Summer of serialization

August 15, 2003

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You know it's time to scale back your TV viewing when the shows you watch begin to feel like entries in a schedule. Why am I watching all of these shows, anyway? Is my life so bereft of meaning that I have to fill my fall and spring with 8-10 hours of evening television per week?

I begin telling myself that if they put on one more "Law & Order" series, I will be forced to abandon television altogether — not because "Law & Order" isn't good, but because I can't afford to spend any more time on it. I also find myself inexplicably watching shows out of pure habit even well after they've lost their freshness, like "Will & Grace" or "The Practice." ("The Practice" has long since become such a melodramatic cartoon that watching it is more like an exercise in morbid fascination.) Nothing better to do, I guess. Or, to be more accurate, nothing better that I want to do at the given moment.

Anyway, my point is, summer ends up feeling like a vacation where I can empty my prime-time schedule and do something more productive, like ... oh, I dunno, go downtown to a bar and drink while complaining to sympathetic friends about the usual standbys (work, women, etc.). No new television, except, of course, miles and miles of high-concept reality dreck, like "For Love or Money" installments uno and dos. And the most ridiculous series title of the summer: "Who Wants to Marry My Dad?" They're kidding, right? People watch this garbage?

Still, there is some stuff out there, even if it's not on the major networks.

In recent weeks, everyone's been talking about "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." This is a show that, let's face it, is simply this season's pop-culture flash-in-the-pan novelty. My prediction is that by year's end it will be forgotten. I saw a couple episodes of the show on Bravo while channeling around one night, and I have to say that while it's funny for a little while, I don't see what the big deal is. Yes, the show basks in its gay stereotypes with a cheerful sense of humor that's hard to resist (with constant techno-dance drumming in the background), but the show is simply too long. At 30 minutes, it's worth a few grins; at 60 minutes, it becomes an overlong exercise in redundancy and obviousness. Oh well, I'd certainly take it over, say, "I'm With Busey," which professes to be funny when in fact it is not.

Of course, there's always "The Dead Zone," which was an intriguing little show on USA, and which wraps up a brief run of summer episodes on Sunday. The problem I'm finding with "The Dead Zone," however, is that it seems to have reached its imposed episodic limitations. Just how many times can we watch Johnny Smith explain his powers to nonbelievers who must be convinced that his powers are real, and how many times can we watch him save lives by navigating the incomplete fragments in his visions? Johnny's visions, while visually creative, are turning into a too-obviously-contrived plot device that allows or prohibits him from seeing just enough of what needs to be seen to solve the puzzle of the week. Without new thinking soon, this show is going to become a series of tired iterations on one idea.

So, then, what do I think is worth watching this summer? I will mention two shows which have dominated my summer TV schedule.

The Sopranos

That's not new this summer, you're no doubt saying. Well, no, but it's new to me, and it has dominated my TV set for the past two months. It's been a few years since I was an HBO subscriber, and after not having watched a single episode of "The Sopranos" in first run, I finally got around to watching the DVD set of the first season, loaned to me last fall by a good friend (and having sat on my shelf from then until about six weeks ago). What can I say? Consider me a new and avid fan. I've watched the first three seasons (39 episodes) on DVD and must say that the show is indeed every bit as good as all the years of hype had informed me. (I cannot yet comment on season four, which is not yet on DVD and which I have not seen, though several have warned me it is not as good as the earlier seasons.)

"The Sopranos" is my kind of television. Unlike the broadcast networks, the nature of HBO allows its original series to be fully serialized rather than episodic, and the first season of "The Sopranos" is hard to beat as a 13-chapter developing saga. This is brilliant stuff — a melding of Mafia themes from classic gangster movies (movies the characters in this series have all seen, by the way), blended with the typical modern family dynamics of the 1990s, all filtered through the psychobabble sessions between Tony Soprano and Dr. Jennifer Melfi. The shrink sessions in particular put us in the audience in an interesting position, because as we see the amoral world that Tony Soprano operates in, we sympathize with him and understand the world on his terms. At the same time, the show doesn't invite us to let Tony completely off the hook for his criminal actions and the suffering that results from it, both inside and outside his various circles. It's an interesting realm of moral ambiguity.

Then there are the plot lines and character dynamics, all vividly written and unpredictable. I absolutely love where the road involving the ongoing issues with Tony's insufferable mother takes us by the first season's end. Who could've predicted something as twisted as that? ("She's dead to me," Tony says throughout season two, not at all without justification.)

What's more, and perhaps what I was not expecting of this series, is the amount of humor. The show at times is downright hilarious, probably the biggest underlying reason being the nature of Tony's multifaceted character — a man who lives in a world based on attitude and posturing and set rules, a man who is supposed to be tough and just suck it up silently, and who knows all this ... and yet cannot get a grip on things because he can't help how he feels. He's a walking contradiction, "the sad clown" as he aptly puts it. This leads to interesting situations, and also a lot of laughs, because Tony is a tough guy who at the end of the day is still visiting a shrink. I await the day he realizes that he has only one real problem: the fact that he is a crime boss.

Of course, there's also the great dialog, and the Mafia-wiseguy delivery. I never tire of quoting a line from the third-season Christmas episode. Paulie Walnuts says to Bobby Bacala: "The boss of this family told you you were going to be Santa Claus. You're Santa Claus. So shut the f*** up about it." How do you argue with that? No ifs, ands, or buts — you're Santa Claus. End of discussion.

The first three seasons of "The Sopranos" are thirty-some hours in front of a television well spent.

