Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The First Cut Is the Deepest. But It's the Deep Cuts That Really Get You.

I grew up listening to music - mostly really great music - all around me. Now, I don't claim to have the parents who listened to classic jazz albums and shit like that. But I'm the youngest of five. I got all the influences. The first album that I ever learned the lyrics to - both sides - was "What's Going On" from Marvin Gaye. I'll take that. I'm almost as proud of that as making sure my daughter's first concert was Wilco - a band she loves (at age 6). And my brothers and sisters were Beatles fans, which is beyond a cliche (but helpful in the musical evolution).

Anyway, despite all of that, the first album that I ever bought with my own money - a key distinction - was the soundtrack to "American Graffiti." And I loved it. I bought it in the Bay Area while visiting my sisters on a visit from SoCal. I played it all the time. Over and over again (a listening pattern that remains today). I learned most of the songs. Even the ones I didn't like. I took it home with me on the plane. I was home for maybe five minutes when I raced across the street with it to show my best friend, Eric. I was going to play him all the great tracks.

He was in his room, with our other good friend, Pat. They had just discovered a new band and a new album, which they were cranking: Aerosmith "Rocks."

I had just become, instantly, the uncoolest of the three. I mean, you only have to hear "Back In the Saddle" once to realize you shouldn't put on "Maybe Baby" right after it. But I had the album. And though all was immediately lost as soon as I walked in, I still - mistakenly - made a play for how great it was. They didn't care. We listened to Aerosmith for an hour at least. Then I played a track or two of "American Grafitti" and suffered the unhip indignity of it all. Maybe that's why I went on to become a music critic - to always be out front, to never follow.

Anyway, here's my question: What was the first album you ever bought for yourself? And how did it affect/change you - or not?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"The Riches." Are you watching. And an Eddie Izzard podcast.

So, tonight was the Season 2 premiere of "The Riches." This is a show I love, flaws and all, and I think they recovered nicely from some of the woes in the middle of Season 1. I just find the ambition here something that's important to back. If you watched, let's hear some thoughts.

And it looks like I'll be interviewing Eddie Izzard in S.F. in late April. In the pod cave. Should be a rush.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bad casting decisions. Bad directing. Can they be overcome?

Maybe with good writing. But even that might be debatable. I bring this up because of two recent series you may have decided to check in on (even though I tried to scare you off). The first was Friday's premiere of "The Return of Jezebel James." You've got Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose set to make the rapid fire wit of Amy Sherman-Palladino come alive and what happens? The pilot completely implodes. The second episode fixes some of the mistakes made Friday, but Sherman-Palladino not only wrote the first episode, she directed it, too. She's got Posey jumping through dumb hoops for 22 minutes and it's just painful to watch.

What did you think? The pacing was a disaster. But the direction was the real culprit. Why have Posey act like she's drunk AND her house is on fire? The second episode resets the tone to almost correct, but by then it's way to late.

As for casting, look no further than Paul Giamatti - a wonderful actor - in "John Adams." Did anyone else find him as off-putting as I did? He constantly made me aware that I was watching Paul Giamatti trying to be John Adams. That's a bad start. But it did distract from the glacial pace and the dry writing. Part 2 ran 90 minutes and was infinitely better, giving us history and action and consequence and daring patriotism. I hate to say it, but in Part 3, the onus returns to Giamatti and this time, once you're used to him as Adams, the writing makes him unlikable. Petty, vain, a terrible father and a distant husband - no wonder it took so long for anyone to attempt to rewrite history to give him his proper due, as David McCullough did. But still, that doesn't translate. And just wait until he and Abigail (Laura Linney) have the most unromantic sex possible in Part 4.

Tough to overcome. All of it.

Thoughts on these shows and other TV series where the casting didn't work or the direction (tone) was way off? Let's keep away from failed writing at this point. That list is much too long.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

All tapped out of "The Wire."

Seems strange, no? Even now. I'm sure I'll go back and rewatch the season at some point, but as it stands, I'm already swamped with shows and moving forward (I've gotta say - four parts of "John Adams" had me wanting a lot more "Wire" instead...).

Now I can tell you my dirty secret, which I held closely for a long, long time this season: Once I realized the unprecedented media attention "The Wire" was getting this season - and not just because of the David Simon/Baltimore Sun angle, but because it was last chance on the bandwagon - I lost my enthusiasm for doing interviews/podcasts with Simon or jumping too heavily into the whole "Wire" world outside of this blog. That's nothing against Simon - who remains one of my favorite television writers, but there was just such enormous saturation that I didn't want much part of it. I like to be away from the numbers, as The Jam once sang. At work I was being bombarded with e-mails from publicists at different publications with all things "The Wire" - look who talks here, guess what Simon says there, blah blah blah.

