The Wire

I used to pay for HBO but I found its scheduling infuriating and ended up never watching much on it (even The Sopranos despite it being, at the time, one of my favorite shows). So, I come to The Wire very late.

My favorite books are either fiction with a lot of informative content, or non-fiction written in a great narrative style. So, some of my favorite books include Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative and David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The former is a work of art, but the latter is simply fascinating, especially if you’ve ever been a lover of crime fiction.

Only on HBO?

Much has been said of The Wire being (a) the greatest TV show ever made, and (b) something that could only be done (in the US, anyway) by HBO. It’s worth noting that Homicide: Life on the Streets (based on Simon’s book) was actually very similar in both theme and quality to The Wire lacking only in the bad language and explicit sex department. (And even on network TV it managed to have a bisexual detective who had sex in a coffin.) The big difference (format-wise) between Homicide and The Wire was that Homicide largely retained episodic foreground plots (in addition to large arcs) as a method for drawing viewers along, but that was more a consequence of the evolution of TV as a medium (TV viewers have been taught to follow arc plots, slowly, over the last 25-odd years) and subject matter (homicides vs. narcotics, at least initially) than network limitation.

Both Homicide and The Wire required viewers to pay attention. A single chance remark in one episode might have major ramifications a season later.

Even with strong competition from Homicide, I would agree that The Wire is the best TV show I have ever seen. It seems to me that the chief “advantage” of being an HBO show (aside from HBO’s lack of creative interference and willingness to green-light a show with mediocre ratings) is bad language and explicit sex, neither of which make The Wire a better show than Homicide. The Wire’s big advantages are that it simply deals with broader subject matter and has taken the “training wheels” of episodic foreground plot out of the format, allowing more time to deal with minutiae. Heroes, on NBC, does the same thing, but just happens to be infantile (if, briefly, enjoyable).

The Cops. The Crooks. The Big Rich.

As an aside, it’s always depressing to me that — at least for drama — the crime-driven story dominates television so thoroughly, and that the best TV shows ever made have almost all been cop/lawyer shows:

  • The Wire
  • The Sopranos
  • Homicide: Life on the Streets
  • Murder One (first season)
  • Hill Street Blues

There are a few other shows that might contend for greatness that don’t quite fit the crime drama mould … but they’re generally just very good Soap Operas (e.g. thirtysomething or ER). I guess there’s always the new Battlestar Galactica.

Why Watch the Wire?

It’s very rare for writers (and The Wire is fundamentally a literary work) to grapple with how the modern world really works. Stories tend to center on characters, generally a small number of characters, and it follows that the actual way in which things happen has to be compressed into something that is apparent to those characters. A typical episode of Law & Order, for example, focuses on perhaps seven people (the two cops, the two prosecutors, the DA, the defendant, and the defendant’s lawyer) and has them do everything of significance in the case, from interviewing key witnesses to figuring out obscure logical flaws in the defendant’s alibi.

Almost anything in the modern world is done by an army of characters who often don’t know or have anything directly to do one another. The Devil is in the details, and the details are often minor characters who perform vital tasks and are composited, merged, or ignored in the interest of brevity, clarity, and pace. Oh, and don’t forget we need to make the heroes look good.

Anyone who has seen the movie South Pacific but who has not read Michener’s book will probably be amazed to discover that the book was a grimly detailed procedural account of the amphibious invasion of a fictional Pacific island during WWII, told by attempting to perform a “vertical slice” of the action. Reading the book, we see how decisions made at the highest levels of command lead, for example, to decisions as to how many and what type of bandages to provision, and, ultimately, to whether individual soldiers live or die on the beach.

Similarly, in Richard Powers’s (in my opinion) finest novel, Gain, the author performs stunning tour-de-force — I’d call it the written equivalent of a “frozen pan” (as in “The Matrix”) or the cgi zoom-out at the beginning of the movie “Contact” — when, towards the end of the story, someone in a hospital room takes out a disposable camera and he suddenly shifts and describes how that camera was manufactured — from the way the paper for the box is chosen so as to print the special ink that all products of that brand use to the camera being discovered, forgotten, days later by an orderly and thrown in a waste basket.

