Tag Archives: The Wire

TV’s Golden Age Not Necessarily Over Just Yet

8 Nov

The Four PIllars

Andy Greenwald wrote an article on Grantland which probably wasn’t intended to be trolling, but it came off that way to me, and I felt the need to refute it, particularly because people constantly make arguments like this, if not as specific as this in particular. His argument in short is that television’s “Golden Age” is over. I’m very skeptical of the concept of a “Golden Ages” in general; it reeks of nostalgia for times that weren’t necessarily any better or worse than any other, but seem that way in memory, but I’ll follow along. I willing to accept in principle that certain eras aren’t necessarily as good as others, and that all seasons of television are not equal. However, I think both that his argument in broad strokes is wrong and that the claims he makes to get there are wrong a swell. I’ll break it down in further depth below, but quickly, the biggest issue is that his judgment of the entire previous golden era is particularly rendered less valuable because he’s only judging by using the shows at the very top. He then goes out to knock the “medium-level” shows he calls them in this era, without naming the examples of medium level shows that made the Golden Age great.

He uses what I like to call, or will probably start calling after this, the Four Pillars of TV Greatness (TM). These four are in order of airing: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. They’re four undeniable great shows, and if you asked for the greatest dramas of all time, there’s a better than even chance they’d finish as the top four of any poll of enough critics or knowledgeable TV viewers. He talks about a Golden Age, but to be clear, he’s talking about these four shows.  He speaks as if he means to cover a greater swath, as if those four just provided cover and inspiration for a flourishing run of good-but-not-as-good shows beneath their wings, but not a single other show is named after the those four, and while there are others that could easily qualify (Deadwood and Six Feet Under, at the least), I think it’s important to mention that these are the ONLY FOUR he mentions to represent what he describes as the Golden Age.

Greenwald then goes off and reels off several current shows that don’t meet his standard for Golden Age inclusion, whether because they’re simply not as good (Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Homeland, and outside of Homeland’s legitimately brilliant world-class first season, you’ll get no argument there from me) or much more strangely because they are great but they’re genre show, in the case of Game of Thrones (and to a lesser extent Orphan Black), which somehow don’t qualify as Golden Age-worthy because they contribute to other negative trends in television, regardless of their own quality.

The show he most associates with this gilded age of television is The Walking Dead, which he backhandedly notes that even though he’s not a fan, he acknowledges it’s the most important and influential show of the past five years. Without speaking on the quality of the show, on which I stand somewhere in the middle, I disagree strongly with his assertion. While that same statement may yet be true in five years, it really isn’t; Walking Dead’s influence is only beginning to be felt as we still wade our way out of the Age of the Antihero, which still, though waning, dominates television (three of the Four Pillars are antihero shows – The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, along with Boardwalk Empire, Justified, House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy, and plenty of lesser fare). Honestly, whether true or not, this is really off-topic from the central argument so we’ll move back in that direction.

Greenwald goes on to talk about how networks aren’t taking chances anymore, and that’s surely true, but that was also very much true five or ten years ago. None of the Four Pillars were network shows. Four shows got through the cracks and struck gold. He claims it’s systematic failure that as many quality shows aren’t coming through the pipeline, but I’d claim it’s just odds and not enough time.

Let’s not forget as well that one of the Four Pillars is still on, with two seasons to go, and one ended a mere month and a half ago. Game of Thrones is an admittedly great show, and I’m not sure why it’s a knock that it’s a genre show or that it’s based on source material, especially just because in influences other less good shows (first, something every new and interesting show does, second – is it a knock on Pearl Jam that so many lousy bands were influenced by it?). Shows come in waves, and influence of the biggest and best play a large part, for better or worse. Mad Men was very much influenced by The Sopranos. Greenwald complains about a prestige mad libs, and he’s by no means incorrect, but that’s also exactly what Mad Men was. You can give Mad Men credit for inventing that formula, but as mentioned, it stole plenty from The Sopranos.

