A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #19: Losing the Plot – The Golden Age of Television

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3In this month’s podcast, we look back at TV series before the so-called Golden Age of Television and what has happened since – what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost in times of HBO, prestige television and binge watching. Are series the novels of the 21st century or is it all sexposition, soap operatics and narratives dragged out way past their sell-by date? Featuring our theme tune, “Mystery Street Jazz” by Håkan Eriksson (make sure to listen to the very end of the podcast)… and a very special appearance by Trillian the Cat!

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All these worlds can be yours (but will you want them?)

Last week we went to see the latest of the new Star Trek films, the one whose title is certain to trigger a Pavlovian response in any fan of the English ska band Madness. I’d greatly enjoyed the first of the reboot movies back in 2009, though Star Trek Into Darkness hadn’t done much for me, but I hadn’t given up on the franchise yet. Star Trek Beyond, though… It’s a competent enough film in some ways, the main cast is still the best reason to watch the reboot – but I simply didn’t feel it. Most of the time it wasn’t the plot that kept me engaged; instead I found myself distracted, not least by remembering the recent death of Anton Yelchin and thinking, wistfully, that he should have had his final appearance as Pavel Chekov in a better film.

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… or: How I learned to stop bingeing and love the wait

Let’s say I was given a choice: either I give up all the movies in my collection or I say goodbye to all the box sets I’ve got. Which do I let go of? The Criterion disks I’ve amassed since I first discovered the Collection would make this a difficult choice, but in the end I think I would want to hang on to the series I’ve got. The thought of not having constant and (nearly) instant access to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos, as well as some of the later additions such as Treme or Hannibal is arguably worse than suddenly being bereft of the many, many films filling the shelves of the many, many Billy bookcases that we have accrued.

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All fun and games, until someone loses his head

I understand that the following might get me defenestrated, decapitated, poisoned, disembowelled and/or otherwise treated harshly – but I think that Game of Thrones is overrated. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great series with a cast that well night perfect, characters that are engaging, production values that are amazing, complex storylines that are riveting and setpieces that are stunning. It’s head (not Ned’s, obviously) and shoulders above a lot of TV. Nevertheless, on a list of favourite series it wouldn’t make it into my Top 5: I’d take The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and The Wire over it any day, to name just a few.

Thing is, for all its strengths the series is pretty much entirely about itself. It has little to say about our world. I’m not denying the series all relevance, but for all the cruelty and political intrigue of the world it depicts it is still escapism. Does it need to be anything more? Most emphatically not – but it makes the superlative praise the series gets ring somewhat hollow.

Hmm... My shoelaces are untied.

My impression is that because the series is brutal, because it kills our darlings, people implicitly see it as something more than escapist entertainment. “This is what the world is really like – cruel, amoral and swift to kick you in the privates, steal your silver and stab you in the spleen!” Except I doubt that most of its fans live in a world in any real sense that is like Westeros. Does Game of Thrones have anything much to say about power, responsibility, pragmatism and honour in a world of shifting alliances and uncertain motives? It probably does, although not all that much beyond what makes an intriguing story. Then again, it doesn’t need to – but its fans sometimes behave as if the series is completely new and does things that haven’t been tried before.

What puzzles me most is how Game of Thrones is almost universally hailed, yet HBO’s earlier series Rome barely made it to the end of season 2. In so many ways, Rome is an amazingly close precursor to the sprawling Westerosiad. Sex and violence? Check. Political intrigue? Check. Exotic locales? Check. Moral ambiguity? Check. Ciarán Hinds, Indira Varma, Tobias Menzies? Check, check and check again. (We’re still waiting for Ray Stevenson to make it to Westeros and for Kevin McKidd to be saved from his Seattle day job by a crazed, bomb-wielding, suicidal plane crash-cum-zombie apocalypse.) In terms of format, tone, characters, visual identity and, obviously, Nipple Count (and no, that’s not a character on the X-rated Sesame Street spin-off), the two series are very similar. Certainly, there are no ice zombies and dragons in Rome, but is that what makes Game of Thrones a success whereas the earlier series floundered? When people praise the series’ complexity, its characters and the world it evokes, are they actually saying that dragons, ice wights and boobs are cool? Or was the world not yet ready for a series of this kind when Rome was first aired?

Two.

