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?)

Shame I’ve already used “A Death in the Family”…

Anyway, it’s really two deaths I’ll be writing about. And the whole notion of family… well, let’s put it this way. It’s complicated.

I’m currently rewatching The Sopranos and I just finished season 3 (“… In which an old friend’s son is shot in the back of the head and Meadow interrupts a sentimental song with thrown chunks of bread and a rendition of a Britney Spears classic”). While the series dealt in ambiguities from the very beginning, season 3 is perhaps the first one where the audience’s complicity is brought to the fore. We root for Tony Soprano, paterfamilias to two families, but for all his charm and for all our sympathy for him (when he’s not being an asshole to the people around him) he is evil – if he is defined by who he is and what he does, he’s evil. Less so than the outright psychos in his entourage (I’m mainly looking at you, Paulie and Ralphie) and more self-aware, but he enables them and depends on them and their actions for his own success.

Up to the end of season 3, we’ve never seen him quite this manipulative and hypocritical, and now it’s seeping into his children more and more. Knowing quite well on one level that her idiot ex was killed because of the system her father upholds, she now defends it – to the face of idiot ex’s sister and with a degree of self-righteousness that is nauseating.

He's behind you!

The problem I have with rewatching The Sopranos, though, is that differently from, say, Deadwood, Six Feet Under or (most of all) The Wire the episodes and seasons are pretty much exchangeable. There’s very little character development – which may be the point, but if you could watch the episodes in pretty much any order and the only thing you can determine by whether it’s season 1, 3 or 6 is how old the kids are and whether Pussy Bompensiero is around? In my books that diminishes the lasting appeal and success of the series.

Talking of deaths in series: since Switzerland is a couple of months behind the States with respect to TV, we only got to see the House season 4 finale now… and what a downer that one was. Even though season 4 was the shortest season of the series ever, most of the episodes after House had chosen his new team felt like retreads (or, in fact, re-re-retreads), but the two finale episodes, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart”, were among the best and definitely the emotionally strongest episodes. I remember pretty much hating Robert Sean Leonard in Much Ado About Nothing, but together with Hugh Laurie he carries the series even in its most generic episodes. Give him material such as this and he absolutely shines. (And I don’t know what it is, but give me a well-acted man crying his eyes out in a series and I get a big lump in my throad…)

I still don’t think that Kate Beckinsale is talented or particularly beautiful, though, so there.

Give me Emma and Kenneth any time. Please.

Hamsterdam and the gooey kablooie

You have to admire Stringer Bell’s attempts to de-thuggify the Baltimore drug trade. His endeavours to get his business away from the drive-by shootings and everyday violence is one thing; his sweet, endearing (not words easily used when it comes to The Wire, except for everyone’s favourite addict Bubbles) meeting rules are something else altogether. It wouldn’t feel more strange to have these dealers and “soldiers” in the drug war speaking in Jane Austenese.

Season 3 of The Wire once more is among the best TV there is. It’s smart, impeccably crafted and unexpectedly funny. (A shout-out has to go to “My dawg…”.) I’m also finding it less affecting than the second season, though. Is it that the stevedores represented by Frank Sobotka had more pathos? Frank’s final episode nearly had me in tears. Or is it that I, in spite of my impeccable bleeding heart credentials, can relate better to pudgy, corrupt white guys with receding hairlines than to black hoppers slinging red tops and getting hot and bothered about semi-automatics.

There’s more than enough here to get to the viewer, though: Cutty’s attempts to get back into the game after 17 years in prison, or Bunny Colvin’s subversive social experiment born out of a frustration with the shambles and hypocrisy of the war on drugs and a wish to do something, however radical, that might actually break the stalemate and help.

And on that happy note I’d like to thank Amazon for its special offers. (No, I don’t get paid for this. I should, though!) Thanks to them, seasons 4 and 5 of The Wire are on the way and I don’t even feel too guilty about spending the money. I’m slowly running out of interesting HBO series, though… so in one, two years’ time I’ll either be reduced to Sex and the City – or it’s back to Six Feet Under. In which case I might as well rename this blog “Fisher & Sons”.

Always running… from something!

Avid readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m fairly keen on Messrs. Vaughn and Whedon’s work in comics… so when Joss Whedon was set to write the next series of Runaways, I was excited. Both writers have similar strengths; their writing is witty, they create ensemble casts of characters that gel extremely well, and they tell a good story while providing more than enough ambiguity to keep things interesting beyond the plot.

I recently re-read Vaughn’s original three Runaways volumes and apart from a couple of minor issues (such as the slightly inconsistent quality of the artwork – there’s some gorgeous work there, but some panels and some of the inking feel rushed) I greatly enjoyed it. Coming away from Whedon’s run with the kids, however, has left me somewhat disappointed. When he’s at his best, Whedon is a fantastic storyteller, getting you involved way more than I would have expected from stories about teen vampire slayers or space cowboys. He’s not infallible, though; his first Serenity comic, while not abysmal, was in no way as memorable as the TV series, for instance.

