone on the show can be — and that includes the kids!) In addition to its talented cast, at Single Parents' helm as its creators are Liz Meriwether and J.J. Philbin of New Girl fame. As someone who absolutely loved New Girl and found its comedy to be hilarious and delightful, a pilot written by those two women — and a series created by them — is right up my alley.

The plot of the series? Will Cooper (Taran Killam) and his daughter Sophie (Marlow Barkley) are new to school. Will is a single parent and he's... well, overzealous in throwing his entire life into caring for his child. Even though he's new, Will suddenly takes up the mantle of room parent and he's pretty intense about it. That doesn't sit well with the single parent crew in our series, and they decide that they need to do everything they can to avoid serving Will's agenda.

Angie (Leighton Meester) serves as sort of a "room parent destroyer," and a quasi-ringleader for our ragtag group of single parents. Then there's Douglas (Brad Garrett), a politically conservative dermatologist who really doesn't do emotion or affection. Poppy, an outspoken feminist, (Kimrie Lewis) serves as the heart of the group who watches out for everyone and isn't afraid to drop in tough love on the adults when necessary. And as the newest member of the single parents club, Miggy (Jake Choi) is just trying to figure out to be a 20-year old and also raise a baby.

Within the first episode alone, we get some solid Will/Angie and Douglas/Poppy stories, and that leads me to believe that the show recognizes the ability to play around with groups and pairings within the ensemble to see what clicks and where there is story or depth. Single Parents doesn't just succeed because of the talent of its adults, but also of its children. On shows with kids, it's often easy for writers to make them props or background actors; kids are unpredictable, after all. But Single Parents utilizes its concept in order to expand upon the idea of an ensemble — one that includes kids. The premise of the show is just as it sounds: all of the children are used to having one parent raise them. But because all of the parents are friends, it stands to reason that the kids see their single parent's friends pretty often. In the pilot, that leads to small stories between Angie's son and Will, and Poppy's son and Douglas.

Single Parents is sweet and heartwarming (a scene toward the end of the pilot will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside), but it's also funny. And the show utilizes my favorite kind of comedy — character-centric comedy. What New Girl, Friends, Parks and Recreation and many other ensemble comedies did well was recognize that situations are funny because PEOPLE are funny; and people with quirks who have to interact with other people with quirks? Even better. Taran Killam has always been funny to me — I've watched his comedy evolve from the days of The Amanda Show to Saturday Night Live and everything in between — and his interactions with Leighton Meester (whose ability to so succinctly and effortlessly deliver sarcasm is sorely underappreciated) prove that they have comedic chemistry.

The show is about trying to retain your identity as an adult while struggling to raise children — about the sacrifices you make for them, and the mistakes, bad advice, and silly things that happen along the way. But Single Parents also seems to be about the same sort of central concept New Girl was: friends are family too, and it's crucial that we rely on others for help and to make us better.

It takes a village to raise a child, and I definitely want more of the Single Parents village.

Out-of-context dialogue teases:
  • "Are you whisper-singing Moana at me?"
  • *sighs* "Like coconuts and safety."
  • "Is he wearing a necklace made of garbage?"
  • "He knows he's white, right?" "Everybody knows."
  • "My dad is kind of a garbage human."

Pilot Grade: A

Single Parents premieres September 26 at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Universal Story: An Interview with Tight Author Torrey Maldonado [Contributor: Megan Mann]

(Image credit: Penguin Random House)

When was the last time you sat down with a book and reading it felt like reading an intimate conversation? Has it been a while? If you are looking to dive back into this kind of reading experience, look no further than Torrey Maldonado’s newest release, Tight.

Tight follows Bryan as he navigates the Brooklyn projects where his dad reigns supreme. He’s a quiet kid who likes hanging out at his mom’s office and keeps to himself — that is, until his parents decide he should befriend the new kid named Mike across the street. What starts out as a fun friendship full of comic books and banter turns into a test of who Bryan really is, and a lesson in standing up to a bully.

The story that Tight tells is a universal one, and it is one that I think a lot of people need to read. So I discuss this, the writing process, and the great battle between Marvel and DC with Torrey Maldonado!

Congratulations on Tight! How does it feel to have it out?

Torrey Maldonado: Thank you. It feels like Tight being out answers so many questions. I wondered, “Can I overcome the sophomore slump?” Another question that I got from everyone since my debut of Secret Saturdays was, “When will we see your next book?”

