Put your hands on the wheel, let the golden age begin

Apart from “The Simpsons”, I never thought much about television growing up. I was raised in a household that didn’t believe in cable and that also didn’t believe that a functioning roof antenna was a necessity. Therefore, the TV I knew as a child–beamed into my family’s 80s era Trinitron’s bunny ear antenna–was limited to statically impaired versions of PBS, FOX, Chicago’s old UPN Power 50, NBC, ABC, WGN, and on a good day CBS, depending on wind and humidity.

PBS was forced on me by my mother as being the only channel worth watching it being the Brussels sprouts of television for a boy in grade school. FOX provided “The Simpsons,” the only show my father allowed my sister and me to enjoy every Thursday night much to my mother’s dismay, but also unleashed a plethora of mind-numbing pre-reality TV reality shows with snuff as the central themes. Titles like “When Animals Attack 3,” “World’s Deadliest Swarms,” “When Stunts Go Bad,” “Cheating Death: Catastrophes Caught on Tape,” and “World’s Scariest Police Shootouts” provided more than enough reason to censor our intake of television other than PBS.

UPN was the network for trash TV–re-runs of the A-Team, syndicated Montel Williams, silly Saturday morning cartoons, WWF Wrestling absurdities, etc. NBC’s “Seinfeld” was a show I didn’t truly appreciate till after it began syndication post-its heavily scorned swan song finale.

My parents did, however, bring us up on a multitude of different films, schooling us on all genres and snippets of film history. My father’s early seminars on horror films began with the early Universal monster movies–Frankenstein, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon–and ended somewhere between Freddy Krueger and The Re-animator, a film that although full of dark humor, shouldn’t be shown to a boy in middle school.

We were screened foreign classics, contemporary blockbusters and sleepy indies. It got to the point that our TV was merely a vehicle for the handful of VHS cassettes we would rent every weekend. The content of its broadcasting failed to garner any interest for most of my adolescence.

Today the timely phrase being passed around the “water cooler” and the blogosphere is that we are living in a new “Golden Age” of television.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times recently ventured outside of his role as chief film critic to comment on the rising quality of serialized television being made today and how film as a medium is losing its creative edge. His article entitled, “Are Films Bad, or Is TV Just Better?”, while primarily focusing on the film industries’ struggles at the box office, does eventually get to the heart of this belief. It raises an interesting question about televisions role in the motion picture arts: is television the better medium for storytelling in this new environment?

Ask anyone interested in this topic and most will tell you that this wave of quality television programming–shows that broke away from the conventions of the previous television mindset and took risks that film could never accomplish–began with HBO’s landmark series, “The Sopranos.”

On a good Sunday night it was true that “The Sopranos” aired episodes that provided more intrigue as well as good old fashioned entertainment than most films being released at the time.

Here was an original series that revolved around a vile human being who we as viewers couldn’t help but love and relate to. The notion of making the anti-hero the hero was a big step for modern television, though in reality it didn’t solely start with David Chase’s Jersey mob opus.

HBO’s prison drama, “Oz” premiered a year before we watched Tony Soprano enter his shrink’s office for the first time on television. That show only found a niche audience but managed to remain on the air for a six-season run. It is this series that truly revolutionized what I see as television’s new wave.

Like “The Sopranos,” “Oz” trumpeted the rise of the anti-hero. The inmates at the Oswald State Correctional Facility came from the dregs of society¬–murderers, drug dealers, rapists, neo-Nazi hate-mongers, and so on. Still the series managed the feat of making the characters intriguing, no matter how horrible their actions might be. It also took an otherwise boring and fairly routine setting (the inside of a prison ward where not much goes on) and created a world as intricate as anything you might read in the halls of epic literature.

What it did well was parade the average nobody and still draw in the audience. It is this idea that is the root of this so-called golden age.

Sure someone like Tony Soprano is a larger than life kind of character but at his core he’s just another guy trying to make a buck in America. The show draws us in close enough to relate to his everyday pains but also shows us the monstrous side creating a very complicated relationship between the viewer and the protagonist. But let’s move beyond “The Sopranos” to the other major shows in the past decade where this Golden Age has been blossoming.

Take HBO’s post-“OZ/Sopranos” lineup: there’s “Six Feet Under,” which, generally speaking, took a suburban family of undertakers and made their lives captivating; “The Wire” used a dying American city as its protagonist, focusing on its social institutions for intrigue and creating memorable characters out of crack addicts, narcotics officers, drug kingpins, school teachers, beat reporters and stevedores, the forgotten side of society; “Treme” chronicles the lives of everyday working Jazz musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans; and even “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” based on the improvisations of real people put in fictionalized settings, furthered the notion that nothing can be everything.

