Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Wire: "Unconfirmed Reports" (5x02)

It’s always weird watching a show on a weekly basis after seeing all the previous seasons on DVD. The DVD experience creates a total immersion in the work, for a short time, it’s all about The Wire. With The Wire, each season is structured as a single story, so what lingers with you when it’s done is mostly stuff from the end of the season. Looking at season four, most of the big moments are in the last two episodes, the emotional payoffs for an entire season’s worth of stories.

Watching it on a weekly basis, you’re able to savor each episode more, and have more chance to speculate on what will happen. However, it can also be a bit frustrating. It’s hard to go a week without Herc or Carver, and I really want to see where things go. It’s a great testament to the show that the only complaints I have about this episode are what it’s not doing, that I want to see more of the world. Watching on DVD, it’s cool to lose characters for a week, or even most of a season, but weekly, their absence jumps out.

Still, it makes more sense to focus on what’s actually in the episode instead of what’s not, and there is a lot of great stuff here. The biggest development is the final moment, where McNulty’s frustration leads him to invent a serial killer in Baltimore. In season three, Colvin was presented as an older, wiser version of McNulty, someone who’s always tried to challenge the system, whose unconventional ideas have gotten him into trouble. Colvin used unconventional methods that would never be approved by the bosses as a way to get the right thing done. That’s essentially what McNulty is doing here, exploiting the system as a way to achieve his goals, and we’re left wondering if the ends justify the means.

McNulty’s frustration is rendered well. He had everything under control last year, and was the healthiest we’ve seen him during the series’ run. He had given up on changing the system and consigned himself to an easy, domestic life. But, the promise of a “new day in Baltimore” brought him back to Major Crimes, and into a spiral of self destructiveness. I’m not sure whether he really was happy in patrol, as he said. I’m guessing he was just waiting for an excuse to get back into homicide, telling himself that this time it would be different. He’s addicted the same as those drug addicts at NA. He can say he’s not going to drink, not going to fool around, but everything he says he won’t do is what he does. In a way, I’m glad that we skipped over the backslide because it would have been painful to watch him cause so much pain for Beattie. That said, I’m sure there’s still plenty of pain ahead for the two of them.

It’s notable that we’ve never seen McNulty and Russell together this season. If McNulty’s to remain sympathetic, we can’t connect Beattie to all his catting around. We see things from McNulty’s perspective, he’s just going along, and it’s only the other characters who talk about Beattie. I’m guessing everything will crash down around him soon, and Russell will confront him about what he’s been doing. McNulty’s back on a martyr kick, and what he’s done with this body is going to have potentially disastrous consequences for him.

The question now is what will happen if the higher ups find out. If McNulty is able to create a crisis and get more city funding for cops, they may be inclined to over look the lie. It’s like the end of Watchmen, to expose the lie will destroy the credibility of the department and city hall, and that would cripple the city.

The other advantage of this storyline is that it will involve the press directly. So far, they’ve been off in their own world, running parallel to the main stories, but not integrated. The show’s only misstep, the port storyline, didn’t work so well because it felt totally disconnected from everything else, and if the press keeps going like it does, we could run into that same problem. It’s not that the story is bad, it’s entertaining, but it’s hard to get to know all these characters five seasons into the show. Emotionally, the bond isn’t there. Last season, they built incredible characters with the four kids, but I don’t know that we’ve got the time for that this year. The fact that there’s only eight episodes left hangs heavy over everything.

The other issue with the press storyline is that it brings Simon’s pettiness to the story itself instead of the commentary track. Intentional or not, the pitch about the schools seemed like a self congratulatory boast, a fuck you to all the haters out there who said you can’t examine these kids’ lives in context. The reference to seeking prizes instead of quality seems like another one of his “I don’t care if we get an Emmy, but let me mention we’ve never won one yet again.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with going meta, but this isn’t The Invisibles, it’s a show that’s been incredibly realistic and never self reflexive, and I don’t think that kind of reflexivity fits well with the show’s aesthetic.