There’s something about about the way the internet has embraced Game of Thrones that recalls self-perpetuating feedback loops. People don’t just get excited about the latest episode, they get excited about the latest round of YouTube videos depicting fan reactions. Watch total strangers scream at their TVs as Prince Fringfrang of House Shmoodle gets his arms torn clean off! Controversial scenes? Check out the clickbait: Why women like The Walking Dead better than Game of Thrones! (Not a joke, that one…). There’s something performative to the fan hype, as if people think they’ll become more interesting if they’ve got a video of themselves shrieking at Ned Stark’s decapitation or if they’ve got a blog post about what people on the internet say about-

Okay, gotcha. I’m feeding on, and into, the hype machine as much as everyone else. And who am I to tell the internet that it’s overrating its latest darling, especially if I then go and wax gastronomical about Hannibal after posting my own clickbait? So, to close this meandering post: if any fans of Game of Thrones are still reading this, I’m not telling you to stop enjoying the show or talk about it. But if you get bored waiting nine months for season 5, do check out Rome, especially season 1. You might enjoy it. And you won’t have to worry about book readers spoiling next episode… just pesky historians. Just don’t enter “does caesar” into the Google search window, lest the auto-complete function ruins it for you.

Farewell to Oz

We managed to finish two long works recently – first Don Quixote (I’m convinced that most people didn’t read past page 150, since almost every single reference you read or hear is to what happens in the first fifth of the novel), and then Oz, the HBO prison (melo)drama.

The series is a prototype for so many later HBO gems, The Sopranos and The Wire just two of them. It pioneered the network’s trademark adult style, with lashings of violence and sex. Its characters were often nuanced, always ambiguous, its cast of characters portrayed by actors who give it their all. I don’t regret watching the whole series, and there were very strong moments throughout.

All of which is building up to faint praise, to be quite honest. The series’ grasp exceeded its reach – which in itself isn’t that much of a problem, but what really rankles is how Oz seems to think itself more astute, more perceptive on the evils of the American penal system than it really is. It is too infatuated with its own running commentary and social critique, and it displays the tendency towards hysteria in its storylines and presentation that Spike Lee is prone to. It’s easy enough to forgive this in Lee’s films of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but to find the same tricks used over and over in a series in the late ’90s and early 21st century… well, it makes the series look hokey.

More than that, though, Oz could have been much stronger and held up much better to its successors if it had been two or three seasons rather than the full six seasons it lasted. Its social critique started off as hit-and-miss, often facile rather than perceptive, and this only increased as the series went on. By the time we got to the last couple of seasons, many storylines were thin and fraying at the edges; what kept us watching wasn’t the commentary on prison and how it often achieves an effect that is the opposite of what is intended, but the soap opera. Would Beecher find happiness in his relationship with charming sociopath Keller? Would McManus finally manage to have an adult relationship and not turn into a dick towards a woman he clearly likes? Would Schillinger finally accept that no one knows how to pronounce his name correctly? And as with daytime soaps, the episodic plots were sordid, tacky, maudlin: Rebadow takes up playing the lottery because his son is dying of leucaemia! Alvarez’ wife is divorcing him and fucking his brother! Did I care? Yes – but in a distanced, not particularly involved way.

The final season was a mess of barely begun, half finished ideas and storylines. Dead characters from past seasons were brought back to add their voice to Augustus Hill’s – and then that idea was dropped. New characters were introduced for no apparent reason, almost as if the producers were pretending that Oz wasn’t coming to an end. There were powerful moments – Cyril’s almost-execution – but others were as silly as the series’ worst excesses. (Kirk and Hoyt believing they’re possessed by the devil – WTF?!) The prison production of Macbeth (and the running gag of replacing the actors because they keep dying off) was forgotten for most of the season, even if it was used effectively to stage one character’s death.

All things considered, though, this is one Oz I’m unlikely to revisit. I’ve seen Six Feet Under three times (and am gearing up for a fourth). Same with The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood – even Carnivale and Rome. I’m unlikely to go back to Oz Penitentiary any time soon, though. I guess what we had here was a failure to communicate, eh?

The Wire Unplugged (or should that be “wireless”?)

Sometimes the only reasonable thing I can do is post a link and an image and just leave you to enjoy the genius of others…

“When It’s Not Your Turn”: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s “The Wire”

P.S.: If you have no idea what this is about, then do yourself a favour: get The Wire. Watch all of it. And then complain to me because you got your heart broken by Bubbles, Wallace, D’Angelo, Randy, Dukie, Bodie etc.

If you wish upon a star spangled banner

We’re slowly sidling up to the fifth season of The West Wing – apparently the one where most people agree things went down the drain. From what you can read on the web, it’s held in about as much esteem as Buffy the Vampire Slayer S6. Well, if that means that we’ve got The West Wing‘s “Once More With Feelings” to look forward to, I guess I can cope.