So I feel good — James Brown good — to get to finally say: “Tight is out!” And people feel Tight is tight, so YES!

What was the inspiration behind Bryan’s story?

Elizabeth Bird of A Fuse # 8 Production, a School Library Journal blog, told me that she wants to steal a phrase of mine: the bully spectrum. My whole life, and my two decades as a teacher, have taught me that there is a spectrum of bullies.

I want readers to finish Tight and plot the bullies of their lives on a spectrum like: “Okay, the one who pushes people against a wall goes here,” and “I’ll plot the one who is like Mike who steals your heart over there.” I hope that through Tight, my students and other kids learn that there is a mix of bullies on the bully spectrum so that they can better respond to that mix in their lives. And I definitely hope they see the hero Bryan as themselves.

If readers know that they can be heroic like him, then that’s a win.

What I really enjoyed about the book was that it felt like someone was telling you a story. It didn’t feel like a book, in a way, which made it such a great book to sit down with and get through. Did you want to make the language and the references timely? If so, why?

Dang. You said, “It didn’t feel like a book, which made it such a great book to sit down with and get through.” Can I turn your praise into a cup of coffee and drink that daily? I appreciate you saying that. Yours is high praise because many kids I write for are allergic to books. Since they aren’t feeling books, I hoped Tight wouldn’t feel like one.

About the language and references, I see books set in New York that don’t feel like New York. I’ll read books with tween dialogue and tweens don’t talk that way. Those books are off. I’m glad you feel Tight is on-point. As a tween, I needed timely accurate books that were both windows and mirrors so I that’s what I write.

What’s great is that while Bryan’s culture is evident, his story of doing things he doesn’t want to do in order to impress someone else is entirely universal. Was that dichotomy important to you?

Jay-Z has a rap line: “He’s got skills but he’s not real.” As a writer, my goal is to make a book so real and accurate that I get reviews like the one that I just got for Tight. Someone said, “You had to live this book to write it.” So, it’s a mirror book. Now, as a middle school teacher, I know that it is a universal theme that the middle school years are “crossroad years” where tweens spend a lot of time trying to impress others. So I wanted to craft a window into that universal struggle. I appreciate you saying I achieved that dichotomy because I want Tight to sit on shelves with other books that are both mirrors and windows.

Why did you want Bryan to always feel like he had to be tough instead of “soft” and that he couldn’t show his emotions?

Since before the 1960s when Frankie Valli sang “Walk Like a Man”, males have been told to “man up” and to hide their emotions and not be “soft.” In tough neighborhoods, toughness is admired and tweens like Bryan need tough friends like Mike who protect them. Mobb Deep, the rap group, has a lyric: “We livin' this til the day that we die / Survival of the fit only the strong survive.” In my Brooklyn hometown where I was born and raised — and in lots of neighborhoods — urban Black/Brown boys who don’t project toughness get called “soft” and get bullied. It happened to me. Through Byran we see the pressure boys feel trying to balance their emotions with a survival skill of showing toughness.

On the flip side, Mike is Bryan’s exact opposite. He acts nice until you get to know him, and then he’s more concerned with being the baddest kid on the block. What was the thought process behind making them both such polar opposites while still sharing interests?

The stereotype of enemies being total opposites is so cliché and overdone. I wanted to Mike to be real. In real life, we deal with ambiguous friendships and people. We all know that likable, interesting person with great qualities who is nice until you get to know them. Then we learn that everything that glitters isn’t gold. With Mike, I show the truth — people who are like each other tend to like each other and we tend to get hurt by those in our circle.

The story essentially showcases how your environment and your upbringing can influence who you become and how you react to certain things. Would you say that’s true?

Yes, Tight is about what your environment presents and how you react. And, the book acts as a timely version of the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken. Bryan knows what’s tight, in good ways, for him but two roads diverge in his hood and he’s in a tight squeeze. He has a choice — take the road less traveled, which will make all the difference, or follow in the footsteps of toxic masculinity.

Okay, let’s move on to some fun questions. What’s your writing process like?

Listening to music makes writing so much better. It has to be the music that my students and I love, but the instrumental versions. Otherwise, the song’s words mess with my typewritten words. I wrote a chapter while listening to Childish Gambino’s lyrics and I almost typed “This is America” over and over.

What would you say is your best advice to any aspiring writer who feels like they’re stuck or faces writer’s block?