But, the press will fit perfectly with the serial killer storyline. Scott will likely see this as the piece to make his career, but will someone’s investigative reporting reveal the truth behind what’s going on? I’m not as opposed to the press stuff as a lot of other people, but it’s feeling more and more like the port storyline, which stayed in its own world, and never successfully integrated into the show as a whole.

That said, elements of the port storyline are back in the foreground this year, so I should probably clarify that it’s the Sobotka stuff that never integrated. I liked the story, parts of it were great, but it didn’t fit into the show as well as the politics or school stuff did. Still, it’s nice to see that it didn’t just disappear. The Greeks were the only characters nastier than Marlo, and there’s potential in a teamup between the two groups.

The interesting new layer here is the return of Avon. It’s great to see him back, even though he’s played as almost a comic character, flashing the West Side “W,” and just generally being very enthusiastic. My guess is he’s just glad to see another West Sider, and have a chance to exert some influence out on the street. He’s been on the sidelines for a while, and this is his chance to get back in the game. However, doing so from prison could be tough. Marlo isn’t much of a collaborator, and any attempts to mess with the Greeks could be disastrous. Ultimately, I see Avon getting knifed in prison and winding up in a bodybag.

Over with Marlo’s crew, we start to see some weak links in the machine. First is the guy who wants to go “all West Coast” and winds up screwing up the hit. Snoop cleans up his mess, but it’s that sort of showy wannabe gangster mentality that took down Avon’s organization. Not everyone’s going to have the discipline of a Snoop or Chris, and the bigger the organization gets, the more likely someone’s going to mess up.

Another major question mark is Michael. For the first time since the end of last season, we see him crack. The reality of what he’s doing with Chris becomes apparent, and he’s not so sure how to feel about his new mentor. Michael does have morals, and the more he becomes aware of how Marlo operates, the less he’s likely to go along with it. Chris and Snoop will kill that security guard, or the civilian woman in Andre’s without qualms, but will Michael? I don’t think so, and we’ve got to wonder now whether he’ll become like them, or rediscover his morality.

Again, I have to commend Simon and crew for the job they did with those kids. Michael and Dukie are arguably the most compelling characters on the show. Everyone else has found their place, and has to live with their choices, but Michael and Dukie are still inventing their identities. It’s not too late for Michael to get out, but he needs help. If you compare the person he is now to who he was back in the season four premiere, it’s an amazing evolution. I particularly love how he has moved from his own world with the kids and become integrated with the show as a whole.

There’s a quick glimpse of Cutty in the On Demand promo, as one of the only characters to get out of the game, he could be a potential guide for Michael. The scene where Michael lets the kid run away echoes what Cutty did for Fruit back in season three. Michael could also find a potential guide in Namond, who’s off somewhere with Colvin. I’d love to see the two of them again, and find out what happened to him. There’s so many people I’d love to see again, it’s sad to think there’s only eight episodes left. If we do see Colvin again, it will probably be for a farewell moment, he’ll not get another major storyline.

The other major storyline is Bubbles’ trouble with his new life. Without the dope, he’s got no direction in life and just drifts aimlessly along. I like how they’re not doing the obvious will he go back or won’t he drama. There’s nobody there for him most of the time, he’s just lost in his head. It’s hard to watch him so bereft of the life energy he had in the previous years.

That pretty much covers it. This is definitely a get the gears moving episode. Plots are being set up and things will likely start to spin together next week, once the news about the serial killer came out. And by next week, I actually mean Monday. But, as much as I like having the episode a week early, I really think it hurts the show to lose the zeitgeist of that single moment when everyone who watches the show sits down and sees what happens. They get their extra $5 out of me for the On Demand, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Farscape: 1x01 & 1x02

The first few scenes of Farscape’s “Premiere” did not have me optimistic. The father/son relationship between Crichton and his father felt clich├ęd, and the entire launch sequence reminded me of the worst episode of The X-Files: “Space.” I got no sense of these characters as real people, and the dialogue was firmly in movie world, with little connection to reality.

