Tag Archives: TV

2018: A Noisy Year, and Time for Changes

I’ve been writing the same, tired “Year in Review” article for a few years now. With the exception of one particularly creative dive into Boethius, admittedly a deep track reference if there ever was one, these write ups have been unremarkable and, I confess, lazy.

I’ve been doing this blog for almost seven years now. I don’t think our pop culture discourse has ever been noisier. It also, has never been less creative.

I read the same article about the same movie probably four or five times, every time. The assessment of film has become of an inescapable groupthink, which more often than not settles on analysis that is an inch deep and a mile wide. This problem isn’t unique to film, it’s in writing about television, sports, politics, basically all of journalism. We’re drawn to the hot take, the short article, the snarky humor, the bland repetitive analysis.

So what does this have to do with the state of popular culture in 2018? After all, 2018 was the year that brought us the best superhero movie (Black Panther), the best series finale of a television show (The Americans), Spike Lee’s return to form (Blackkklansman), and Steven Spielberg’s return to blockbusters (Ready Player One). The year’s biggest movie, globally, was the culmination of a massive series of films the likes of which we haven’t seen before (Avengers: Infinity War). These are real achievements, but something about them feels hollow. That isn’t right.

Film is about images. Roger Ebert understood this and repeated it often. What is lacking from the conversation is how those images make us feel. What they mean. In the moment, and more importantly, in the next moment.

Everything isn’t meant to be compared to everything else before it. With so many legacy movies, series, and filmmakers out there, we’ve been obsessed with just that – legacy. Legacy before the ink of history is even dry. This constant comparison makes art disposable. The art isn’t appreciated for what it is, but for how it measures up to other art. This, in case I’m not being clear, is a bad thing.

You could write about Blackkklansman and compare it to Lee’s earlier work, or you can talk about how Lee uses the film as a sledgehammer to shake the audience out of complacency. You could knock Spielberg as overly nostalgic, or you could point out how he uses nostalgia as a tool to reveal the humanity of an artificial world in Ready Player One. Black Panther is many things to many people, but instead of writing about what everyone is talking about, you can look deeper and see how and why Ryan Coogler’s best shot is when Killmonger walks into the throne-room. Ignore the noise – what does art mean to YOU? That is what I’m to endeavor to answer in the future.

That brings me to what’s changing on this page going forward:

1) I’m not writing traditional reviews anymore. See a movie or show, or don’t. I’m going to be writing about my impressions beyond simply answering whether art is good or bad.

2) Historical context needs time to develop. A new rule: a film or series needs to be at least five years old to have its influence discussed, ten to be understood, thirty to be fully appreciated.

3) I’m changing up the format a bit and working on a few other changes. It’s time.

4) I’ll still do Game of Thrones and maybe other Power Rankings, but I’ll be more thoughtful about a character or group’s story in the broader context.

5) I’m going to write about more random topics. I like to do that.

Thanks for sticking with this experiment that I started in 2012. I’ll do my best to continue making it worthwhile.

D.G. McCabe

December 21, 2018

(C) 2018

Fargo Season 2, Top Ten Most Bizarre Moments: Part the Fourth

FARGO -- ÒFear and TremblingÓ -- Episode 204 (Airs November 2, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist, Jesse Plemons as Ed Blumquist. CR: Chris Large/FX
FARGO — “Fear and Trembling” — Episode 204 (Airs November 2, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist, Jesse Plemons as Ed Blumquist.
CR: Chris Large/FX

Some serious events are about to transpire.  Seriously, every week gets more and more ominous.  With only three episodes left, it is unlikely that we’re going to get Season One’s epic time-shift, so the next three episodes are bound to be filled with mayhem.  But first, the top ten:

10. Dr. Hamster Lover

That doctor had an awful bedside manner as it was, but did he really need all of those hamsters?  Hi, I’m doctor so and so, behold my lovely hamsters.  Oh and you’re probably screwed, but there’s a clinical trial.  But it might be a sugar pill.  Behold!  My hamsters!

9. Finger-Play

Nope.  Not saying anymore about this one.  Except Milligan certainly knows how to spot a weak link.  A weak, kinky link (and a lot of nudity for FX).