Today two of television’s most talked about and riveting series, AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” follow this now tried and true formula: take otherwise ordinary individuals and uncover the intrigue.

“Mad Men” is flashy with its period piece costumes and historical winks and nods, but at its core it’s still a television show about advertising executives and copywriters working in a Manhattan office, which on paper doesn’t scream successful television.

“Breaking Bad” follows the downward spiral of an average high school chemistry teacher in a seemingly average part of the country (the series somehow takes an otherwise forgettable Albuquerque, New Mexico and makes its setting fascinating) entering a world of crime.

What’s most striking about both of these series, which came from a network known for syndicated classic films rather than quality television series, is that ten years ago they probably would never have found a home on the air.

For the longest time, original television series were limited to a set content standard that revolved around the idea that singular episodes tell a story from beginning to end. A “Law and Order” cop catches a case, goes through the motions to solve it, and eventually closes said case. A sitcom follows a group of characters living in the surreal version of reality it is trying to emulate, aiming to grab a certain amount of laughs between each commercial break. The best word to describe television throughout most of its existence is routine.

Sure there were exceptions to the trap of routine along the way but most were short-lived moments of greatness or shows that started strong but slowly depreciated over time.

“Twin Peaks” was incredibly original for its time and managed to draw viewers into the otherwise boring setting of a sleepy Pacific Northwest town, but its spike in popularity and mysterious nature ultimately led to its premature demise thanks to a network pressure to appease the masses and the premature departure of David Lynch during the series’ second final season.

Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” was rooted in cyclical routine but had layered storylines and character arcs that were perfect for garnering a cult following. Though it suffered from possibly too much layering of conspiracy theory related webs and was on the air for far too long.

With HBO’s slow-burn foray into original programming, television was suddenly treated as a place to give visionary writers and filmmakers all the time they need to truly tell the story they wanted to tell. For the first time ever, television creators weren’t limited to 24 or 48 minute brackets of time to tell a story. With HBO great storytelling was no longer held back by censorship or notions of “bad taste” (and really, who is to say what is deemed ‘bad taste’ these days with daytime talk shows and reality TV).

The ways we as viewers soak up television has also changed how the medium has transformed over the years. Advertising no longer dictates what we watch on TV since technological advancements allow us to avoid the advertising methods of yesteryears all together.

DVD enabled us to soak up entire shows in small amounts of time, following more closely the details and buildups that one often misses with week-to-week viewing schedules. The Internet allows for shows to be experienced uncensored and sans commercial breaks and even allows shows to venture outside the realms of simple episodic television by creating webisodes, online forums for discussion, and interactive websites to coincide with the storytelling.

The question that arises though is whether or not this influx of television is a good thing. Are we watching too much television? Is this yet another distraction in a long list of sectors of popular culture drawing us away from the outdoors, away from the great books, or more traditional pursuits of knowledge? The answer to this depends solely on the viewer.

I for one am enamored by the wave of quality writing and film making coming out of the truly great series on television (and to be fair there is still a lot of crap out there). While film is far from the state of irrelevance, it’s hard to deny that television, as a visual medium, gives artists more room to stretch their ideas. The depths to which “The Wire” took viewers and the messages it managed to spread through its five seasons and 60+ hours of storytelling is unprecedented in the filmmaking world. The show took its cues from great literary devices (beautifully structured character arcs, multiple points of view, and even contemporary, well-respected authors) and created its own world, with all the highs, lows and complications that make reality so intriguing.

On the other hand, there is the notion that we as consumers rely too much on the media. A creative spree is always a good thing but as a viewer it’s difficult to decide how to spend one’s time. Between the great novels to read, films to screen, albums to listen to, journalistic endeavors to be privy to, and now television series to soak up, it’s increasingly more difficult to find time to just be.

It’s hard to say if this wave of original television will reach a tipping point, or at the very least, a moment when there just isn’t anything of worth to watch. Until then it surprisingly comforting to know that there are a number of upcoming original series and returning shows to look forward to. HBO’s prohibition era gangster epic, “Boardwalk Empire,” the return of “Breaking Bad” after it’s season three cliffhanger, AMC’s zombie gamble series, “The Walking Dead,” a second season for David Simon’s New Orleans’ love note, “Treme,” and most likely some surprises along the way.