My best advice to any aspiring writer who feels like they’re stuck or face writer’s block is to replay the ending of the last episode of season two of Daredevil on Netflix. Karen Page has writer’s block and her journalist boss tells her to write something new and different that only she can write. He tells her to write her truth — all of it and everything she’s been through and not to pull any punches. He tells her to tell people something they don’t know. That unstuck me so many times with Tight.

What are you reading now?

Right now, I’m following the advice of writers who have published way more books than me. They say keep writing so a book comes out each year. That means I have a list of what I want to read once I’ve caught up to publishing all of the stories I feel need to be told.

What are five books you would recommend?

The five books that I would recommend are:

  1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  2. Night by Elie Wiesel
  3. A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson
  4. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
  5. The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker

Lastly, since it was so heavily discussed, are you DC or Marvel? Who would you be and why?

Ha! You know Tight like the back of your hand. Fist bump to you. Mike asks Bryan the same question. I’m like them, but I won’t pick their heroes. Their “who” changes and so does mine. So I’ll list the top five powers I want. From Ant-Man and the Wasp, Ghost’s power to turn myself and any objects I touch invisible or intangible. From Wolverine, Logan’s regenerative healing ability. From Professor X, his incredible ESP, psychic, telepathy, and mental-manipulation powers. Fourth, the ability to control air the way Magneto controls metal. And finally, the fastest Flash’s speed.

Tight is available now through Penguin Kids. It’s a great read!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

How Jacqueline Woodson's Harbor Me Perfectly Depicts Adolescent Friendship [Contributor: Megan Mann]

(Image credit: Penguin Random House)

"Once there were six of us. Once we circled around each other, and listened. Or maybe what matters most is that we were heard."

Within the first few pages of Jacqueline Woodson’s stunning new novel Harbor Me, Haley lets us know that back when she was in fifth grade, everything changed. After being placed in a specific class with five other kids, their teacher, Ms. Laverne, takes the children into the old art room and tells them that every Friday, the group would meet for the last hour of school and talk. Just talk. The subject matter was irrelevant, but they had to talk. When Haley gets the bright idea to bring a recorder and to capture what’s said within those walls, the group opens up and realizes that without that room, their lives would be different. Without each other, they would be different.

Being an adolescent is tough. Anyone who’s been through middle-school and experienced rapid change knows that those were not the greatest years of our lives. You worry that people will judge you and believe that no one wants to hear your story — that no one wants to know what’s going on with you. You hide parts of yourself you would rather not talk about. You’re worried about being too different and just want to be “normal.”

This notion — this thought process of just wanting to be “normal” — is perfectly exemplified in Harbor Me. The six students come together in this defunct art room, now renamed ARTT (A Room to Talk), and realize that they don’t know where to begin. What do we talk about that won’t make the others look at us funny? they wonder. But when Esteban steps up and talks about how immigration has taken his undocumented papi, the conversation opens the floodgates.

Amari talks about the scrutiny that young African-Americans suffer from and how his dad recently talked with him about no longer being able to play with his Nerf guns outside of the house. This opens a dialogue about racism in America that it takes Amari’s best friend Ashton time to fully understand. Tiago opens up about how fearful his mother is when she’s speaking in Spanish, since someone has yelled at her to go back to her country. He says that having to “learn American” is hard, but that the group makes him feel like he’s more than just the language he speaks or the color of his skin.

Ashton talks about being bullied, which leads the group to banding together to protect him from attack by a trio of eighth graders. He also discusses how hard it was to move from Connecticut to Brooklyn when his dad lost his job. Holly admits to hating that people call her “rich girl” when the money is her parents’, not her own. She also confesses that she wishes she didn’t have such a big mouth and wasn’t always so fidgety.

While everyone talks, Haley sits and soaks it all in. She waits to tell her story until the very end. She doesn’t want others to make assumptions about her when they find out that her dad is in prison for vehicular manslaughter. She has all of these memories stored up and is afraid of how they might see her after she spills them.

But what each of the kids learn is that these stories — all of these things that make up who we are and how we view the world — these things are what link us. Sharing their stories draws the group even closer together. Because the stories we share with each other, the memories we create, and the shoulders we lean on help us realize that we’re not that different. If we open up and let go of the fear of judgement, we discover bonds we might not have known were possible.

