Monday, February 2, 2009


Before I finally end this torture (I did title the first entry on this list as "A Project I Will Likely Never Finish"), I want to give shout-outs to two shows I mentioned in that very first blog on my top-10 t.v. shows list.

Battlestar Galactica
is just finishing up its run, and as I predicted, it would easily have made this list had I started it six months later. I went back and watched the first two seasons, and they were just as magnificent as I had suspected. It's yet another of the shows on this list that will turn some people off because of the name. And yeah, it's science fiction, for sure. But it's well-done sci-fi, which means it's actually about real issues, not just "aliens and robots and stuff," to paraphrase my 10th graders.

The other show I mentioned in that January 30th, 2008 blog (yes, it has taken me over a year to complete a top-10 does David Letterman do it?) ended this fall, and its finale was as good as anything I've seen besides Six Feet Under (#3). It's one of those endings that made you say, "You know, it couldn't have ended any other way." Michael Chiklis (as morally-challenged cop Vic Mackey) is fantastic (although whenever he would do something shady -which was A LOT- Eileen would lament, "I liked him better as 'The Commish'"), and the supporting cast is top notch and vulnerable to being killed off at any moment. This is hardly an original idea, but the crazy thing was how no matter how much destruction Vic causes or how many people he burns, there's part of you that keeps rooting for him, in spite of your better judgement. Such is the power of Chiklis; he intimidates the viewer into liking him even as he's intimidating and abusing other characters on the show.

Ok- on to the grand finale.

The Wire

Yet another HBO show, and yet another one that I didn't give a fair shot when it came out. I'm actually pretty ashamed of myself. I read a couple reviews about how it was the best show on television, came into the middle of an episode from season one, watched for about eight minutes, and decided it wasn't for me. Brilliant, Nolan.

What turned me off? All the stuff that eventually made me love it: the lack of any recognizable actors (although that's certainly changed now), the grittiness of urban Baltimore, the labyrinthine plots, the unhurried pace.

The beauty of The Wire is that it's so many things at once:

It's a cop show
. Some of the best scenes involved the archetypal buddy cop banter of "Bunk" Moreland and Jimmy McNulty, two of Baltimore's most effective yet hardest-drinking detectives. One highlight was the end of an episode in season one where the two investigate a crime scene, using only curse words, uttered in various grunts and incarnations.

It's a street show
. The Wire is the only t.v. drama that neither glorifies nor marginalizes what it's like to grow up in an urban neighborhood, where the drug trade is by far the most profitable career path. Instead of painting all these young, mostly black men with the same brush, each character has different motivations and nuance. This show will quite simply expand your mind on the nature of American crime and criminals. It won't make you change any of your political views, necessarily, but at the very least you will see things from a perspective that you might have never had before. Isn't that what great art is supposed to do?

It's a show about big issues
. Each season focuses on a different aspect of urban American life, and at the end of the season you will feel a mixture of hope, frustration, terror, and pride. But you will come away changed.

The first season introduced the street players and the cops who try (mostly fruitlessly) to stem the flow of drugs into the streets of Baltimore. We meet the legendary characters Avon Barksdale (drug kingpin), Stringer Bell (Avon's refined consigliere), and one of the superlative characters in t.v. history, Robin Hood of-the-Hood Omar Little. You've never been quite so terrified/delighted as when you've heard Omar whistle "The Farmer in the Dell," strolling slowly, a shotgun over his shoulder.

The second stanza chronicles life on the docks, showing the camaraderie and corruption that a blue-collar union can bring. Special props for introducing future Oscar nominee and Michael Scott paramour Amy Ryan as an idealistic but in-over-her-head dock cop.

The third season portrays a fascinating gamble in America's longest-running struggle: the war on drugs. The police captain makes an unofficial decision to allow drug dealers to operate without consequence in a certain area of town (comically labeled "Hamsterdam"). The results don't pretend to offer up an easy solution to our drug policy, but as usual, The Wire makes you think.

Most critics count the fourth season as the show's zenith, and I'm with them. It has special resonance for me, because it largely deals with public schools and all the roadblocks, setbacks, and occasional mini-triumphs everyone who enters that realm is subject to. The story of the four boys whose fates are to be all uniquely intertwined feels as authentic as a documentary while never becoming predictable.

Season five received grumbles of discontent from fans and critics who felt it neglected "the street," which is ironic because it dealt largely with homelessness. I had no problems with it. If anything, I thought it was slightly ahead of its time due to the way it defined the struggling American newspaper business (an expertise of head writer David Simon, who was a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun). The show ended well and with dignity, with its trademark tragedies and moments of sweetness.

I've thought about this last facet of the show a lot, and I hesitated to mention it because I thought it would look ridiculous in print. But it just keeps coming back to me: It's a show about bureaucracy. It's about American institutions and why they're largely so ineffective. The Wire shows that there are amazing, heroic people in every aspect of society. However, those bright lights are inevitably dimmed or even extinguished by the soul-crushing rules, order, and self-preservation that is promoted by the very systems we've put in place to ensure our safety, education, and pursuit of happiness. The amazing thing is how The Wire juxtaposes legal, government bureaucracy with organized crime and shows that a drug lord manages the same leadership challenges, petty jealousies, and nagging constituencies that a big-city mayor must face.

If you haven't already, you should rent this show from the beginning. Please don't give up on it after an episode or two. This is one of those great contributions to the cannon of works that are uniquely American, the t.v. equivalent of The Great Gatsby or The Godfather.

I'll end with the touching re-imagining of Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight, Moon," as told by incorruptible detective Kima Greggs to her son, Elijah:

Goodnight moon
Goodnight stars
Goodnight po-pos
Goodnight fiends
Goodnight hoppers
Goodnight hustlers
Goodnight scammers
Goodnight to everybody
Goodnight to one and all.

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