So, that's why I wasn't in the pack. Now, here's hoping he gets his New Orleans show.

Moving on: I just wanted to thank everyone who came to TGTV, now just called TIM GOODMAN (yes, I just referenced myself in the third person), because it turned out to be a really intelligent bunch of people talking about television - and that was a great luxury (for proof, look at some of the comments left by people on my sfgate.com stories; most claim not to watch TV at all and only want to post to say it's all crap and quote the "vast wasteland" speech or some other kind of boring ignorance). Here and on The Bastard Machine, I've been blessed with people who don't have knee-jerk reactions, realize how great (and yes, how lame) television can be and have the intellectual capacity to discuss it rationally.

Thanks for that.

This is just an item to say starting soon - probably tomorrow - I'll be having regular content here. Already, I've increased the volume on The Bastard Machine, so have a peek over there as well. Just adding to what I wrote in a previous post here about what direction this site will take, I'm thinking about posing broader, perhaps more philosophical or - as we say in journalism - more "thumb-sucker" questions. They may not be as frequent as stuff on The Bastard Machine, but I may put to you Big Picture questions. So have at them with verve and intelligence when they do show up.

Monday, March 10, 2008

"The Wire." The end.

It's fitting that David Simon dubbed this episode, "#30#" - old school journalism for the end of the story. There was a lot that was fitting in the last episode. So much to write about. And yet, not. I could probably go on and on - yeah, like I haven't already on this blog and in The Chronicle - but at some point you can't say anymore. I wonder if Simon and his stable of writers ever thought that. They did one of the best jobs of telling a complete and compelling story as has ever been done on television. It was thorough and detailed and nuanced and complicated and touching and pointed - on and on. I'm not sure another season would have added more glory to the gold.

And, after putting this last episode off for a very long time - I just couldn't bring myself to watch it early - it's incredibly sad to see it go. And when it was over, I just sat back, arms crossed, and thought on it. And the best I could really come up with is, "Great as usual. What else can you say?" I mean, I may ultimately end up writing more and more about this as the weeks pass, but I honestly don't have too much to say other than the last episode ever didn't let me down. There's something comfortable in that. This series went out as brilliantly as it came in, and I say that knowing finales to seasons are difficult enough, but finales to series are impossible to pull off. No one will ever be entirely happy - perhaps not even the series creator or the writers themselves. Endings are hard. Everybody knows that.

I suspect people might be split into two camps - loving the extended montages that wrapped up so many storylines (which held true to "Wire" tradition) and those who might have preferred a more "Sopranos"-esque ending that left more up to interpretation and left characters and storylines in the ether. Me, I liked the tidy ending because it has been done in the past and hasn't detracted from the quality and, more importantly, why not reward people who have watched five seasons of the most complicated, novelistic stories ever told on television? Hell, "The Wire" is hard work. Always has been. There's no shame in a reward for the effort.

Two things: 1) It ended as about as satisfying as I'd hoped. I loved it. I wanted no more from it - or at least I feel that asking for something more and better and different than what we got would be some unseemly shit. So yeah - I loved it. Period. 2) As a television critic, I hate to see "The Wire" go. Because even though I have faith in other storytellers - and in tales heretofore untold, at least with "The Wire" I know I've seen the best. Everything else to this point is 2nd best. So that passing - it's never good. As a critic, I want to be able to dissect the best that television has to offer. And for five seasons, that was one unbelievably great run. So, without question, it's a little bit of a downer knowing that the crown is retired.

Onward...

A very quick recap, just to credit the writers for deftly closing so many of the complicated plots they uncorked at the start. This was an ambitious season, storytelling-wise, and though many people (including me) had doubts early on, I think all the strands came together just beautifully and were told supremely well. And the wonderful aspect to it all is that most of the main players don't get the justice or end-result they most deserve because it would collapse the machine from the inside. Institutional failure through and through. We saw that in Season 1, Ep. 1. And we saw it here in the series finale. Ass covering of the highest and lowest order. Let's start in reverse this time. Seems fitting.

Once the lie gets found out and the damage is not exactly done - please say you didn't expect swift and complete justice - all that's left is the accounting:

+ McNulty quits. He appears to make good with Beadie. As his last televised act, he brings the homeless guy back home. The question is, of course, what next? We'll never know. Is he happy? Can he NOT be po-lice? Make of it what you will.

+ Lester retires. He's looking pretty happy with those miniatures.

