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Though The Wire does appeal to that part of me that reviewed a few movies in the John Singleton canon a few years back and generally enjoys that odd subgenre of crime dramas, that of the ‘hood film,’ which isn’t as popular as Mafia movies or as prolific as yakuza/triads-thank-you-no-thank-you-Mr. Miike, it’s also important in this trying time where Dreck Fiction attempts to gratefully slide toward mostly science-fiction discussion, because it has what a lot of science-fiction in film and television lacks: great storytelling. I haven’t lived for very long, but The Wire is by this point the best told story I’ve ever experienced. Maybe it isn’t my favorite story, but its storytelling is so complex, so satisfying, that it warrants analysis on this sci-fi site.
There isn’t much to connect The Wire to the genre of science-fiction, but it could have been anything, so long as it was “the best told story I’ve ever experienced.” Again, I was inclined to like it from the start and feel a compulsion to blabla about it on this blog, but figuring what makes The Wire tick and how it comes together to say something real could benefit the critical eye toward any genre.
Christ, if we had anything close to The Wire in science-fiction… I’d be a pretty happy guy.
Check out this awesome video if you need a quick recap of the series’s events…
Battleship falls (I couldn’t say ‘sinks’) and the half-billion dollar toy movie’s future is on the rocks. The Hunger Games and Twilight are the biggest franchises of the day, with the dedicated, built-in audiences that allow risky projects to process through the strict, Puritannical Hollywood system — books are, and always have been, the new hotness. I would prefer that over board game movies, but it’s still not the best case scenario. In the best case scenario, The Hunger Games and Twilight would still be among the biggest franchises of the day, but I could willfully ignore them, and go gladly to Foward the Planet Space, another huge franchise movie and part of the Planet Space planned trilogy.
What is Planet Space? It was a movie that came out of nowhere two years ago, a spec script pitched by a passionate writer and to a studio that actually likes movies, probably Lionsgate (though they still pedal commercial on the side). It blew up and now we have a trilogy. The second one looks even better than the first — except that it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that there aren’t these types of movies (obviously with better titles) like District 9 and Moon, and to some extent, Avatar. What I’m saying is that there’s been a swelling in popularity in the adaptation, particularly that of YA fiction (more on that later) which has caused a bloating in the market that’s recently spilled over into television.
Not only is the book market now flooded with stories about teenage love (wait a minute — gross?) blooming amidst dystopic, oppressed society, but TV is now being infected by what is most popular and money-making. In the most recently released episode of the podcast On the Page: Screenwriting, an alarming statistic was brought to light, that 60% of the television pilots picked up this year are based on books. I have to imagine that at least 90% of that other 40% were sitcoms.
When I saw the pilot for Awake I knew I had to write ‘dedicated’ reviews for every episode to show some type of support, because these things are so rare. Terra Nova got cancelled and Falling Skies is looking no better despite heading into a second season, and I can’t help but feel guilty for not watching them. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t feel guilt. Terra Nova, despite combining the two things that equal my favorite movie ever, Spielberg and dinosaurs, didn’t really interest me. I didn’t want to watch it, but didn’t want to see it go. Just like Stargate Universe, which was kind of a slog to get through. It’s a shame that there’s slim pickin’s for original storytelling, and a worse shame that they get cancelled faster than you can say the — admittedly long — title, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
There shouldn’t really be anything wrong with adaptations. Some of the best scifi movies are adaptations of books and short stories, like Blade Runner, 2001, Jurassic Park, The Thing, The Fly, A Scanner Darkly – the list runs long. But the adaptation in my opinion, is a flawed practice in storytelling. The key is that so many writers plainly do not understand how to do it properly. It changes with every title. A Scanner Darkly was faithful, Blade Runner was not. They’re both good. This is confusing.
When you think about it, the adaptation is perfect as an idea. The author of novels is more qualified than the average screenwriter, because the average screenwriter has sold or published zero screenplays. The author of novels is vindicated as a commercial artist with book sales, and in the case of Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling, with election to god-status. We know that Harry Potter is a good story because we’ve read it as a book, making it much easier for the executives to get behind. On the other hand, nobody has ever seen this unproduced screenplay over here, so it’s up to the in-house script reader to sign off on it and pass it along to other gates for further inspection — and note that nobody working in this industry has ever been fired for saying “No.”
For movies, book publishing is like a filtration system, insurance that only the best gets through to the silver screen. Even when John Carter can’t quite jump to the moon, The Hunger Games will tear wallets while Fifty Shades of Grey peeks over a nauseating horizon.
