December 1st, 2010
In plotting the first season of Terriers, Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin made two key decisions which shaped the series into one of the year’s finest.
The first was their willingness to resist creating a season-long arc: after the first four or five episodes seemed to be towards some larger conspiracy, the show risked frustrating viewers by pulling up before things became too complicated. In an age where hyper-serialization is highly valued, the decision seemed strange until we saw the result. The residual energy from the near-miss mythology lingered in the subsequent standalones, as unfinished business meant a constant threat of its return – when it did return in “Asunder,” there were more pieces to the puzzle, and the re-entry was surprisingly elegant.
The second was that, throughout the various ups and downs, the show never concretely positioned its heroes within any definitive morality. While we could argue that Hank and Britt are inherently good men, their willingness to do petty, despicable, and reckless things has been refreshing. Hank’s jealousy has never been romanticized, and Britt’s violent outbursts have never been pitched as heroic; while we understand why they do the things they do, we are never asked to agree with them, and the result is two characters who we can relate to even when we don’t want to. They’re characters we like even in their darkest moments, but characters that we don’t necessarily forgive after the fact. They are characters that feel real, and thus characters that we become connected with.
“Hail Mary,” coming off of the rollercoast that was “Quid Pro Quo,” is hopelessly hopeful. Following the earlier pattern, it concludes stories without actually concluding them, leaving threads of story that can be picked up at a later date. It provides a sense of future that it must subsequently tear away, reunions that are either years or weeks too late. While you could technically argue that this is a happy ending, a sort of scrappy P.I. Casablanca, in truth the ending is as the season was: an exercise in dynamic delay, a true marvel of narrative form.
And a show that simply cannot be allowed to ride off into the sunset.
“I’ll Fly Away”
June 20th, 2010
“I’m just a player.”
I’ve fallen into an unfortunate trap over the past month or so with Treme, and it’s quite a common one: with a show this dense and devoid of traditional plot development, and where the professional critics are receiving screeners and I am, well, not, I haven’t been able to work up the drive to write about the episodes when I’ve been seeing them a few days late every week (as a result of the conflict with Breaking Bad, which was so great this season). I’d hate for this to be read as a slight on the series as a whole, but I do think that I’ve avoided writing about it because I’ve felt uncomfortable offering a verdict on how the series has progressed.
I think what I’ve discovered is that Treme is constantly defined by fallout, both in terms of the overarching impact of Hurricane Katrina and the individual tragedies and events which define each character’s journey. When something happens on Treme, like the conclusion of last week’s penultimate episode, the real interest for David Simon and Eric Overmeyer seems to be the consequences. The Wire’s finales were always denouements, but Treme has been one long denouement from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, and living within that space has taken these characters to some dangerous places and created consequences that will not end with tonight’s season finale. While The Wire was interested in how one small decision or one bureaucratic inefficiency could snowball into tragedy, Treme captures the spirit of a city fighting to overcome inescapable tragedy, and the result has been some great television.
“I’ll Fly Away” is a powerful and riveting finale, one which emphasizes the central notion of how these individuals fit into the world around them. Treme is filled with characters who either struggle against the script they’re given (the creators) or who simply play the sheet music placed before them (the players), and after Katrina hit New Orleans everyone was forced to ask how far they would follow their desire to take control of their own future, and at what point they would simply let themselves be washed away by the storm’s aftermath towards a new path in life. At the conclusion of Treme’s first season, we see numerous characters reach the point where they’re forced to make a choice, and yet it is never presented as a judgment (either positive or negative) on New Orleans culture.
Regardless of whether these characters choose to fly away or stay in New Orleans until the bitter end, they will always love this city, and that infectious love is so apparent in the production of this series that no amount of tragedy can outweigh the strength of spirit shown in these opening episodes. While the series’ highly recognizable subject matter could have overwhelmed the individual characters that Simon and Overmeyer have created to populate their historical fiction, these characters have instead become a powerful way in which we as an audience come to understand the life of New Orleans, and the sheer weight that they were forced to carry once Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke.
And Treme is that much more accomplished for carrying that weight with such confidence.
“At the Foot of Canal Street”
May 2nd, 2010
How do you solve a problem like Katrina? If Treme started out by looking at how people survived the storm and how they are struggling to bounce back personally and professionally from its immediate impact, “At the Foot of Canal Street” moves onto how it is that the myriad of problems caused by the storm are being fixed. As the nation talks about canceling Carnival or not rebuilding the city, and as the city’s public works contractor is revealed to be incompetent, characters are forced to wonder whether they should take things into their own hands and try to enact some change on their own.
There’s some broad strokes in this particular part of the episode, characters proposing political campaigns and recording profanity-laced YouTube videos, but it subtly ripples through the rest of the show’s characters and storylines. Everyone has that point where they wonder if they should take their fate into their own hands, or where they struggle to do the right thing because they know it’s bigger than they realize, and Treme is just as interested in those responses as it is the direct engagement with bureaucracy and national media. “At the Foot of Canal Street” doesn’t entirely fix some of the show’s early red flags, but George Pelecanos nicely integrates even the show’s most problematic character into a narrative that feels as genuine as the rest of the series.
