Monday, December 27, 2010

6. The Office [U.K. vs. U.S.] (World's Self-Appointed Best Boss, Two-Fold)

“You know, a lot of these people, this is the only family they have. So, as far as I’m concerned, this says, 'World’s Best Dad.'”
-Michael Scott, picking up the World's Best Boss mug he no doubt bought himself; 
"The Merger" (U.S. version, Season 3, Episode 8)

Run time: 9 July 2001 – 27 December 2003 [UK] / March 24, 2005 – present [US]
Created by: Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant
Adapted by: Greg Daniels
Broadcast via: BBC / NBC

While Curb Your Enthusiasm may have been ahead of the comedic curve, it certainly was not ever really the apex of it. That distinction goes to two separate shows, both of which happen to be called The Office. It originally started as a British mockumentary that lasted two seasons and spawned two Christmas specials, and then it was adapted for American audiences to critical acclaim and mass appeal. Both feature some of the most harrowing and hilarious portraits of sadsacks and doldrums ever televised, led by perhaps the most self-delusional man to ever hold a managerial position (at least in their respective continents).

Initially created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (who would go on to make the excellent HBO series Extras), The Office is set up as series about the day-to-day drudgeries of a branch of office employees. In their version, Gervais and Merchant created the fictitious Wernham Hogg Paper Company and stuck it in Slough (a borough of Berkshire county in merry old England), then let the social trivialities and defects of human character shine within the claustrophobic space of an a suburban office complex. Gervais played David Brent, the general manager of the Slough branch who sees himself as a fun-loving and free-spirited Renaissance man who just so happens to be a boss as well as a friend. Despite seeming friendly, aloof and popular, he is boorish, pretentious and a walking calamity. And his coworkers’ misery is our entertainment, which earned The Office Britain’s first Golden Globe ever in 2004 when it beat out the all-too-American Arrested Development, Monk, Sex and the City and Will & Grace. That’s right: in 2004, Monk and Will & Grace were considered killer comedy. It was a landmark show that influenced a wide variety of comedies to come on both sides of pond, and it was one of those shows that was quick, brilliant and gone before the world could truly recognize how lucky it was to have it.

I grew up with the belief that the Brits excel at awkward comedy. They invented both acting and politeness, so it’s no surprise that they have such masterful control of subverting social situations into completely inappropriate “behaviour” for our amusement. But knowing this could not prepare me for what I was about to get when I met the Slough branch, and especially their manager. I fell in love right away, and told other people that it was one of the funniest shows I had seen. I had a hard time believing I’d find one better (granted, this was before I had seen Arrested Development), which got me a little defensive when I heard that Hollywood had gotten their hands on the property.

A couple years after the sun set of the British king of comedies, Greg Daniels (who previously wrote for Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and King Of The Hill) decided to turn it into an American thing, which could have been disastrous as most American remakes of imported stories tend to be. I first believed that I wouldn’t like the American version nearly as much as those silly Brits had already done with their original. But Daniels assembled a top-notch crew of writers and cast of players, turning The Office into a successful American enterprise that has so far produced seven hilarious seasons. While there may be an eighth, the news that Steve Carell (as the multi-award-winning Dunder-Mifflin Scranton branch boss Michael Scott) will not be returning for another has many unsure just what to make of The Office’s future. While there are many great characters to keep the vehicle going, a rudderless ship simply won’t make for quirky office shenanigans.

Of course, the American version is not the only spin-off. Series have popped up in France, Germany, Israel, Quebec, and even Chile. But the American has become iconic, perhaps even more so than the British original (Much like America itself? Just kidding, Brits!). And it has roused more out of us emotionally for its ongoing story arcs and multitude of mundanely funny characters (though many are now contending that the show hasn’t been the same since Pam and Jim got married). I can’t decide, in all honesty, which is the technically better show. But both are fantastic forays into the world of character-based awkward sessions that make the viewer cringe and cry laughing at the same time. If you’re averse to British accents, go with the American version; if you prefer things fresh and OG, give the Brits a chance.

A good, simple score for each series (the cheerful, affable British theme or the rousing yet funereal American version both perfectly set up the madness of the world we are about to enter) opens with not too much lag, but not too much alteration. Also, I was disappointed that the glowing supporting cast didn’t get its proper due in the opening of the U.S. version (there was an episode or two where they are shown and credited, but this mysteriously is not the norm).
BEST CHARACTER: Creed Bratton (played by Creed Bratton)
There is no question who the boss is in either series, and both Gareth Keenan and Dwight Schrute deserve their own spin-offs (or alternate universes where they are the boss). But line-for-line, the single most consistently funny player in both of these worlds is Creed Bratton, the senior resident played by Creed Bratton who has seen it all, and is now coasting by doing as little as possible (so little that he doesn’t even remember what his job title is). Always around to offer an extra dose of comedic creepiness (except for when he’s concerned about being caught for wrongdoing), Creed it an actual office mate’s worst nightmare. But safely removed, in the comforting confines of our home viewing environment, Creed is the best Office mate around.
The Office: Series 2
BEST SEASON: 2 [for U.K.] / 3 [for U.S.]
The second British series kept chugging along as it explored more deeply the then-pioneering art of office discomfort and malapropisms. And it ended the show on a completely brilliant and high note (though there were those two aforementioned Christmas specials). The American version, meanwhile, took a little longer to get going at full speed. My favorite is season five, but season three was the game changer. Finally firing on all cylinders, the third season gave us even more for the highly quotable supporting players, as well as introduced us to the wonder that is a cappella aficionado Andrew Bernard (played by the now mega-famous Ed Helms).
BEST EPISODE: “Training” (Series 1, Episode 4) [U.K.] / “Weight Loss” (Season 5, Episode 1)
The training day from hell will not feature Denzel Washington or PCP, as it turns out. It will feature David Brent interrupting the meeting's facilitator at every chance and eventually breaking into song (he strums a guitar and sings his own compositions, including the classic “Free Love Freeway”), with Tim realizing that he is living in his own worst hell (he does try to break free, the first of many failed attempts). And on the American side of The Atlantic, the fifth season started with a tremendous bang. Pam and Jim became engaged (as she's away at art school, hailing the return of former-temp-former-CEO Ryan), Michael and Holly were the cutest onscreen couple ever (check this out if you don't believe me), Andy was somehow engaged to Angela (and oblivious to the fact that she’s still sleeping with Dwight), and the entire staff was trying to lose more weight than the other Dunder-Mifflin branches (to varying degrees of success). Holly also found out that Kevin is not, in fact, retarded (not clinically speaking, anyhow).
BEST MOMENT: The kiss (“Gay Witch Hunt,” Season 3, Episode 1)
When Michael accidentally outs gay accountant Oscar, he attempts to cover his tracks by staging a sensitivity training session about homosexuality. It ends up (like all of Mr. Scott’s bungling attempts) a big mess, especially when the boss tries to kiss the embarrassed Oscar. In an ordinarily tightly scripted show, this bit of improv proved just how gifted and committed Steve Carell was. Ricky Gervais may have created the character, but Steve Carell showed us just how far he could stretch that role. And all of this lead to my favorite Oscar line (after he is awarded paid vacation time in lieu of suing Dunder-Mifflin), “Kids, sometimes it pays to be gay.”
BEST “THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID” UTTERANCE: “It squeaks when you bang it…” (“Crime Aid,” Season 5, Episode 4)
The show boasts many fine moments that spark Michael Scott’s desire to rebut with “That’s what she said,” and a fair amount of them are actually appropriate to the situation (if not appropriate to office etiquette). In the fifth season, the office is broken into, so the branch holds an auction to raise money for new supplies. Having been supplied with a toy gavel that makes a noise on even the slightest impact, Michael Scott’s surprised reaction is a thinking-out-loud moment (“It squeaks when you bang it. That’s what she said.”) so nonchalant you might not hear it the first time.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Top 10 Xmas Episodes (Comedy, Of Course)