And now, Dead End Kids: my first and main thought throughout was, “I wonder what Brian K. Vaughn would have made out of the material.” Again, Whedon’s writing isn’t bad, but there’s little of the sense of surprise or freshness that Vaughn’s stories had. The kids feel ever so slightly less real and more like comic book teens. (And don’t think you can worm your way into my heart by introducing a new regular character that comes from where I live, insiduous comic!) The art is absolutely fine, but it lacks the quirk of Alphona’s best panels. And the time travel gimmick, while fun, also comes across as a tad overused. In that respect, the story feels a bit as if Joss Whedon had written an episode of Star Trek.

Nevertheless, there are moments when Whedon’s talent shows. Even if the time travel plot is a tad overdone, its denouement is more poignant than I would have expected. There are some interesting hints at the direction in which especially one character might develop, with a daringly cruel punishment for two of the story’s villains. And there’s a couple of pages ending in the death of a minor (or should I say “small”?) character that had me giggle and go “Yewwww!” at the same time.

Was it worth getting the comic? Yes. Was it as good as the other volumes? That’s a definite no. In any case, I’m very much looking forward to Vaughn’s use of Whedon’s characters now. If I’m lucky, the first two volumes of Buffy: Season Eight (the comic-book continuation of a certain barely known TV series that Whedon supposedly had a hand in) should arrive this week, and if memory serves Vaughn has penned a Faith storyline. Should be fun to see how that one’s turned out.

On a very different note: we completed The Wire season 2. ***Warning: some spoilers to follow.*** Apparently there are people that didn’t like the second season too much, mainly because they wanted more Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell and everyone’s favourite junkie Bubbles and fewer paunchy white guys with bald spots and union shenanigans. Okay, I could have done with more Bubbles too (who couldn’t?), but season 1, while tighter, didn’t have the tragedy of Frank Sobotka. The ending of episode 11, “Bad Dreams”, builds up to one of the saddest fade-outs I can remember. In a way, the reveal at the beginning of the twelfth and final episode of the season isn’t half as sad as seeing Frank walk towards his fate. Even Ziggy, one of the major fuckheads of television history, becomes a tragic character when you see the larger context of what is going on. Yet for all the sadness that permeates the season ending, the series never loses the anger and sense of humour that make it bearable. At least in the first two seasons – I may very well be setting myself up for a broken heart in any of the three remaining seasons.

His name is Snot Boogie?!

This film nerd here is a complex beast. On the one hand, I get as much childlike joy out of well-executed genre films that follow the formula to a T. I enjoy the climactic showdown between Hero and Villain. On the other hand, I cackle gleefully when a film (or a book, for that matter) frustrates my expectations. No Country for Old Men is a good case in point, where the supposed hero dies off-stage and isn’t even killed by the bad guy of the piece. Even Raiders of the Lost Ark, a genre movie if there ever was one, doesn’t end with the hero triumphing: it ends with the hero tied to a stake as the ultima deus ex machina comes and melts the faces off a bunch of undeserving unbelievers.

I just finished re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. I’d last read it in the summer of 2001, just after graduating. I have fond memories of sitting in a French café in Edinburgh during festival time, drinking good coffee, eating croissants and not looking up from my book until I’d finished half of it in one sitting. What I remembered much less was the plot, at least beyond the broad strokes. What I definitely didn’t remember was how differently it told its story from how Hollywood would (and, from what I’ve heard, did) do it. Here too, we don’t get a showdown with the villainess – instead, we get a melancholy coda and a bittersweet ending that made me realise how rarely Hollywood does “bittersweet”. I know that most Gaiman fans prefer American Gods, but I must say that even without Charles Vess’ pictures (I have the non-pic edition), this is a beautiful, wonderfully light, exquisitely crafted fairytale. In comparison, I feel that American Gods collapses under its own ambition, because its dozens of ideas never really come together in a fully satisfactory way.

Narnia it ain\'t...

Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the title of this entry? Well, we’ve just started watching The Wire season 1. Very different fare from Buffy, if you would believe it… But intriguing, with carefully drawn characters and lots of shades of grey. Definitely looking forward to seeing more of it – and telling you all about it, in epic detail. Shudder and despair.

Fangs for all the memories

Eugh. Okay, I admit, that one was quite atrocious. Still, it fits, I’m afraid. 

So, how does one replace Six Feet Under as the weekly Sunday morning programme? Does one go for something equally HBO – The Sopranos or Carnivàle? Or indeed The Wire? Well, the last one wasn’t an option, since a friend of mine has the DVDs at the moment.