Friendship is crucial at a time in life where change is inevitable. For tweens and teenagers, this is even more important. Jacqueline Woodson makes it clear that isolating yourself isn’t worth it in the end. What matters is finding your tribe and relying on them to understand you and hear you when you need it most (which Haley brilliantly points out at the beginning of the book). When friends act like a safe harbor, it’s easier to walk through life’s hardest moments and share in its best moments.

A story like Harbor Me reminds readers to pay attention to those around us, and those that we hold close. Each of us is going through something and we need to find our own anchors. This book proves that friendship is important at every stage of our lives. As Jacqueline Woodson says: “Always remember, when you are with your people, you are home.”

That’s something we can all believe in.

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson is out now from Penguin Kids.

Witches, Cowboys, and Burying the Trope that Buried Decades of TV’s Gay Characters [Contributor: Melanie]

I’m not really of the mind that we need to crucify older media for its lack of foresight or the era that it appeared in (the exceptions to that being something obviously racist or otherwise hateful, of course). We can certainly look at it and critique ourselves and the way we continue to engage with it. The media can’t change, but we can. And while I’ve been a staunch supporter of Joss Whedon’s choices when it came to Buffy the Vampire Slayer — specifically Tara and Willow's relationship — experiences with recent media make it look, for lack of a less brutal term, pretty bad.

Wynonna Earp is a show that owes so much to Buffy that you could simply replace “revenants” with “vampires” and “heir” with “Slayer” and you’d essentially have yourself a Buffy sequel set in the Canadian Rockies (to be fair, there are vampires this season so here we are). It’s not a bad thing. After all, some of the best work out there came from directors and writers obsessing over something and finding places to improve it. And there are more nuanced similarities that are, either by purpose or simply organically, undoing some of the frustrating turns and missteps of the past.

Know Your (Gay) History 

Tara and Willow were among the first lesbian relationships on TV — and the first on a major network that included it as a main story instead of a punchline (looking at you, Friends). Willow meets Tara Maclay after the heart-wrenching break up with her high school sweetheart. Tara is the only other person in the Wiccan group at Sunnydale U who seems to take the concept and practice of witchcraft as seriously as Willow. They form a close friendship and then, largely off-camera and mainly implied to us and other characters, they begin a romantic relationship. It shocks and confuses their friends before it becomes a staple of their world and (I cringe as I use this term) normalizes the relationship.

For almost three seasons they’re in static happy land. And then comes season six — effectively Willow's big season — where Joss Whedon seemed to realize he could utilize his once-progressive female relationship for fridging and plot purposes. As Willow’s addiction to magic grows, Tara offers Willow consequences and refuses to enable her by breaking things off. Tara and Willow rekindle their relationship when Willow’s effectively able to stay “sober.” Tara gets main cast billing for the first time in her three years on the show, and all seems right with the world.

But then dead lesbian syndrome comes blistering through the Summers’ front window in the form of a crappy pistol shot from a misogynistic a-hole. 

Tara was not the first martyr of this trope, but she retroactively became the poster child for it (after Joss Whedon purposefully lead the audience to believe she was joining the cast as a long-term main character, only to have her fatally struck in a freak accident by the end of the same episode). Tara drops dead. Love story over. It’s angled as a way to justify the anger and rage Willow goes through. Despite Joss Whedon’s (perceived) best efforts, it was part of a larger cultural history of unfairly representing gay characters and then finding excuses to kill them off.

Several queer female characters have suffered a similar fate, with a lot more clumsiness involved. In fact, an entire convention was founded as a way to bring awareness to the presence and popularity of queer, female-driven media after a particularly viral response in 2016. And then there’s Wayhaught (which, you’ll note, came away with Gold in our shipping category for the Golden Trio Awards).

To give context on how popular this pairing is: before I actually sat down and watched Wynonna Earp, I legitimately thought one of these women was the title character because they were the only two characters I ever saw in pictures, recaps, and fanwork. As it turned out, they weren’t the titular character but were a large reason the show took off and maintained a steady following and steady ratings. I can say that with certainty. Emily Andras and her writing team managed to handle a complex queer relationship — with all associated tragedies and high points — without cheating the audience, insulting viewers’ intelligence, or robbing the show of its representation.

