Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Wire - 'The Target' and 'The Detail' (1x01 & 1x02)

A few years ago, there was a whole wealth of TV series I hadn’t seen, but had heard great things about. Now, not so much, I’ve seen the vast majority of HBO’s recent output, and am watching most great new shows as they air. However, there’s still one titan out there I was missing, the show that more than any other since The Sopranos has been hailed as the greatest TV show of all time. It’s a show I’ve been told to watch, and something I’ve been meaning to watch for a while, but just never got to. However, the time has come, so I’ve begun watching The Wire. After two episodes, I can say that it lives up to the hype, it’s certainly not the greatest show of all time yet, but I could see the potential there, and I’m already hooked and eager to watch more.

The show seems reluctant to engage in the sort of high concept hook that even the best HBO shows have. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are easy to explain in one sentence, but how would you describe The Wire? So far, the hook seems to be the war on drugs, from both sides, and it’s in the dual perspective that the show finds its most powerful moments. The implicit point of most cop/criminal movies, Heat say, is that there really isn’t much difference between cops and criminals. They both keep the same hours, frequent the same places and have the same personal troubles. It’s a thin line, the law, and this episode makes it even thinner by spreading our emotional identification between many characters.

The best example of this so far is the scene where they bring D’Angelo in for questioning and almost reduce him to tears with a story about the kids who are now orphans because their father was killed. You could play this scene straight up, a criminal forced to confront his crimes, however, our knowledge that Gant was actually a single man colors everything. The police are lying and manipulating D’Angelo to serve his own agenda. It helps that D’Angelo is the one character of the crew who really has our sympathy. He’s on the outside of things, and already felt guilty when he saw Gant’s body. He is seeking some way to alleviate his guilt, and thus engages in the lie the police tell him. It’s cold watching McNulty and Bunk laughing at it afterwards.

But, at the same time, it’s a devastating moment when we see Gant’s body at the end of the first episode. He’s tried to help put someone in jail, the conviction wasn’t made, and now he dies for nothing. The gang rule punishes people for doing the right thing, leading to the perpetuation of this chaotic urban warzone that the characters live in. One of the show’s greatest strengths is the sense of place, everyone hanging out in the courtyard, an orange couch in the center. It’s a vividly realized world, enhanced by the critical location shooting.

But it’s our shifting sympathies that make things so interesting. The police officers who go down to the Tower are idiots, and it’s tough to watch as a kid gets his eye knocked out. However, at the same time, this is a chaotic violence run world, shouldn’t there be some attempt at regulation? Throughout, there’s a kind of concession to the forces of urban decay. Even if they take down Barksdale, will it solve anything? Probably not, someone new will rise up in his place. I think the show serves as a sobering picture of a world we don’t usually see. There’s no sense of a social structure in place to help these kids become anything but drug dealers. Live a legit life and work hard and you’ll get killed like Gant.

I’m imaging this has all been discussed a lot, but as a new viewer to the show, it’s pretty exciting. Discovering a new work like this is always fascinating because you’re not sure who’s going to be the main characters, what’s going to happen, what kind of world will develop. Obviously I’ll watch all the episodes, but there’s something cool about the mystery, having something to discover. Still, I’ll be going through the show and hopefully will catch up by the start of the new season in January. They edit the show where I work, and the season is just about done. I saw what I feel like might be the ending montage of the series, but I won’t say anything about that. Two episodes in, it’s a bit early to think about the end.

Mad Men - 'The Wheel' (1x13)

I enjoyed, and was very impressed by, Mad Men right from the start of the show, but it wasn’t until roughly midway through the season that I really got hooked on the season. Pretty much each episode has been better than the next, culminating in the devastating and brilliant season finale. This episode clinches the show’s spot as a television masterpiece, a worthy addition to this golden age of TV programming.