+ Marlo's out of the game. And into real estate? Somewhere Stringer Bell had a good laugh. But that was never Marlo's role. He was never meant to play that. So he gets back in the game. No need to guess what will eventually happen if he lives past the election. There's only two options.

+ Herc is buying drinks – using the expense account, like Levy said. Looks like he'll be doing whatever Levy says from now on and forever. Still mucking it up in the future - no doubt.

+ Scott got his Pulitzer. The bigger the lie.

+ Greeks in business with Slim Charles, et al. The game goes on.

+ Carcetti wins. The sell-out is complete.

+ Fletcher takes over when Gus is moved to the copy desk. But Gus is proud of him. And Gus, well, he bleeds ink. Journalism is what he does. Anyone who thought he'd just walk - forget it. This is more real.

+ Alma's in the deepest of bureaus. Punished for trying to mess up the glory.

+ Valchek! Man, that was one big laugh. “Fits like a glove!”

+ Dukie shooting up. The evolution into the new Bubs is complete.

+ Pearlman as a judge. Daniels as a lawyer. And happy together.

+ Chris getting with Wee Bey - a lot of muscle coming together. Two lifers standing strong.

+ Michael as the new Omar. Savvy fans saw this and the Dukie fate coming a while ago.

+ Bubs at the dinner table. – Finally.

+ Kennard busted. Inevitable.

Corruption and politics, lies concealed, same as it ever was...Yep, this was the grayest of all grays, this series. It nailed human behavior and the actions of institutions and the people within them pretty damned well.

Tidbits from the episode (see, I knew I couldn't be as short as I promised....)

+ Carcetti apoplectic in the opening scene as the lie, in full bloom, was explained to him. A fine job of acting there.

+ “Everybody’s getting what they need behind some make believe.” – Norman.

+ “I wish I was still at the newspaper so I could write on this mess. It’s too fucking good.” – Norman.

+ “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about Bill Rawls. I believe he’s about to have one of those ‘road to Damascus’ moments.” – Norman, absolutely owning the front of the show…

+ The Prezbo cameo. A bearded man. But also a wiser man. Jaded? At the very least, he knew that was the last time he'd ever help Duquan.

+ “Short of any new leads, what can I do? I can’t make shit up, can I?” – McNutty. Oh, that was rich.

+ The look on Jimmy’s face when Freamon says “they know everything.”

+ “Why aren’t we fired? Why aren’t we in fucking bracelets?” – McNutty. I loved this moment of suspended animation, when we all realized that the lie meant everybody was going to hit the ground a little softer than expected. Bounce, even. It was situational ethics across the board.

+ I like how the direction went back to the black and white surveillance camera shots of yore.

+ Governor restores homeless cuts and the Sun takes credit for it based on its coverage when it was really Carcetti’s politics in play.

+ “I expect to be back in the pawn shop unit and you my brother are gonna ride the boat.” Or not, Freamon. And maybe the "not" was better than expected, too.

+ Bubs moral complexity is great. “Man’s making me seem special for doing what the fuck I need to be doing.” He doesn’t want the “good stuff” to get out. Doesn’t think he’s worth it. This is Bub’s cross. Who knew he was Irish?

+ How long before Scott might have killed one of the homeless himself for a story?

+ Bunk: “How are you not in jail?” McNutty: “I don’t know. The lie is so big, people can’t live with it, I guess.”

+ Scott: “You’re not serious?” McNulty: “No. I’m a fucking joke. And so are you.”

+ The shot of the door closing after Scott walks out of Homicide – that’s a call back to the very first episode when the director was trying to help explain who the hell everyone was - a series of closing doors suggested which department they were in - as this rapidly unfolding series pandered to no one from minute one.

+ Levy explains the details to Marlo: “You understand?” Marlo: “Give up the crown.”

+ Herc: “Just doing what I do.” Yeah, Herc, screwing it all up royally.

+ “The tree that doesn’t bend breaks, Cedric.” - Marla Daniels. “Bend too far and you’re already broken.” - Cedric Daniels.

+ Slim Charles killed Cheese. “That was for Joe.”

+ “There you go, giving a fuck when it ain’t your turn to give a fuck.” – Bunk to Kima, both of them back out doing police work, by the book.

+ Sydnor going to Judge Phelan, ala Jimmy in the first season. “Just keep my name out of it.” Yeah, that will happen.

+ Marlo turns into Stringer Bell? Ha. And Clay Davis there to see it. No doubt he’ll get his hands in one of those deep pockets. But Marlo walks out. It’s not him. He wants to be back running corners, maybe back to the beginning, the thrill of it all. Bloodthirsty, for sure. Rebuild the crown maybe?