We’ve just seen the President decide not to stand idly by while a genocide takes place in an African country. The situation’s an obvious take on Rwanda, and on the United States’ mealy-mouthed reaction to that genocide, right down to the semantic games played to justify inaction. President Bartlet asks one of his staffers, “Why is a Kudanese life worth less to me than an American life?”, and the staffer replies, honestly: “I don’t know, but it is.”

Except that’s not good enough any more for the President. He decides that the US lose any justification they have to self-righteousness if they do not intervene. Basically, Bartlet does what Clinton, back in 1994, didn’t do, for various reasons.

Watching The West Wing now, years after it was first broadcast, I was a bit non-plussed by this storyline. As it developed, it felt very much like a “What if?”, but one that had strong elements of left-wing wish fulfilment. What if we could go back to 1994 and act differently? What if we’d lived up to the standards we set for ourselves, and the image we project of the United States? Nothing against a “What if?” scenario, but this one felt a bit like “Well, if we finally do the right thing in fiction, that must be worth something, right?”

Admittedly, this isn’t altogether fair to the series. For one thing, the storyline has only just begun, and I doubt it’ll remain as clear-cut. The series has never suggested that what ought to be done is easy or that it doesn’t have any repercussions. More than that, though, President Bartlet’s decision to intervene is obviously not entirely selfless – after all, the previous season’s final episode had him deciding to have the Foreign Minister of a Middle Eastern state assassinated due to his close ties to Islamist terrorists. While The West Wing has a weird habit of forgetting everything about characters it doesn’t quite know what to do with (Where’s Ainsley at? Where’s the girl, Jed? Where the fuck is Ainsley, huh, Jed? – Ah, to be honest, she can stay lost in the same place as Mandy, for all I care…), it doesn’t forget its characters’ transgressions – and hey, if there’s anything white liberals, especially of the lapsed Catholic persuasion, are really good at, it’s guilt, isn’t it?

On a very different note: when Donald Moffat turned up as C.J. Cregg’s dad a couple of episodes ago, my first thought was: “It’s the President!”  Moffat’s one of the US actors who have played POTUS (in his case in the Tom Clancy movie Clear and Present Danger) – which made me think that it would be fun to have a West Wing episode where all the guest stars are erstwhile presidents of the United States. Of course James Cromwell would beat them all… and a quick Google search has revealed to me that he may just turn up on the series. Guess what he’ll be playing…

The end is the beginning is the end

HBO has been known to do some killer season finales – no pun intended, although it would be a perfectly accurate one in the case of the last episode of Rome‘s first season. The lead-up to the murder of Caesar is masterfully composed and reminiscent of another plot to have a leader and father figure killed in another HBO series: Livia Soprano’s planned killing of that disappointment of a son. (Is it a coincidence that Livia was named for another larger-than-life mother from ancient Rome?)

Throughout the season I’ve been impressed with Ciaran Hinds’ layered portrayal of Caesar, a man whose fierce intelligence, pride and ambition inspire awe even when he’s at his most arrogant and dismissive. His death, even though it’s clear that it’s coming, is startling in its force and brutality – not just in terms of blood and gore, but in terms of the story and the characters. Another favourite of mine (other than Titus Pullo, of course, who’s just a big sweetie when he isn’t murdering people in a jealous rage) is Brutus, who is portrayed by Tobias Menzies with a fascinating mix of hurt pride, bitterness, self-loathing and, strangest of all, genuine love for Caesar.

Another HBO series finale that pushed all the right buttons with me was Generation Kill‘s final episode, “Bomb in the Garden”. It’s rare for a series that is so documentary in its approach to manage its story and character arcs so deftly, but David Simon and Ed Burns have done a brilliant job. The final scene recalls another work by Simon and Burns, namely the ending of The Wire’s season 2, both scenes using a Johnny Cash song (in both cases making me think that perhaps, just perhaps, I ought to check out that Cash guy’s music). And yes, I am quite okay with admitting my considerable man-crush on Alexander Skarsgard.

With all these endings, it’s only fitting that I finally finished Grand Theft Auto IV. So much has been written about the game already that I won’t add anything other than this: I enjoyed the latest installment of Liberty City. If there’s a more convincing, living and breathing city in any game, I haven’t played it yet. Take it away, Philip.

Cold off the press

Yes, I’m afraid I have to admit that I have been somewhat amiss in updating the blog. My boring, sad excuse? Work. Work, work, work. (I could write an entire scene just using variations of the word, but I think we can all do without that one.

But there are a number of things on my list of Things to Blog About. Even if some of them go back months, they’re definitely not forgotten.

