Typing Faster

February 1, 2011

Black Actors from The Wire: Where are they now?

Filed under: The Wire — petertypingfaster @ 12:23 pm

Interesting breakdown of how everyone’s career has evolved in the three years since The Wire finished its run.

March 25, 2010

Back to School: Why Colleges Are Offering Classes on The Wire

Filed under: Craft, Future of TV, Stuff I Like, The Wire — petertypingfaster @ 9:09 am

Everyone that knows me is aware that I absolutely love The Wire. It is, in my opinion, the best television series ever produced. Head and shoulders above its peers. When people call The Wire Dickensian they’re not exaggerating. It’s more novel than television series.

It belongs in classrooms.

And not just in film and media studies classrooms. The Wire is good enough to be given serious academic study. And over the past few years that’s exactly what its started to get.

Professors at Harvard, U.C.—Berkeley, Duke, and Middlebury are now offering courses on the show.

Interestingly, the classes aren’t just in film studies or media studies departments; they’re turning up in social science disciplines as well, places where the preferred method of inquiry is the field study or the survey, not the HBO series, even one that is routinely called the best television show ever. Some sociologists and social anthropologists, it turns out, believe The Wire has something to teach their students about poverty, class, bureaucracy, and the social ramifications of economic change.

Asked why he was teaching a class around a TV drama, [Harvard Professor William Julius] Wilson said the show makes the concerns of sociologists immediate in a way no work of sociology he knows of ever has. “Although The Wire is fiction, not a documentary, its depiction of [the] systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling [than] that of any published study, including my own,” he wrote in an e-mail.

For Wilson, the unique power of the show comes from the way it takes fiction’s ability to create fully realized inner lives for its characters and combines that with qualities rare in a piece of entertainment: an acuity about the structural conditions that constrain human choices (whether it’s bureaucratic inertia, institutional racism, or economic decay) and an unparalleled scrupulousness about accurately portraying them. Wilson describes the show’s characters almost as a set of case studies, remarkable for the vividness with which they embody a set of arguments about the American inner city. “What I’m concentrating on is how this series so brilliantly illustrates theories and processes that social scientists have been writing about for years,” he said in an interview.

Anne-Maria Makhulu, a social anthropologist at Duke teaching a course there on The Wire this spring, makes a similar point about the show’s power as a social document. She finds that, for many of her largely upper-middle-class students, issues like poverty and urban deindustrialization are remote from their daily lives, and simply reading about them does little to bridge that gap. The Wire puts faces and stories to those forces—Stringer Bell, the gang leader with the heart of a CFO; Bubbles, the wry, entrepreneurial junkie; “Bunny” Colvin, the police major who grows so disenchanted by the war on drugs that he tries legalizing them in his district.

“There’s this question of how you appeal to young people who feel—not all of them but many of them—far removed from the type of people who are the major characters in The Wire,” Makhulu says.

Of course there are Wire focused courses that take a different tack in studying the series.

What interests Mittell and Williams is the fact that The Wire works despite its subject matter. As a popular entertainment, the series is starting from two rather significant disadvantages: its grim subject matter and the fatalistic worldview of David Simon. Simon has said that the show is meant to be Greek tragedy but with institutions like the police department or the school system taking the place of the gods: the immortal forces that toy with and blithely destroy the mortals below.

Berkeley’s Williams argues that the greatness of the show stems from the way it interweaves realism and Simon’s tragic vision with the sort of melodramatic elements that television demands: the brotherly bond between Stringer Bell and the gang leader Avon Barksdale, Bubbles’ long battle with addiction, the detective Jimmy McNulty’s attempts to rein in his self-destructive impulses, the use of foreshadowing and irony throughout. “It’s not a simple matter of, ‘Oh, it’s so real,’ ” she says. “There’s something about the structure, the use of seriality, and obviously the writing.”

And while the show has often been hailed for its accurate depiction of inner city Baltimore, there are interesting lessons to be had in the creative choices David Simon makes in his portrayal of Baltimore.

Jason Mittell aims to give his students a sense of the particular circumstances that shape The Wire. Among other things, it’s a show written by white men about mostly black characters and a show about the urban poor that aired on a premium cable channel. Mittell argues that for all its vaunted realism The Wire still has a particular audience in mind, and that audience shapes the sort of stories the show tells and the way it tells them.

Take rape. Mittell assigns his students Philippe Bourgois’ book In Search of Respect, an anthropological study of East Harlem crack gangs in the late 1980s and early ’90s. One of the strands that runs through the book is what Bourgois describes as “the prevalence and normalcy of rape.” Rape is not only common among the gang members Bourgois befriended and studied, it is celebrated.

This is a fact that someone who learned everything about drug gangs from The Wire would be aware of only dimly, if at all. Mittell argues that, conscious or not, this was a decision on the part of the show’s creators. Faced with a choice between verisimilitude and drama’s demand that the audience identify with the characters, the show’s creators, Mittell believes, went with the latter. “It could be that with the specific types of dealers and users that Simon and Burns spent time with, rape was not really part of their culture. The other explanation, which I think is more probable, is that if you portrayed these people as rapists you would lose the ability to make them at all sympathetic and human,” says Mittell.