Part of what made me really appreciate the show was seeing some Fall shows. During the summer, I had John From Cincinnati and Big Love coming in every week, both fantastic shows, that conditioned me to expect that quality from every show. Mad Men stands with those series, but it felt like the quality I was expecting from TV, not an anomaly. However, watching even the most critically acclaimed network series of the new season, like Reaper and Pushing Daisies, I found nothing that even came close to what Mad Men was doing on a weekly basis. While most network shows leave you wondering how they’re going to fill twenty-two episodes, Mad Men has an ambition and characters that demand more stories.

Matt Weiner has talked about his plan for the series, with five seasons taking the character from 1960 to 1970. I think that’s brilliant because it will allow for real change. I hate shows that struggle to maintain a status quo, and that’s what’s doomed shows from Battlestar Galactica to Alias, even season seven Buffy to some extent. The best TV shows are all about characters, I want to see the characters evolve and change and go through different things. I don’t mind if Buffy isn’t fighting vampires, I’m there for the person more than the slayer. Hell, in that series, I wouldn’t have even missed Buffy herself that much by the late seasons.

The Mad Men plan recalls the scope of Babylon 5. For all my issues with that show, you can’t help be respect JMS for telling such a huge story that changed things for everyone involved. His character storytelling slipped sometimes, but the story was wonderfully executed. That’s what TV can do, and I’d like to see more series that evolve and change as they go along.

Weiner worked on The Sopranos, and Mad Men has that series’ wonderful mix of subtle everyday moments and the occasional melodramatic outburst to keep things moving. These characters are stuck in a situation where they are unhappy, but refuse to change their lives. Don asks Rachel to run away, but he doesn’t really think it through. In a movie, you could do a The Graduate and end with them off to some uncertain future, clearly regretting the choice. But, on TV, you have to dwell in the reality of things, Don won’t leave his wife for the same reason Betty won’t leave Don, they’re trapped in this social world and can’t exist outside it. That was the whole point of the Helen Bishop storyline from earlier in the season, outsiders have no place in their world.

I’ve heard some people complain that the stories on Mad Men move too slowly, which is a completely off criticism. Much like late season Sopranos, the show dwells in moments that most shows skip over. It’s in the small interactions that we really get to know people and understand their world. Because this show is set in a world that’s alien to us, it’s fun and illuminating to just linger there. I loved the episode where Don got high with the beatniks and they just hung around talking about stuff. Through the discussion, you could see all their differences, we didn’t need a real ‘story’ about this, just being there was enough. Throughout the show, I’m amazed by how on the writing is, giving us the pieces to understand things, but never just telling us.

This episode featured two devastating scenes. My personal favorite was Betty’s talk with Glenn Bishop. This was a scene that I’m guessing a lot of people had issues with. It’s interesting for just how on the nose Betty’s dialogue is. David Chase, whose spirit hangs over the show, said that everything his characters say is a lie, and that’s true of a lot of these people as well. In this moment, Betty says what we’ve known all along, that she’s so alone, so sad, but to hear her voice it outright, particularly to this kid, is devastating. I loved the Betty’s lock of hair storyline because it was so downright odd. It adds this layer of odd perversion to her, she is so desperate for the attention of men, even young Glenn’s flattery means a lot to her. It was the emotional peak of the episode for me, a risky, but perfectly executed scene.

The other brilliant scene was Don’s speech about the carousel. Harry left the meeting crying, and I was pretty much there too. It was a hypnotic scene, and even seemed to sell Don himself on what he was saying. Don was confronted with these images of his perfect suburban existence, such a contrast to what he knows to be true. The double ending afterwards, where Don’s imagined homecoming is contrasted with his real loneliness was devastating as well.

The episode had that feeling of everything crashing down, the characters’ own delusions being broken by truth. Peggy was so deluded that she couldn’t acknowledge she was pregnant, and when the child is there, she won’t look at him. She’s a career girl, and won’t consider that alternate path. Similarly, Pete has to face that fact that for all his hustle, Peggy got a promotion and his one major accomplishment is negated by the fact that it’s his father in law’s account.