Logical complaints aside, I’d argue that he’s not looking closely enough to find the good stuff. Last Spring alone saw the debut of four new dramas, each with the potential to be great, and although the odds are against any of them becoming an all-time great, that’s true for any show, and promise is really all you can ask for.

Rectify, the best, airs on Sundance channel, and stands in particular contradiction to Greenwald’s claims as it doesn’t fit into any of the boxes Greenwald is complaining about. Rectify is about a man exonerated from death row after twenty years imprisoned back into the small Georgia town in which he grew up. It’s a small show in the way Game of Thrones and Walking Dead are big, and it’s exceptionally, moving, human, beautiful and heartbreaking in different degrees.

The Americans admittedly kind of fits Greenwald’s prestige formula, but it transcends it, and even Greenwald acknowledging The Americans as the best new series of last year.

Orphan Black, Greenwald already acknowledged as well as an excellent show, and, though it’s a genre show, it certainly doesn’t fit into either the prestige or the bigger is better formula.

Hannibal, admittedly, it less new and interesting than the other three, and probably will end up as good and not great, but it’s especially notable for its gorgeous cinematography and its compelling psychological battling between protagonists Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter which elevate a cop show above the norm.

Remember, if we’re to match his Golden Age, we only need four. My point is not that these four shows are great and replacements for the Four Pillars, but that if even one of them can become great, than really all we need is one new great show each year. I could name lots of good but flawed shows a la Boardwalk Empire from the Golden Age – Lost, Alias, The West Wing, True Blood, 24, and more but it doesn’t matter, because there were some great ones. Now, some people may like some of the good ones better than others, but that’s always the case. Additionally, people will and have always copied successful shows. Lost spawned a thousand attempts at supernatural mystery shows, not one of which has really become successful (Heroes was the closest) and The Sopranos has directly led to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and less directly many others.

There’s no reason to believe that the Golden Age is over because there are a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. There are always a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. All there have to be is a couple great ones. There are, and there’s no systematic reason that a few more won’t appear in the coming years.

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The Trouble With Politics on Homeland

3 Oct

Homeland’s great; the new season has just started, but based just on the first season alone, it’s one of my top four hour long programs on TV (along with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones), a very prestigious group.  However, no show is completely perfect and it’s always fun to slightly pick at the ones we love, in good fun, of course.

There’s something that rings false about talking about politics in a serious way on a television show or movie and trying to keep everything non-partisan.  With a show like Veep, it’s mostly doable, because it’s a comedy, and because the show is short on policy and long on silliness – the whole show is based around the idea that the Vice President essentially has no real power.  It’s still not ideal, but it’s simply less important – it still feels false that party never comes up, but it’s less of a big deal that it feels false, because of the above reasons, and because the stakes are so low.

As long as politics is on the fringes, like it was in most of the first season of Homeland,  this isn’t an issue.  The Vice President was mostly important because of his being a target, and his relationship with CIA director David Estes.  In this limited role, where the Vice President was mostly acting as a particularly political figure, it didn’t feel like party was necessarily relevant.  However, once Brody’s name was brought up as a Congressional candidate, Homeland veered into the trouble area.  There is simply no way you go into a congressional campaign, and the meetings and parties which Brody attended, without party coming up.

This season, with Brody a congressman, and being talked up in the first episode as a potential vice presidential candidate, already looks to be entering the more political sphere of Washington D.C.  Party is so wrapped up in today’s political scene that it feels false to have meetings with the Vice President talking about political matters without it ever coming up, even offhand.  Homeland tries to skirt this by only dealing with the Vice President, rather than the President or other prominent political figures, but now that the Vice President is clearly revving up his Presidential campaign, honestly avoiding parties just feels forced.  It feels like the otherwise natural conversations were jury-rigged to remove any natural hints of political party.