But if most screenwriters don’t know how to adapt properly, we end up with stories that weren’t designed for the silver screen, and haven’t been reformatted. The Avengers opened to wide financial success and huge critical acclaim because the last half hour is one huge action scene — it may technically be an adaptation, but Joss Whedon’s no fool, and this isn’t his big screen debut (or adaptation). He knows how to maximize the method, and he knows how to be cinematic.
I’ve seen precisely one clip from The Twilight Saga, and it was the quintessential moment — Edward and Bella are standing in the woods, talking. I know there’s some action, and I know we like to actually see the guys with their shirts off, rather than simply imagine it, but this isn’t cinematic. I’ve forgotten what cinematic meant, which is why The Avengers was qualified nirvana (it was a great over-the-top action spectacle, but it’s still kinda dumb and about superheroes, so I’ll gladly take The Matrix or John Woo) because Hollywood has sat stagnant.
Let’s look then at a non-Hollywood movie (I think), Never Let Me Go, based on a book by a Japanese fellow. I reviewed this movie and I really liked it, but it wasn’t a movie. It was a good story projected onto a screen. Some would argue similarly against the Watchmen movie.
As an on and off fan of video-games I tend to follow that industry and note how it struggles for legitimacy, in the face of reviewers in the pockets of those they discuss, and journalistic output aligning with companies’ marketing agendas, and I never felt like movies need to feel that struggle, because after a hundred years, they’ve made it. But nowadays, we’ve been hollowed out. In retrospect, the 2000s weren’t as artistically bankrupt as I’d always complained about at the time — we picked up classics like Eternal Sunshine, Gladiator, Memento, No Country, Children of Men, etc. — but these movies have all felt like revelations.
Ultimately the problem with adaptations is that they’re gateways to laziness. We fall into trends because these trailblazers are such hot commodities, and then the market becomes oversaturated with Twilight lookalikes and wannabes. Meanwhile original storytelling, screenwriter’s storytelling, gets the shaft because there’s no money in that. There’s no money in the industry unless it’s tethered to properties from other industries. That’s… nonsense. Movies are just the bastard children of books and toys — just one step away from what I must assume is an unholy mess in the mold of Battleship: The Video Game, a video-game based on a movie based on a board game. Next we’ll be adapting the Twilight Monopoly game…
Also troubling is the young adult fiction trend. Now this is something of a personal bias, because I never read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. I never had interest in reading YA because when I was that age, I didn’t have an interest in reading. So I basically went from Magic Treehouse to Philip K. Dick, bypassing what I quickly grew to see as ‘fantasy bullshit for children.” The Hunger Games does seem interesting, as it depicts a genuinely strong female character in a scifi setting, but from what people tell me, these books aren’t exactly mind-benders. They are indeed aimed at young girls in the 12-14 age range, and so themes of female empowerment will be touched upon, but we can’t fool ourselves. The Hunger Games isn’t a pathway into more mature fiction, it’s a pathway to more The Hunger Games. It’s a brand, and it’s the brand that sells, not the themes, and not the message.
Our priorities need to shift, ultimately. There is that constant struggle in the moviemaking business between artistic integrity and commercial viability. Right now I feel filmmakers, whether they be screenwriters or executives, are lost in a deep maze. They look at a good spec script and say, “Talent. Have her do the Sandler rewrite.” Meanwhile they shop the safe, intellectually sedentary aisles of the bookstore and look at the latest release and say, “Story. This will be the next big cash cow.”
This show was canceled due to poor ratings. While it started strong, it lost many viewers immediately, and never quite made them up across its thirteen week run. As much as I thought the show didn’t fully live up to its pilot episode, it’s still unfortunate that we won’t have any more. It’s a good thing then, that it ended so strongly.
By the end, Awake worked and didn’t work. It did round out its series premise pretty well, creating a whole narrative that is satisfying as science-fiction drama, but in the moment was clunky and awkward. The show didn’t need to be thirteen hours long, and would’ve worked better as a movie, as the best moments were those pertinent to the over-arching story — those in the first episode and the last two or three.
These moments, especially those in the series finale, are pretty intense and actually unpredictable. It’s good to see Michael Britten take risks and do things we don’t agree with, or put himself into dangerous situations — and lose at times. In this episode, he’s getting closer to the truth we already know, which puts his red reality in jeopardy.