Now, if only I could remember what they are…

The Wire, season 5. Most of the reviews I read were almost a bit embarrassed – yes, the final is good but it’s widely agreed to be the weakest of the series. If it had come earlier it would have been less of a disappointment, but after the potent tragedy, the incisive satire, the sheer all-round greatness of the earlier seasons – well, it felt like The Wire light.

This was perhaps clearest in how the season may just be the funniest of the five, but it lacks a strong tragic counterpoint. Yes, there’s sadness in what happens, even in McNulty’s harebrained scheme, but not to the level of Frank Sobotka’s tragedy, or Bunny Colvin’s, or that of the kids in season 4. And what tragedy there was felt like more of the same, not the deepending of previous seasons. Michael, Dukie, Prop Joe, Omar – they didn’t really bring anything new to the table. As such, season 5 felt less like the last chapter and more like an epilogue. Arguably, the only truly new aspect – the media – lacked the complexity of the series’ earlier depictions of deep flaws in the system grinding up people who try their hardest to get by.

Nevertheless, season 5 worked well as a sendoff to the series and its characters, not least due to its final episode and its uncharacteristic hopefulness. Yes, the system still sucks but – suprisingly optimistic for The Wire – our heroes, the McNultys, Danielses, Michaels, Bubbles, have a chance of surviving, of getting out. Which, in hindsight, may be a touch sentimental… but damn, if it didn’t bring a tear to my eye as I watched it.

It was you, Bodie. You broke my heart.

Life (and Death) on the Streets

I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I been straight up. But what come back? Hmm? You’d think if I get jammed up on some shit they’d be like, “A’ight, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his pay lawyer. We got a bail.” They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they at when they supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when shit goes bad and there’s hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like the little bitches on a chessboard.

Poor Bodie. Poor loyal, misguided, tragic Bodie. Like so many on The Wire, we’ve seen him do terrible things ever since he and Poot shot Wallace back in season 1 – yet he wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t evil. He was just one of those little bitches on a chessboard, just like another tragic player who decided that enough was enough and ended up hanging from a prison doorknob with a belt around his neck.

Poor Randy. Screwed over by the stupidity of a cop who doesn’t get that he’s betraying this kid – but screwed over even more by a society where talking to a cop is much worse a crime than putting a bullet in someone’s head, it seems, and by a system that at best can keep an account of the people it’s failing – but actually helping them? Sorry, no. Not enough money, not enough people to do the work, not enough of an incentive to cut through the red tape.

Poor Carver, trying so hard to do right by those under his care. Poor Dukie, for whom a day in high school is more frightening than a life on the corners. Poor Michael, killing his soul to protect his little brother. Poor Bubbles, saddest of all. You all broke my heart… and I know I’ll be back for more.

bubbles

I’d thought that season 2 of The Wire was as tragic as it would get. Frank Sobotka going to his death, thinking that he had even the tiniest chance of patching things up for himself, his nephew, his union, for the men he felt responsible for. But the slow, drawn out death of the working stiffs’ union doesn’t hold a candle to the perpetual, systemic sickness which The Wire, season by season, evokes for us, and the way it infects the youngest already.

With “Final Grades”, the season 4 finale, The Wire may just have topped Six Feet Under as my favourite series. The care and intricacy with which the characters are developed, the interconnecting themes play out – has there ever been a series as perfectly constructed yet feeling so right and so true? I could point to episodes, plot strands and even characters in Six Feet Under that didn’t add anything much to the overall series. The Wire? Everything adds to the whole, coming together with dizzying precision, affecting me to an extent that I never would have expected from what looks like a naturalistic cop series about drugs and crime.

Chris, Michael and Snoop (shudder...)

All of this might sound like The Wire is too complex, too constructed for its own good, but the scenes and the characters breathe with a lightness of touch that has to be seen over a number of seasons to be appreciated. It’s only when you take a step back that you can see just how perfectly wrought the series is.

Okay, enough of this clumsy attempt to put into words the effect that “Final Grades” had on me. Unless you’re scared of spoilers, you may want to check out this page (http://www.theguywiththeglasses.com/2008/03/wire-top-scenes.html) as it deftly picks some of the best scenes of the series up to the end of season 4.

And, apart from anything else, it’s good to see a quality series that actually makes it to the end without being cancelled prematurely. (There is something cruelly ironic about releasing a DVD set called Deadwood – Complete Collection. Be honest, cocksucker, and call it what it is: Deadwood – Dead Before Its Time or Deadwood – We Killed It Because We Had To Pay For This Weirdo Surfer Dude Series or Deadwood – Because A Good Novel With The Final Chapter Ripped Out Is Still A Good Novel, Right?)