I spent much of my Christmas break watching (or re-watching, as it were) classic holiday themed episodes of many of my favorite TV shows. So in the spirit of the season, here's a list of my Top 10 Christmas Comedy Specials. I suppose I stuck with comedies instead of including all genres of TV because I always preferred reruns of A Christmas Story to It's A Wonderful Life growing up.

10) The Simpsons "Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire" (1989)
The first full-length Simpsons episode is a still-touching holiday classic. In these hard economic times, it's easy to relate to how broke Homer was, especially in the earlier seasons. This is the episode where he gets a second job working as a mall Santa, only to be outed by his own son Bart. They stay broke in the episode (and, for the most part, throughout the series) but do end up with a new member of the family, their dog named Santa's Little Helper.

9) Arrested Development "Afternoon Delight" (2004)
This Los Angeles-set family sitcom is definitely the least-Christmasy entry on the list, but it's nod to the holidays with two company Christmas parties does provide plenty of hilarious moments. While the Bluth family doesn't learn any lessons about giving or sharing (in this episode or any other), they do embarrass themselves (twice) by singing (that's right) "Afternoon Delight."

8) The Boondocks "A Huey Freeman Christmas" (2005)
The Freeman boys are up to their usual dose of extreme black behavior, even for the holiday season. Huey is afforded the chance to take creative control of the Christmas play, while Riley reignites a rivalry with Santa Claus. I always admire Huey's attempts to get the world to wake up (in this case, by rewriting the play as The Adventures Of Black Jesus), and I always laugh out loud at Riley's irresponsible antics (the throwing of the chair at Santa was a class act), and Aaron McGruder's vision tied in perfectly with the spirit of the season.

7) Friends "The One With Phoebe's Dad" (1995)
I will admit to being a bit of a sucker for Friends still, especially in those idealistic and still-genuinely-good early years when Ross and Rachel weren't even together yet (much less past that "We were on a break!" stuff). The silly furnace-stuck-at-hot party scenes provided wacky balance to the dramedy beats of Phoebe discovering that not only is her father not the good looking man in all the picture frames at Macy's, but that he still lives in NYC (rather than being a famous tree surgeon living in Burma). But my favorite scene is the last one, where an ill-prepared Chandler and Joey give gifts of whatever was lying around in their apartment (including windshield wiper blades, cans of soda and "ribbed for her pleasure" condoms).

6) South Park "Woodland Critter Christmas" (2004)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have written some crazy holiday adventures for the boys from South Park, but this is probably their wildest and most well-known. And with good cause; Stan accidentally kills a noble mountain lion who was supposed to prevent the birth of a woodland critter Son of Darkness, so it's up to him to train the lion cubs to perform an abortion before it's too late. Of course, it all ended up being Cartman writing a holiday story for a class assignment, but it was perfect South Park and great Christmas fun.

5) Family Guy "A Very Special Family Guy Freakin' Christmas" (2001)
The third season is one of my favorites of Family Guy, and this episode is a prime example of what makes it such a free-wheeling and irreverent comedy. The all-too-sitcomy storyline of Peter trying to get the family's present back is beside the point - in fact, plot is rarely the point for Family Guy. The jokes fly merrily by, sharp and surreal as usual, and I do enjoy the secondary yarn about ever-the-evil-baby Stewie agreeing to play Jesus in the Christmas pageant so that Santa will provide him with plutonium.

4) The Office [U.S. version] "A Benihana Christmas" (2006)
The American Office set the standard for Christmas-themed episodes, outdoing themselves every year. Though I was tempted to award the slot to this season's excellent "Classy Christmas" (they re-united Michael and Holly, and Dwight finally one-upped Jim on the pranking), after reviewing "Benihana Christmas," I couldn't think of a more deserving Xmas ep. The walking, talking scalarious boss that is Michael Scott is in perfect form here, unable to tell Benihana employees apart and aching to get away with a woman (just about any woman) to warm Sandals, Jamaica. The Office hit its highest heights in this season, and "Benihana Christmas" is proof of that.

3) Futurama "Holiday Spectacular" (2010)
A three-part holiday special episode which touches on Christmas, "Robanukah" and Kwanzaa and kills off the main characters at the end of each act? What more could we ask for from the best retro-futuristic sci-fi sature to air from here to Omicron Persei 8? The Futurama crew has already tackled Christmas and Robanukah (a fake holiday Bender created to avoid having to work) before, and even acknowledge Kwanzaa Bot before, but this one took the too-loose-to-be-canon spirit of their "Anthology Of Interest" episodes and turned it into festive delight. I hope this becomes a yearly tradition a la "Treehouse Of Horror."