+ And Michael becomes Omar. Shotgun, too. On purpose – no doubt.

+ Lots of loving shots of Baltimore on the montage. A final nod. A city that gave its all to great television.

+ Nerese and the Daniels file. You knew it would pop back. And Daniels would have stayed put if not for his ex's career ambition. A fine man, even in the end.

+ Natural po-lice. - Landsman at McNulty's fake “wake.” McNulty did the right thing, too. He walked away. It gave everyone the chance to remember the good. Landsman's send off: “He was the black sheep. The permanent pariah. He asked no quarter of the bosses and none was given. He learned no lessons. He acknowledge no mistakes. He was as stubborn a Mick has ever stumbled out of the North East parishes to take a patrolman’s shield. He brooked no authority. He did what he wanted to do and he said what he wanted to say. In the end, he gave you the clearances. He’s natural po-lice.”

+ That, of course, will have a lot of people talking. McNulty's fate. His decision. How he was sent out and remembered and, apparently, forgiven. Only right, then, that he forgave Kima (so did Lester).

+ The shot of McNulty laughing on the table – great.

+ Lester's time in: 32 years. 4 months.

+ McNulty? “He gave us 13 years on the line. Not enough for a pension….”

+ Landsman: “Brother, when you was good, you were the best we had.”

+ And with that, it's time to put on "The Body of An American" by the Pogues and sing it like you mean it.

+ Here's to "The Wire." When it was great it was the best we ever had.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Who's No. 1 when "The Wire" ends? The top dramatic slot is about to be vacant.

So I started my power rankings for the top dramas over at The Bastard Machine.

The Top 5 are up. It took my mind off "The Wire" leaving. I was going to watch the finale today, then decided to pass. Maybe tonight. The show was a gift to TV criticism. It's not like I'm dying to watch the very last one.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"The Wire," Season 5, Ep. 9: "Late Editions."

There's something about the unrelenting, downbeat nature of "The Wire." And that something is this: Sometimes, it really, really brings you down.

Part of the allure, of course, is that the bleakness of West Baltimore, the futility of the war on drugs, of inner city crime itself and that nature of underfunded, underappreciated and mismanaged institutions meant to add something of worth to society (police, the press, politicians) is so brilliantly portrayed in its realism. "The Wire" is the ultimate example of failure analysis in a drama. Going on the ride is thrilling in its dramatic twists and its dead-on indictment of all that is wrong.

But eventually, well, it just brings you down. Talk about a punch to the gut in this, Ep. 9 of 10. Just as the cops appear to have their biggest victory yet - almost all of Marlo's crew goes down, including the slippery Marlo himself - but the episode ends with the case appearing to be very much in doubt, thanks to Kima outing McNulty's elaborate, ill-advised ruse.

Damn. I haven't watched the finale yet. I've held off, to savor it. I didn't watch any promos, of course, because I have this on DVD. So I have no hint of what's to come. And HBO has promised not to air the last episode On Demand, so that everyone will see it at the same time and the spoiler parade that has plagued this series will be slightly stemmed.

But it looks, just on the face of it, that Kima clearing her conscience could unravel the entire affair, spell enormous trouble for McNulty, Freamon and Sydnor and possibly put everybody - sans Chris - back on the street. (All hail Bunk for old school po-lice work.)

So you get the much-delayed gratification of having the police win one - smiles all around (haven't seen those in some time) - reduced to the ultimate in premature positivity.

Then, as Bubbles appears to be the lone character David Simon and company are going to let off with some redemption, a positive story amid the unrelenting bleakness, we're left with the suggestion that Dukie is the next Bubbles. And the cycle continues.

At least Bug looks to be safe. But what happens when that cash stops coming? Doesn't it look like Michael himself knows the end is near? In a wonderful but heartbreaking scene, he sends off his brother to a possibility of happiness and safety (but no older brother left to lean on), then turns and drops off his best friend at what is, for all intents and purposes, a dead end life. As a viewer, you're just left gutted.

And over at the Baltimore Sun, even though Gus is closing in on Scott, you just have to know that won't end with satisfaction. It can't. Gus will get him on a pattern of lying and if the McNulty fabrication goes public, that gets Scott pulled in even deeper - but still. Simon has talked about serial fabricators skating with the lightest of punishments, so don't expect anything too close to justice on that end.

(By the way, it's just sad to read the Baltimore Sun TV critic write story after story about how bad the ratings are for "The Wire," and saying it could have something to do with a less than compelling newspaper storyline. It's almost like you can see management's puppet strings. "The Wire" has never been about ratings. And every critic knows that ratings are no indication of quality. Besides, in this final season, ratings are of no importance at all. The series is done, in the can, over. Its legacy is not mega-viewers. It's quality content, well-told over five seasons. Period.)

