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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…
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…
Awake would benefit from fleshing out its secondary characters. This show in particular is at a disadvantage because it’s science-fiction, or science-fictiony-feeling fantasy, so there’s an obligation to world-building that when neglected leaves viewers in the lurch, but all shows create worlds, and therefore all must populate them reasonably. Some shows that’s sort of the premise, like with The Wire. Every minor character has depth, even this hardcore killer Chris — it’s all in the eyes, and the dramatic looks — is more than an archetype, and the show’s lead can take pretty much an entire season off. I think Dexter is a better example because, well that show’s called Dexter, it’s about this guy Dexter. And yet it’s filled with memorable characters who are all given their due.
But Dexter is nearly an hour long, ten to fifteen minutes longer than Awake, and without worrying about commercial breaks and content. But it’s similarly high-premise, and both shows are good. So why aren’t Britten’s wife or various detective partners as interesting as Mesuka, Angel, and even LaGuerta? Awake is also similarly plot-heavy, and it doesn’t have the time to breathe.
I guess it’s all about structure. And… networks. I give credit to a station like AMC, who evidently (well, clearly) has more balls than something like TNT: We Know Drama. Vince Gilligan’ll tell you that he had a great pitch with the folks at TNT for Breaking Bad, and the execs loved it, but knew they’d be fired if they greenlit this show about a man’s spiral into the drug trade. It’s not the direction the network’s going, and as long as there are other networks around, it’s not a big deal.
But NBC? They gotta keep moving, because all eyes are watching.
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I don’t have too much to say about this episode of Awake, particularly because I managed to see it live, and haven’t had the time to write about it since. In this episode, a new case opens and we get tension between his newly promoted partner in one universe, and more focus on his son in the other. I feel like the structure they’re beginning to get is that mix of episodic and series arc — the stand alone complex, as the Ghost in the Shell series had dubbed it, where ‘stand alone’ episodes are these cases, and the ‘complex’ episodes are the narrative reason we come back every week. In Awake, they’re both in the same episode, so we get Britten investigating between two worlds, dealing with skepticism at every turn, and learning how to cope with his family, an ongoing process.
The latter area is also an exploration of the world, which got a little bigger with the introduction of the chief character, who knows about Britten’s issue, and whose existence implies a greater mystery. Awake is the kind of show that may disappoint with its reveal, much like Lost, but I’m hoping that unlike that show, the guys behind Awake know how the series ends. In fact, I don’t know how one could start airing a show without having mapped out the story beforehand, but that’s the medium. There’s a business end of television that stands in the way a lot of the time.
I didn’t get a good read on this episode. I enjoyed it, but it felt like a continuation of the pilot in less than a good way. The jumpy style remains, which makes it feel hip, but I wonder how this show would’ve held up were I to watch it as I do all other shows, three at a time and on DVD. Luckily now I won’t have to wait long for the next episode, and hopefully I’ll have this review up sooner.
I also wanted to talk about the NBC show I sat through right before this, called Up All Night, which when paired with a show called Awake, makes me think that they’re sending me a subliminal message to stay up for the NBC late night news. So Up All Night, with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, is a sitcom without a laugh track, so that’s one point in its favor. I don’t know what the deal is with these new shows like The Big Bang Theory and Whitney that have laugh tracks, but whatever. Aside from Will Arnett and the occasional appearance by Jason Lee, of Kevin Smith and My Name is Earl fame, that’s the only point in its favor.
This episode in particular was dreadful, talking about both feminism in the work place, and homosexuality. While the feminism part was embarassing, it’s the homosexuality part that really didn’t jibe with me. To their credit, they didn’t telegraph that they wanted to make a social statement, unlike other shows like The Simpsons, which in its 2007ish era seemed to rip topics from the local paper and say, “This week we’re gonna talk about evolution vs. creationism in schools… Go…” However, it isn’t any less flawed.