Davis and Defictionalization: Treme’s Inherited Crisis of Continuity
April 18th, 2010
When I was watching Treme earlier this week, I knew that there was some buzz in early reviews about one of the show’s characters, although I had stayed far enough away from those reviews that I actually didn’t know which character it was going into the premiere. However, there was no doubt after watching the episode that the response was to Steve Zahn’s Davis, a character who is a bit too much of a jerk for some viewers.
I wrote about this a little bit in my review of the premiere, arguing that the character has yet to be given a reason for this sort of behaviour, which keeps the audience from relating to him in any way. However, I’ve since that point read a lot of comments from others (including Ethan Thompson at Antenna) which have started to paint Davis as something more intriguing, something which speaks to both the series’ complicated intertextuality and its unique relationship with historical reality.
So, after the jump, a few thoughts (with probably a few Wire spoilers) on the defictionalization of Simon and Burns’ Baltimore and its influence on the response to Davis’ incongruity within Treme’s New Orleans.
“Do You Know What It Means”
April 11th, 2010
I’m in the middle of a fairly chaotic week (that will continue to be pretty chaotic until at least the weekend), and so I only today got a chance to sit down with David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s Treme. As a fan of The Wire, and a fan of good television, I can objectively say that this is a very engaging television program that I look forward to watching for the remainder of the Spring.
As a critic, I don’t know if I quite have time to delve into it with the depth that I might in different circumstances – I’m going to offer a few brief thoughts on a couple of stories, and probably talk a bit about the show’s depiction of New Orleans, but full-detailed thoughts might have to wait until later in the miniseries.
Of course, I’m writing this before I start writing the review in earnest, so you could look beneath the fold and find something as long as you’d normally expect.
Agency begets Tragedy: AMC’s Breaking Bad
March 18th, 2010
Last night, as Todd VanderWerff and I talked about this year’s Emmy awards on Twitter, he remarked that Breaking Bad will always be held back at the Emmys thanks to its Albuquerque setting – by filming outside of Los Angeles, and outside of more acceptable industry alternatives like Vancouver or New York, the show is alienated with primarily L.A.-based voters. My response to this was to make what, on the surface, seems like a really complimentary comparison: Breaking Bad, in other words, is the new The Wire, another show that by shooting in an off-market city (Baltimore, in the case of The Wire) was never able to get as much respect as it perhaps deserved.
Now that I’ve finished the second season of AMC’s second original series, this comparison is infinitely more interesting than I had imagined it last evening. While I love The Wire, and fell in love (in an entirely non-romantic way, considering the darkness of the show) with Breaking Bad over the past few weeks, the two shows couldn’t be more different in terms of how they represent agency. While The Wire tends to argue that the organizations which govern both sides of the law are inevitably corrupt and fraught with challenges that prevent all but a lucky few from rising above it, Breaking Bad offers Walter White countless opportunities to escape the life he has chosen to live, and at every turn he makes personal decisions that send him further down his dark path.
If I tried to talk about everything I had to say about the first two seasons of the show, I would be writing for days, so instead I’m going to focus on a few elements of the series (many relating to questions of agency) that I thought were particularly effective. If you have yet to watch the series, I can’t recommend it enough if you’re not afraid to watch something that’s morally compromising and unafraid to go to some very dark places – this isn’t a show for everyone, but it’s fantastically well-made, and you can all look forward to reviews of the show’s third season starting on Sunday.
When I was on the train home from Montreal, I had with me screeners of the first five episodes of a Canadian show, Showcase’s Cra$h & Burn, that had never particularly been on my radar (primarily because I don’t actually get the channel in question). The reviews had been lukewarm upon its release, to the point where I had not included the show in my drive to watch more Canadian television.
However, watching the show on the train proved to be an interesting experience. If you had told me going in that the show would present itself as part Better Off Ted (Workplace Satire!), part The Wire (Corruption, and Clark Johnson!), and part Six Feet Under (People Die in the Cold Open!), I probably would have raised my eyebrow faster than ever before, but Crash & Burn is an interesting little dramatic experiment which plays with elements from all these shows. It is not as successful as any of them, struggling early on with the weight of having its hand in so many cookie jars, but it gets a lot of points for going for it, and achieves a sense of dramatic weight and purpose around the midpoint of its first season which makes me anxious, at some point in the future, to finish it.
Unfortunately, the period where I was putting my life back together after my 21-hour train ride took the life out of me, so I nearly neglected to write about the show in time for this post to seem, well, timely: the show’s first season finale airs on Thursday, February 18th, at 10pm ET. However, being a heavily serialized drama, I would suggest, if you get Showcase, you could perhaps wait and see if they start repeating episodes (or check them out at Showcase.ca), because in the end I think it’s worth seeing from the beginning.