Breaking Badathon

Kish and I admittedly have been derelict in our hot TV show watching.  We have never watched Mad Men, or Dexter, or the vast majority of the other shows that have dominated the national conversation and shifted the zeitgeist over the past decade or so.

That includes Breaking Bad.  And our out-of-itness meant that, for years, when one of our friends would ask what we thought of the latest episode, we could only shrug and say we don’t watch the show — a response that was typically greeted with a puzzled look and then a heartfelt “You’ve got to watch it!”  But somehow, with everything else on our plates, we just never got around to it . . . until now.

We’ve decided to do a crash course in cultural catch-up.  With AT&T U-Verse as the platform, we’ve subscribed to Netflix, installed Roku, and started our studies.  Breaking Bad is the first class on the schedule, and each night after I return home from work we’ve become immersed in the weird world of Walter White and his pal Jesse and his crooked lawyer and watched mini-marathons of episodes.  We’re now nearing the end of season 3, and things just seem to be getting worse, big picture, for the ever-rationalizing OCD cancer-battling chemistry teacher turned bad-ass meth cook.

Some people argue that Breaking Bad is the best show that has ever been broadcast on TV.  Based on what we’ve seen so far, I would say it is a superior show, although I’m not sure that it is quite at the level of The Sopranos or The Wire.  Still, it’s got all of the elements of a great show — fascinating characters that you care about, great acting, evil, unexpected violence, stone-cold criminals, difficult moral choices, and little touches that just make the show a bit more interesting, like a character who always wears purple.

But here’s my problem:  I simply can’t watch too much non-sports TV programming without dozing off.  I don’t care how good a show is, and whether Hank is in mortal peril — there’s something about sitting on a couch and watching hours of TV that makes me nod off.  Three episodes is about my limit, and that’s OK by me.  I prefer to parcel out and savor the episodes of a great show, rather than watching them all in one big gush.

The Country That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

Sometimes you have to wonder how this country once managed to put a man on the Moon.  Often it seems like we just can’t seem to do anything right anymore, and our formerly hyper-competent and capable nation is now just a shadow of its former self.

The latest evidence is the developing story about the intruder who leapt a fence and sprinted into the White House.  We already knew that the Secret Service somehow failed to unleash a dog that would have knocked down the intruder and left the front door to the White House inexplicably unlocked.  Now the Washington Post is reporting that the intruder, who was carrying a knife, made it much farther into the White House than was originally disclosed.  He apparently overpowered an unaware Secret Service agent inside the front door — the agent wasn’t warned because alarm boxes nearby had been “muted” because they were too noisy — and then ran around the lower floor of the Executive Mansion.  Fortunately, the First Family wasn’t there, and the intruder was subdued.

This kind of appalling incompetence would be comical if the potential consequences weren’t so serious.  Of course, alarms are supposed to be noisy — their sole purpose is to unmistakably alert people to a problem.  Whoever approved their “muting” and stripped away an important part of the President’s protection should be fired.  Even worse, in this one incident we see a cascade of failures by the Secret Service — which has one of the most important jobs in the federal government and at one time was held in high esteem.  Now these revelations, following on the heels of scandals involving boozy high-jinks with prostitutes, make the Secret Service seem inept, badly managed, and poorly trained.

In one of the seasons of The Wire, a Baltimore longshoresman who was wrapped up in a smuggling scheme wistfully said, to a friend, something along the lines of:  “This country used to make things once.”  I’d amend that to say, “this country used to be able to do things once.”  Now we can’t even maintain security alarms, use guard dogs, and keep a disturbed man from entering one of the highest security places in the country.  It’s sad.

Hangin’ in the Treme

Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux in Treme

When I was sick with a cold last week, I spent almost three entire days watching seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire, one episode after another. It was so enjoyable that I almost regretted getting better. I’m not sure which I would prefer: to have a stuffy nose and a scratchy throat while observing McNulty, Freamon and Daniels struggling against a miasma of crime and byzantine government institutions, or to be well and step out into the dull real world.

After my personal Wire marathon, I realized that I had seen every season of the show, some of them twice. Yet, I was addicted to the writers’ point of view of America. The solution was for me to give Treme a shot, since it was created by David Simon, the creator of The Wire, and shares much of The Wire‘s writers and cast.

I’d been reluctant to check out Treme because it has a reputation for being boring. When HBO approved a second season for the show, I remember seeing comments on the internet to the effect of, “maybe something will happen this season.”