Their conceit is simple: gay people are hip. We know this, they’re so trendy because that’s just how gay people are. Setting aside that that’s in itself a dangerous stereotype (because all stereotypes by nature are dangerous), the biggest crime they perpetrate here is skipping point B in an A to C road to ‘how America sees gay people.’ Right now, we don’t see them very well. Especially in lesser TV shows, gay people have been depicted as either flamboyant and sassy males, or butchy or supermodel fantasy females. In this show, they aren’t being depicted at all, due to writing in a constrained, 22-minute format, but we’re being literall told that they’re cool.
You can’t tell us that these gay people are cool, and that gay people are now cool. That’s not gonna work on anyone. Good intentions, but you’re doing it wrong. It’s very nearly condescending, in fact — thinking that by saying “Man those gay people are cool,” I’m gonna start thinking it without thinking about anything, or letting my own personal feelings influence me. This is especially egregious for me after having started The Wire, a nearly decade old TV show whose character Omar, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, was one of its claim to fames.
Omar is a ‘stick-up boy,’ so he goes around robbing drugdealers, and he gets wrapped up in The Wire’s story by hitting the stash of the show’s main criminal group, the Barksdale organization. He carries around a shotgun and has a big old scar running down his face (Williams’s scar, in actuality), and is pretty much the most badass character on the show. Barack Obama even said so. As we discover midway in season one, Omar is gay. There you have it. McNulty didn’t say, “Man, Omar is such a badass. He makes me really think about gay people, how they aren’t just flamboyant and sassy.” He shows, doesn’t tell. His sexuality isn’t even a huge element of the show. He gets called a faggot or made fun of every now and then, but note that it’s always in a courtroom or when he’s not around.
When he is around, people start running and shouting “Omar’s coming, yo!” I’m not saying that Will Arnett needs to carry around a shotgun for Up All Night to be a smarter show, but it needs to go in one direction or the other: commit to saying something real and do it right, or do nothing and focus on the comedy you’re attempting. I don’t 100% hate you, as you don’t have a laugh track telling me when to laugh, but I do 98% hate you, as you do this poorly conceived grab at a social statement that tells me what to think. I might agree with you (not that all gay people are hip, but that they aren’t all America-hating weasels), but a lot of people don’t, and you might be doing damage.
The next episode of Awake airs at 10:00 PM Eastern, March 15…
Up All Night right before then
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Spoilers for The Wire, Season 2
Inception, a pretty obscure film by director Christopher Nolan (Insomnia), was a watershed event for science-fiction in film. Suddenly there was, in this new decade, what there was in the nineties — sleek, sexy, thinking man’s sci-fi in cinema. Movies like Source Code, In Time, and The Adjustment Bureau could see the light of day and get the anticipatory respect of major movies in other genres, even if not all of these turned out critically successful. At least people are going for it now. Sure, there continues to be drivel from the drivel store like Resident Evil: Underworld Awakening of the Afterlife and the flashy big budget stuff like John Carter (but I actually want to see that movie), but this new trend of smart, confident sci-fi in Hollywood brings a smile to face like the recent Drive does — all my life I’ve been complaining that we haven’t had these movies, in Drive‘s case a violent, R-rated American action movie, and then… well, shit. We get it. Bitch, and you shall receive. (Not really though, please don’t subscribe to that philosophy).
I like to think that it was this minor renaissance in film that helped NBC’s new drama Awake find its way onto TV screens everywhere, this new attitude that maybe science-fiction isn’t for jerks, and not the recent trinity of serious sci-fi on TV: Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Heroes. Those three can be viewed as stepping stones to the genre, because Lord knows that many BSG watchers would be dumbfounded by Stargate Atlantis — these people who are real, not fanboys. While those shows did a lot to popularize the genre and give way to further serious fare like Fringe and Falling Skies, they all fizzled out at the end. Now, I didn’t see any of these save for the first season of Lost and the BSG miniseries, but reports from the field seem to indicate that Heroes went to hell fast, BSG had a WTF ending, and Lost made a lot of missteps through its long stumble to an equally WTF ending.