*Spoilers to follow*
The big question throughout the series is ‘which reality is the real reality,’ and I did have a feeling that neither were, but with a title like Awake, I should’ve realized it was all a dream. So by the end the show becomes an interesting meditation on grief; it’s the story of a man grappling with the loss of loved ones and the journey toward acceptance. Accepting that one of his family members is dead runs parallel to accepting one reality, and in the show’s final scene we see that he’s finally awake, and his family is alive.
To reach this happy ending he must do as he always does, investigate, and it’s a great test to a seasoned detective. It’s a good story and when the ending revealed what was what the whole time, my first reaction was “lame,” but then the full weight of the situation caught up to it and the scene became a touching, satisfying moment that left me feeling pretty good about the series.
But then I thought back to those episodes in the middle, and on the whole, Awake was not a great show. It’s a narrative tugged back and forth by the realities of the television industry, which makes it a miracle that the story ended with an ending. There remain some loose threads, but it’s all good. Because when it’s over, we had in fact spent a whole lot of time following Jason Isaacs go around and solve cases by using parallel worlds, and that was pretty good.
And when time came to uncover the truth behind those worlds, we see the truth behind the series, that it was about a man struggling to overcome a fractured mind after a traumatic incident,who could know grief and accept it before everything returned to normal. Now that the show is over, sitcoms continue on, and we’ll wait for the next good, thought-provoking scifi show — just as it always is.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
The season is winding down as tension and story ramps up in this, penultimate episode. Britten becomes more obsessed with Hawkin, the detective he suspects — or rather, is certain — killed his wife/son by running him off the road, the incident that started everything. Through trial and error between the two worlds, he slowly works his way up the mystery chain, jumping through hoops and endless second guessing (sometimes from those attempting to cover it all up), while getting into dangerous, sometimes deadly situations.
This is like, the perfect season finale’s eve episode, setting up what could be a solid, slam-bang ending. The over-arc of Awake is without a doubt its strongest element, as it uses the dream thing (the show’s premise) to its best effect. Britten learns something in one world and is able to use it in the other, while we keep his status in either in the backs of our minds.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
Looks like they’re headed for a season ender, a nice three episode arc. General consenus is that this is the best episode since the pilot, and that’s true, without a doubt. It kind of reminds me of Dexter – if Dexter was a network TV show. It’d still have that ramp-up at the end that hooks you, but since Awake is a little watered down in terms of drama and most things, the hook doesn’t penetrate that deeply. I’ll hope for a second season, unless the conclusion is something real dumb, but this didn’t become the major science-fiction show I hoped it might.
Still, it is entertaining, and the areas it does explore offer some interesting dialogues. In this episode Michael’s fallen out of one of his reality, and must finally grieve the loss of his son. He’s also haunted by hallucinations, and this leads him on a spiraling journey of seeming self-destruction that ends with a discovery — the accident that created two worlds was no accident.
Now he’s thinking the Lord of the Rings fan from Clerks II is responsible, and we’ll see where that goes. I really liked that guy (Mr. Blonde, according to Wikipedia), he did a good job acting out Michael’s self-talk.
What starts out as intriguing, reopening the question of which world is true, and pushing BD Wong to affirm his theory with more aggression, follows through with healthy human drama. At the center is a man grappling with the confusing loss of a loved one — the dream worlds shattering becomes an interesting expression of his loneliness and frustration. It’s a good episode, and a good show.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
So they end this episode with the new gang watching The X-Files. Funny, because that’s like what this show’s like.
Anyway I’ve been realizing that I really like Jason Isaacs. He’s been one of those false-ubiquitous faces, like Colin Salmon or Ron Perlman, maybe Danny Trejo — people who show up in genre fare as secondary characters but you’re always like… damn I like that guy. Hard to explain. Talented actors, but rarely do they have their day in the sun. Hellboy was good, but that was like, one time. One time*.
This episode was okay but the next one looks better — glad I could see the preview — looks like they’re going to mess around with the mythology, or better… begin the mythology. But they introduce a new dramatic element, and it’ll be interesting to see where that goes. As these reviews grow progressively lazy and less enthusiastic, the show begins to pick up speed…
*Hellboy II was bad. Only good part was Trollcart, a half-troll half-cart character rolling along in the third act
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
I know these last few reviews have felt negative, and that’s because Awake‘s started to fall into a formula, one where the twists are predictable — not necessarily like I can call the murderer in Act I (though usually it’s the other guy), but in a post-Signs M. Night Shyamalan way. We know the twists are coming, and we wish the unpredictable nature of the show and its universe were offering the surprises, not an old tradition of police procedural structure.