As the episode ended, I was just so happy, so impressed by what I’d seen. Every once in a while you see a movie or TV show that does that, just gives you a high knowing that what you’ve seen is great. It happened after Six Feet Under’s ‘Ecotone,’ what happened was bad, but the execution was so good, you can’t help but smile. Those two scenes I mentioned above were so on, they alone made the entire season worth watching. But really, this show grew from really strong to outright great, and the sky’s the limit for the future. With Friday Night Lights in a bit of a downturn and Battlestar Galactica constantly uneven, I’m going to go out on a limb and call this the best show on TV.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Crisis on Infinite Earths is one of those works I’ve read a lot about, and encountered peripherally through Morrison’s Animal Man and Moore’s Swamp Thing, however I’d never dare touch the work itself. However, with my recent immersion in the DCU, via Seven Soldiers, 52 and the Fourth World, I felt up to the task of navigating this massively complicated superhero epic. Epic is the optimum word here, a lot of crossovers feel constructed for no apparent reason, this one featured a great foe and truly world shaking action. Does that make it good? Not always, but it’s an intensely readable and truly unique and odd work, one that’s well worth the time for its metafictional implications alone.

A lot of mega crossovers are based around the fundamentally ironic goal of simplifying the universe through an absurdly convoluted story. Inferno is a prime example of this, a work that relies on fifteen years of stories and is barely comprehensible even when you’ve read all those issues due to the sheer amount of tie in material. It was a house clearing exercise, and this one is too, only it’s cleaning a much more complicated house. I’m not very familiar with the DCU pre Crisis, but judging from this book, it was a crazy, exciting place that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. So, the Crisis exists with one goal, to simplify the universe and make it accessible for new readers.

This gives the entire exercise a strong meta feel. The work is simultaneously a deck clearing exercise and a valedictory for the DCU as it was. If you’re not already familiar with the concept of the multiverse, the work won’t make much sense. Wikipedia and some related sites definitely helped me keep track of what the hell was going on at times, giving me the fundamental underpinning for all the action. It’s hard to wrap your mind around some of this stuff, particularly without a grounding in years of DCU history.

There’s a sadness present in the destruction of the multiverse. I knew that this was where the entire work was heading, but it’s still tough to watch these old characters and their world destroyed. The essential problem with the multiverse is that it removes the emotional reality of the characters. If there’s five Supermans running around, it’s hard to tell which one really matters. Is Superman the old guy married to Lois Lane or is he the young guy whose identity is still a secret? People today talk a lot about how adherence to continuity is a fanboy only practice, but if you look at stories, continuity is what makes them matter. It feels like a copout when we find out everything that happened was a dream or hoax as the 50s so frequently relied on. Stories gain weight through their consequences, and without some kind of linear continuity, there are no consequences. If many other Supermans are out there, it doesn’t matter what happens to any of them. But, if there’s one, you can really engage with him.

I like to think of the American Office as The Office Earth 2. The same character archetypes exist, but they’re played in a different way. I can’t engage with the Earth 2 characters in the same way I did with the original UK ones because I felt like the story was already told. I can laugh at the jokes, but emotionally, this ‘Jim’ doesn’t feel as real as ‘Tim.’ DC’s problem was that nobody felt real, and the universe of today certainly feels more cohesive than what we’ve got at the beginning of Crisis.

However, at the same time, I love the idea of this previous Superman helping out contemporary Superman. It’s a father/son thing, and then you throw in Superboy as another child, it’s a whole family. Plus, the multiverse allows for some wackier concepts and stories that don’t make sense in the agreed upon reality of the singular Earth. I love the idea that there’s an Earth where World War II rages on, or an Earth where America discovered Europe. The multiverse allows for a multitude of ideas, but ideas without emotion don’t necessarily make good stories.