Viewers are willing to sympathize with murderers, whether it’s Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, or Omar, because there’s a sense that they still have a certain code. Portraying them as rapists would make that much harder, Mittell argues. “Rape is a more taboo and emotionally volatile crime to portray on-screen than murder,” he says. “Imagine the show Dexter, except instead of being a serial killer, he was a serial rapist.”

Interesting article, worth the read.

January 1, 2010

The Wire’s 200 Hundred Greatest Quotes

Filed under: Stuff I Like, The Wire — petertypingfaster @ 5:08 pm

What better way to greet 2010 than with the best quotes from the best show ever?

If you don’t want to be spoiled, or if you’re worried about language, I wouldn’t watch the following videos.

The Wire 100 Greatest Quotes

The Wire The OTHER 100 Greatest Quotes

December 8, 2009

The Aughts: When TV Became Art -OR- When Everyone Learned to Shut Up and Trust the Showrunner

Emily Nussbaum has a nice article over at New York Magazine looking at what the past decade has meant for television. All in all its been a pretty special time.

Just listen to the chronology described at the start of the article.

On January 16, 2000 Big Pussy slouched up Tony Soprano’s driveway, hiding his terrible secret. It was the first episode of the second season of The Sopranos, and everywhere, on cable and network, artful programming was on the rise. In April, HBO aired The Corner, the precursor to David Simon’s The Wire; in May, Buffy the Vampire Slayer closed its fourth season with the dream-finale “Restless.” In July, Freaks and Geeks completed its single perfect season. Sex and the City was a national sensation, The West Wing had begun the previous fall, Jon Stewart was finding his feet on The Daily Show, Adebisi was murdered on Oz, and Curb Your Enthusiasm debuted, violating the premise that viewers couldn’t tolerate a hateful protagonist. HBO was in its heyday; TiVo in its infancy. As Sinatra crooned over The Sopranos‘ opening scenes, it was a very good year.

It sure was. It was a good year that led into a great decade. And it really is incredible, looking back, just how good the television of the last decade has been. Add shows like Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Deadwood, Rome, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and on, and on, and on.

The irony of it is that while the decade produced some incredible television shows, it’s also the decade that produced reality television.

Of course, 2000 was also the year Survivor debuted, that bug-eating guilty pleasure critics denounced as the apocalypse. On Fox, Rick Rockwell married Darva Conger on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, attracting 22 million viewers: a faked-up spectacle, starring unpaid unknowns, yielding a massive jackpot.

Pretty much describes reality tv in a nutshell, doesn’t it? I’m sure I’m not the only one who hoped that reality tv would go the way of Darva Conger’s marriage (she got it annulled a month after the show aired), but that obviously hasn’t happened. And while you could probably call the aughts the decade of reality television, I think you’d be a doing a disservice to the medium.

…for anyone who loves television, who adores it with the possessive and defensive eyes of a fan, this was most centrally and importantly the first decade when television became recognizable as art: collectible and life-changing and transformative and lasting. As the sixties are to music and the seventies are to movies, the aughts – which produced the best and worst shows in history – were to TV. It was a period of exhilarating craftsmanship and formal experimentation, accompanied by spurts of anxious grandiosity (for the first half of the decade, fans compared anything good to Dickens, Shakespeare, or Scorsese, because nothing so ambitious had existed in TV history).

It was an incredible shift in the way people thought. Before the aughts no one in their right mind would think to even mention television in the same breath as Dickens or Shakespeare. This was change with a capital “C.”

To recognize how radical a shift this was, you need to recall the easy contempt television inspired for 50 years, back when it was “the vast wasteland,” “chewing gum for the eyes.” Even the greatest TV creators knew enough to be reflexively self-mocking; they labored in a compromised medium, built to sell soap. But as this decade began, it had already begun to dawn on viewers that television was something that you could not just merely enjoy and then discard but brood over and analyze, that could challenge and elevate, not just entertain. And a new generation of prickly, idiosyncratic, egotistical TV auteurs were starting to shove up against the limits of their medium, stripping apart genres like the sitcom and the cop show, developing iconic roles for actors like Edie Falco and Michael C. Hall. As the years proceeded (and technology inspired new styles of storytelling), even network TV could stage an innovative series like Lost. On pay channels, especially HBO, it was a genuine renaissance: Show-runners like David Chase and Alan Ball and David Milch and Michael Patrick King (and his Sex and the City writers) reveled in cable’s freedom, exploring adult themes in shocking, sometimes difficult ways.