Connected at the Hip 

Like Tara, Officer Haught enters the show as a love interest. For a while, she is only contextualized by Waverly’s role and plot lines, though she has the functionality of being a cop, allowing the writers to bring her in through different ways and give her minor storylines. In season two, she’s expanded and given room to breathe a bit. She and Waverly work through the kinks of the post-honeymoon phase and go through (perhaps) even a mini break-up before Nicole is on the receiving end of a fatal wound that kicks Waverly in the pants.

Not only is this different from Tara and Willow’s situation because Nicole didn’t actually die, but it lacks the aftertaste of fridging. Why is this? Well for one, both Waverly and Nicole are agents in the situation. Rather than Tara being victimized by bad luck for the sake of Willow’s arc, Nicole is injured during a scuffle helping Waverly, who was, in turn, protecting her. It’s a fight scene choreographed to hand the action off between them. Nicole was just unlucky.

But in Whedon’s narrative, it had to be Tara because she was disposable. This, of course, makes one nervous to see Katherine Barrell with a main cast credit, but Emily Andras seems aware of her audience’s anxiety (in a big wink to the audience back in season one, Nicole was shot only to reveal she was wearing a bulletproof vest, ba dum tss). Nicole now has her own stories, she recently appeared in her own episode, with Waverly largely sidelined. She’s got her own Tragic Backstory™, her own arc, and her own position of leadership in town.

Witches and Angels 

There is another factor here as well: Tara and Willow’s sexuality and relationship was played against the backdrop of their practice as witches. Sure, the 90s saw a revival in witchcraft with neopaganism in the mainstream, but that doesn’t erase the centuries of persecution of witches. (Fun fact: it’s believed that the root of evil connotations with witchcraft can be traced back to what essentially amounts to a medieval big pharma smear campaign against rural medicine women). Sure, there’s some take-back-the-night energy in having Willow and Tara part of the reclamation of witchcraft, but it also induces a bit of an eyeroll because of course the two gay chicks are witches, right?

Wynonna Earp takes the opposite stance. While Waverly wrestles in much of season two believing she’s actually demonic in origin, it turns out that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Waverly’s real father wasn’t a demon or the drunken Ward Earp, but an “honest-to-God angel.” And while we don’t know the full extent of Nicole’s connection to our Big Bad (some have speculated a familial connection between her and the demon Bulshar), we can at least say that Waverly Earp is perhaps subverting one of the oldest tropes in the book: gays are evil.

Avoiding getting deep into religion here, if this story comes to fruition, it has a chance to be one of the most well-orchestrated, positive movements for queer characters. Between the predatory lesbian motif and depraved gays trope, gay characters are almost always outsiders — people with a streak of villainy, or outright dangerous to our protagonists. (And, of course, there is the constant rhetoric around where some elements believe homosexuals go when they die.) Emily Andras, however, has created a queer character who is, quite literally, holier than thou, and described as “coming out of the light” on the day she was born.

It’s a subversion we shouldn’t sleep on.

Defining Your Own Normal

It’s a phrase we hear a lot when it comes to any form of queer relationship: normalizing it. And it means different things to different people, but ultimately gets down to creating situations where the relationship feels real and is treated on the same level as the “baseline” relationships. It can, obviously, cause some bad tastes in some people's’ mouths.

For Tara and Willow, there was not a huge sense of this. The two talked about witchcraft, argued about magic, and discussed demons and vampires. Just as we didn’t get to see their relationship outside the context of each other, we also didn’t get to see their relationship outside of the context of their supernatural activities and the mythology of their world. No fights about dinner or doing the dishes. But Wayhaught finds themselves fighting about very normal things: Nicole’s job and how it interacts with Waverly’s, dishonesty with each other, angry drunk texts and minor bouts of infidelity (still yikesing over that one, tbh), and there was that comically awkward moment where Waverly thought Nicole was proposing at their dinner party — oh no, it was just that demonic ring you were bending down to pick up, okay.

They interact, argue, and have intimate moments as you expect couples to do so.

Even Waverly’s journey into her own sexuality wasn’t heavily focused on, likely thanks to writers actually listening to queer audiences when they say they’re ready to move beyond coming out stories. Waverly’s realization of her feelings for Nicole comes on the tail of an arc about getting out and beyond her lifelong role as the girl next door who “tailors herself to the people around her.” She leaves her crappy high-school sweetheart boyfriend, quits her dead end job as a bartender, and — to cap off her burst of freedom — very calmly walks into the police station, shuts the blinds of the sheriff’s office, closes the door, kisses Officer Haught, and that’s that. There’s no long, drawn-out discussion about identity or a speech about a confused childhood. She simply realized that life is funky — and maybe compulsive heteronormativity was part of the world she was living in that was safe but unreal. A relationship with Nicole was simply part of breaking free from the big lie she’d been hiding in her entire life.