True Blood, Sucking the Life Out of HBO One Episode at a Time

ImageRemember the slogan, “It’s not TV, It’s HBO?” Well up until this past spring this marketing ploy actually rang true. HBO has long been the trendsetter of original series that break all boundaries and push audiences’ perception of what television is and should be. Unfortunately thanks to the culminations of the network’s most beloved quartet of series–Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and most recently The Wire–and the premiere of some less than desirable new original series the Crown Royal of premium cable programming is in threat of losing its edge over the best of the rest.

HBO’s newest contribution to Sunday night is True Blood, an overly erotic vampire drama set in the Bible belt Deep South. Created by Alan Ball, the brainchild behindSix Feet Under and the scribe of American BeautyBlood had the potential to be HBO’s saving grace, the new series to present the exciting future for the network. Sadly the series, which is currently ten episodes into its twelve-episode first season, has failed to match the brilliance of HBO’s past flagships series and remains yet another dud for the struggling network.

True Blood was at one point one of the more intriguing projects in the works at HBO mainly because after the success of Six Feet Under it’s difficult to imagine Alan Ball not delivering another hit series. After Deadwood creator David Milch proved that follow-up shows (John from Cincinnati) can also bomb, the niche vampire premise started to sound more and more worrisome. Then again pitching a show about a family of funeral home owners probably sounded equally as questionable when Six Feet Under was first proposed.

The main problem plaguing True Blood, which is one-part hokey throwback to pulp vampire novels (the show is based on a semi-popular series of books), one-part modern allegory for social discrimination (a bit of a stretch), and a dash of Lostesque intrigue and cliffhangers thrown into the mix for sensationalism, is the series lacks any meaningful substance. With the exception of possibly the mysterious main vampire lead Bill (played by rather convincingly by newcomer Stephen Moyer) the main characters are either too shallow to give a damn about or are simply begging to be explored in more depth.

Anna Paquin’s starring character Sookie has a mysterious gift that sets her apart from the living and brings her closer to the undead, still the show would rather focus on her budding (and overly erotic) love affair with Bill than anything else. Her horny brother Jason, who’s butt naked more than half the time while onscreen, appears to be nothing more than a pretty face to further the shows no-hold-barred eroticism (the link between vampires and sexuality are pushed to the limit on this series). The show has given Sookie’s best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) a bit of a side story involving her alcoholic/possessed mother but her onscreen time is distracting from the show’s main strengths.

ImageAs for the show’s aforementioned strengths Alan Ball does a pretty good job bridging the gap between classic vampire iconography and modern times. The show’s main premise is that ever since the Japanese have concocted an artificial blood cocktail (a substitute for the real thing) called True Blood, vampires are suddenly able to “come out of the closet” so to speak, thus trying to fit in a society of the living. The show is littered with fascinating little tidbits about the cultural acceptance/rejection of the vampires and there is clearly links to gay rights throughout the show as Alan Ball is himself an outspoken advocate for equal rights for homosexuals.

Another strength revolves around the myth of vampires being driven by a hunger (addiction) to human blood. True Blood gives this classic vampire mythological theme a 180 twist with vampire blood (called V on the show, a play on ecstasy) serving as a hardcore psychedelic drug for humans to dabble in enhancing just about every human sense and pleasure. In one recent episode two V fiends seek out a shut-in middle-age gay vampire to capture and drain to feed their growing addiction to the stuff. Clever, to say the least.

Then there are the snippets of a vampire rights coalition working to gain the same rights and social status as everyone else. During the show’s pilot one spokesperson even appears as a guest on HBO’s own late night political talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher.

These few moments of brilliance show that Alan Ball is close to nailing the show’s full potential as a sly social statement featuring vampires but sadly he chooses to focus the show’s attention on the routine horror elements of the series. Rather than expand on the political aspects of the story, mainly that of a minority trying to fit into society the show seems more concerned with blood, unnecessary sexuality, and shocking episode cliffhangers, about the only element keeping viewers coming back for more (that and a brilliantly edited opening credits segment set to a raucous Southern rock tune “Bad Things” by Jace Everett).

One could argue that some shows need a season or two before they really find purpose and flow. A feasible argument for network television perhaps, but HBO has always held its standards higher. Six Feet Under is notorious for being the show that was renewed for a second season immediately following its captivating and universally applauded pilot episode. Likewise The Sopranos’ first season remains one the finest single season entities of any show out there. While Blood may have the potential for a turnaround, it has already proven to be rather sub-par compared to HBO’s previous trendsetting series.