Possibly it tries to do too much, balancing the week to week plot line, which is complex but doesn’t feel complex, and the over-arching family drama (both with that key twist, and by-the-numbers). Characters develop around the plot, not in it, which I’ve seen before in network, broad-appeal television shows. Not much is known about Michael Britten other than he seems to be a pretty pleasant guy.
The episode ends strongly though, which says a lot because it somewhat cliffhangers you. It did what I had hoped it’d do from the start, which is introduce a universe-specific what-if idea, and explore what effects that would have on the cast of [established] characters. I’m excited to see the next episode, which I don’t think I’ve been since the pilot.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide
5. Howard “Bunny” Colvin
Colvin is the avatar for Simon and Ed Burns and all the writers — he’s a good cop who wants to see change, and is victimized by institutions. In Season 3 he attempts to create a controlled environment where drugdealers can operate, various zones around the city to keep the violence away from other citizens. It works, until it gets out that Colvin’s legalized drugs. He’s shit on by his superiors in their attempts to save themselves, and takes a job as a security chief for a hotel. In Season 4 he returns as a major element, this time joining forces with another ambitious fellow, who attempt to institute a tracking system in the middle school in order to socialize problem students and keep others on course. It works, until the school gets under pressure to perform for a standardized test, and things change.
He’s the show’s greatest hero, and fascinating to watch. Robert Wisdom is appropriately contemplative and patient — when he talks with that low, deep voice, you want to listen.
4. Omar Little
You know when Omar’s coming down the block because everyone starts running and shouting “Omar! Omar coming yo!” even when he’s in his robe and out getting more Honey Nut Cheerios. He’s a stick-up boy, the only person crazier than the drugdealers he steals from. He’s perhaps more famous though for living by a code, and not a weird one like Dexter’s, but a moral one. This is everyone’s favorite character, because at the end of the day, Omar is a badass. But he’s also got charisma, and it’s a great joy to watch him on screen doing anything. It’s cool to see him smoking, watching Barksdale or Stanfield targets in the distance, or talking with Bunk or McNulty, so it’s a special treat when he takes up his shotgun to do something cool. All in the game, yo.
3. Jimmy McNulty
Jimmy isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He takes the direct path to everything, even when that path is complicated by wiretaps and red tape. Even though he’s a dedicated officer who looks good on paper, he’s got a nasty habit of self-destruction and alienating everyone he meets. He even had a brush against Lester Freamon in Season 3, which got mended (as they all do), but still. McNulty is a flawed hero, one who’s alcoholism may seem cliched, but is true to life, and performed in turns comedic and poigniant by Dominic West.
(Spoilers to follow)
2. Russell “Stringer” Bell
What a cool name. Stringer will be elaborated on later, but I’ll say now that he’s an updated version of Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West. His deal is bringing business sense to the drug trade, and attempting to go legitimate in the midst of chaos and war. He doesn’t shoot up a block indiscriminately, but he’ll take a life if it “had to be snatched,” making him one hell of a cold and calculated businessman, but a businessman nonetheless. While Avon Barksdale was away for Season 2, he had to take over and deal with the proposition of merging with Proposition Joe and the East Side dealers. He had no other option — his product was inferior, though he had the territories — but Avon wouldn’t relent, going so far as to hire a New York hit man to drive East dealers out of their territory. Stringer’s attempts to deal with this and other street problems are what get him killed, after he’d already found he wasn’t ready for the big league with Clay Davis and co.
1. Preston “Bodie” Broadus
He’s not much of a presence throughout The Wire, but when he’s on, it’s always entertaining, and he shares a moment with Poot and Wallace that is one of my favorite moments on television. In it, he and Poot are forced to kill the boy, which shows us the birth of a gangster, one that’s hesitant and confused, but ultimately resolute. In Season 4 he stands by his action, but is faced with a greater moral problem — Marlo’s killing of low-level dealers out of paranoia. Bodie may not be a saint — he’s a killer — but he also has a moral code. It might just be the best someone born and killed on the street can do, if it’s all they know.