2) The Ren & Stimpy Show "Son Of Stimpy" [also known as "Stimpy's First Fart"] (1993)
Stimpy's Christmas miracle is wonderfully gross, the exact kind one would expect from a cartoon company called Spumco. Ren & Stimpy was a cartoon that should not have been aired on the kid's network Nickelodeon, but due to some glitch in the cosmos, my generation was lucky enough to take in this strange mix of sacred and profane; not only that, be we were delivered this skewed holiday classic of family and togetherness, loss and acceptance. This show pushed the boundaries of just about anyone's sensibilities, but "Son Of Stimpy" perfectly captured the insane-quasi-homosexual dynamic of a psychotic chihuha and a dumb-but-fun cat and gave us a heartwarming Christmas tale to boot.

1) It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia "A Very Sunny Christmas" (2009)
Last year's special will be making the yearly rotation for me, up there with Scrooged and Home Alone as a highly rewatchable Christmas classic. Featuring the gang coming to terms with the hardships of the holidays, this two-fer episode has many a timeless gag: Frank being birthed from the couch, Mac and Charlie's ghosts Christmas past, Dennis and Sweet Dee trying to trick Frank into thinking he wasted his life by not getting them their desired presents. The selfishness and insanity know no bounds for our fearless American heroes, and I wouldn't have them any other way. If they don't make another Christmas special, I'll understand why; I don't know how I would have been able to top this myself.

Monday, December 20, 2010

5. Curb Your Enthusiasm (You Can't Yell After Deaf People, And Other Tips & Suggestions About Societal Standards For You Schmohawks)

“That’s not your business, Larry, you misanthropic moron!”
-Susie, but it really could be what anyone unfortunate enough to cross paths with Larry David might want to exclaim;
“The Christ Nail” (Season 5, Episode 3)

Run time: October 15, 2000 – Present
Created by: Larry David
Broadcast via: HBO (that’s 3 in the Top 5!)

Perhaps more effective than “Woke Up This Morning” or the theme from Cheers (appropriately enough titled “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”), the opening notes to Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “Frolic” (by composer Luciano Michelini) inspire an instant recognition for impending insanity as comedic fervor is certain to fire off synapses of the brain, gearing one to get ready for some great now-old fashioned awkward comedy. The opening notes invoke a sublimity of whimsy, the type of bliss attained through knowing that you’ll be laughing until it hurts at how stupid we silly humans can be. In other words, a perfect counterbalance to the sardonic and sociopathic comedy about to be unleashed.

Curb Your Enthusiasm may not technically be the funniest sitcom on TV right now (that no doubt must be It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, since Party Down’s been cancelled), but it is classic and inspired and hilarious all the same. And its influence cannot be denied. Curb Your Enthusiasm predicted so precisely the style that would swallow sitcoms in the following decade since its debut. The Office may have been more directly inspired by the films of Christopher Guest, but one can’t deny that Curb came before any version of The Office, and before Arrested Development and the aforementioned Always Sunny and Modern Family and any other “pretending it's being caught live” formatted show of this new millennium.

Somehow, creator Larry David has had a heavy hand in two of the best comedic properties of all time, both of them ahead of their time and also indicative of it.  If you don’t already know by now, he created Seinfeld along with the titular Jerry Seinfeld, a show that played off the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of modern man and woman in a way that only two gloomy comedians could imagine and execute. Seinfeld was the last great laugh track comedy. After Seinfeld, there was no more need for laugh track comedies, because they would never reach the level of comedic brilliance that Seinfeld had. I don’t care what your thoughts on Two And A Half Men or The Big Bang Theory are (or Friends or That ‘70s Show, if you wanna reach back to the late 1990s), they are not Capital G Great Comedies. They are great sitcoms, no doubt, but Seinfeld transcended “situational comedy” in a way few sitcoms have been able to do since (and most of ones that have often get tagged as having a Seinfeldian influence).

As for Curb Your Enthusiasm, it shifted focus away from a fantastic foursome to one bright shining beacon of awkward comedy. I am not trying to deny the awesomeness of the supporting cast and guest actors that have come in to incur the wrath of a neurotic and curmudgeonly Jew unleashed on a superficial yet sensitive society. But Larry David is clearly running the show, and everyone else is along for the ride. Playing a fictional version of himself, the real Larry David writes an entire season’s outline (each season playing out in ten half-hour episodes) and then lets it rip, cameras following him as each scene unfolds in that seemingly all-too-real style. Creating socially awkward anarchy in his every interaction, the fake Larry David rivals his other creation of selfishness George Costanza in committing faux pas after faux pas either due to ignorance, negligence, or willful disapproval of social values and conventions. And always, always rooted in solipsistic narcissism, “LD” (as he is come to be called, starting with season six) applies the rules when he feels entitled and feels above them whenever convenient for himself. He’s the kind of guy who freely admits, “I can’t stand the sound of the human voice. It’s disturbing to me,” just to explain why he would cut short a less-than-talented child’s “gift from the heart” (a song performed for an anniversary present).

Technically, CYE (one of the few show acronyms I enjoy employing) is a spin-off of the one-hour comedy special baring the same name LD did back in ’99. The special’s premise (in which David was preparing to do a one-hour standup comedy special for HBO, practicing in clubs and brandishing his off-kilter counter-to-culture comedy on the general public in between, before finally chickening out and failing to produce said standup special) was presented as a mockumentary, was great and allowed for an easy transition to a television series. Though the characters of the show never directly acknowledge the camera (they do, however, recognize their presence in the special), the visual style still maintains that handheld, capturing-the-moment spirit. And since the story is never scripted, just outlined, the actors’ improvisation helps to give it that spontaneous luster.

Curb has retained Seinfeld’s regard for season-long story arcs, but each episode is pretty self-contained. More so than Seinfeld, however, each episode takes a while to get its momentum going, and each episode ends in a climactic explosion of comedic timing and sharpness wherein the threads of the episode’s storylines finally coalesce, often into something so painful or intense that the screen cuts to black for title cards before actually unfolding for us to witness. Curb also retained Seinfeld’s meta-sense of self, poking fun of its own peculiarities and asinine attitude; again with the “more so”s, Curb went beyond Seinfeld’s stable of celebrity guests, blending real actors to their fictional counterparts and bending reality to comedic effect. The best example of this would have to be season seven, in which David finally caves in to the demand for a Seinfeld reunion (but only to win back the affections of his ex-wife), bringing back the Seinfeld Four (and many notable others – including Newman!) to skewer the actors’ trials and tribulations in a post-Seinfeld landscape. That he marries his new show with his old one is a stroke of genius that could have been disastrous had it not been applied with such a skilled pressure.