The Sopranos will inevitably go down as one of most important series in television history. The advent of shows based on multi-dimensional characters that, despite their wrong doings, manage to captivate the audience paved the way for the gamut of most popular series today. Thanks to Tony and even earlier the inmates on HBO’s forgotten masterpiece Oz it was suddenly okay to sympathize and get sucked into the lives of the bad guys.

After Sopranos fever HBO was able to launch other hit dramas that pushed the envelope on how we soak up television. Six Feet Under took the stereotypical family drama and flipped it on its ass giving us one of the most intimate and shockingly truthful looks at a modern family who, although appear to be different, are surprisingly relatable. The network even managed to launch some fairly well-received niche dramas such as the Shakespearean Western, Deadwood, the Dust Bowl era Twin Peaksesque series Carinvalé, and the underappreciated history buff’s dream show Rome.

Then there was The Wire, the socially conscious, anti-cop show that was the last truly great series on HBO and without a doubt one the finest television series of all time.

True Blood currently leads HBO’s current programming lineup and looks destined to join the ranks of the network’s past mediocrities. There is the respectable but hardly hit series about Mormonism and Polygamists (Big Love) ready to start its third season. There was the failed spiritual surfing drama (John From Cincinnati) that followed The Sopranos’ fade to black finale. Last year an overly erotic (apparently a current HBO theme) show about relationships and intimacy (Tell Me You Love Me) premiered, a new five-night a week drama about a shrink and his patients (In Treatment) and recently a slew of comedy imports from abroad–the very British Little Britain U.S.A, and the Australian Summer Heights High, both which are for acquired tastes, lacking mass appeal–began airing.

Add this to, sigh, potentially more seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which officially jumped the shark around the fourth or fifth season, the consistently funny news talk show Real Time With Bill Maher and the entertaining but fluffy Entourage and you have the fairly uninspired future lineup for HBO.

With the disappointing True Blood about to wrap its uninspired first season it’s difficult to know what’s left for HBO? Will the network every truly be able to recuperate from the loss of its respected giants? Is it time for other budding networks (Showtime, AMC and FX come to mind) to take the reigns of the only television that matters?

It will be interesting to see where HBO is headed and which shows in the future (if any) can captivate a nation as much as The Sopranos or its other landmark series did during their run. Only time will tell whether HBO remains something new and exciting or really is just TV.

The Shield: Culminating a Masterful Series Run

ROOTING FOR THE BAD GUY: A Look Back at The Shield

It’s no secret that David Chase’s creation of Tony Soprano changed the face of television. The multi-dimensional anti-hero character was born the minute Tony first entered therapy, presented as both loving family man, and later as a brutal and greedy murderer. Throughout The Sopranos six season run creator David Chase developed Soprano into a complicated television archetype–always empathetic while being equally despicable. As we watched Tony’s inevitable downward spiral into paranoia, anger and (depending on how you view the show’s closing moments) his demise, we couldn’t help but feel compassionate for the man, despite his countless wrong doings. 

The FX original series The Shield, a fast-paced, gritty L.A. cop show, premiered on the heels of The Sopranos, and its countless other spawns, as a show focused around the world of another benevolent anti-hero. The main character, Detective Vic Mackey (played with equally balanced intensity and charm by Michael Chiklis) is the perfect dichotomy–a rogue and effective force against the troubles plaguing his surroundings who is also a dirty, selfish infliction on society. Yet despite constant reminders of his evil, or shall we say his questionable ways, the audience can’t help but root for the guy. 

The series is currently wrapping things up with its final 13-episodes seventh season. While it has a loyal following and has been well regarded by critics since its incarnation, the show remains niche.

To say The Shield is a cop show is taking the easy way out. Like HBO’s late masterful series The Wire, the inner workings of The Shield go way beyond the formulaic cops and robbers serial. At its core The Shield is a character study. It tugs at the recycled themes developed on the cop show–revenge, loyalty, and sense of duty–while also diving into the atypical and more human aspects seldom seen on a show of this nature.

Like Tony Soprano, Mackey is a loving family man, willing to do anything (legal or morally questionable) to ensure his family’s well being. In his job he is an effective enforcement tool, a brute of a man who lets very little stand in his way when it comes to getting the job done. Torture, deception, and murder, all serve as implements of successfully battling crime. 