Sure, I understand the benefits of avoiding mention of political parties – choose the wrong one, and you immediately alienate half of your audience.  That’s a problem for TV sure, and it’s a calculation weighed against the negative lack of lack of naturalism, and as for the limited relationship with the CIA, in the first season of Homeland, it’s not really important.

Several other shows have had this issue.  Boss, in which I assumed from the get go that the mayor was Democratic, because there hasn’t been a Republican mayor of Chicago since the Great Depression.  Particularly in that situation, such a one-party system, not mentioning parties at any point seems to make even less sense than it does in other instances – the benefits to be gained by keeping out partisanship are lessened when everyone will just assume it’s Democratic anyway.  24 went back and forth; initial presidential candidate (and later president) David Palmer was clearly labeled a Democrat which made sense, and even though of course 24 wasn’t really about politics, it made a lot more sense to name the party, especially in the second and third season when he dealt with his cabinet, and his reelection campaign, and had a specific opponent.  However, 24 seems to stop talking about it as the show goes on, and by the time of the final president (there’s an insane number of Presidents in 24, but that’s a story for another day) party stops being mentioned entirely and it can only really be back engineered by figuring out the timeline of 24 that Allison Taylor is a Republican (or the very nature of American two party politics have drastically changed in the fictional 24 world).

In The Wire, which features a very Boss-like situation of a one party city, there’s no shying away from mentioning party.  David Simon, whose aim is to provide as realistic portrayals as possible, clearly labels Carcetti and essentially every other important political figure in the show as Democrats; to go throughout a campaign without party mention would break that naturalism.  The single most politics based show in recent memory is of course The West Wing, and the main characters are basically all Democrats; it would be ludicrous to imagine that show without party identity.  In a recent failed show which heavily revolved around politics, Commander in Chief, which starred Joan Allen as a Vice President, who ascends to President when the President dies, the creators partially cop out by having Allen play an independent (a Republican nominating an independent as his vice presidential candidate in this decade’s political climate?  ha), but at least labels her as a former moderate Republican, and the President she was elected with as a Republican.

Simply put, the fact is that it seems ridiculous to showcase a presidential election campaign nowadays without mentioning party, far and away the most important identifier of a candidate.  I’m not sure how close Homeland is going to take us into a potential Brody run in a presidential campaign as the vice presidential nominee, but the closer it decides to take us, the more limiting it feels to not label the party.

While I find this issue minorly troubling,  clearly it doesn’t deal with the very fabric of Homeland, and thus the show can and will still be excellent without it.  Still, I’m sure they won’t deal with it unless they absolutely have to, otherwise they would have by now.  For a show in which nearly every other interaction and scene feels true (even if it isn’t, what the hell do I know about the CIA, but that’s not really the point),  the political scenes feel off with the deliberate aversion of party.

Why the Emmys are Stupid: The Wire and other reasons, but mostly The Wire

26 Sep

Okay, I hate to spend any time on the Emmys, because they’re at the least silly and kind of stupid, and at the most pretty terrible and detrimental to television, but they’re still regarded as at least something of a big deal, and I should at least explain my thinking.

Well, here’s the argument in short, and while this is the opposite of exhaustive, once you have this piece of information, any additional evidence should just be duplicative:

The Wire, one of, if not the best hour long television programs ever created, got all of two nominations during its entire run, both of them for Best Writing.

That’s it.  Not wins.  Nominations.  There have been lots of theories on why this is, but those are almost beside the point; almost as if to provide excuses.  The show was on a major network, HBO, that had been winning tons of Emmy love for The Sopranos (well earned, I might add), and the show was received with mass critical acclaim.  Perhaps it took a couple of seasons somehow for people to notice it, but the fourth season, for example, earned a 98 on metacritic, the second highest score ever, with reviews in from 21 critics.  To not even generate a Best Drama nomination after that season, let alone a single nomination in any other category?  That’s a complete and utter joke.  A farce.