I used to be almost exclusively a Marvel fan, X-Men mainly. I struggled to engage with DC’s heroes. After reading a lot of Morrison stuff in the DCU, and 52 in particular, I’ve grown to love the DCU. So, I was actually fairly equipped to handle the demands of this work. And, I’d argue it’s a more coherent work than I was expecting. There are a ton of narrative digressions, but the conflict with the Anti-Monitor provides a strong structure and focus that anchors you even when hundreds of random characters pass through.

The book begins rather clumsily with a series of random characters getting summoned by the Monitor. The cast is just unmanageable at this point, and we have no emotional in point to engage with. Things pick up once we get to know the Harbinger, who’s dressed in a wonderfully 80s outfit. I love works that engage with the zeitgeist of their times. Yes, the Harbinger may look dated, but that’s because her outfit was so specific to the moment, the hair, the clothes. She belongs in Bob Fosse’s Star 80. Supergirl’s headband is also decidedly of the moment, though her hairstyle doesn’t hold up as well as Harbingers.

The story itself works primarily because of how big it is. There’s not particularly engaging character arcs, but the Anti-Monitor is such an all encompassing foe, and is built up so well, that the story has a grandeur and majesty lacking in most of these cosmic crossover events. It does get a bit ridiculous how long it takes for him to be defeated. Even the characters themselves are talking about how a seemingly endless battle rages on and on, but it works. The high point is the fight in the Anti-Matter universe at the dawn of time, where all the magicians lend their power and the Spectre does some kind of ritual that temporarily ruptures the Anti-Monitor.

Things do get a bit repetitive by the end, however the final moments are very effective. It’s hard to watch Earth 2 Superman in a world where he doesn’t belong, where everything he knew has been wiped away. His ascension out of the universe and back to Lois is a really powerful way to signal the end of an era.

One of the things I always love about reading DCU stuff is getting to check in on the characters I’ve enjoyed reading about in the past. Here, I get a visit with Animal Man, who unfortunately has some pretty awful jokes, as well as time with Robotman. Zatanna gets a couple of panels, and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Constantine also pop up. And, Darkseid even plays a critical role in the final moments. It’s nice to know they’re out there doing their own thing, those characters are more than just the people who write them, they have a life of their own.

And ultimately, that’s what this work is about. The writers have created inextricable narrative traps, and the characters work their way through it and create a new workable status quo. It’s a messy story, but the sheer hugeness of the undertaking makes it work. Perez’s art is dense and detailed, and the work feels very substantial. Pages are routinely filled with 10-15 panels, and each issue takes far longer to read than today’s “decompressed” comics. Not every artist could pull it off, but Perez can do a page with 15 panels and still sell you on the characters’ emotion. An issue of the Buffy comic is like eating a cookie, each issue of this is a meal. I’m not saying every book should be this dense, but there’s a reason that more people read single issues back then.

So, what’s the takeaway from Crisis? I found it a consistently entertaining and though provoking work. It’s frequently nonsensical and hard to follow, but there’s enough ideas in there that it works on an intellectual level. The multiple earths are hard to fathom, but I think that’s a good thing. I like comics that force you to think in new ways. I don’t think most people want to think about their entertainment in this way, to ponder the cosmology of an entirely fictional universe, but for me, it’s a joy.

Now it’s on to today and Infinite Crisis. My main reason for reading this book now was to prepare for Grant’s upcoming Final Crisis, and Infinite Crisis is the next step. I’ve read the first two issues, and it’s pretty good so far. Phil Jiminez is a worthy successor to Perez. No one draws more beautiful people than he does, everyone looks like a gorgeous model. I don’t think art that’s cheesecake usually works, but there’s nothing wrong with good looking people, and Phil delivers that like no one else. He would have been the perfect artist for Grant’s JLA run, making humans that could be gods. Behind JH Williams and Frank Quitely, he's the best artist in comics today.