He and his team of equally complicated but sympathetic Strike Team minions at first appear to be the superheroes of their district but slowly we get the full picture. Cutting corners and taking the easy way out both plague and aid the show’s characters with Mackey using his rampant ways to ceaselessly take down crime-lords while also thicken his wallet. 

ImageSimilarly to The Wire, The Shield also presents the bureaucracy of the war on drugs and the inner workings of the police enforcement agencies that make up L.A.’s fictional Farmington district (although, like The Wire this show could be set in any major urban backdrop as the themes are much larger than its setting). Mackey and his team are not the only pieces of a corrupt system, and are at times miniscule problems in the grand scheme of things. From the politically career driven police Captain Acevada (an equally fascinating character) to the revenge driven Internal Affairs agent in the show’s fifth season (portrayed beautifully by Forrest Whitaker, who is in many ways as corrupt as Mackey, the man he’s intent on crushing), The Shield has also managed to branch out over its run giving us one of the most convincing looking “cop shows” out there. 

This is not to say the show is perfect. Like The Sopranos (which was hindered by running one season too many) The Shieldhas had its low points, specifically with its fourth season, which brought on a convincing Glenn Close as the new operations major for the crew’s district, but ultimately played up a forgettable season long storyline. 

In fact the show’s finest moments were in its initial season, jumpstarted by one of the most exhilarating pilot episodes of any series in the pantheon of the genre, and the past two outings, which have returned to the show’s highlights. The introduction of Vic in the pilot depicts him as a rough but efficient cop and team leader. By the end a shocking murder changes our view of the character completely.

The stuff in between still manages to be one of the more thrilling reasons to tune in to late night FX, besting that of the more formulaic cop show offerings on the market, mainly the many Law and Order incarnations, the overly glossed C.S.I.family and every other mediocre police themed show come and gone in recent years. The minor characters each get their own development with the bookworm detective “Dutch” Wagenbach carrying the most entrancing minor character arc on the show. 

Watching Vic and his gang combat the harsh streets of urban L.A., while also battling their inner demons has been a treat over the years and as the current season begins to heat up there is an equal level of anticipation and sorrow for the show’s culmination. Like The Sopranos’ nail-biting final moments, the end of The Shield is already creating an troublesome dilemma–should Mackey receive the justice he deserves, no matter how harsh it may be or do we root for an escape from the deep hole he’s dug over this show’s run. 

The television arena has always and will always have its share of garbage but lately, thanks to the no-holds barred attitudes of programs like The Sopranos, or its predecessor the equally unconventional Oz, television series have been able to serve as visual extensions of great literature featuring multi-dimensional characters. The Shield took the concept in a different direction. 

Tony Soprano is a hard-bitten criminal who also suffers from self-pity, yet he still manages to mesmerize the viewer. The drug kingpins on The Wire reap the benefits from a bleeding society but still we are burdened with empathy once we see the larger picture regarding society’s infrastructural woes. Vic Mackey kills and steals to get his way, yet we can’t help but root for the guy who, after all, is merely trying to support his family (this final season is already looking to show how Mackey’s questionable ways over the years have shaped his family’s dynamic), and continue doing what he was clearly born to do. 

The Shield’s creator Shawn Ryan has since collaborated on some other projects, as have many of its cast members still the series will be a career highlight. While the upcoming finale will most likely not carry the same popular culture weight as The Sopranos final episode, it’ll still be the culmination of a quality television program. It’s difficult to convince someone to jump into a show currently about clear the stage but for those who are tired of the predictable and rudimentary cop shows that most are used to seeing, The Shield is sure to deliver as a one-of-a-kind television experience.

Watch This Show!

As an aspiring writer interested in all things pop culture it is not my place to preach and tell people what to watch, read or listen to. It is not the duty of a critic to tell readers how to spend their time but rather make suggestions, however, every once in a while I find that it is important to inform people about certain parts of current popular culture–be it a stellar new band, an unknown indie film treasure, or a captivating television drama–that have floated under the radar for too long and quite frankly, are too good and/or important to be missed. HBO’s monumental original series, The Wire, is one of these examples. Consider this a plea to anyone interested in quality television who is dying to find a replacement for The Sopranos or who is tired of the mindless reality or sitcom dribble that currently fills the airwaves.

It may seem a bit peculiar to praise a show that has been around since 2002 and next month enters its fifth and final season. The Wire is hardly a breakout series, however, season after season the show remained relatively unwatched by the general public, despite universal critical acclaim (seriously some people have labeled it the best show on television, ever).