For reasons that I won’t go into in great detail, we chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps it’s the whole death/funeral/cemetery thing. In any case, I’ve been watching Buffy for a while, usually while working out, and I’ve just started season 7. My love hasn’t seen any of the series, so we just watched the pilot. Here are some of my thoughts on revisiting Buffy:

  • My god, they’re all so young! And not just the usual suspects, like Buffy, Willow or Xander. Giles looks younger than I am! And they definitely played up the “British pansy” bit much, much more at the beginning. Can’t wait for him to become his later snarky self.
  • Cordelia? Nope, still don’t particularly like her. At least not in this series. She works better in Angel. (Yes, I watch Angel too. I never said I wasn’t a geek.)
  • Eric Balfour is dangerous to hang out with, at least if you’re a highschool student. Either he’ll turn into a crazed druggie juvenile delinquent (only to turn up a year later, blissfully dead) or he’ll become a vampire and much cooler than you, at least until you drive a stake through his heart.
  • I don’t think David Boreanaz is a particularly good actor. He works okay in his Angel role, mainly because he’s grown into the character. But in his first few scenes in Buffy? Ow. Ow, ow, ow.
  • And: they’re all so young!

 So, for all of those who hate Sarah Michelle Gellar’s guts or who couldn’t care less about teen/twen angst dressed up in vamp metaphor, combined with some of the coolest character work Joss Whedon did before the much-mourned Firefly, you may want to give future Sunday blog entries a miss. In which case I may just have to hunt you down and drive a stake through your heart. And then make a witty quip about it. While looking good in miniskirts. You’ve been warned.

… so young…

No more House calls for a while

On Monday, Swiss television showed the season 3 finales of both House, M.D. and Lost. We haven’t seen the latter yet, but it probably says it all that the best moment of House, at least for me, was the Chase/Cameron kiss. That scene was sweet, but the actual medical case was too vague and the character interaction not very interesting. The House vs. God angle had also been done previously. All in all it felt like the series could do with a couple of months off. Seeing as season 4, cut short by striking writers, is just about over in the States, we might get it fairly soon…

Gregory House, looking dark and depressed in between snarky quips

… but first, we’ve got the grand return of Grey’s Anatomy (at a point where I sometimes feel that if I have to watch McDreamy be a self-righteous, self-infatuated git for another minute, I’ll find the actor and put his face through a meat grinder), doubled up with Private Practice, the Grey spin-off that got started in an atrociously written and at best adequately acted two-parter on its mother series.

How’s a man to cope – especially when this man knows that there are only six more episodes of Deadwood? Like, ever? Come to think of it, I’d like to see a cross-over where some select characters from Grey’s Anatomy and perhaps Desperate Housewives stop by the picturesque little town of Deadwood. Derek Shepherd could open a practice with Dan Doherty as opthalmologist. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here, unless you’re still hoping to watch season 3 of Deadwood.)

Six Feet Under is also almost over – two more episodes. What next? We’ve got a fair choice of series: Rome, The Wire, Carnivàle, season 6 of The Sopranos. Then there’s more escapist or pulpy fare: Heroes, Veronica Mars, Joan of Arcadia, Dexter. I’ve heard very good things about the latter series, especially season 2 – which came as a bit of a surprise, as the second Dexter novel was quite a bit weaker than the first. I guess that sometimes film and TV can improve on books…

And to end this very meandering blog entry, here’s a YouTube clip – the very effective opening credits for Dexter, a show whose ‘hero’ is a serial killer… who is intent on only killing ‘bad guys’:

HBO doesn’t believe in happy marriages

Okay, I haven’t seen Rome yet, or The Wire (which is next on my list of “DVD sets I should bloody well get”), but in the HBO series I’ve been watching marriage pretty much seems to be a recipe for unhappiness of one sort or another. Nate and Brenda (although they did get along better than last week, and for a change Nate had a point under all his aggression), George and Ruth Fisher, Rico and Vanessa… The marriages in Deadwood are somewhat less unhappy and antagonistic, but the happiest couples are the ones that aren’t married: Trixie and Sol (and golly, aren’t they a lovely couple – the whore and the banker?), David and Keith (well, it took them long enough to get their act together!), Dan Dority and Johnny… Okay, that last one doesn’t really count – because we all know that Dan only has eyes for Al.

New career move for Calamity Jane - primary school teacher?

Today’s episode of Deadwood, “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For”, made it clear that the town has been changed by the arrival of Hearst. People seem to be talking in more hushed tones and walking around on tiptoes. Even the sex and violence is no longer as carefree as in the good old days, when the guy shot dead in the saloon wasn’t part of an elaborate power game but just a symptom of Dan Dority having a headache. However, the episode had more humour in it than the season premiere, although some of it was of the “Did E.B. really just say that?!” kind. It’s amazing that the guy’s small intestine hasn’t jumped up his neck yet to choke his brain’s blood supply, to the service of all mankind.

Sometimes I wonder whether Rico doesn’t need a stool to stand on in order to reach the corpses…

We’re steadily getting closer to the end of Six Feet Under, and while I’m already sad about where the season will take us, I’m quite looking forward to getting started on a new series. We’ve got a couple to choose from: Rome season 1, Heroes, Carnivale (I’ve got both seasons), The West Wing, Dexter (you’ve seen him be neurotic and gay for five seasons – now see Michael C. Hall as a cop and a serial killer!). So many series, so little time…