If you think the idea of a man hiring a hooker to ride in a car with him just so he can drive in the carpool lane is funny, you have no business not knowing this show. I can’t really surmise this splendiferous series any more succinctly, so all I can do is sit and wait for the upcoming eighth season (Ricky Gervais!) and pray that it maintains this same level of hilarity. That Larry David takes his time between seasons (a la David Chase and Sopranos) does suggest that the quality won’t be dipping before the show decides to bow out. I’m sure everyone’s hoping that Curb’s ending won’t be strange and unbecoming as Seinfeld’s still-more-maligned-than-it-should-be finale (but that’s a whole other conversation).

One simple song perfectly bookends each episode, and the fact that there is no opening credit sequence is a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t try to be fancy or cool or quirky, offering simplicity itself to start off a show destined for anything but uncomplicated. It’s nice to have a show that’s not so much flashy as just plain anxious to get down to (funny) business.

BEST CHARACTER: Leon (played by J.B. Smoove)
LD is god, but Leon is the Jesus of this show, saving us all by not only putting up with David’s shenanigans but enjoying (if not instigating) it. Leon knows how to loosen up and just go along with the ride, while helping Larry to relax a little and embrace some of his brotherly tendencies.
BEST SEASON: 4 (of 7 so far)
Season seven’s Seinfeld reunion was epic, and season six did introduce us to The Blacks (namely Leon and his sister Loretta, playing by a game Vivica Fox). Season five even ended with Larry’s near death experience. But season four, wherein Larry is hired by Mel Brooks to play Max Bialystock in an extended run of The Producers musical, is consistently sharp and scathing, with many great celebrity turns (check out pre-Lost Jorge “Hurley” Garcia sell Larry pot) and my favorite meta-moment, the ending that reveals Brooks hired David so that the show would bomb and he’d no longer be stuck overseeing The Producers. A shining example of what a season with LD can be.
BEST EPISODE: “Krazee Eyez Killa” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Larry shows his acting chops as a pissed off mob boss in a new Martin Scorsese movies, then scours L.A. to find a replacement jacket for the re-shoots after taking (and losing) the original. He also makes friends with Wanda Sykes’s fiancĂ©, a rapper named (you guessed it) Krazee Eyez Killa, at one point referring to him as “my Caucasian.” There’s also the waxing about neck injuries (and hairs stuck in the throat) due to cunnilingus, the stepping on the plastic packing bubbles, polishing the wording of a profanity-laced rap verse, the dual moments of absurdity over a tour of a house, and more. A fine episode, and one of the easiest for those uninitiated to take in and get right away.

BEST MOMENT: Larry & The Blacks (“The Bat Mitzvah,” Season 6, Episode 10)
After taking in the hurricane-displaced Black family, Larry and Cheryl’s marriage falls apart (due to his paying more attention to the TiVo guy than her during a life-or-death phone call) and she moves out. The Blacks stick around to enhance the craziness of Larry’s life, reacting like family to his various misdeeds. When Larry realizes he won’t be getting Cheryl back, he sees Loretta in a new light, leading to the funniest sixty seconds a sitcom could ever produce by setting itself up as a redefined new comedy called Larry And The Blacks. Many have claimed they hope for a true spin-off series, but everything that could be said about that show was said in the final montage, a hysterical ending to another hilarious season. 

BEST "PRETTY GOOD... PRETTY, PRETTY, PRETTY... PRETTY GOOD": Trying to get out of therapy ("The Thong," Season 2, Episode 5)
LD's trademark expression for legit (or phony) contentedness is often used during hallmark moments of hilarity within the show. I rather enjoy Larry lying his ass off to his therapist while trying to avoid the elephant in the room: Larry caught sight of his therapist in an unflattering thong while at the beach. Instead of discussing it, like one should do in therapy, Mr. David tells him that he is "all better" and no longer needs help because he's feeling "pretty good." Of course, the therapist (and the audience) can see right through him, but it's a great example of the front LD will raise due to discomfort.

-Juan Catalan owes Larry David a big hug and heartfelt thank you. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

4. Lost (Everything That Rises Must Converge)

JACK: "I don’t believe in destiny."
LOCKE: "Yes, you do. You just don’t know it yet."
-John Locke, always the mentor;
"Exodus Pt. 3" (Season 1, Episode 25)

Run time: September 22, 2004 – May 23, 2010
Created by: Jeffrey Lieber & J.J. Abrams & Damon Lindelof
Broadcast via: ABC

Oh, Lost. No show quite incites either loving devotion or dubious dislike like Lost. So let’s just get this out of the way: Lost is a good show. A really fucking good show. Any hate thrown towards it is based on personal bias more than actual lacking for craft. Okay, there are things about Lost that are less than cool (I’ll get to that later). But as I’ve already stated about my favorite show, no series is perfect. If you’re still not with me on the “Lost is good” talk, let me say that I understand there are plenty of reasons to hate Lost; I too used to be a proud member on the Fuck Lost bandwagon. But just because something has faults doesn’t mean it can’t also be good or beyond loving. The fact that Lost is ultimately about that last sentence I just wrote only further ascertains it as one of the defining shows of pop culture, not to mention one of the best mysteries and interactive puzzle games ever created.

I should even note that I am not the biggest fan of the first and second season. While I do find them to be very entertaining and full of intrigue, they just don’t grab me to the same degree that the best of the best have (although the “We’re gonna have to take the boy” moment and “The Other 48 Days” episode were knockout brilliant). Get passed that though, and you will be justy rewarded with four solid seasons that take Lost from what everyone initially thought it was going to be into mind-bending new territory that truly had not been explored on TV before.

