I turn on the TV. The actor onscreen is turned away from the camera, so we glimpse the merest flicker of face: the line of a jaw, the edge of nose. Instantly, we both blurt out “Is that The Gersh?”
A) We have a household nickname for Gina Gershon.
B) We can both recognize her in a split second, even when she’s got her back to the camera.
It’s nice we found each other.
Elsa, apropos of nothing: I sang the Michigan J. Frog song at the bar tonight.
The Fella:That sounds like you.
The Fella: Is the show paused?
Elsa: No. [pushes some buttons, nothing changes] No.
The Fella: [notices sudden silence everywhere.] I think the world is paused.
The Fella and Elsa together: Nooooo!
Elsa: I think the world ended, honey. I’ll check Twitter.
After years of watching television exclusively on DVD, we’ve recently had cable hooked up (for The Fella’s exciting new freelancing gig at The A.V. Club’s TV Club).
1. Suddenly swimming in this surge of commercials, all squawking about my weight candy bars my hair burgers my credit online shopping my bowels my skin fast easy loans my sex drive antiacids my kitchen floor the power of cheeeeeeeeeese, has stirred in me the desire to rewatch 1988′s They Live.
2. Conveniently, They Live is on one channel or another once a day.
The Fella and I sit watching “Community.” Vaughn breaks into his Annie’s Song*.
The Fella: Didn’t Barry Manilow actually have an “Annie’s Song”?
Elsa: Wasn’t it John Denver?
TF: Oh, sure!
E: But I don’t know how it goes.
TF: I think it’s the “you fill up…” [He trails off, obviously reluctant to give us both the earworm.]
E: Ah. “Like a thing in a thingee.”
E: Like a blank in a blanket.
E: Like a frog in a bucket.
*which is nowhere to be found online, so here’s Troy and Abed mimicking Jeff.
[salty language alert!]
Elsa: I’m pretty sure some dumb f*ckers on the internet just ruined the next episode of “Mad Men” for me.
The Fella: Did you go to dumbf*ckruiners.com, baby?
Elsa: … yeeeeeah, that’s on me.
The Fella: Yeah, you should really delete that bookmark.
For this week’s VideoReport, I’m suggesting “The Wire,” even if you’ve seen it before… and especially if you’ve seen it twice through.
Watching David Simon’s deservedly legendary HBO series “The Wire” for the first time is a bit like learning to swim: you’re thrown into the complicated worlds of Baltimore’s overtaxed Homicide division, a special unit developed to study drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s syndicate, and the many members of the syndicate itself. It’s a sprawling cast of characters with dozens of interweaving story lines and realistically complicated relationships, spread out through several separate but intersecting subcultures. The closest we get to a traditional first-episode dramatis personae is a police photo board putting names to faces — but only of a handful of the gang’s street-level soldiers.
Rewatching the first episode last night, I suddenly looked at the DVD counter and thought “We’re more than eight minutes in and we’ve learned one person’s name — the corpse lying in the street” — who never comes up again in the entire series.
After the spoon-feeding that most dramas do to keep viewers up to speed, this reserve is a bit jolting, but “The Wire” demands your attention and then utterly, completely rewards you for it.
That’s the first time through. The second time through, you know the characters and the story arcs. The second viewing, like the second reading of a great novel, allows you to fully immerse yourself in the characters’ arcs. This time, you know who they are, where they came from, and — devastatingly, in many cases — where they’re going.
Now that you’re not struggling to follow the complex stories, the show’s greater theme of institutional decay becomes strikingly clear at every turn, even in the first few episodes. The D.A.’s office with its staggering stacks of paperwork on every desk, lining the walls, and precariously propped on office chairs: that’s not just set-dressing for an overworked office but a symbol of a legal system smothering under its own weight.
The parallels between cops and robbers become strikingly clear. When a hand-to-hand drug dealer commands a crowd of waiting junkies “You all know what this is! Up against the wall!,” it’s not hard to imagine why he chose those precise words. When a surveillance van drives off having given up on finding the dealers’ stash, the camera shifts to the van of the rival criminal crew (as yet unnamed, of course) who watched longer and smarter than the cops.