Let’s See How Far We’ve Come; Let’s See How Far We’ll Go

The lesson here is that Tara and Willow was a great stepping stone, and a great moment in TV history that needed to happen. And it didn’t have to be perfect, even if the TV that followed invoked some of its worst components as well as its best. But what Emily Andras and the writing team at Wynonna Earp have created is perhaps the best modern representation of a queer female pairing — in the middle of a show about cowboys killing zombie demons. They’re a power couple, they’ve got their own relationship rollercoasters, no one’s dead, and they’re real characters on equal terms.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

How Mayans M.C. Forges Its Own Path in the Sons of Anarchy World [Contributor: Megan Mann]

(Image credit: FX)

Four years ago, one of FX’s most popular endeavors and dramatic television’s greatest triumphs in the last decade came to a devastating close. Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy took the motorcycle club image and — still maintaining the intensity and carnage that you associate with the outlaws — stripped it down to its bare essentials: it was a family and a community — a group of people you could count on no matter what happened.

Sons of Anarchy was, and still remains, my favorite TV show of all time. Despite its often gruesome nature, what the show boiled down to was a theme of love and the sense of belonging. The show holds a special place in my heart and a certain character’s unexpected death in the fifth season still fills me with anger and sadness: a testament to the incredible writing.

It was no surprise then that when it was announced that fans of the series would be treated to a spin-off, I lost my marbles.

Enter Mayans M.C.

Mayans M.C. carries the same vibe its predecessor did; it visually feels similar and also involves a motorcycle club. Thankfully, the series and plot is not a total shock to fans; our Men of Mayhem often dealt with the Mayans in Oakland. Alvarez — a character who will continue to pop up throughout the season — was at the head of the table. The thread of continuity between Sons of Anarchy and Mayans M.C. allows viewers to fall back into this universe without having to fully displace them with newness.

Mayans M.C. also similar tonally to Sons of Anarchy. It’s about a rebel motorcycle gang who has a front for their criminal activities so that they can carry them out without drawing any attention. However, instead of focusing on someone who has been involved in the MC for his entire life, like Jax Teller, the show switches its focus to a prospect who is fresh out of jail and looking to find his place within the Mayans.

Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes went to jail eight years ago for a crime that, as of the pilot, we’re not yet sure of. But we are lead to believe that it is in conjunction, somehow, to the passing of his mother. After cutting ties with everyone — including his girlfriend — while behind bars, he gets out and becomes a prospect for his brother, Angel, who is already a member of the club. EZ’s tasked with his first drug run for the cartel and things go awry. What follows, I can assure you, is not for the faint of heart and follows in the Sons of Anarchy tradition.

Over the course of the first episode of Mayans M.C., we realize that all is not what it seems with EZ, and this is where it becomes a much different show from its predecessor.

But in order for the series to stand on its own and move out from under the shadow of such a colossal hit, the twists we discover within the first hour and ten minute episode were necessary. It’s clear that the information viewers are given in the pilot of Mayans M.C. is going to create the drama down the line. But instead of predictability, viewers will be swept up in the ride.

JD Pardo shines as EZ and proves he’s just as a formidable force as Jax Teller was before him. His brother Angel is played by Clayton Cardenas, and his father by Edward James Olmos. EZ's ex-girlfriend — who we later discover is a major player in this story — is played by Sarah Bolger. While some may feel that this love story is similar to Jax and Tara, I would advise you to keep watching — it’s anything but that. Meanwhile, Danny Pino plays cartel leader Miguel Galindo and is incredibly intimidating at it.

As a super fan of Sons of Anarchy, I will say that I absolutely enjoyed the pilot of Mayans M.C. I thought it stayed true to the former's tone and style, while also managing to set itself apart within its predecessor's universe. The cast of the series is fantastic and the writing is just as amazing as it was on Sons of Anarchy. I’m thrilled to see where the writers take this show and can’t wait to watch how this all unravels.

And yes, for those of you wondering, there were sweet little nods to the original series that had me maybe jumping out of my seat. Trust me; you’ll see.

Mayans M.C. premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on FX.