TV reviews

The Wire, season 1, episode 11: empathy whiplash

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Hey, The Wire, I’m cool with some ambiguity about the characters I like. So McNulty’s an asshole, D’Angelo’s morally crippled, Bubs is a junkie, Prez is incompetent in the field, Daniels is supposedly “dirty”, and Omar is a cold-blooded murderer. All that’s cool. I can work with that. But once I’ve decided I don’t like characters, stop making me like them. Continue reading →

The Wire, season 1, episode 9: where does it all go?

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I don’t know how much drug dealers make, but I wouldn’t have guessed a million dollars a month. It’s certainly not the kind of number I imagined while watching Barksdale and Stringer Bell closed up in the office above the strip club. A million dollars a month seems like Scarface money. But this is inner city Baltimore.

As Freamon unfolds the extent of Barksdale’s operations, Daniels asks something else that didn’t occur to me.

“So where’s it all go?”

Freamon is nonplussed. Barksdale doesn’t have fancy houses, cars, or jewelry. He owns business fronts and property. And he makes political contributions. Substantial political contributions. Legal political contributions. Freamon also mentions the senator’s limo driver caught with a bag of cash. The implication is that there are also less than legal political contributions.

As Freamon explains this, the camera pushes in on Daniels, lost in thought. And then a shadow passes across his face. Not a figurative shadow. A literal shadow. Continue reading →

The Wire, season 1, episode 8: juris ex machina

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The Wire is about what it’s about largely because of one character. Without this character, McNulty would be just another homicide detective, Avon Barksdale would be peddling drugs unsurveilled, Omar would rampage unchecked, Bub’s hat collection would be minus one bright red hat, and residents of the projects would have easier access to a payphone. Furthermore, without this character, there are now two points when the investigation would have come to a halt.

In other words, The Wire would have been a much shorter series. Continue reading →

The Wire, season 1, episode 5: just jump the 5!

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In bad movies, the villain tells the hero, “You’re just like me!” The hero tends to disagree, or at least get upset about being in a movie with moral ambiguity. Now the hero is less of a good guy and/or the bad guy is less of a bad guy. Now the moral ambiguity is laid out for everyone to see.

The better way to imply moral ambiguity is what The Wire is doing. Continue reading →

Better Call Saul: so many star wipes in a row

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One of the cases to be made for Better Call Saul being better than Breaking Bad is consistency of tone. Breaking Bad frequently strayed from family soap opera, to hard-hitting crime drama, to wacky character comedy, to drug cartel intrigue. You could argue that was one of its strengths, because it allowed for episodes like the one with the fly and the magnet heist. Breaking Bad went wherever it felt like going. From Mr. Chips to Scarface, as Vince Gilligan is on record as saying. But with multiple layovers.

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The Wire, season 1, episode 4: fucking elementary, my dear McNulty

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“This case is nowhere near anything we’re doing,” McNulty complains to his partner. They’re getting ready to investigate the scene of an old unsolved murder case. But we know he’s wrong. We know it’s directly adjacent to what they’re doing. We know the murder was committed by the very same person who put into motion everything that has happened.

Baltimore is a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world (one out of every 2000 people in Baltimore has been murdered this year), and yet McNulty and Bunk have been randomly assigned the one murder that relates directly to everything else they’re doing? I’m not sure how I feel about such massive coincidence in a procedural. But I know how I feel about the investigation scene that’s about to happen. Continue reading →

The Wire, season 1, episode 2: Read all about it! Read all about it!

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I could watch a full hour of Lance Reddick giving a briefing. And then I could watch another full hour of him at home being debriefed by his wife. He listens as she walks him through the dilemma he’s in. “You can’t lose if you don’t play,” she explains. For an officious hotel clerk in John Wick and a sinister government agent in The Guest, it takes an actor who can listen as well as he can tell.

Okay, this is really dumb, but I might as well get it off my chest before it fades into technological obscurity along with phone cords, typewriters, and Crown Victorias. All of which appear in The Wire, by the way.

Continue reading →

The Wire, season 1, episode 1: the boy who would be Johnny Storm

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Here I am, finally watching The Wire. How long has it even been? How long did I miss out? How long have I had to endure people prattling on about how good The Wire is? Ten years? Twenty years? Who knows. I saw a pager in the title sequence and my mind shifted into “okay, now you’re watching something from the 90s” mode. It certainly has the cinematography and the aspect ratio of the 90s. To think we used to watch TV is a narrow square box. Then there’s a scene with McNulty and an FBI guy about how the feds have been “getting out of drugs” since the Towers fell. Oops, okay, not the 90s.

My mind’s 90s mode explains why I thought the kid who plays one of the drug dealers looks like Michael B. Jordan. He does a thing where he knits his brow while he licks his lips, and then pulls his lips in, like he’s thinking really hard about something. Just like Michael B. Jordan does. He also has a funny bit where he points out that Alexander Hamilton was not, in fact, a President even though he’s on the $10 bill. And this from a time when most people associated the name Manuel with a Panamanian dictator instead of a Broadway sensation. Then the credits roll and, hey, it is Michael B. Jordan! Well, yeah, that’s about the age he would have been ten years ago, when The Wire began its run. I guess this is the dawn of TV getting good enough to have actors worthy of being movie stars. And there’s Idris Elba, who I used to think of as the guy from that British TV series about vampires. That’s how most people know him, right? From Ultraviolet? Or was it this Wire thing that really kicked his career into high gear?

See what happens to your perspective when you go twenty years not watching The Wire.

Best thing you’ll see all week: Better Call Saul (season 3, episode 3)

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The unique problem for television as a medium is that it has so much space to fill. A typical series is at least 10 hour-long episodes. By my math — I’ve worked it out on the back of this Talking Dead transcript — that’s ten hours of television. Ten hours of me sitting, watching, listening, presumably being entertained. Ten hours of storytelling. But the average script simply doesn’t have ten hours of storytelling. So the average television show fills out those ten hours with padding. I can think of very few TV series that wouldn’t be better off trimmed of their fat and compressed into movie-length features.

But then there’s Better Call Saul. Continue reading →