Again, like a great novel, the third time through, even greater resonances and symbols emerge. To pick just one example, let’s look at Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk. At first, Herc seems as dumb and as dangerous as an untrained and neglected dog, but as the series develops, he is the very embodiment of the institutional decay and socio-political resentment that obstructs true and meaningful changes. Lazy, abusive, shiftless, untrustworthy, and almost hopelessly naive, Herc nonetheless believes his initial stagnation in the ranks is the consequence of affirmative action or favoritism, not of his own woefully poor police work. Herc routinely and off-handedly refers to his whiteness as a mark of some obscure authority: with his (black) partner in a pointless argument about which of them is Batman and which is Robin; with a citizen while phonebanking for a (black) mayoral candidate; when griping about intructions given to him by more adept and experienced (black) fellow detective Kima Greggs. His simmering racial resentment only fuels his apathy for police work; Herc cuts more and more corners as the show proceeds.
But, dumb and destructive as he is, Herc is a constant unwitting catalyst, both for his colleagues and for those outside the police force. [SPOILERS] It’s astounding how many major events in the universe of “The Wire” are precipitated by some fool thing Herc says or does*. To list just a few: Prez beating a teenager, the identification of the elusive Avon Barksdale, linking the dock workers to the drug trade, Carver’s life-altering introduction to Major Colvin, the dissolution of Hamsterdam (and the end of Bunny Colvin’s largely productive police career), the release of Marlo Stansfield, and — most heartbreakingly — innocent Randy Wagstaff loosing his stable home and enduring daily beatings as a snitch. Herc is like a force of nature, a tornado, moving heedlessly through the landscape with destruction trailing behind him, blissfully unaware of the miseries he visits upon those in his wake.
Perhaps the answer to the riddle of both Herc’s destructive nature and his personal success lies in his utter lack of integrity. Most of the characters on the series, cops and criminals both, struggle to align their personal morality with the strictures of their institutions. As Omar points out so poignantly, “A man got to have a code.” All the players recognize that their wins and losses occur within those strictures, that they are, in some greater sense, a consequence of the system. “The game is the game.” Even when Bodie concedes that “the game is rigged, man” that he’ll do “what I have to,” he adds a principled caveat: “just don’t ask me to live on my knees.”
But Herc has no code, no guiding principle, no sense of a greater system, no passion or ambition other than bettering his own circumstances. Herc will live on his knees if it means living comfortably. We see him switch alliances, insincerely fawning over different leaders, over and over: from unit to unit, commander to commander, candidate to candidate, even switching from cops to robbers by taking a job with Levy (the lawyer representing Barksdale, thus working against his former units’ interests), and finally (though briefly) betraying Levy to his former partner only to accept Levy’s fraternal embrace at the end. Levy’s no fool; despite his words, he probably knows that Herc is no one’s mishpocha. Herc’s only loyalty is to Herc.
*For more one Herc’s centrality to the events of the series, read The Life and Times of Fuzzy Dunlop.
Courtesy of friends JE & AC, who moved out of town over the weekend, we now have a new-to-us ginormous TV in our place. The two best things about this TV, other than the mammoth screen:
1. The Fella will no longer need to complain about “the blacks,” i.e., the fuzzy, indistinct gray-to-black range that hampered dark scenes showing on our previous flatscreen TV;
2. I will stop cringing for a split second every so often because my partner has muttered the unexpected phrase “Wow, the blacks are terrible.”
When “Twin Peaks” was first broadcast, my friend S (who didn’t have a TV in her tiny rented room) used to come over to my big, often-empty house on a rambling village road to watch the show with me. We would make popcorn or, one happy night, cherry pie and coffee, and gasp with delight and horror as we watched.
We were, what, 19, 20? Just the right age to be totally enveloped in that baroque, silly, scary world, to feel fellowship with Laura and Audrey and Donna and even thick-headed James, too sappy to be a Brando and too soft to be James Dean.
Every week, S would get so spooked that she’d put off walking home in the dark by herself for as long as she could, until — every week — suddenly it was midnight, and now the streets would be even darker and completely deserted.
So, every week, I walked S home after midnight, down long winding roads lined with old trees creaking in the breeze, few streetlights, and deep pockets of shadow looming everywhere. We’d chatter in a subdued way, mocking our ridiculous fear even as we drove it off with titters of laughter.
And every week, I would leave S at her brightly lit doorstep, take a deep breath as if I could breathe in that bright light and carry it with me into the night… and then I would step into the dark to start walking home.
More than any of the spooky motifs, the sudden twists, the dreamy vignettes, or the in-jokes, I remember those walks home in the dark, where the mundane landscape of my youth suddenly loomed so menacingly, where the perfectly normal things of daytime became imbued with mystery and danger. It seems to me that’s what “Twin Peaks” is all about.
*This entry is cross-posted from MetaChat.