I suspect that the people who claim that nothing happens in Treme only liked The Wire for its gunfight scenes. There isn’t much of that in Treme (only one scene that I can remember featured gunshots), but the same elements that made The Wire a brilliant show are there: compelling characters and a realistic, informative portrayal of American life.

One of the many themes Treme shares with The Wire is the inefficacy of America’s government. Both shows believe that America’s true character is in its people, not in the actions of its government, which is depicted as a distant, blunt force controlled clumsily by selfish hands. See, for example, the plotline in season 3 of The Wire in which Major Colvin establishes a drug-tolerance-zone (“Hamsterdam”) that works wonders for the community but that the police commissioners shut down because it makes them look bad.

Treme concentrates on the way the federal government bungled its response to Katrina. One of the show’s main characters, Albert “Big Chief” Labreaux (played by Clarke Peters, Lester Freamon in The Wire), occupies a housing project that was shut down despite the fact that it wasn’t damaged much in the storm. It’s implied that the “fucking fucks” in the federal and local government (as they are called by John Goodman’s character, a Tulane professor), aren’t eager to see New Orleans’ poor, black population return.

Another character, LaDonna Batiste-Williams, spends most of the season trying to figure out what happened to her brother, who was mistakenly jailed hours before the storm and was then lost in the system. With the help of an attorney working pro bono, she circumvents the defense mechanisms of the local government to discover that her brother died from head wounds that he supposedly got from a fall from a bunkbed. She finds his corpse stored in the back of a refrigerated semi-truck, next to dozens of other unidentified bodies.

One of the shows most powerful subplots, I thought, involved LaDonna’s ex-husband Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk in The Wire), a trombonist who’s always desperate for a gig. After Antoine accidentally bumps his trombone into the side of a police car, the police arrest him. His instrument and his livelihood disappear. He is rescued by a Japanese man who loves New Orleans’ music so much that he flew in after the storm to help struggling musicians. When the man buys him a shiny new trombone, Antoine looks sort of sad and confused, and that’s the way I felt too. Why must a foreigner step in to protect New Orleans’ culture from the local government?

The characters in Treme come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: a passion for New Orleans’ culture. In the first scene of the first episode, John Goodman’s character, Creighton Bernette, throws a British journalist’s microphone into the Gulf after the journalist suggests that New Orleans isn’t worth saving because its music and cuisine are over the hill. In addition to occupying the housing projects, “Big Chief” Lambreaux does all he can to bring his Indian tribe back to New Orleans to perform their traditional dances in feathery costumes.

At first I didn’t like Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, a goatee’d, overenthusiastic white guy who has disavowed his old-money family in order to embrace New Orleans’ traditional music and squalor. By the end of the season, however, I felt the same way about him that many of the other characters seem to: his passion made him worth having around. In the last episode, he tries to persuade his friend not to flee to New York by spending a day showing her the cream of New Orleans’ culture. His friend, a creole chef, is forced to move after her business fails due to damages done to her restaurant by Katrina.

Treme’s big message is that New Orleans is worth saving, and that it would save itself even without the support of its country. It seems ridiculous that a show would need to argue for saving a city with hundreds of years of history and culture behind it, not to mention millions of inhabitants, but the belief that New Orleans should be abandoned because of its unfortunate geographic position is disturbingly common. I’ve heard it not only from the media but from people I’ve met in real life. The fact that the wealthiest nation in the world has to even consider whether it wants to spend the money to save one of its oldest cities shows a big flaw in America’s culture.

Treme, Season Two

Last year, Kish and I followed the HBO series Treme.  We started watching because it was created by the same people who made The Wire, one of the best TV shows ever.  That’s why we started to watch it, but I’m not sure exactly why we kept watching it.  The show didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and we really didn’t connect with any of the characters or their stories.  In fact, we found some of the characters to be insufferable and most of the others to be annoying.  When one of the characters — a know-it-all, churlish professor played by John Goodman — committed suicide in an act that seemed completely inconsistent with his persona, we threw up our hands.

This year we’ve started watching again . . . and I’m still not sure exactly why.  The characters are no more likable, or even understandable, than they ever were.  Even though everyone apparently is struggling in the ravaged, post-Katrina world, they all seem to have enough money to buy drinks at any given moment.  And boy, are there are lot of characters, and a lot of story lines!  We see little snippets of their lives, and then there is a performance by a New Orleans musical act that is somehow connected to the story arc, and then we see another brief yet deeply meaningful episode involving someone else.  It’s like TV for people with ADD who can’t stand to watch a scene that lasts longer than 30 seconds.  The only positive thing about this year, so far, is a new, hustler-type character who is in The Big Easy to try to strike it rich from all of the federal cash pouring in.  At last, someone whose motivations I can understand!