Lost is one of those shows that is immediately rewatcahble, endlesly absorbing because every scene, seemingly every frame is filled with more than just what the scene itself suggests. Subtext is a big name of the game for Lost, and following the threads during each episode means leaving nothing to chance (or excusing any detail from utmost scrutiny). Such thinking never really got anyone any closer to the answers, but the fun of discovery along the way makes for a huge part of Lost's drawing power. It's like a crazy religious tome, each chapter unfolding another layer in the mystery of everything. The storytelling is wild and all-encompassing, and in the end is merely a blueprint for something much bigger than itself by itself. Which is why Lost became the pop culture phenomenon it did while it was on the air (and audiences were forced to wait season-to-season, week-to-week and unravel the mystery collectively) and the cult uber-show it has already became in the home viewing market.

Lost is perhaps most notable for being the first show created and aired in the 21st century that became a cult-canon series on par with both Star franchises (Trek and Wars, both of which cast a wide influence on the show). Yes, The Sopranos was the most successful cable television series ever, and The Wire has an extremely articulate and passionate fanbase, but this does not compare to going to ComiCon and seeing Losties mix in with the Trekkers (and I’m not quite sure what you call diehard Star Wars fans, but probably not “Warsies”). This is an especially big feat since most noteworthy programming these days is coming from cable. Yet lo and behold, Lost came from ABC, the most basic of basic networks. And despite it’s network limitations (or sometimes, like Arrested Development, because of it), it has thrived; I should mention that I heard when they wrote their scripts they laced the dialogue with plenty of profanity (this was obviously edited out by the end of post production, but it was done to establish and maintain intensity during scenes). For seeming like a silly network show, Lost is well known (and loved) for provoking ideas, hinting at symbolism and literature and thousands of other pieces of pop culture, messing with your conception of time and principality (are you a person of science or faith, and is there really a difference?), and creating a new realm of pop mythology. It combined many religious views, philosophical queries, scientific theories, superhero sagas and ancient mythologies (along with name checks to many of the best in each of those fields), turning them all into something else. Something modern, yet something classic. And it got a lot of people thinking. Any show that inspires people to read so many different books and study science or philosophy and create art the way Lost has must be deemed a success.

Watching it for the first time, Lost can be quite overwhelming, especially if you focus on some of Lost’s tackier idiosyncrasies. Things go by in the blink of an eye, yet obviously huge amounts of details are poured into several significant scenes. The production quality is astonishing; the sets especially are something to be marveled at. And being filmed primarily in Hawaii gives each exterior scene a gorgeous hue.  I could mention all the dazzling characters that pop in and out of this chronicle - and holy crap, are there myriad mesmerizing men and women and smoke monsters in this fantastic voyage to and from one crazy island . But same as Baltimore is to The Wire (and again, that mansion is to The Shining), The Island is the real star of the show. Like the mansion, it remains shrouded in mystery, yet such an entrancing and mythic place. In the end, it was something people fought over, something that gave life and took it all the same, filled with beauty and horror, as well as things that made life make sense (and things that confused the fuck out of people).

Being made by people, no show can be perfect, including Lost. Being on a network helped Lost in gaining a wide mainstream audience as soon as it started, avoiding the dreaded poor-ratings-means-cancelation-means-obscurity debacle. I will also state that many shows benefit from being limited by the censors (The Office, Arrested Development and Always Sunny are three that immediately come to mind), though I don't know if Lost might have done better at a cable network or not. Being on a network did force showrunners Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse to do some pretty silly things, like force source music down our ears, rely on stock story structures for the pointless stuff that had to fill up mandated episode counts, and tone down its potential for some serious scenes and manic moments of unfettered cinema because, hey, kids could be watching. Most of these mistakes and missteps were rectified by the end of the third season, however. ABC agreed to give Lost a definitive end date, and from that point forward, it was game time, with Lost having enough cache that the creators could start getting away with more risky (and rewarded) measures. The two-headed mythmakers Darlton went full speed ahead and engaged us in some of the most epic storytelling this side of The Chronicles Of Narnia (the books, not the movies), Back To The Future or the first three Indiana Jones movies (the last one I'm not counting).

Despite this epicality, the weaknesses may seem prominent at first to the uninitiated, but they erode over the course of the first three seasons. As already mentioned, the stories get better once the cast and crew knew what they were working toward with an actual ending in mind. The acting seemed to rise with it, and everyone's performances consistently got more and more involved (and involving). I’m not usually a fan of incidental (or source) music, especially in television. Usually, it’s contrived and artificial and reminds me that I’m being told to feel something (even if it’s already abundantly clear). Lost starts out very much this way, or so it seems. Perhaps this ties to my not-as-embracing views of the first two seasons (which, again, are good), but the music seems to fit with my bitter views on source cues (at least initially). Again, give it time. Any nonbeliever will start to realize that the leitmotifs and fanfare are actually thematic. You must respect the attention to detail and care that went into crafting this story of a group of plane crash survivors who will never be the same again. It affirms that the writers knew what they wanted to do from the beginning, but had to contend with the demands of the moneymen before being allowed to put the final acts into effect.

Again, there are plenty of seemingly reasonable excuses to hate Lost. But most do not hold up under debate. If it’s not your cup of tea, so be it, but that it your choice, and not directly reflective of any shortcoming on the creators’ part. If you wanna poke holes in Lost, you can, but these guys covered their asses pretty well, and they’ve already called themselves out on anything you may find stupid long before you have a chance to come up with your snappy one-liner. Really, the simple fact is that anyone can find reasons to hate anything. But just as true, you can take something on its own terms and not feel slighted if it sometimes conflicts with your idea of what something is supposed to be.

Lost deals a lot with time. The series starts off relying of flashbacks to different times in our characters’ pasts, revealing how they got to where they were before they ended up in the infamous Oceanic Flight 815. But by the end of it, we’ve flashed backwards and forwards and sideways and there’s even some time travelling involved (if you have to ask, don’t; just wait until you get there). Yet strangely enough, for a show so centered on time, it ended up caring very little for it. In the end, “now” is all that matters, and the people who were with you during those “now is what counts” moments are the ones that matter most, because whether you know if or not (whether you like it or not), they define us by helping us to think and feel and even act for ourselves. Take the journey to The Island (not the Michael Bay movie) and you’ll never be the same. And you’ll never forget what it’s like to go back.