It is perhaps worth stressing, however, that this was not anywhere on TV this summer. It was on my DVD player.

The Wire

If the first season of "The Sopranos" is 13 episodes of television that are hard to beat, then the first season of "The Wire" is exactly the 13 episodes that can beat it. Being a longtime fan of crime shows that carefully analyze their subjects, this may be the very definition of my kind of TV show.

Last summer brought us this complex and intelligent series, and this summer brought us its second season. I was inspired to go back and watch the first season again, and I was even more impressed by what I saw. It's a wonder, based on this show alone, that I don't have HBO. (I thought about subscribing before "Wire" season two started up, but figured I could just drive the 10 minutes to my parents' house and watch the show for free. What a freeloader I am.)

The first season of "The Wire" is a television masterpiece, hands down, and at this point I'm calling "The Wire" the best show on TV. Creator David Simon, well known for his engrossing insider nonfiction novels, most notably Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (which inspired the well-respected NBC series of the 1990s, which he also worked on), brings us in "The Wire" a season-long assembly of crime-story pieces that are absolutely fascinating as they fall into place.

The series is essentially a big novel-like narrative. It exists as a living demonstration of one great thing television as a medium can do that the movies cannot — develop situations and characters for hours and hours. The story spans the entire first-season's 13-hour run (and then continues in the second season). This is the sort of series made for viewers who demand substantive story subjects, an effort to maintain accuracy and depth, patient and painstaking development of plot arcs and characters, well-nuanced details, and an ongoing respect for the audience's intelligence and attention span. This show takes the time to really put its case together the way an in-depth series should. A piece from episode 3 may not pay off until episode 7.

It really is amazing to watch, as an undercover police operation to infiltrate a Baltimore drug organization ("buy, bust" comes the order from Baltimore Police command) sprawls and sprawls and sprawls into a massively complex surveillance case involving wiretaps and rooftop photo documentation efforts. The effectiveness of "The Wire" comes not simply in its compelling portrayal of realistic forensics, but in its multi-tiered approach: Not only do we see how the police investigation works, we see in detail the inner workings of the drug operation and the people involved — the careful strategies to manipulate the legal system, the territorial protection of drug-dealing turf, and the costly human toll (executions are sometimes ordered in a way not at all unlike a hit on "The Sopranos"). Stringer Bell, a key leader in the drug organization with a mind for long-term business planning, is especially memorable — always composed, calm, collected, and ruthlessly calculating.

If Detective Jimmy McNulty is the "central" character in the police squad — though it must be said that "The Wire" is the very definition of an ensemble show, with an array of compelling characters well performed — then the central character in the drug organization throughout season one is D'Angelo Barksdale, a mid-level dealer who must answer to those above him and be responsible for those below. D'Angelo is a conflicted character, not without a conscience, and indeed the depth "The Wire" gives to all of its characters on both sides of drug war is one of the crucial aspects of its success.

A third tier to the show's first season is told from the perspective of addicts on the street (reminiscent of The Corner, a previous Simon novel turned into an HBO miniseries). There are some vivid moments showing the cost of drug addiction, including a scene where a recovering addict stands up at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and explains exactly what he has lost as a result of his addiction. Another addict becomes an informant for the police surveillance team. "The Wire" is genius in how even through its vast connection of characters and roles in its sprawling plot, it is never only about the plot mechanics; it also shows human experiences from all angles in this city, where drugs and homicide walk hand-in-hand.

The edited structure of "The Wire" keeps us moving along, with a nonstop series of scenes, cut across a myriad of ongoing plot lines, which run in sequential order but do not insist upon the exact amount of time passing from scene to scene. Like "The Sopranos," there is no musical underscore, which allows us to put the pieces together instead of being spoon-fed emphasis for what is important or dramatic. The result is a pace that keeps us oriented with all the facts while keeping the flow moving constantly forward and thus keeping us interested in what's coming next. There is so much material and it's executed so confidently that every hour of the show just breezes right by. If it weren't for physical fatigue or a general sense of restlessness and a need to get other things done, this is one of those rare shows that I could literally sit and watch for 13 straight hours. It's that engaging.

Among the more poetic moments from the first season is a brilliant scene where D'Angelo Barksdale explains to his employees the role of drug dealers in the terms of a chessboard, and another where detectives McNulty and Moreland revisit a six-month-old murder scene and skillfully break down the method of the crime, while the only exchange of dialog is their muttering of the f-word in varied tones and derivatives, as if it were coded communication.

Meanwhile, the political grind of the show is as fascinating as it is frustrating. The entire case starts because McNulty makes a comment to a judge, who uses his influence to start a ball rolling. The police department doesn't even want the case to happen, and certainly doesn't want it to sprawl or offer up any surprises. The department's politically manufactured obstacles to the case, as well as the way the detectives go around these obstacles, and why, is all wonderfully laid out. Rarely do story pieces feel so right ... precisely because they aren't predictable and arise from political messes that must be fixed with clever maneuvering and damage control.

I won't go into season two — which, amazingly, follows both new and old plots and characters at the same time, and connects them all through, of course, the drug epidemic. But season two has been a compelling ride as well — although there probably won't be anything quite so interesting as watching how everything in "The Wire" is built from scratch in its first season.

Perhaps it's also worth noting the obvious fact that both "Wire" and "Sopranos" are uninterrupted and advertisement-free. It's the way we were supposed to watch drama. Which might explain why TiVo is so heralded. Maybe I should get me one of those. Nah, I'll stick to the fast-forward button on my VCR. Cheaper.

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