Friday, February 27, 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Show Runners

Talking about The Wire and The Shield last week got me thinking about show runners. You tend to hear more and more about them these days, so much so that there are some show runners that now have built-in audiences. I'm thinking of guys like J.J. Abrams and Joss Wheldon. Their past successes on shows like Alias, LOST, Buffy, and Angel have gotten people initially interested in their new shows (Fringe and Dollhouse respectively). There are probably only two guys who can get me to check out a new show just by name value alone.

The first is Shawn Ryan. I was a fan of his second show The Unit (created with David Mamet) before ever watching The Shield. While a bit more mission-of-the-week oriented than The Shield, The Unit is also a good show. After watching every episode of The Shield, it's now fun to see alumns showing up on The Unit. Abby Brammell is a series regular, and we've seen actors like Benito Martinez, Cathy Ryan, Rebecca Pidgeon, and David Rees Snell show up on occasion.

The other is Graham Yost. As WellesFan has mentioned many times, his Boomtown was a great show. Just on that one show alone, I've become a follower of his. His name, plus the subject matter, plus Jeff Goldblum made it impossible for me not to tune into his show Raines. That was another great show that was canceled to early. Last week, there was a report that he's working on developing a TV show for FX based on Elmore Leonard's character Raylan Givens. Again...Yost plus Leonard is a combination too awesome to ignore.

Is there anyone you'd follow unquestioningly?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Shield and The Wire

Depending on who you asked, the answer to the question “What is the best show on TV?” would get you three different answers: The Sopranos, The Wire, or The Shield. Until about two years ago, I hadn’t seen a single episode of any of those three shows. As readers of this blog know, I’ve since watched all seven fantastic seasons of The Shield and at this point agree that it is the best show (take a look at the labels on the right to find all Shield related posts). Over the summer I started watching The Wire and plan to start on The Sopranos after I finish all five seasons (halfway through season three now).

If you wander around the internet, you’ll read lots of arguments between Wire and Shield fans. Shield fans will complain that The Wire is slow and boring. Wire fans will claim The Shield is nothing but a dumb, adrenaline-laced action show. While they’re both cop shows, it’s very hard to compare them fairly. The aims of the shows’ creators are vastly different.

David Simon and the folks at The Wire spent five seasons making one of the most realistic cop dramas ever. Their almost documentary style focused on the tactics used by major case squads to disrupt and prosecute inner city drug dealers. There are moments in each season where the targets of the investigation either discover or suspect they are under surveillance and have to switch up tactics to avoid getting caught. This results in a corresponding change in police tactics to continue building their case. It is a good representation of the long, patient hours real detectives have to put in to crack cases.

Simon and crew also used The Wire as a magnifying glass on society as a whole. From the institutional dysfunction of the police bureaucracy to union corruption to the crumbling newspaper industry, The Wire tackled all these issues. The first season focused on the war on drugs (Avon Barksdale and crew), the second on unions and smuggling, the third on city government, the fourth on schools, and the fifth on newspapers.

The Shield, at its heart, is pure melodrama. Shawn Ryan and the other writers used The Shield to explore how relationships change between people in close-knit groups and how each action we take has consequences. Instead of institutional corruption, the common themes of The Shield are citizen distrust of the police, gang war affecting the common citizen, and when to follow the rules or break them for expediency.

In contrast with The Wire’s eagle-eyed approach, we’re given a character to latch on to in the opening episode: Vic Mackey. Through the course of seven seasons we’re given many reasons to both root for and root against Mackey. In the beginning, the Strike Team (Vic Mackey, Shane Vendrell, Curtis Lemansky, and Ronnie Gardocki) are the elite crime-fighting team in the city. To supplement what they consider a meager pension awaiting them after retirement, they make deals with drug dealers and rip off petty crooks to set up their own retirement slush fund. At the end of the second season, they’ve descended so far that they rip off several million dollars from the Armenian mafia. At this point, the relationships start to fray. Trouble starts between Lemansky (the conscience of the group) and Vendrell in season three. Mackey and Gardocki eventually side with Lem and agree to clean up their act. Vendrell goes off on his own and creates an even bigger mess. Seasons four through seven follow the team trying to keep their past buried and seeing how much each person is willing to sacrifice to avoid prosecution for their past crimes.

The police tactics of the detectives in The Shield show different aspects of police work not covered by The Wire. Most of the information gathered to track down criminals and bust gangs come from street contacts and paid informants. With Dutch Wagenbach and Claudette Wymns, we get the psychological profiling of suspects and trying to break them through interrogation.

Gangs are also handled differently in both shows. We are introduced to the leaders and some of the common foot soldiers of The Wire’s gangs. The brains behind the Barksdale crew (Stringer Bell) and the other Baltimore gangs come across as businessmen making compromises and logical decisions. The street-level dealers are mostly young black kids who don’t know that they can get something better out of life (some of them don’t even want anything better). The gangs in The Shield are mostly external entities and there are a lot more of them (One-Niners, Los Mags, Byz Lats, and K-Town Killers to name a few). The only people we get to know are the leaders (Antwon Mitchell, Kern Little, Armadillo, etc). The cops of The Wire spend a significant amount of capital on trying to stop the gangs from operating and to disrupt the drug trade. The Shield’s cops are more concerned with containment. They’ll let the gangs operate in their neighborhoods, but once they get violent or harm a civilian, the full might of the police force comes down on their heads.

While they’re both urban cop dramas, The Shield and The Wire are two completely different beasts. One casts an eye on our world as a whole and the other on our interactions with our friends and family. One deals with bending the rules to achieve our goals while the other shows us crushed under a monolithic system we have no hope of changing.

I considered doing season wrap-ups of The Wire like I did with The Shield, but decided against it. While I enjoy The Wire and laud its creators for a job well done, it just doesn’t strike a chord with me the way The Shield did. Maybe that will change over the remaining two and a half seasons, maybe it won’t.

If you’re a fan of either show (or if you haven’t seen a single episode), I recommend that you check the other out. Don’t try to compare them, but instead enjoy them for what they are: great television shows.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Right On!

I'd never heard of Louis CK before, but I totally agree with his take on people in this clip. We live in an amazing world and it's wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots.

Hat tip: Utter Scoundrel

Monday, February 9, 2009

Killer's Kiss (1955)

After washed up boxer Davey Gordon loses his last shot at a little fight, he decides to pack it in and work on his uncle's farm out in Seattle. That night, he intervenes in an argument between his neighbor Gloria Price and her boss. After spending the next two days getting to know each other, Gloria decides to leave her job as a dancer and travel with Davey to Seattle. Her boss won't allow it and sends his goons to rough up Davey. The goons accidentally kill Davey's manager instead and wind up having to kidnap Gloria so she doesn't go to the cops with what she knows.

Stanley Kubrick's second film Killer's Kiss is long on style, but short on story. There's not a whole lot going on, but it is visually arresting. It's a bit raw in spots - as you can imagine - but Kubrick's talent shines through. I've always attributed the amazing visuals in Kubrick's films to his history as a still photographer. It's certainly evident in this picture. The dream sequence (using the negative image) and the final chase are fantastic. It's a bit funny that the big showdown takes place in a mannequin factory, but the fight and the chase leading up to it are some great tense moments.

For fans of Kubrick and excellent cinematography, this movie is a must.

Monday, February 2, 2009

World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers

In one of the greatest Super Bowl games I've seen, the Pittsburgh Steelers became the first team to capture 6 Lombardi Trophies as they defeated the Arizona Cardinals 27-23.

Pittsburgh stormed out to an early 10-0 lead and James Harrison returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown - the longest play ever in Super Bowl History - to put the Steelers up 17-7 at halftime. Arizona clawed their way back into it thanks in part to some very cautious defense by the normally aggressive Steelers and the big play ability of Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald.

As a Steelers fan, I got nervous when Fitgerald scored to put the Cards ahead 23-20, but there were more than two and a half minutes left on the clock. But I didn’t panic. I knew the stat NBC was about to show. In his brief career, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has staged seventeen come from behind victories in the fourth quarter. After last night, it’s now eighteen.

Roethlisberger and Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes combined for 75 of the 78 yards needed for the game winning drive. Holmes made an acrobatic grab in the end zone with 48 seconds left to put the Steelers up 27-23. And the number one defense in the league was able to hold the lead and forced Cards quarterback Kurt Warner to fumble the ball with 4 seconds left – sealing the victory for Pittsburgh.

Steeler Nation now has 6 World Championships.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin became the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl. In summarizing the game he said, "Steeler football is 60 minutes. It's never going to be pretty. Throw style points out the window, but these guys will fight to the end. We didn't blink."

I couldn’t agree more.

Articles from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Lords of the Rings
MVP Holmes
Big Ben and the drive
Gameday Picture Gallery