I love that the opening title credits are simply a black screen with a white-lettered LOST logo coming into focus before moving on. No need for another theme song about being which characters are stranded on an island (thankyouverymuch, Gilligan’s Island). The end credit music (the same song every time) are sort of tribal and mysterious, a respite from the reeling your mind has inevitably been through during whatever episode you’ve just watched. A very fitting end for any visit to The Island.
BEST CHARACTER: John Locke (played by Terry O’Quinn)
Named after the seventeenth century philosopher, Locke is a hero so bad-ass that he eventually got promoted to villain. He was always the most intriguing main character in a constantly evolving main cast, and his first flashback story (in "Walkabout") set the standard for all future flashback episodes. His started as the story of utter tragedy, but his faith and determination ended up being a part of the true heart of the show. Locke was the first person who learned how to embrace The Island and accept letting go (even if he never could quite get the hang of moving on, Locke was an important spiritual guru for the first few seasons of Lost). Very few actors could pull off the range of emotions and events that John Locke goes through; Terry O’Quinn not only pulled it off but succeeded in making all Lost fans true believers, even in those moments of great doubt.
BEST SEASON: 5 (of 6 total)
Each season upped the game laid out by the previous, but season five raised the stakes in so many ways, turning Lost into a nonstop thrill ride. It also skewed traditional on-island narration with focused non-island flashbacks/forwards, instead opting to go forwards, backwards... really all over time and place, in the span on a single episode – anything but linear storytelling, trusting the audience to trust it. The ride never got quite as wild as season five, culminating in our meeting Jacob and the Main In Black, as well as unveiling The Incident that caused pretty much everything that came before and after.
BEST EPISODE: “The Constant” (Season 4, Episode 5)
Just about any season finale could have taken this spot (especially season three’s “Through The Looking Glass”), but in all honesty, the best single episode experience you could have goes to “The Constant.” Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Lost, it would be hard to not get sucked in, not just because of the crazy science-fiction-mixing-with-island-action, but also for the emotional weight. Any Desmond-centric epsode is bound to pull at the heart strings, as Des is a man torn away from the woman he loves, wanting to stop at nothing to have her back (this is in a endearing way, not a creepy one). This episode best sums up a bit of everything that makes Lost what it is. It starts out typically jarring, throws some cool sci fi-esque and romance plots together, threading them with into the ensemble island drama and turnsingit into majestic pulp pop gold. And like other Des-heavy episodes, a new layer of the show’s overall philosophy and mandate is revealed.
BEST MOMENT: “We Have To Go Back!” (“Through The Looking Glass Pt. 2,” Season 3, Episode 23)
Jackface! You gotta give it up to the writers on this one: What a way to mess with your audience and reward them at the same time after three frustrating and fascinating seasons about a group of strangers meeting and making memories on The Island. From this point forward, everything changes, and it’s one of the best “beginning of the end” moments in all of fiction. This moment defined what Lost means the most, a fragile moment of dramatic humanity mixed with twist-storytelling and a narrative device that defied our expectations while setting up all new ones.

-Pop Candy published my Top Five Self-Contained Lost eps

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

3. The Wire (A Tale Of One City)

“We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch, and all the pieces matter.”
-Lester Freamon schooling two-fold by
1) explaining to Roland Pryzbylewski why a wiretapped call should be logged pertinent, 
while also 2) surmising the nature of the show itself;
“The Wire” (Season 1, Episode 6)

Run time: June 2, 2002 – March 9, 2008
Created by: David Simon
Broadcast via: HBO

The Wire has kind of become the Radiohead of TV serials. When I say that, I mean that The Wire is one of the most over-praised shows that still somehow remains under-appreciated as a whole (just like Radiohead remains one of the best-loved/oft-spited bands in modern music, but few give them credit for creating three of the most important rock records in recent history – all in a row). It’s a dauntingly complex show about all of the variables in the big equation. It’s a show about cops and criminals being two sides of the same coin (or being coins themselves, flipping between their own contradictory natures). It’s as detailed and poetic as the best literature, and as affecting and engaging as the most masterful movies, except it was a gritty TV series, one that could not possibly contain itself before nearly spiraling into entropy. And while it lasted, it was one of the smartest reasons to own a so-called idiot box and subscribe to HBO.

It’s been exhaustively discussed by people who love serious stuff (or at least serious cinema) and marginally ignored by most of mainstream television viewers. But give it time. Word of mouth is still keeping this series going strong. Owning up to its comparison as a “visual novel,” The Wire has something that all classic literature does: extraordinary staying power. Whatever your views on it, The Wire is a solidly built story with some of the most fascinating characters and sharpest glimpses of post-9/11 urban life in all of fiction. Fiction is the key word here, viewers, though The Wire will try at every chance to convince you of its authenticity. Written largely by a former Baltimore journalist who covered the homicide unit of his city’s police department (and wrote the book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets in the process, inspiring the NBC series Homicide: Life On The Streets) and a former detective-turned-teacher Baltimore city guru, The Wire drips with realistically eloquent dialogue in every scene, and exudes a naturalistic and non-flashy style and verisimilitude that makes it rival Shakespeare and Dickens for cultural relevance and societal commentary. And each real Baltimore location is littered with dozens of spectacular actors delivering some of the finest work of their careers. Though many are getting work since The Wire's ending, my hunch is that most will be remembered by their contribution to this show. And yet despite all the fiercely detailed performances in this vivid ensemble cast, the true star of the series is always the city itself: Baltimore, Maryland.