The Wire is, pretty much, nothing less ambitious than an attempt to depict such an instantaneous cross-section of a modern US city in decline. I imagine that watching it all at once (which I will do when the final season ships on DVD) will be quite something, although if you wait until you can see all five at once, it may be shattering. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s a picture very much worth looking at.

Lost and Ballistic Trajectories Over Marine Carnivores

As I think I may have mentioned, my wife and I are addicted to Lost. We TiVo it, and on the fairly rare, but not rare enough, cases when TiVo screws up, we download it from iTunes. We’re not ultra-devoted quasi-insane-stalker fans of the show, we don’t own it on DVD, and we haven’t watched every episode more than once. We don’t take notes.

At the end of season two it seemed to me that LOST jumped the shark. Worse than that, since the previous seasons have never had a single satisfactory denouement, it really shows that it started in midair over the shark.

LOST made an implicit (within the show) and explicit (from the producers of the show to their fans) that the story would make sense without requiring aliens, cans of creamed corn containing psychic terror, or other such addle-brained garbage. For two seasons it managed to appear to, possibly … somehow … just maybe, sticking to this set of constraints by (very cleverly) violating the usual rules of storytelling — i.e. building characters up from the past to make sense of ongoing narrative.

But, by reframing the entire narrative in terms of a more knowing group entirely outside the crucible and simultaneously pulling the viewpoint out from the claustrophobic interior (of the crash survivor experience) to the omniscient, they have gone too far — it’s now clear that the entire story, initially presented as some kind of mystery which human intellect might penetrate, is in fact merely a series of dei ex machinis which the writers can pull out of their collective back passages on demand.

Here’s some of what we (think we) know (but as I’ve said, I haven’t been taking notes):

  1. They crashed on an island.
  2. It appears as though the leader of the “others” knew in advance the crash would happen.
  3. Either the others knew who would be on the plane and had detailed records of them, or they arranged for at least some of the people to be on the plane.
  4. The others have high tech communications links to the outside world.
  5. There are seemingly magical phenomena on the island, but we’ve been told that the plot does not involve magic, divine intervention, and it’s not a dream or hallucination.
  6. One of the survivors won a lottery with a specific set of numbers.
  7. Those numbers appear on a seemingly very old plane wreck found on the island.
  8. Those numbers are the combination for the dead man switch in “the hatch”.

Either they can arrange for certain people to get on a plane, the plane to crash, and the right people to survive. Or they can’t.

Either they can fix lotteries. Or they can’t.

If they can, they’re basically as powerful as, say, the CIA and they’re willing to spend bazillions of dollars on some kind of whacked experiment. Why are they bothering with this ridiculous crap?

If they can’t, they can implant memories in people. It’s not a dream, but it’s a bunch of implanted memories. This is magic in my book, but given the creators of LOST created Alias it’s probably allowed by their rules. It’s a pretty sucky premise, but it’s barely plausible. Even so, if you can implant memories you have better things to do. Why are they bothering with this crap? Unless you’re still working out the kinks.

So perhaps that’s the story. Someone has developed near-perfect brainwashing techniques which can create completely compelling (however implausible) and yet bogus memories in a person and thus control their attitudes and behavior, but they haven’t perfected it and are performing experiments to figure out how well it works, etc. They need to test both how strongly people cleave to their (false) memories under stress and the subtle effects (e.g. sexual preferences). It explains why a guy who looks like he should be some kind of athlete-cum-killing machine is in fact a doctor, and why they give a damn whom Kate prefers.

Tomorrow, the world.

LOST has lost it.

I’m sorry to say that LOST seems to have jumped the backwards-talking midget shark. It seems to be the TV show no-one minds admitting they watch, but the formula, which is apparently Twin Peaks but with more writers and less drugs is wearing thin on me, and I suspect a lot of other viewers.

This started to get way too long, so I’m going to summarise:

1. Twin Peaks was, at its best, better.
2. Twin Peaks sucked pretty bad towards the end … but we haven’t seen how much LOST is going to suck yet.
3. At least Twin Peaks ended.
4. There is no way to resolve LOST at this point without aliens, creamed corn, and magic.

Of course the heart of the problem is the economics of TV production in the US. If you produce something and it’s successful it is mandatory that it last at least five seasons so that it can make money in syndication. Thus, LOST must run five years to justify its existence, which means stretching out a pretty shaky story for about eighty episodes more than necessary.