Here’s the broader view.  The Emmy are an outdated way to determine what the best shows on television are.  You’d be better off going over to metacritic and seeing their list highest rated shows, composed of a formula which combines critics’ reviews.

Emmy voters are like MVP voters in baseball (and other sports). They’re a mix of people, with many still stuck in an outdated way of looking at things who are afraid to make interesting and unconventional choices.  Of course, unlike in baseball, you can’t really make statistically based arguments as to which show or actor is the best but I do think similar to sports,  prevalent ways of evaluating shows or players have changed over time, and the Emmys lag way behind.  I don’t mean the Emmys should even be on any real cutting edge here;  simply a poll of any sampling of 50 critics of newspapers and web sites would lead to an Emmy awards that, even if I wouldn’t agree entirely, I’d think was more credible.  In this way, in addition to the MVP, I think the Emmys can be similar to (new sports analogy!) the Coaches Poll in college football, in which people who don’t actually watch most of the games vote anyway.  Emmy voters who are relying on merely single episodes submitted by Emmy contenders are hardly qualified to judge.

An example of Emmy’s modern irrelevance, Modern Family has won the Emmy for Best Comedy three years in a row.  Unlike Jon Cryer winning for Best Actor in a comedy, which is simply asinine, Modern Family is not a bad show.  Even though it’s personally not my favorite, I understand why people enjoy it; it’s solid.  However, it’s not credibly the best comedy on television.  And even though Emmy says otherwise, most critics and ardent television fans know this to be so, so I’m not exactly sure what the point of the Emmy is.  If the point is to see all of our favorite television stars hobnob and commingle at one ceremony with a chance to poke fun at themselves and each other, well, I understand that in theory, though the ceremonies could be a lot funnier and more entertaining than they are.  But the idea of connoting certain shows and people as some sort of at least vaguely definitive award winners doesn’t make a ton of sense to begin with, and loses whatever sense it makes when it takes serious cognitive dissonance to accept the Emmy award winners nowadays as factually best.  If the Emmys are supposed to be some sort of consensus of what television critics as a group believe is the best, this doesn’t accomplish that.  I’d much rather a fivethirtyeight-like model where qualified critics who actually watch many of the shows regularly have their votes mathematically tallied using some sort of formula if we have to have something.

The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame: Michael Hyatt

9 Nov

(The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame is where we turn the spotlight on a television actor or actress, and it is named after their patron saint, Zeljko Ivanek)

For this category, Hyatt has a relatively short career, with her first appearance not being until 1998, but with over 35 titles in the thirteen yeas since then, she’s certainly a worthy entrant and one who will continue to build her resume.  We also have another cast member in The Wire, which is always a treat.

Her first role was in a Dharma and Greg episode in 1998, and her next was in an episode of Oz in 1999 in which she played inmate Hamid Khan’s wife, who suffers when Khan is put in a coma in the Oz boxing tournament by Cyrus O’Reilly (why they allow a boxing tourney in Oz I never understand).  She was in the pilot of Wonderland, an episode of Ally McBeal, and then in six episodes of The West Wing.  She portrayed Angela Blake, who had previously worked for Leo McGarry when he was Secretary of Labor and in Season 5 was hired to be Director of Legislative Affairs.  She played the wife of a man who drove himself to the funeral home to die there in Six Feet Under and appeared in episodes of Joan of Arcadia, Huff and 24.  She was in four separate episodes of Law & Order, each time as a different character, including as a defense attorney in season 15’s License to Kill.  She was in a two part episode of E-Ring and in a second season Veronica Mars episode where she plays a women’s studies professor.

Around this time period, she engaged in her biggest role to date as the villainous Brianna Barksdale in The Wire. Brianna is sister to Barksdale organization head Avon Barksdale, and mother to D’Angelo Barksdale.