A place like a city is only as important as its people. As much as New Jersey was essential to The Sopranos, or that mansion was a key character in The Shining, the city also known as “Bodymore, Murdaland” is an all-too-important element of The Wire. In it, the citizens of Baltimore, whether native or not, all embody what is still left of a once proud industrial city (in what was at that time believed to be the greatest country on Earth). And they all represent a certain facet of the city that David Simon (the journalist) and Ed Burns (the cop) got to know so very well in their more than 20 years (each) of experience before they turned to TV. The Wire is not their first project together – that would be their gripping book-turned-mini-series The Corner – but it is the crowning achievement of what happens when you put a well-seasoned hack and a veteran dick in the same room room and make them write. It starts with a loose cannon detective named McNulty, notorious amongst his unit for "giving a fuck when it's not [his] turn" (amongst other things), mouthing off to a judge about who’s running the drug trade in the streets of the city (and getting away with murder in the courts) of Baltimore – a smooth and smart gangster named Avon Barksdale. Outrage roars through the halls of the homicide unit as McNulty continues to stir up trouble for the more politically minded, getting himself and other detectives (some skilled, some humps) detailed to a special investigative unit that uses surveillance methods (amongst them wiretapping) to try and prove that Barksdale and his crew are not only selling drugs but also producing corpses, all to control the corners of the streets. This is all just the beginning, though, and what seems like a more-detailed-but-still-standard cops-and-criminal drama turns into something almost mythic in proportions by the end of the first season finale. The characters and their fates are hardly as controllable as they may hope, as the writers themselves have insisted that they treat the institutions each character serves as a sort of Olympian force that can knock them down seemingly from out of nowhere. Which makes it feel so lifelike when things don’t work like we think they will (yet can still carry tremendously far-reaching consequences). 

It’s easy to get deep about The Wire for all its literary ambitions, but that’s not to suggest that it isn’t also plain entertaining. Any viewer could grow fond of the players on either side of “the game,” and there are dozens (if not hundreds) of colorful characters inhabiting the cold, hard street of Baltimore. The writers and cast have done an admirable job of making a world full of fictional people seem fully realized, full of both frailty and fury (depending on which way the wind is blowing). Some people have sneered and called the lot of them stereotypes, but I'm the kind of guy who thinks that maybe stereotype exist for a reason and that some very real people sometimes do seem a bit like caricatures. Whether you think they're "real" or not (and they are not, for the record), every character is imbued with style, the kind that stands for substance - they all are different pieces of the puzzle called existence, an often dark and harrowing one. But for all the heartbreak that viewers are in store for with The Wire, there are also moments of incredible levity. Sometimes it’s just great lines, sometimes it’s a twist or turn of events that you never see coming. But every episode of The Wire features this dichotomy of fierce and funny, wrapped in a strange form of optimistic cynicism (or is it cynical optimism? I really can't tell here) that makes it richly engaging, despite sometimes seeming impenetrable.

The structure of The Wire embraces the idea (like The Sopranos before it and Lost after) that each episode is a chapter, it’s own singular unit of storytelling tied to a larger whole. But more than any other show, each season of The Wire is its own story (each season also has its own variation of the same theme song, Tom Waits’ haunting “Way Down In The Hole”). Yes, every story ties together, because it is all connected, but each season also exists as its own independent entity. Focusing on separate institutions that collectively force the city’s inhabitants to make their choices every day, The Wire deeply explores the schemes and setups of the key fields that collide and intersect daily in all of the major cities of the world. In the first season, it’s the war on drugs played out in the precincts and streets that sets up the lay of the land (and an interesting parallel to the War On Terror). In the second season, we encounter the port system through the stevedores union and a smuggling operation lead by a mysterious man known only as "The Greek" to see how the drugs end up throughout the city in the first place. By season three, we are immersed in the city’s bureaucracy and government, just in time for The Wire’s greatest political statements to be made in the form of a metaphor called Hamsterdam. The forth season is Ed Burns’ most personal, as the school system is introduced to explain how the “same as it ever was” mentality comes to be so clearly established with the youth in many inner city environments. And the fifth and final season focuses on the print news media, and the way that lies are used as much as truth to get to where we feel we need to go (not to mention how our modern "journalism" is actually quite complicit in the degradation of the inner city). Some people come, some go, but what’s important to all of this is that players may change, but until we do something to recognize the problems of our society's ills and honestly attempt to fix them, the game stays the same. 

Many critics, haters and complainers have their reasons to find The Wire less than epic, and I will remind every one of them that The Wire is a) fiction (not documentary or even docudrama, despite the vast amount of research that went into its subjects), and b) not exactly realistic (though it feels very legit 85% of the time), but still thematically true. Though many claim art is most important when viewed from a socially conscious standpoint, I dare say that sometimes what's vital is simply how well a piece of art is made, no matter how bleak or dreary it may get to make a point. The cast and the crew of The Wire deliver during each and every moment, even if the writing does not always. Just about every scene is a hard hit to the head, and amazingly, after a while, it starts to feel real good. If you crave well-made drama, the kind that feels real and deals in low down raw-and-rugged storytelling, you really couldn’t take a better trip than with The Wire. Start with season one, and if it tickles your fancy, then keep on diving, and enjoy watching people try to keep the devil way down in the hole.

Starting with The Blind Boys Of Alabama's bouncy gospel-blues cover of "Way Down In The Hole," each season's opening credit sequence begins with a different take, symbolizing the different focus and themes with each new season. Tom Waits' own version takes over on season two, followed by The Neville Brothers, DoMaJe (a group of kids for a season about kids) and recurring guest star Steve Earle, respectively. Each rendition fits the feel of the season pretty well, and the sequence of images (nothing more than quick shots of various, seemingly unconnected events, all presented out of context and often in close-up) come to make sense as the season progresses and we are given context. For five excellent renditions of a song into a show's theme, I give The Wire five points, but the short season count does leave something to be desired sometimes. While everyone who misses The Wire wonders what the themes of future season would be, I will always wonder who the future theme song could have been covered (hopefully to equal perfection) by. (The closing theme "The Fall," by music supervisor Blake Leyh isn't half bad either.)