David Simon recently apologized for some comments he made about the current state of Wire fandom, where he criticized the general attitude of current viewers. Note that The Wire‘s been off the air for four years now, but DVD sales have been better than ever. This is my general experience — I bought the first season a while back and watched the first few episodes before taking a long break. In college I finished it, somewhat reluctant to return to something with too many characters to keep track off and a headaching mix of street talk and police jargon, but I was so moved by the ending, and one scene in particular, that I had to watch the rest as fast as possible. So I can’t help but feel like I fall under this umbrella of those who “[walked] sideways into the thing and act like they were there all along,” and that a future endeavor to offer what so many have already, a fan’s analytical perspective, would be “picking it apart now like it’s a deck of cards or like [I've been] there the whole time or … understood it the whole time.”
Well, I’m no stranger to coming into series sideways. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dexter, and Breaking Bad are my only favorite shows on right now, but I don’t get Showtime up in this dorm, and I only watch It’s Always Sunny when it’s on, not when it’s new. They’re rare — I found Firefly, Arrested Development, and Party Down after they’d been cancel, and I felt that guilt of ‘I should have been there to ‘support’ it,’ because they all ended before their time. Mitchell Hurwitz doesn’t harbor any resentment (publicly) that nobody saw Arrested Development despite all those Emmys, but I think Simon’s got more reason for his statements (which he’s seen apologized for).
Arrested Development may be extremely funny, but The Wire, especially from a creator’s statement, is important on a social level. David Simon was a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun before making it on TV through his books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, and experienced the collapse of relevance in his beloved medium — the Internet was running papers out of town, but didn’t itself maintain the same journalistic integrity. He moved to fiction with The Wire, where a message or two could be brought across in a powerful medium, that of popular entertainment.
It got across to many, but not that many. The Wire was at the time and now widely hailed by critics, some of which considered it to be among the greatest shows ever made, but it got no Emmy attention, and consistently pulled poor ratings. It seems a pattern was showing, and for a man with a lot to say, this is frustrating.
Flash-forward to 2012, and like all cult hits, The Wire‘s popular. On every Breaking Bad video I’ve seen on YouTube the top comments are typically “breaking Bad > The Wire” or “Breaking Bad and the wire are best shows evar” — it’s unsettling the difference four years can make, but for whatever reason there’s a better audience now than there was back then, but how can one know that?
I suppose The Wire didn’t have a high concept story premise, or a lauded lead performance (I mean Christ, Dominic West wasn’t even around for Season 4 — that doesn’t happen), and like Arrested Development, actually required watching, so it was perhaps doomed from the start. But now people can go back and pick up all the DVDs and appreciate it as I’ve done, but that’s obviously not the way it should be. We should’ve been there from the start, but we weren’t. The team struggled through five seasons — it’s a miracle they even got that far.
So after David Simon’s acknowledged this reality, it’s become a little uncomfortable to be a fan, even after rationalizing his issue. Everyone needs to bitch after a while, and Simon’s got a reason.
But it’s hard to watch The Wire and not want to talk about it. Because it’s not a show I can easily recommend to people (another problem with ratings I’d imagine), whether because it’s not as fun as Dexter (my roommate), or it’s too grim and violent (my mom), or it’s too police procedural and not straight gangsta shoot em up (my buddy), I’ll use this site to examine it in a range of ‘fannish fan’ to ‘aspirationally literary,’ which isn’t too far off the subject matter of Dreck Fiction. This may be a predominantly science-fiction-related site, it’s also discussed movies like Menace II Society and Baby Boy, because universal themes and ideas exist there, and in the case of The Wire it’s taught me a lot about effective longform storytelling, which will be the overarching theme of this Dreck Feature.
But in the Prelude segments, I figure I’ll try to exorcise all the fannish impulses first…
Expanding on what I was talking about last time, Awake almost seems more concerned with its special guest characters than secondary or even main. We spend 90% of the episode on the accountant’s wife and the accountant, and a little bit with Michael, his CI, and then his wife, which were the best moments. I don’t watch a lot of police shows, but this one feels more character-driven and personal, which makes me wonder why it feels like those episodes of SVU I have seen.
It’s almost like it’s already in a later season — early on its established who the characters are and a little of what they do, but doesn’t care too much to investigate or drive them in any direction. They still feel like archetypes, and I’m starting to feel the show settle on a formula. The formula is fine, the show’s entertaining enough, and Jason Isaacs is always awesome, but good performances and a good premise may not be enough in this case.
I’d imagine this season is a 13-episode run, so we should start building towards an end. We’ve been getting hints at a larger story-arc, so hopefully this will be one of the last ‘stand alone’ or ‘case of the week’ episodes.
Return to the Awake Episode Guide