(WIRE SPOILERS BEGIN)

Brianna plays a key role in the first season when she convinces D’Angelo, who had all but agreed to cooperate with the police in exchange for a plea bargain, to stand strong for the family and renege on his potential deal.  She makes her argument personal and promises D’Angelo, who now must take a long prison sentence, that he will be taken care of.  This begins the course of events which lead to D’Angelo’s death.  She is suspicious when McNulty tells her that D’Angelo was murdered rather than committed suicide, but eventually comes to believe it, and never gets on with Avon the same way again.

(WIRE SPOILERS END)

She was in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and two of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  She was in ones of ER and Shark, and two of Smith, and three of Drive.  She starred in Spike TV’s one season The Kill Point, about a group of Marines who come home from abroad and execute a bank heist.  Hyatt plays the head of the SWAT team determined to save the hostages who are being held as the heist progresses.  She was then in episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, Criminal Minds and Bones.  She was in TV movies Operating Instructions and a pilot which did not get picked up known only as Untitled Wyoming Project.  She appeared in two episodes of Brothers & Sisters and single episodes of Glee, Southland, Harry’s Law, Mad Love and House of Payne.  She most recently appeared in an extremely brief role in the first episode of this season of Dexter, as an admissions director for a pre-school, which gave me the inspiration to honor her here.

The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame: Domenick Lombardozzi

5 Oct

(The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame is where we turn the spotlight on a television actor or actress, and it is named after their patron saint, Zeljko Ivanek)

Domenick Lombardozzi has made a career out of playing a very different Italian stereotype role than last week’s honoree Lenny Venito.  Like countless actors in this Hall of Fame, Lombardozzi got his start on a Law & Order episode in 1999.  He next appeared in one episode of one season show The Beat in 2000, and in a minorly memorable role in 2 episodes of Oz in 2000, as Ralph Galino, an Italian American contractor who ended up in Emerald City after a building he contracted killed two people.  Galino, a generally law-abiding citizen, didn’t fit in prison, brought a cell phone into the prison, and was killed by The Bikers relatively soon after.  He played Yankee Moose Skowron in the HBO movie 61* in 2001 and appeared in episodes of Third Watch and NYPD Blue the same year.

In 2002, he began his most memorable role as Thomas “Hurc” Hauk in The Wire.  Hurc appeared in every episode of the show, often alongside his buddy Ellis Carver, who both start as competent but disgruntled narcotics officers, and provide comic relief.  Hurc is herded into the Barksdale detail, but gets into trouble when he and Carver make a late-night raid into the housing projects and get bottles thrown at them.  Herc and Carver steal some money later on a drug bust and return to the detail in the second season.  In the third, he works in the Western District and is responsible for leaking the Hamsterdam project to the media.  In the fourth season, Herc sees the mayor receiving oral sex and uses that information to leverage his way to sergeant, but later gets fired after arrested an African-American minister on bad information.  In the fifth season, he works as an investigator for the lawyer Levy but helps out Carver by providing him with Marlo Stanfield’s phone number.

In Entourage, he played incredibly irritating character Dom, an old high school buddy of the gang who came back from prison to try to integrate into their lives, but just didn’t fit anymore.  After disappearing, he got a chance to redeem himself in a later episode where he had mostly turned his life around.  In 2009, he appeared in a Law & Order: Criminal Intent.  In 2010, he appeared in the third hour of the last season of 24, as a New York City police officer who finds a colleague dead and upon seeing Jack Bauer, thinks he is responsible.  Lombardozzi beats up Jack as his partner, who disagrees with this violence, watches, but eventually Jack escapes.  He appeared in a second season episode of Bored to Death and is one of a pair who kidnap Jonathan and demand ransom.

Currently, Lombardozzi stars as Ray Zancanelli on Breakout Kings, an A&E original program, in which, in Mod Squad fashion, a group of criminals are commissioned to help find other criminals in exchange for a reduced sentence.  Zancanelli is a former US Marshal who was fired after he was discovered to have stolen money from a crime season.  He is currently on parole, and unlike the other convicts, is allowed to carry a weapon.