In the realm of HBO, The Wire has never brought in the same viewership figures as the network’s more popular landmark shows such as The Sopranos (11.9 million viewers for its series finale), Six Feet Under (average 4-5 million viewers over its five season span) and Sex and the City (about 3 million viewers average per season). During The Wire’s long awaited third season the show brought in a whopping 1.6 million viewers, a series high.

But enough of the numbers. Why am I so adamant about this series? Why devote an entire column to a show that is hardly recognized at the Emmys (one Outstanding Writing nomination in 2005), does not sport a cast of superstar actors, and for the most part is unrecognized and overlooked? Because people, television doesn’t get much better than this.

On the surface The Wire is a cop show, often poorly labeled as “HBO’s gritty police drama.” At a quick glance the show’s main focus is the never-ending narcotics war between the police department and the criminal underbelly of urban Baltimore, Maryland, a struggling American city that is as overlooked and ignored in this country as this show itself.

With a description like this it’s easy to categorize The Wire with other good guy, bad guy cop shows such as the highly mundane slew of Law and Order or CSI series (seriously how many of them are there?). Upon a closer look and investment in the show one will quickly realize that The Wire is not interested with these primitive good versus evil themes. The Wire is interested at examining pure capitalism in action, focusing on the social, economic, judicial and political struggles and the overall downfall of the modern American city. Baltimore is its backdrop and there is a definite level adoration for the city seen on the show, however, one can’t help but look at Baltimore as merely an example of modern America and the dire civil problems that have been stewing for the past century.

The show’s creator David Simon, an ex-Baltimore Sun newspaper crime reporter, knows the city he’s lived in all his life like the back of his hand and sees The Wire as an expression of his anger for what it’s become–the political corruption, the deterioration of the many social institutions, and above all the notion that in this day and age the majority of people living in this country are worth less in the grand scheme of things. From the addicts struggling with addiction, the corner boys struggling with the hopelessness of avoiding life on the streets, the rogue cops struggling with a corrupt and unjust system above them, to the ambitious mayor to be realizing the mess of things, The Wire deals with the growth of a corrupt social infrastructure and the downfall of the individual or common man.

While fiction The Wire has always been rooted with in-depth investigative journalism, an aspect that truly sets it apart from other shows in the same genre, even though The Wire should create a genre of its own. The show’s writers, currently made up of crime fiction novelists such as Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane among others, research their subjects with great care and detail, tapping into every sector of the city, whether it be life on the streets to life at city hall, no stone is left unturned. The shows producer, Ed Burns, served as a Baltimore homicide detective for years and later taught in an inner city middle school, experiences which lent themselves to the show’s continuing themes bringing a level of harsh realism seldom seen on television. This quest to tell it like it is can be hard to watch (The Wire is often devastatingly real) but it is meant to serve as an eye opener for the sheltered eyes of the average American.The show’s premiere season focused mainly on the ineffectiveness of the drug war, introducing the series’ core characters–the narcotic and homicide investigators and street level drug kingpins, soldiers and pawns. Above all the show’s first chapter showed the hard often unglamorous work that goes into a true police investigation. On The Wire, unlike the formulaic police dramas most people are familiar with, cases take months and often years to wrap, with paper work a mile long.

Season two proved that the series was truly interested in covering the city as a whole, radically changing the target and focus to Baltimore’s struggling and corrupt shipping port unions. Think On the Waterfront meets Traffic with some Greek tragedy thrown into the pot. It’s hard to imagine a 13-hour season that focuses on a group of disgruntled stevedores but take it from me, never before has an examination of this extremely overlooked and forgotten populace been so captivating.

The third season tackled the issue of reform, particularly of the drug trade seen on the street level and the drug war, seen through the political infrastructure. The show expanded its coverage of the city adding a political element and showcasing the fascinating vertical chain of command of the police department all the way up to the mayor’s office. If you thought The West Wing was intricate with its coverage of the presidents cabinet, check out The Wire’s take on the inner workings of an American city’s underbelly. Above all season three begged the question, is this war on drugs a battle we can realistically win?

Last year’s fourth season was the most critically acclaimed and again branched its focus out even farther covering Baltimore’s failing school system (a scathing look at “no child left behind”). This season was undoubtedly the bleakest and most sobering of them all because of its theme of hopelessness, its look into the corruption in the city’s political arena and portrayal of just how ruthless the streets have become, seen through the eyes of a group of naive middle school students living in a world gone terrible wrong. A homicide detective sums up the season and really the show in general when he says, “It makes me sick how hard we done fell.”

