Day: April 19, 2010

You gotta help me keep the devil way down in the hole.

Things are heating up in the jungle. The documentary, which now has its own little page on the sidebar there, is nearing completion, and I’m itching to see it. It’s an itch no nails can scratch. A cinematic itch.

I’m beginning to realize just how much work is involved in putting this multiple-CD set together, but I’m still confident I can pull it off. It’ll just make me feel that much more like i’ve accomplished something when it’s finished.

The box of CDs at Dr. Disc is practically empty. Again. I imagine the box at Phog is depleted as well. I need to re-stock both of those. Dr. Disc may have to wait until next weekend, since they’re going to be closed this week in preparation for their big move, but I should be there on Saturday to refill the black box. When did my CDs start going so fast and decide to…keep going? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s far past the point now at which a new CD would normally start moving a lot slower, but things are still showing no signs of dropping off, and I imagine this documentary might fan the flames of interest a bit more.

And now, a TV-related digression.

After hearing good things about it for a few years, I thought it was time for me to check out The Wire. Even if HBO is (in my opinion) taking a steep nosedive into mediocrity these days, at one time I did like several of their shows. Deadwood is a strong contender for my favourite TV show of all time, with Six Feet Under not far behind (at one point it held the title). I always enjoyed watching Oz. And The Sopranos really got its hooks in me good after a while.

There were also a lot of shows I never got around to catching, and The Wire was one of those. From what I read, it was critically revered while not a lot of people were bothering to tune in. I was one of those people. I have a rule, though. I almost never get into a show halfway through. I start at the beginning, or I don’t start at all. I think The Wire was probably in the middle of its third season by the time I knew about it, and it didn’t make sense to me to dig into something like that with no frame of reference for what was going on.

Knowing more about the show now, it seems I was wiser than I knew. This is one show where picking up halfway through would leave you completely clueless as to what was going on and why, with little hope of piecing it together. Kind of like starting a long, dense, complex novel at the halfway point.

I’m pretty much at the end of my X-Files kick now. I still intend to watch season seven, but after that I’m done. It doesn’t sound like the last two seasons are even really the same show anymore, and without Mulder it would lose a lot of its appeal for me. I noticed The Wire on DVD at HMV a few days ago. The price was a little steep, but I caved in and bought the first season in a “what the hell” moment. If I didn’t like it, I’d give it to someone else who might.

The next day I was up pretty early (I’m back on daylight hours), so I thought I’d pop in the first DVD and see what all the fuss was about. I ended up watching three episodes in a row and buying the next two seasons later that same day. I already knew I was going to need them.

People have described it as being more of a visual novel than a TV show, and I think there’s something to that. This is not a cookie-cutter hand-holding show where everything is spelled out for the viewer and all is resolved by the end of an episode. All isn’t necessarily even resolved by the end of a season. Things take a long time to unfurl. Something that’s mentioned in one episode might not fully make sense until a dozen episodes later. You have to pay attention. You have to use your brain.

There isn’t just one main character to latch onto, but several. There’s no clear protagonist or villain. Every “good guy” has a bit of bad in them, and every “bad guy” has a bit of good in them. Some of the most interesting, sympathetic characters are criminals. Some of the most corrupt, unappealing characters are those who are supposed to be the good ones. There isn’t a single sexy big name actor anywhere. I’ve watched a lot of TV and movies (even if I don’t tend to watch a whole lot of the idiot box these days), but a lot of the actors and actresses I’ve never seen before in anything. The only reason I know some of them is because several Oz luminaries make appearances.

I can see why it was difficult for the show to find a large, broad audience. It isn’t for everyone. It takes a bit of work. But the work pays off. At the same time, there are moments that are incredibly entertaining, hilarious, touching, violent, disturbing, and surprising. Moments that seem almost too good for television.

There’s a short scene in an early episode in which a drug dealer summarizes the game of chess for two of his underlings, explaining the different pieces and what they do. He couches it in terms of the chain of command in their organization. In two minutes it made more sense of a game I’ve never understood than anything else I’ve ever seen or heard.

There’s a scene involving partnered cops visiting the scene of a murder that took place months ago. They piece together how someone was killed using only various permutations of the word “fuck” for dialogue. It’s a ballet for profanity that perfectly demonstrates how they work together, the rhythm they have, and how they discover still-lingering evidence that was never uncovered at the original crime scene investigation. The first time I watched that scene, I laughed about five of my seventeen asses off. The second time — because I had to see it a second time — instead of laughing I found it quietly fascinating.

I’m only halfway through the first season, and meanings are already shifting on repeat viewings.

There’s one episode where a subplot has detective Jimmy McNulty (arguably the main character, if there had to be one) trying to see his kids for the weekend. He has an argument with his ex-wife over the phone about whether or not he has a place for them to sleep, and he tells her a lesser man would call her a very dirty word. A bit later, there’s a brief scene of him trying to figure out how to put together bunk beds while getting drunk, failing miserably. Later still, he shows up at his ex-wife’s house to pick up his sons only to find no one home. Near the end of the show he’s seen sitting on the bottom bunk, alone, defeated.

That he managed to put the beds together after all and made up a nice room for his sons to sleep in came as a shock. It was an unexpected humanizing moment in a sea of many. Those little pieces say more about that character and the state of his relationship with his ex-wife than any long-winded monologue ever would. So much art wants to show without telling, but so little is able to accomplish it so effectively.

Those are just a few bits that stand out for me so far. One interesting choice (and an unusual one for a TV show) is the almost complete absence of a conventional soundtrack. There’s a beginning theme song and an instrumental end theme that plays over the closing credits, but every moment of music in-between is nearly always a “source cue”. Music is only present if it comes from inside of the scene itself in an organic way — a bit of a song that’s playing in a club, or in someone’s car, or on a BoomBox. You don’t get sappy or dramatic music creeping in at pivotal moments, beating you over the head with what you should be feeling.

Still, in its own subtle way, the music finds ways to be effective. At the end of one episode a character is listening to a song on a radio or CD player while the final scene plays out. It just kind of hangs there in the background, never rising in volume but adding a certain bittersweet something, the way it would in real life. I smiled when my ears recognized it as “Fleurette Africaine” from the album Money Jungle, a Duke Ellington/Charles Mingus/Max Roach trio date from 1962, and a great album. Now there’s a music supervisor with some good taste.

In case you can’t tell, I dig it. With a shovel. I think it might even find a way to slide on up next to Deadwood for me in the pantheon of “best things I ever did see that were once on TV”. I should really stop reading anything about shows or movies I’m interested in before I see them, though. I had the bad luck to stumble across a few spoilers. And I hate spoilers. Why more people don’t at least warn you of a huge surprise they’re about to ruin with “SPOILER COMING, I’M GOING TO SPOIL SOMETHING FOR YOU BECAUSE I’M A FUCKING DOUCHEBAG FUCKNUT ASSMONKEY, SPOILER COMING”, I don’t know.

Even so, I get the feeling there are enough surprises in store that a spoiler or two won’t matter much. I’ve already learned an unexpected but important lesson because of this show: shit rolls downhill, but piss trickles.

It’s true.