It’s the medium, it’s television that’s both a blessing and a curse for storytelling. On the positive side, we get something we don’t in movies, not even in a lot of long-running franchises — optimal character development. After roughly 20 hours of watching The Wire, Prez punches Major Valchek and my eyes go wide. This is a character who started out a total asshole — he’s a rookie and goes a little overboard on the streets, roughing somebody up and consequently getting stuck on desk duty. Here, he does a total 180. This guy’s got a real talent for this job, and as we discover, he’s a really good guy. At the start of season two we’re totally on the same page. Towards the end of the season he’s being yelled at by this guy Valchek, who assembled the detail, and is now ending it. Prez doesn’t like this, also doesn’t like being called a shitbird, and punches him.
I was shocked. I was totally invested in this character and couldn’t believe he did something so dangerous to himself. Lieutenant Daniels says, in his always cool but firm manner, “Detective. My office. Now,” and he turns in his gun, walks off screen. It was an amazing moment, and this is the guy who I hated, and enjoyed hating just last season. Of course, that’s twenty hours of content ago. TV is like a book — you can put it down and come back to it later (unless it’s Dexter, in which case that shit gets watched basically all at once), but such is not the case with movies. There are memorable characters in movies, but we don’t get to spend a lot of time with them. Even characters who we do, like James Bond, don’t take out ‘episodes’ to delve into character studies. In TV, we can have these episodes and moment to moment characterizations, so this is the positive aspect.
The negative aspect applies doubly so to science-fiction television: it’s got to last. It’s restrained to so many things, episodic structure, content (for network television), and length. The perfect SF series are those like The X-Files, or Star Trek, where they can open a new case or travel to a new planet every episode, and the self-contained plot works like a short story adapted to the universe. Usually these series aren’t high concept like movies are. Obviously they’re brilliant ideas, and their premises are suited for TV because they allow for many stories in the future.
Awake, on the other hand, is extremely high-concept, and a brilliant idea (which as I realize now, is actually fantasy, but in this context, it’s all the same). Briefly, detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs) finds himself in two worlds after a car accident left his wife and son dead. In one world, his wife is alive, and the son is gone. In the other, the son is alive, the wife a memory. He switches between these worlds involuntarily, closing his eyes at night and waking to the other, and of course — nobody believes him. As the two cases he’s investigating begin to bleed over, his two shrinks (B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones) intensify their sessions, which become increasingly distressing. Dr. Lee takes the aggressive route, asserting that he must shake this other reality, while Dr. Evans attempts to solidify their reality as true.
The future of this series is of such concern because the pilot was astonishing. Yes, good for a network TV show, but also effective drama. Jason Isaacs, who’s always awesome but rarely the lead, heads up a cast of talented TV regulars, and the script touches on intriguing areas without delving too deeply into obfuscating philosophical or psychological territory. This is one of the rarest things I’ve ever seen — and network TV’s track record for shows I like or even express interest in (Firefly, Drive, Terminator, anything with Nathan Fillion or Summer Glau, it seems) makes me think that we haven’t got much time.
The main problem is sustainability, and this is something I find myself repeating from the first and only review of the show I read, on IGN.com. Will the continuing adventures of Michael Britten be episodically structured, or is this going to feel like a 350 minute movie? What will future stories look like, how will this premise continue to hold our attention — and with this level of urgency? This is probably why speculative fiction is often rare on television, but since we have it here and now, we’ll wait and see.
350 minutes was a rough estimate for one season of TV, but either way, the show is going to be multiple hours long, and the story will have to conform to that structure. At this moment, the premise and where we are now with the story don’t seem to match up with that idea. This feels like a miniseries, if anything, or the first act in a three act movie. Of course, this is nothing to complain about, only fret. This is the only show I’ve wanted to seek out and keep up with (we don’t get Showtime), so I’m pretty excited, I’ve never had that feeling of “can’t wait for next week.” What’s coming next week will give a better indication to the future of Awake, whether we’ll see something as artistically successful as its opening, or wake up from this beautiful dream, wake to the grey realm of reality TV and sitcoms with laugh tracks and — oh, I turned the TV off.
The next episode of “Awake” premieres March 8, 10pm Eastern.
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