Little is known of season five’s plots other than the fact that the main theme tackled will be the media (the aspiring journalist in me is dying in anticipation), a fitting closer for a show that has served as a fictional looking glass into the happenings of one struggling American city.

For those who write praise for the series, it has become a bit cliché to liken The Wire to a great American novel, with every season adding a new chapter to the epic story. Like great literature this unique aspect of the show allows for the development of a large group of characters (the impressive cast of fairly unknown actors and their wonderfully crafted characters deserves its own column of praise), minor and major story arcs, and requires a level of patience and devotion that may discourage casual viewers but pays off for those willing to commit. The show has never been preachy and its messages are never presented up front. Similar to the shows diagetic use of music and lack of emotion stirring scoring, nothing on the show is spoon fed to the audience, which makes viewing the series so rewarding.

Like HBO’s other niche dramas, the mysterious dust bowl era set Carnivalé, the “gritty western” Deadwood, or even the newest sensation, the “polygamist lives next door” family drama Big LoveThe Wire is a show that requires a certain level of sophistication and patience that will no doubt turn away passive viewers who find comfort in “anything but” reality television or formulaic cops and robber crime shows. HBO has long been the true bastion for original no holds barred series that rivals the in-depth quality and style seen on film but has always had a leg up to its cinematic counterpart due to the vast possibilities of having a multiple season, countless hour platform to work with.

The Wire is a program that will not appeal to everyone. Its honest look at what is happening to the American city is harsh and difficult to stomach at times, however, it is this foray into the realties facing our country that makes it an important series. A friend of mine once said that he feels like a better person after watching the show because of its window to the world we really live in, the one we don’t see or read about on a daily basis.

I wrote this column because next month the show enters its fifth and final chapter, and unlike The Sopranos, a pop cultural phenomenon that will without a doubt go down in history, The Wire may be one of those overlooked gems that will be forgotten in time. Despite its wonderful cast of actors (it has the largest African American cast of leading actors of any show period) and first-rate writing, the show has never received any love from the Emmys (an awards sweep next year, honoring the show as a whole would be refreshing, but is unlikely). This past week marked the release of the fourth season on DVD (it should be noted that this show works best on the DVD format where viewers can soak up multiple episodes at a time), and HBO subscribers will no doubt be treated to aWire marathon before the final season premiere. And with the cold of winter here to stay now is as good a time as ever to dive in.

Like I wrote earlier, it is not my place to tell people how to spend their time, but for those who don’t know about this series give it a shot. In my humble opinion it is the best show currently on TV and quite possibly the best series television has ever seen (sorry toSopranos fans). So the next time you find yourself at a video store or searching aimlessly through the majority of the trash being broadcasted on TV, unsure of what to watch consider The Wire. I wouldn’t lie to you. Quality, captivating television drama has never been better.

Dinner and a Movie

The other day while aimlessly flipping through the channels I came across the opening credits of the wonderful, childhood nostalgia filled, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. For pretty much anyone and everyone–young and old–this movie is pure eye candy (seriously have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like this movie? It seems to be one of those universal pleasures joining the ranks of popping packing bubbles and that cool sound champagne makes when it enters the party) with the opening credits wetting the audience’s taste buds. To refresh your memory the beginning shots are set inside the chocolate factory with a kaleidoscope of sweet concoctions dancing across a sea of conveyer belts. While I was unable to finish the movie (I got as far as that useless “Cheer up Charlie” sentimental song bit then switched to the equally mundane ramblings of Lou Dobbs) I started to think of all the other great films and cinematic moments that feature magical culinary creations. 

It’s no surprise that we as people are lured towards the marriage of food and images. Food tickles all our senses. There’s a reason why museum walls are lined with still life paintings of produce, wild game and massive banquets circa pretty much any part of history or why people divulge in hours of The Food Network (can anyone else truly explain the allure of that giggling psycho-minx Rachel Ray). Food and art go hand in hand. With certain films food is as much a character of the story as the actors themselves and cinematic cuisine serves as a tool for setting the atmosphere of the film. Consider this a foodies guide to film.