When I watch this show, I feel like I am just doing my duty for the people who created The Wire.  I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who actually likes this show and can explain why.

Death Pool, 2010

Tonight we had the draft for the 2010 24 Death Pool.

After the normal pointless arguments about the rules — which are capable of being changed at any moment, and in fact were changed again tonight — we drafted our teams.  I drafted fourth of five, and I did no preparation for the draft.  I have no idea of the plot of this season, reviewed no spoilers or descriptions of the season, used the handout provided us by this year’s Commissionr, and operated only on the assumption that this season’s show will follow the broad conventions established during prior seasons of 24.

Who did I draft, and why?

1.  Ben Prady, described in our handout as “Dept. of Corrections officer looking for a parolee gone missing.”  This was an easy one.  Any non-CTU officer is likely to be wiped out, if only to provide an easy contrast with the studliness of Jack Bauer.  Do we honestly think a Department of Corrections guy is going to play a major role on 24?   In fact, in the 24-verse, when has any law enforcement person other than Jack Bauer displayed even a shred of competence?  Ben Prady is bound to go six feet under in the first episode, perhaps after we learn that he is a good guy with a family.

Herc/Mazoni

2.  John Mazoni, NYPD.  See above.   Plus, Mazoni is played by actor John Lombardozzi, who played “Herc” on The Wire.   I thought Herc was one of the best characters on a great TV show, and I just wanted him on my team. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t want him to be rubbed out as quickly as possible.

3.  Mehran, described as “leader of Islamic opposition group.”  A good rule of thumb on 24 is that bad guys get killed at a ratio of about 2 to 1 to good guys.  Assuming Ben Prady and John Mazoni are good guys — which may be a stretch, given the conspiracies and moles always found on 24 — I feel like a needed a bad guy.  Mehran seems like a relatively minor character, and therefore capable of being bumped off in, say, the fourth hour of the “day” after initially establishing himself as a dangerous threat.

4.  Agent Owens, described as “CTU SWAT agent.”  We know that virtually every CTU agent except Jack Bauer, Chloe O’Brien, and Tony Almeida necessarily must get killed.  Agent Owens — that poor sap! — doesn’t even have a first name.  He therefore is obvious cannon fodder who probably will be knocked off the first time some terrorist group breaches CTU security, as must inevitably happen.

So, my initial roster is set.  The first two episodes are Sunday and Monday night.  Here’s hoping the members of my team go toes-up almost immediately.

Way Down In the Hole

I like going to the library and picking out a few CDs, just to give them a listen and see if I can find anything new that I like.  Recently I picked up Spirit of the Century by The Blind Boys of Alabama, and it is just wonderful.  Lots of great songs, including this rendition of Way Down in the Hole by Tom Waits, which will be familiar to everyone who watches The Wire:

The Wire

The kids have now been out of the house for nearly two years, and during that time Kish and I have enjoyed having control over our family room TV choices. Occasionally we will hear from friends that a particular, long-running TV show is very good and we will watch an episode or two. When we find a show we like, we then can go back and watch the show from its beginning. We have done this with a number of TV shows — Deadwood, 24, and Foyle’s War being some of them — and the latest is The Wire.

We have just finished the first season of The Wire, and we think it is one of the best TV shows we have ever watched. I don’t know whether it is realistic or not, but it sure feels authentic. It doesn’t have the kind of forced pace that you find on some TV shows. Things seem to develop slowly and naturally. The characters look like normal people, not movie stars, and they act in ways that seem totally realistic. We are repelled by the horror of Baltimore’s drug-infested, crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods, yet fascinated by them, too. We have grown attached to the characters, care about their struggles, and are interested in seeing how they grow and change. We respect that the police and the drug dealers are portrayed with subtlety and shading, and we like how the crooks and the cops are engaged in a kind of ballet where every move by one side is quickly matched by a countermove by the other. I particularly like the fact that the show does not seem rote, and has managed to avoid falling into the kinds of patterns that you find, for example, on House.

We’re getting ready to begin season two on HBO On Demand and are looking forward to seeing what happens to McNulty, Stringer Bell, the Lieutenant, the junkie, and the other characters we have gotten to know. No spoilers, please!