8. The Things You Can Do with Makeup!

Yep, old and young Otto Gerhardt are both played by Michael Hogan, who’s other meaty roles include the XO on Battlestar Galactica.

7. Stabbed by a Kid

That flashback would make Lord Varys, Sherlock Holmes, and other literary figures who use small children to do their dirty work very happy.

6. Hanzee Comin’!

And he’ll bore you to death with cliched tales of ear necklaces in ‘nam.  This particular, likely mythological practice, was first made known to the general public in 1992’s Universal Soldier.

5. Doughnuts

Nothing to fill you with energy after ill-advised head-bashing like a nice, sugary doughnut! And remember everyone, it’s the 70’s, so they’re made with real lard!

4. Meat Shop Speculators

Speaking of lard, poor Ed, being outplayed by the meat shop speculators of the north.  Now he’ll never live out his perfect little fantasy.

3. Watch Out for That One

Which he won’t anyway, because Peggy is totally going to kill him.

2. Aw, Isn’t that Cute?

Sorry I made of a mess of things mom.  Can I just cry on your shoulder?  Sheesh, from tough guy to momma’s boy in one succession of shots.  I don’t think the KC mob was going to agree to any counter-offer anyway, so it’s a moot point.

1. Why Didn’t they Kidnap the Old Guy

I thought that was the plan.  It’s scary that it wasn’t – it means they really are ready to kill everyone.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

 

The Wire – The Complete Series (2002-2008)

This is the first in a series discussing the complete series of notable past television shows. If you have NOT seen the entire series, and are either in the middle of watching it or planning to watch it you should skip this article – it is filled with spoilers. When you’ve finished the series, come back for this commentary.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you – D.G. McCabe

The Wire

2002-2008, U.S., Creator and Primary Showrunner- David Simon

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”

– William Shakespeare, Brutus from “Julius Caesar” Act IV, Scene III

The Wire often tops “best of” lists for television dramas and television programs in general. The declining aspects of Baltimore, Maryland, which at its zenith in the 1950’s-1970’s had almost a million people, serves as the backdrop of a story of institutional decay as seen primarily through the eyes of the Baltimore Police Department (although the show does a fantastic job developing characters ranging from powerful politicians to poor school children).

The quality of The Wire cannot be denied.  The acting and writing are consistently excellent, and the camera work weaves an impending sense of doom throughout even the series’ more mundane moments.  It has several key themes woven throughout it’s five season run beyond the obvious “decline of middle class institutions” theme.  It is also one of the most frustrating stories ever told, an anti-show that would make Anton Chekov proud.

Getting to the Top

The main antagonists during the series’ first three season are drug kingpins Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).  While Bell and Barksdale are clearly evil, they are not corrupt in the sense that they operate by an established code and run their drug organization much like a legitimate business would operate.  At one point, Bell even establishes a co-operative with the other Baltimore drug lords so that everyone can benefit from the high quality drugs being smuggled in by an Eastern European crime syndicate. While both men are ruthless, paranoid, murderers, they don’t get to the top by breaking the rules, so to speak, of “the game.”

The same cannot be said about Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), Bell and Barksdale’s successor as “most powerful drug lord in Baltimore.”  Marlo is corrupt in ways that Bell and Barksdale are not (the murder of Proposition Joe, ordering Chris and Snoop to murder a family because the guy was “talking smack,” etc.). Nor can it be said about Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) who gets his position not through ability but by manipulating crime statistics and through shady political connections.  Interestingly enough, these corrupt men stay on top for long periods of time.  While they are ultimately done in by outside forces, they personify the nature of how breaking “the rules” can result in unjust rewards for people willing to do anything to gain power.

Keeping Power

Even people seeking power with good intentions fall short due to what it takes to keep power.  In season three, Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) runs for mayor to “clean up the city” and promises Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), at this point the leader of the Major Crimes Unit, a future without manipulation of crime statistics for political purposes.  This goes out the window at the end of season 5 where, in exchange for promoting Daniels to Commissioner, Carcetti asks for manipulated crime statistics to bolster his run for Governor of Maryland.