Big Night
This little gem of a movie was at one point as widely praised and adored as that Big Fat Greek Wedding nonsense but is often forgotten about. Written and directed with care by actor Stanley Tucci (co-directed by Campbell Scott, George C. Scott’s underappreciated son) Big Night is a film that embraces the simple love of food, in its case, Italian cuisine. This simple tale of a failing Italian restaurant run by two brothers who host a special feast of all feasts in hopes of salvaging the business and showing people how to eat is an endearing look at the patience, tradition and care given to cooking while at the same time showing that thin line between great food and a prosperous business. While Tony Shaloub’s (TVs Monk) performance as Primo the head chef is beyond noteworthy it is the many dishes, particularly the massive Timpano, served during the restaurant’s big night that are truly the stars of the film. 

Fanny and Alexander
This was a sad year for international cinema with the loss of two greats, Michelangelo Antonioni and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman who, in 1982 directed the epic, Fanny and Alexander. While the film is not about food in general but rather a look at a wealthy Swedish family (particularly the relationship of a brother and sister) in the early 20th period it features some of the finest eye opening, stomach grumbling food visuals out there. While the film is a bit daunting in length (the theatrical version clocks in just over three hours with a six hour television mini series available as well) it showcases one of the most memorable and breathtaking culinary production design moments in cinematic history during the opening Christmas feast. Also see Robert Altman’s Gosford Park for similar bourgeois feasts. 

Dinner Rush
This indie film slipped by most movie goers a couple years back but is hands down the most authentic look at the inner workings of a restaurant. While the film dabbles in a clever mafia storyline its main focus is the complexity, the chaos, the absurdity, and the passion for food that is alive in every trendy restaurant out there. From the hot, fast-paced world of the kitchen to the starving artist servers keen on landing that one special table/ticket out of the industry and even the ridiculous politics behind a restaurant’s popularity (comedian Sandra Bernhard is especially good as a sleazy NYC food critic), Dinner Rush leaves no rock unturned when it comes to what goes into dining out. Actor John Corbett’s mysterious bar patron says it best during the film, “When did eating dinner become a Broadway show?”

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Cinephiles aside, most people have probably never heard of this movie and quite frankly this stomach churner isn’t for everyone. That said this British cult classic is a vehicle for some beautiful cinematography of food, in the same vein as Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. That kept in mind the film also deals with barbaric violence, nightmarish surrealism, pitch black comedy and a bit of cannibalism thrown in the pot. Still thanks to great performances by a slew of English thespians (Hellen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Tim Roth, Ciarán Hinds) and one of the most bizarre, detailed and curiously fascinating kitchen sets seen on screen, this film is a worthy rental, although one might pair it with some fava beans and a nice chianti. 

European master filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has always crafted films that are distinctly Spanish. From his unique use of color, wardrobe, setting and of course food, few films scream Iberia more than ‘Un film de Almodóvar.’ Last year’s Volver may not be the director’s best piece to date but it did a wonderful job at honoring Spanish cuisine, that Mediterranean fare that is often overshadowed by Italy. Penelope Cruz’s character, Raimunda takes over a small café in her neighborhood to cater a local film’s production and the camera follows her every move behind the dishes she prepares. While food is by no means the central plot of the film the scenes in the kitchen are some of the richest in the film. Wanna learn the secrets of crafting a perfect Spanish tortilla, check this out. 

Mostly Martha
This tasty little German film was recently remade (No Reservations) starring Aaron Eckhart and Catherine Zeta Jones, however, it’s the original that should be sought out. Similar to Dinner Rush this film deals with the pressures behind the kitchen doors of a trendy restaurant. The culinary clash of German and Italian cuisine showcased in the film is also fun to watch. 

Finally, The Sopranos
Ok, ok, so it’s technically not a film but one could argue that any episode of this masterful HBO series bests most films being released today. Everything there is to be said about the show has been said, however, one thing I noticed during the show’s pinnacle season was that audiences stopped discussing one of the show’s most distinct characteristics; it’s use of food. From Dr. Melphi’s psychiatric standpoint food was always a metaphor for Tony Sopranos’ mental anguish, however, the use of food helped culturally define these horrible people and showed that despite their evil doings they were human too. From the baked ziti infused Sunday dinners, to the massive funeral spreads, Artie Bucco’s Vesuvius restaurant, “don’t disrespect the pizza parlor,” and of course the mob hangout pork store, food was as much a signature character as any of the other stars. Best Sopranos food moment, when the gang, specifically Paulie Walnuts, head across the ocean to the boot in season two and are treated to true Italian cuisine only to request pasta and Sunday gravy.