The New York Times pretty much lost its mind over The Sopranos, but even in retrospect, David Chase’s nasty masterpiece was a prescient creation, a symbol of what was taking place across the schedule: It was an auteurist twist on a classic genre, featuring a dislikable protagonist and stylistic risk-taking startling for TV (dream sequences, oddball pacing, film-quality visuals). In the last years of the nineties, Joss Whedon attracted a passionate cult following with his very different but equally ambitious series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, freed not by paid cable but by the invisibility of the WB. Blending teen romance with classic horror, Buffy had adult resonance disguised by its juvenile title and lo-fi looks – and it was the precursor to ambitious genre programming including Veronica Mars, Alias, Battlestar Galactica, Whedon’s Firefly, Lost, and True Blood.

Who would of thought that the creative resurgence of television as a medium would coincide with the rise of empowered showrunners? Showrunners who were given free reign to realize their artistic visions? In a lot of ways the aughts are a mirror image of what happened during the seventies in the feature film world, just substitute writers / showrunners for directors.

Chase’s and Whedon’s very different voices would come to represent the new style of TV making, less sentimental and more freewheeling, willing to alienate viewers, capable of a slow build not over episodes but over whole years – in striking contrast to the slick, interchangeable legal and medical procedurals, the syndication-friendly format that dominated the networks. On HBO, Alan Ball turned Six Feet Under into a stage for questions about mortality. Aaron Sorkin built a liberal holodeck on The West Wing; on FX, The Shield examined the intertwining nature of corruption and heroism. J.J. Abrams co-created the philosophical puzzle-box Lost; David Milch shocked the Western to life on Deadwood; Vince Gilligan interrogated one man’s slippery moral slope on Breaking Bad. On Canadian television (and reruns, thank God, on Sundance), the drily hilarious Slings and Arrows slashed through three matchless seasons from 2003 to 2006. Showtime built its own boutique-cable brand, with naughty series that reveled in dysfunction – the best being Weeds and Dexter (and the loopiest, Ilene Chaiken’s The L Word). The decade of innovation was capped by the rise of Matthew Weiner, another sly, combative auteur inspired and trained by David Chase, whose narcotic Mad Men brought back the watercooler debates of The Sopranos.

Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment. It was by nature collaborative, requiring and rewarding compromise from those who created it. But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist, a risk in an industry dependent not only on advertisers but on the willingness of viewers to continue to let you in, week after week. When his online fan base howled at tragic plot turns, Whedon argued, “It’s a mandate: Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” Chase resisted fan worship of Tony Soprano by grinding our faces in his anti-hero’s repulsiveness. In an interview just before the Mad Men finale, Weiner mused, “You know what, I don’t want to have the tail wag the dog; I don’t want the audience deciding what I do. Because I don’t think in the end they’re the best judges of that.” This doesn’t mean that every nose-thumbing auteur made great TV: Take, for example, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a tantrum about television, on television. But despite such misfires, there was something revelatory about this personality type, characterologically resistant to people-pleasing, with a bratty – sometimes self-destructive – insistence on a legacy beyond that night’s ratings.

Now I’m just going to ignore all the bits about artistic entitlement and bratty, self-destructive behavior, and instead I’ll focus on the positives. If you look at the list of great shows produced in the last ten years, and then take a look at the writers responsible for those shows, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that behind the majority of these shows stands an empowered, successful showrunner.

It’s something that television writers have been saying for years. If you want great shows, then hire the right writer for the job and get out of the way. We all want to write the next Sopranos or Wire. Get out of the way, let us get on with it, and hopefully the next ten years will be as good as the last.

And if it makes you feel any better you can always fire us if things don’t work out. I don’t think any writer would disagree with that.

Check out the rest of the article. It’s a good read.

November 8, 2009

The Wire: Five Seasons In Five Minutes

Filed under: Stuff I Like, The Wire — petertypingfaster @ 6:06 pm

Watching Omar Little testify got me all nostalgic for The Wire, so I figured I’d post this up as well. A rapper by the name of Mad Skillz sums up the entire story of The Wire in five minutes.

There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Sunday Soliloquy: The Wire S02E06

Filed under: Sunday Soliloquy, The Wire — petertypingfaster @ 5:00 am

More scene than soliloquy, but one of the most memorable scenes from The Wire in my books. Omar Little is one of my favorite characters of all time, and one worth studying. Here he is at his best while testifying against a member of the Barksdale crew.

October 25, 2009

Who Says TV Can’t Make A Difference?

Filed under: Stuff I Like, The Wire — petertypingfaster @ 12:48 pm

This is just cool. Actress Sonya Sohn of The Wire has started a non-profit that uses episodes of The Wire to help “…some of [Baltimore]’s most troubled teenagers to turn their own lives around and away from drugs and crime.”

“That’s the thing about ‘The Wire.’ If you’ve been on ‘The Wire’ you have street cred and so that street cred is currency. So why not use that currency for the betterment of other folks.”

That’s just incredibly cool, and huge props to Sohn for doing what she can to make a difference.

August 18, 2009

Where’s Wallace, String?

Filed under: Stuff I Like, The Wire — petertypingfaster @ 9:00 am

Looks like one of my favorite young actors landed a role on one of my favorite shows.

Wallace, from The Wire, is now a regular on Friday Night Lights.

Consider me stoked.

Blog at WordPress.com.