Now, back to the story and, well, where to continue? The return of Namond? Bunny Colvin? The Kenard story being replaced by three outside thugs with machine guns blazing - a story getting bigger, no doubt, every time it's told. Is Herc back to messing things up again?

Oh, and Michael killing Snoop? Yeah, there's that.

The only ray in all of this, and it may be something so small as to be inconsequential, is that Lester could end up getting something on Levy and the leaked grand jury papers that might, just might, prevent the whole Marlo bust from coming completely unraveled. We'll have to see. In the meantime, some quick thoughts:

+ George Pelecanos wrote this one. Stellar.

+ “Deserve got nothing to do with it.” – Snoop. Yeah, except that she deserved what she ultimately got.

+ “The case is in the phones.” – Freamon.

+ “Marlo runs a tighter ship.” – Levy on the difference of how being shot in the line of duty applies to cops and bangers. His people are back out there.

+ Loved the smiles on all the cops faces after finally having some success. Loved Bunk lighting up the cigar.

+ Also a great look from Freamon to Marlo, as if he was thinking, mo-fo, I’m so mad at you right now I can’t even smile. And Marlo, ever the slightest look of being down.

+ One of the most stunning elements of this episode was Marlo coming completely unglued. He totally lost his long-held cool when he found out Omar was calling him out. "My name was on the street?” And getting louder and angrier. When Chris said he didn't need that on his mind, Marlo just explodes. “What the fuck do you know about what I need on my mind, motherfucker.” Man.

+ “My name is my name!” Yep, and Marlo is just now realizing that Omar left him a little present on the street. Maybe Kenard - and all the little Kenards just like him - don't have the same fear of Marlo now. And when they don't have the fear, down comes the crown.

+ “I don’t see the boy snitchin’” – Chris. Marlo: “Neither do I. But you’re ready to bet your future on that?”

+ Landsman says they’ll get more arrests because Chris went down on Bunk’s good po-lice work…And they’ll get more. “And from what? From the Bunk! Just workin’ a file.”

+ “There you sit, like a genital wart. Come on McNulty, show me something.” But McNulty looks like he's got nothing left, literally. Not even the urge to take a drink. One of the well-played directions in this episode was to leave McNulty on the sidelines, everything crashing in front of him.

+ Kima to Jimmy: “Fuck Marlo. Fuck you.”

+ “The Dickensian aspect.” – Scott. “Exactly.” – Whiting. You don’t think that’s going to be repeated in newsrooms for the next few years, coast to coast?

+ Freamon on why McNulty seems so down: “Post-partum depression. It’s the journey, not the destination.” Well, not for McNulty. He wanted the destination to be filled with glory.

+ Good to see Lester tie one on and let it out. Daniels asked him to be up on stage there but he wouldn’t do it. (And maybe that's a good thing if Lester falls, too...)

+ “No need to bring your 9.” – Snoop. Well, Michael can’t be that stupid. He learned from Chris.

+ Naimond! On the Urban Debate League. In a tie, no less. Still got the hair, though. And Bunny. Proud Bunny. Great to see.

+ And yet, Carcetti comes in and looks to steal glory. If the writers wanted to send a strong message about the stench and desperation of politics and politicians, well, message recieved. This was not a good episode for Carcetti.

+ Bunny Colvin is not going to shake the mayor’s hand. No how.

+ “Me, I’m just small potatoes.” – Clay Davis, who, as it turned out, talked about how he bled Stringer Bell dry. A good call back.

+ Freamon just gave Davis a little bit of the old business. A turned table, that’s all.

+ “Reginald? Reginald? I’m you’re fucking sponsor and I don’t believe I ever got a Christian name out of you.” – Walon.

+ Ah, the Bubs speech. Ladies and gentlemen, that's your feel good survivor - probably the one and only - of this hard, cold series.

+ Snoop: “How my hair look? Michael: “You look good, girl.” Sounded like Chris. And: Bang.

+ Dukie watching “Dexter” and laughing. Funny.

+ “I don’t.” Michael choosing not to remember his innocence. And THAT made Dukie sad. He knew then that they could never be on the same level anymore. There's no trips to the amusement park for Michael anymore. He's lost forever.

+There may not be anything more heartbreaking than Dukie's ongoing story. And now, the next Bubbles? That might be too much to take.

And so here we are, on the verge of the finale. I expect a lot, but maybe not all, of the storylines to be wrapped up. The question is, how are you going feel next Sunday at 10 p.m.?