However, the show’s not about our world, it’s about the fantastic world Crichton finds himself transported to, and once he goes through the wormhole, the show picks up and becomes a really solid adventure. Most of the big sci-fi shows from the past few years, Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5 most notably, are all about big political ideas and galaxy spanning conflicts. They’re shows with a cerebral edge, that only occasionally verge into pulpy adventure. They draw from the Star Trek school of sci-fi.

After watching the first two episodes, it seems like Farscape is the descendant of Star Wars. The myriad weird aliens and general focus on a serial adventure tone reminded me a lot of what those films did. There is some of that Star Trekky trouble of the week thing to the second episode, but it seems like the series’ mythology is tied back to the trilogy. Hell, Crichton even makes a reference to Yoda in the second episode, a bit odd considering we’ve got a guy who looks like Yoda’s cousin up on the ship.

Let me first cover the issues I’ve got with the series. At this point, I just don’t really care about standalone episodes. The second episode wasn’t particularly bad, but after watching countless Battlestar, Buffy, Babylon 5 and X-Files standalones, it’s hard to find new ground. I’m not particularly looking forward to going through a whole bunch of standalones on the way to the good stuff. Now, standalones can work really well, as long as they are used to explore character and not just tell the story of the week. Season five of The Sopranos, the series’ strongest, has very little arc per se, but the stories are so tight and revealing of character, it feels like everything is building to something. That’s a luxury that a late season show has, here, it’s tougher.

The second episode reminded me of an early Buffy standalone, entertaining enough in spite of the story, not because of it. I want to get to know these characters more, and the story seemed to get in the way. Not to mention, how many different planets can they encounter along the way? I liked the moment where Crichton kissed the woman, but I just didn’t care that much about these people.

And, there is a bit of goofiness to the goings on. It’s not the muppets, they’re really expressive and fun to watch. Rather, the over the top acting of D’Argo kills the scenes with him. He reminds me of Olaf the Troll from Buffy, and that lack of subtlety doesn’t work for a long term character. Aeryn, John and the blue lady are likable, but on the whole, the acting doesn’t have the immediate intensity of recent great shows. Now, maybe this will be a Buffy situation, where we get unforeseeable depth from the players. Hopefully it won’t be like Babylon 5, where the acting is serviceable, but with a few exceptions, not particularly inspiring.

So, that’s what’s bad, what’s good? I really do like the main two characters, and they’ve got great chemistry. John is a bit of a blank slate, classic pulp hero, but he’s fun to hang out with, and a good straight man for the various wacky goings on. And, in the second episode, you get a strong sense of his conflicted feelings. He’s excited to be in this new world, but also sad when he realizes he might never get home again.

Aeryn is my favorite so far. She reminds me a bit of Starbuck, though less self destructive. I can see some good potential in John helping her discover more of her humanity, and opening her up emotionally. It’s pretty clear a romance between them is getting set up, and that should be fun to watch. When the two of them are together, the show is always solid, it’s only when they get split up that things can get a bit slow.

In the first episode, I really liked the Peacekeepers, and I think they’ll be a strong villain. They definitely recall the Empire from Star Wars, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Freedom vs. oppression is an eternal conflict, and one well suited to the kind of stories they’re telling here. The space battles in that episode had a majesty, and there were moments that just hit me on a deep level. That’s what a great show does, touch something deep in the subconscious.

The other moment that did that for me was Zhaan taking the ship’s pain in episode two. I love that metaphysical stuff, and the scene had a real magical quality. The power of that moment made up for any of the other goofiness going on in the episode. As long as the standalones deliver enough good moments like that, I’ll stick with the show.

So, I’m going to seek out some more episodes, and see where things go with the show. I’m not completely sold yet, but I’m liking it so far and hopefully things will get even better. We shall see.