BEST CHARACTER: OMAR LITTLE (played by Michael Kenneth Williams)
Nowadays you may recognize him as Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, but Mr. Williams first came to prominence as perhaps the least realistic character of The Wire (even though he was based on several real criminals people, he came to embody an almost noble sense of place in the show), a smooth talking guy who robs drug dealers while whistling "The Farmer In The Dell" (usually causing the denizens of the street to flee yelling, "Omar comin'!"). Really, so many characters are stellar, and perhaps someone else should be here. Stringer Bell (Avon Barksdale's righthand man, ambitious as Icarus and smooth as silk, eager to get out of the ghetto he controls) was one crafty cat whose dual arc with Avon is one of great tragedy, and Howard "Bunny" Colvin (the commanding Major who creates drug safe zones in order to clean up the rest of the city neighborhoods) is the moral scope with which The Wire views itself: a tired seen-it-all who realizes that things are only getting worse and decides to try something different. Snoop is a gangster so vicious that Stephen King himself called her the scariest female villain in all of fictional history (and he wrote Misery). Deputy campaign manager/mayoral advisor/journalistic inside man Norman Wilson is a verbal riot in a tie. And of course there's The Bunk, one of the most suave and straightforward detectives (and characters) in cinematic history who also ratchets up the hilarity with just about every scene he's in (just so that I don't undersell his dramatic capabilities, actor Wendall Pierce does also deliver perhaps the show's finest monologue, a searing criticism of "how far we done fell"). But the superheroic Omar Little still wins as the best character because, for a show that constructs its characters as abstractions (thus making them differently likable upon subsequent viewings), Omar remains the hardest to pin down, but perhaps the easiest to root for. A gay stickup artist, Omar robs the most dangerous players in B-more and lives by a strange but valid moral code that involves making a point of not cursing and never pulling his gun toward anyone who isn't a part of the game. His moral ambiguity makes him immune to the institutions that normally crush the other characters of this story, and even though he is a coldblooded killer who takes what he wants, he is still a very hard character to not find appealing. Telling you that his ending is one of the more tragic ones on this show is not a spoiler; it's fair warning.

BEST SEASON: 4 (of 5 total)
Honestly, I think there is no best season of The Wire. That even goes for the much-maligned season five. Each one is essential, and it is the type of show where you really should know everything that has happened before whatever episode you're watching. The first season so succinctly sets up the streets and the players of Baltimore's drug game, and then the second season shakes it all up by tying the majority black streets to the mostly white docks and the investigation of the deaths of fourteen immigrant girls being brought overseas as sex slaves (it also takes great pains to remind the viewer that this will not be an easy or typical show). Season 3 takes it back to the streets but introduces the bureaucratic dynamic to the city's politcal spectrum, colliding these two worlds into the city's biggest philosophical conundrum (and some of the most satisfying story arcs of the entire show). All of these seasons are smashing, a tour de force piece of storytelling worthy of sitting on the shelves of the greatest works of fiction. But season four sends it all home in such an emotionally arresting way by reminding us about the growing kids of the world, the ones who will be replacing us to do the job (badly if that is how we teach them). There are so many immensely interesting characters sprawling across the Maryland metropolis, but the newest additions - primarily four middle schoolers named Michael, Namond, Randy and Duquan - are incredibly detailed and well-rounded in the their own right, and give the audience an arc that can't be easily forgotten. Not only that, but it shuffles former lead McNulty into the background, finally giving room to all the supporting (hell, equally lead) characters that have made The Wire such a great platform for actors - many stretch their wings for their finest flight in this run. And it does all of this while still feeling like good ol' Wire; the kind of season that understandably had some people calling The Wire the best show ever made.

BEST EPISODE: "Old Cases" (Season 1, Episode 4)
It's almost hard to believe that one of the earliest episodes set The Wire bar at that oh-so-high level, but it truly was that fast. If you're really paying attention your first time through, "Old Cases" is where you first see just how truly great The Wire gets. There's the cop talk "exhaustion" explanation, Bodie escaping from a juvenile ward, the loquacious Sergeant Landsman complaining to captain Rawls that McNulty is ruining his alone time, the beginnings of the detectives' encounters with Omar, Lester Freamon emerging from the shadows to reveal himself as true POlice (as they pronounce it in Bodymore), and of course, the classic scene of McNulty and his partner Bunk Moreland figuring out how a woman was shot in her apartment while uttering nothing more than the word "fuck" (or some of it's craftier variants) throughout the entire investigation - and still so much more. This episodes sets a damn good example of what the show is capable of when it flourishes. (Having said that, each season's penultimate episode is quite a kick in the pants as well).

BEST MOMENT: Tied between the cold opening and the brothel scene ("Stray Rounds," Season 2, Episode 9)
The Wire excels at moments that are either devastatingly depressing or shockingly funny. A shining example of each of these kinds of moments can be found in the same second season episode, "Stray Rounds," which features a horrific cold opening featuring a young child's tragedy because of a turf battle between rival drug crews, as well as the dastardly McNulty going undercover in a brothel and later having to type up a report about how he was unable to help himself from mixing pleasure with business during the bust.

BEST EXAMPLE OF McNULTY GIVING A FUCK WHEN IT'S NOT HIS TURN: Sticking it to Rawls by making fourteen dead girls fall under Baltimore City Police Department's jurisdiction - twice ("Ebb Tide" and "Collateral Damage," Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2)
Season two unfolds with a dead girl found floating in the water and thirteen more found dead in a cargo container on the docks. Though at first deemed unrelated and non-homicides (the floater apparently jumped off the bridge and it appears that the can's air pipe was damaged when containers shifted en route), no-longer-murder-police McNulty, drunk and scorned bastard that he is (after being kicked out of the homicide department and booted to the marine unit at the end of season one), decides to get revenge on his former commander Rawls by first proving that the floater was within city limits when she died, then doing the same for the other girls that are proven to be murdered in the can they were found in (and allowing the commander of every other unit to insist it falls on Rawls alone). To commemorate the monumental screwing of his old boss, The Bunk and Cool Lester Smooth take "McNutty" out for a taste - and make him take one shot for every girl he dumped on their department. 

-Freakonomics ran a brilliant nine-part series of articles titled "What Do Real Thugs Think Of The Wire," which gives a good counter perspective to all the praise and putdowns that get hurled by largely white-collared types.
-Slate was arguably the first majorly read publisher to hark the herald of The Wire to the masses by calling it the best show on television ever. It's TV Club (a series of articles written as emails) ran some pretty good stuff during the show's final two runs. Season four featured non-Slate guests documentarian Steve James (who first receive widespread acclaim with Hoop Dreams) and writer Alex Kotlowitz (best known for his book There Are No Children Here) breaking down The WireDuring the fifth season, Jeffrey Goldberg and David Plotz led the staffers in providing a pretty entertaining viewpoint from within an institution that The Wire was critiquing in its final run. 
-Only with a show like The Wire can you call re-watching it a "re-up." The Guardian thusly called their review of the series "The Re-Up;" it contained some pretty intriguing insights and provoked a lot of discussions (far beyond meager "I'm-right-your-wrong" polemics that plague many internet comment sections).