Likewise, Frank Sobotka, the union leader in Season 2, allows an Eastern European crime syndicate to flood Baltimore with drugs and prostitutes in exchange for the funds he needs to keep his co-workers employed.  He also uses the money to lobby politicians to give his dying profession a future.  In summary, he looks the other way from violent criminals in order keep himself in a position when he can help his fellow dock-workers.

Justice and Vengeance

Another major theme of The Wire is the relationship to justice and vengeance, and how the show makes the audience feel about them.  When Stringer Bell is gunned down by Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams) at the end of Season 3, it is anti-climatic because we watched for three years the struggle of Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Lester Freeman (Clarke Peters) and the other protagonists spend so much time and energy trying to put Stringer behind bars.  Indeed, Stringer is an evil man who deserves his fate, but the show makes the audience feel cheated in the way that fate is doled out.

Similarly, in season one, when Greggs is shot by Barksdale’s thugs, the man who pulled the trigger is killed off-screen.  While it is satisfying that Barksdale himself ends up behind bars, something feels empty by the way that the man responsible for the near murder of one of the show’s main protagonists simply disappears.

Disruption

Whether it is McNulty making up a serial killer to fund the operation to take down Marlo, Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom) and his season three “Hamsterdam” experiment, or Stringer Bell setting up the drug lord co-op, there are dozens of instances in The Wire of one individual taking initiative to disrupt the regular way of doing things.  In most instances, these disruption are punished by the status quo.  McNulty and Colvin lose their jobs (McNulty is demoted twice before that) and Stringer loses control of the co-op due to the return of the “status quo” drug violence of Barksdale.

The character of Omar, with McNulty a close second, personifies the disruptive figure. Omar is an outlaw even among outlaws, robbing drug dealers at gunpoint and avoiding the resulting bounties on a regular basis.  Still, even Omar cannot escape the random and violent world of the drug “game” when he is unceremoniously taken down by a twelve-year old in a bodega at the end of season five.

Missed Connections

And this brings me to the Shakespeare quote and Chekov reference above.  In season one, the cops have D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) ready to turn on his uncle, when his mother convinces him not to.  In season two they have Frank Sobotka in the same position, when he is murdered by the Eastern Europeans.  In season three they have Stringer Bell nailed, when Omar takes care of him for them.  There are dozens of instances in their investigations like this, they have everything wrapped up when something happens to unravel everything.

One of the most frustrating missed connections occurs in Season 4, when Herc (Domenik Lombardozzi), trying to find a camera that he lost investigating Marlo, destroys the life of  promising middle-schooler Randy (Maestro Harrell) by mishandling him as a source of information.  The mistake would have been avoided but for a homicide detective failing to pass along a message to Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) out of spite.

Conclusion

The richness of themes, high production quality, and even its frustrating plotlines make The Wire one of the finest shows in television history.  It is not a perfect series (the newspaper sub-plot in Season 5 never really connects and most of the events of Season 2 exist in isolation from the rest of the series) but it may be the closest thing television has produced thus far to the thematic density of the novels of Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

Game of Thrones – Season 3, Episode 1 – Two Questions

By D.G. McCabe

A season of Game of Thrones is basically a ten hour movie, and last night’s first part didn’t disappoint.  Keeping in mind that I haven’t read all of the books (I’m about a third of the way through “A Clash of Kings”), here are two questions for next week:

What’s Margaery Tyrell’s angle?

She has to have one right?  I mean she can’t actually be a good and decent person in this world for long without having her head mounted on a spike like a certain Lord of Winterfell.  Add that to her Lady MacBeth-esque scenes from last season and I don’t really buy the whole “I’m going to take care of the orphans” thing as any more than a public relations stunt.

When is Daenerys going learn that patience is a good thing?

Of all the various subplots of George R.R. Martin’s saga, it is that of Daenerys Targaryen that has the most in common with a traditional “hero quest” saga.  After all, she has all the aspects of a legendary hero – low beginnings, special destiny, extraordinary powers, obstacles to overcome.  Her problem at the moment is that she wants to retake the Seven Kingdoms – NOW.  But now, she has three dragon kids, a couple dozen tired barbarians, and whatever money she had left over from that scumbag in Qarth after buying a ship.  Soon enough she’ll have three terrifying monsters, but she’ll also have to feed, clothe, and maintain an army and figure out how she’s going to attack, which takes time.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe