The Indifferent Gods

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In creating “The Wire,” Simon said, he and his colleagues had “ripped off the Greeks: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides. Not funny boy—not Aristophanes. We’ve basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy and applied it to the modern city-state.” He went on, “What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”

Taken from “Stealing Life: The crusader behind The Wire” by Margaret Talbot. A great profile of the authorial minds behind the show, often considered to resemble the form of a novel. 

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/10/22/071022fa_fact_talbot#ixzz2L68qHqrP

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Crosstalk: How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

Crosstalk: How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

This is a great conversation between Noel Murray and Scott Tobias from The AV Club, discussing their respective views on the culture around television viewing. Some issues they discuss include dropping in on a show partway through a season versus watching it from the pilot episode; the focus of critics on high-quality serial television instead of television that “most people actually watch”; and how analyzing television compares to analyzing film.

I fully agree with Tobias when he argues against Murray’s willingness to drop in on a program. Tobias’ point that “if we accept the premise that many of the best shows on television unfold like novels, with richly developed characters and grand narrative arcs, wouldn’t checking in mid-season be equivalent to starting a book on chapter five?” rings true to me, especially having just completed the entirety of The Wire. I can’t imagine casually watching an episode during season 2 without having seen character relationships develop over the course of the first season.

What’s great about the discussion is the positive way that the two characterize television criticism: as something more engaged with the public, less indebted to traditional forms, and able to delve into details on a weekly basis. This point from Tobias is worth quoting in full:

“Because we aren’t primarily engaged in telling people whether they should or shouldn’t watch a show—because we’re usually talking with people who are already watching—we get to kick around symbolism, character development, and real-world connections to what’s on the screen, rather than just writing about whether the show is worth a damn. Sure, we write about what’s working and what isn’t, and why, but we have the space and the freedom to get into so much more. And the people we get into it with—the readers, and our fellow critics—seem so much more open, friendly, and engaged than, say, cinephiles these days.”

The idea that television viewing experiences can be immersive, not just simply through watching but actively participating in a discussion, is thrilling to me. After finishing The Wire, I felt as though I had spent two months in the world of the Baltimore police, building knowledge about characters and themes in a way that I never really experienced with a film or a sitcom. As a result, once the episodes finished I wanted to seek out other people that had also had that experience, that I could talk to about specific details and moments to get a deeper involvement.

In other words, let’s talk about The Wire, everyone! And television in general! Are you a purist, watching from the very beginning, or are you comfortable with diving into a season midway through? How do you see television criticism in relation to that of cinema? Which version of “Way Down in the Hole” do you like the best?

Four Favourite TV Couples

In honour of Valentine’s Day, here’s some great television couples that you can use to model your romantic life (or, maybe not…) – *warning, some spoilers!*

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Buffy and Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Angel’s such a drag, don’t you think? I’ve always preferred the complicated Buffy/Spike chemistry, especially in “Once More With Feeling.”

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Jesse and Jane, Breaking Bad

Tragic, doomed, heartbreaking. This storyline gave Jesse depth that no one would have seen coming at the beginning of the series, and makes me cry every time I watch.

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Kim and Daniel, Freaks and Geeks

The dreamy rebel and his tough-chick girlfriend? Definitely the most realistic portrayal of a high-school romance, and the source of my favourite Kim quote of all time:

“Are you calling me irrational? Because I’ll tear your head off, Daniel. I’ll tear it off and ‘Ill throw it over that fence.”

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Joan and Roger, Mad Men

Mad Men knows how to work the “not together, but still connected” romantic plot perfectly (see also: Pete and Peggy), and Joan and Roger’s continued chemistry throughout the series is a perfect balance of humour and melancholy.

So, who did I miss?

The Many Faces of The Sopranos

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A striking feature of the first season of The Sopranos is the ease with which the show introduces and connects its large ensemble of supporting characters. In addition to Tony’s wife, kids, relatives, and close circle of business associates, the show also features neighbours, members of other Mafia groups, victims of Tony’s friends, various mobster girlfriends/wives, and distance family members. For a show that centres around the psychological investigation of one protagonist, the cast list is impressively vast.

What maintains connections between characters and plotlines is the repetition of phrases, uses of certain language, and impersonations of common culture. Viewers can see how deeply Livia Soprano affects Tony by seeing him imitate her gestures of indifference and lack of sympathy (“poor you!”). Episode seven, “Down Neck,” involves detailed flashbacks to Tony’s childhood, and when his father scolds his mother “always with the drama,” it’s as if Tony is yellilng the words because he has – at both Carmela and his mother, earlier in the season. Johnny Boy Soprano, though deceased in the actual show, is used to explain Tony’s behaviour and relationships and therefore works as a link to understanding characters rather than getting confused between them.

In the same episode, the word “polio” gets used by many characters, each in their own conversations. As the show switches between multiple plotlines, there is a constant connection between each. As well, throughout the first season Tony can be seen incorporating the language of Dr. Melfi’s therapy into his everyday interactions, emphasizing the influence that his psychological state has on his work and family. The infiltration of plotlines into one another, usually stemming from Tony himself, prevents The Sopranos from becoming disconnected scenes of mobster/domestic conflict and instead allows it to become a reflection on transferred emotional states.

It’s good to be…

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It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.

This quote, spoken by Tony Soprano to Dr. Melfi in the pilot episode of The Sopranos, speaks volumes about the series that would emerge. Premiering in 1999 as one of HBO’s first original drama series, The Sopranos addressed threats and anxieties posed both to Tony’s family and his Family. His life is defined by loss – murder, illness, addiction, divorce, disrespect, etc. – and the show consistently refers to images of past eras exalting the gangster lifestyle to contrast with Tony’s struggles in the 21st century.

Of course, the irony of the quote is that The Sopranos had an enormous role defining the new era of television, as well as setting HBO apart as a provider of quality series. As Alan Sepinwall points out in The Revolution Was Televised, The Sopranos without the psychiatry wouldn’t be The Sopranos … this was a show dedicated to going deep inside the psyche of a millenial man” (42). Compared to The Godfather or Goodfellas, the complexity of The Sopranos depends not on the titillating structures of the mafia but the terrifying prospects of a psychologically damaged protagonist living his life. What could appear in theory as another sitcom – mafia boss manages work and family! stress ensues! – becomes a case study in millenial anxiety and fear. Needless to say, the best wasn’t over during the pilot episode.