Showing posts with label Television. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Television. Show all posts

Saturday, March 10, 2012

FX's The Shield: Review and Analysis

The Shield
The Shield was an extremely frustrating show to watch. The writing was monumentally uneven. The lack of imagination from the writers was almost enough, on occasion, to kill any interest in the show. And the acting...well, at times, and from certain actors, it was very good. But at other times it was laugh-out-loud horrible. In particular, Kenneth Johnson, in the role of  Curtis Lemansky, took cringe-worthy acting to a new level. He of the gesticulating mouth.

Borderline Melodramatic

Like so many poorly written shows and books, the main problem that plagued The Shield was "jumping." That phenomenon that indicates the writers are unwilling or unable to build up the requisite tension for scenes and story arcs to be believable and effective.

Things "just happen" all too frequently in The Shield. It's almost as if you can see the point where the writers were over-worked, deadlines were looming, and they said "Fuck it. Just have them hold a gun to someone's head and that person will give the strike team the information they need. End of storyline/episode/subplot etc."

Speaking of guns to heads, resistance, and believability, it quickly became a cliché in the show that whenever obstacles came up for Vic Mackey and the strike team, they did just that. They held a gun to someone's head. And the person gave them what they wanted. Or the bent pigs on the team offered the criminal a deal. And the person quickly conceded. Or they unplugged the camera in the interrogation room and threatened a suspect. And then the suspect buckled.

Tastes Unaccounted For

It is almost incomprehensible that people compare The Shield and The Wire as if they are in the same league. The Wire is so many miles above The Shield that it highlights a simple fact. Many people are incapable of recognizing quality. They simply don't possess the observation skills to appreciate, discern or understand why The Shield is so lacking in so many ways. It's the Dunning Kruger law of illusory superiority applied to appreciating drama.

Suspension of disbelief crumbled dozens of times throughout the seven-year run of The Shield. In the world of fictional police forces, it has been said that the cops either come across as unbelievably inept or unrealistically proficient. In the case of The Shield, the former is definitely the case. For if there ever was a group of invincibly and moronically gullible, easily manipulated and simplistically placated morons, the fools of Farmington district are it.

Vic Mackey repeatedly duped, with ease, scores of his colleagues and assorted other buffoons. Yet, none of them ever truly pulled their heads out of their asses until perhaps the last episode. You can almost see the exasperation on the actors and actresses faces as they go through the motions of allowing their characters to be suckered time and again. And that in a nutshell is the entire seven-year plot of the show: Vic is a self-serving, nasty piece of work who never accepts blame or accountability.

Numerous potential story lines were sacrificed at the altar of that overriding, unrelenting, hammer-over-the-head, singular drum beat. Vic is bad. He destroys everything and everyone in his path. And he never changes. Never grows as a character. Never alters one iota.

Dominant Character Smothers All

Deus ex machinas crowd the sky. Plots wither and die. No audience expects a perfectly wrapped up and tidy ending to every storyline. But The Shield had too many dropped plots, stupid twists, and actions by characters that just didn't fit with what the audience had learned of them to that point.

How about the character of Julian Coles? The conflicted, self-loathing gay cop who is involved in a sham marriage? For the first few seasons, this was one of the most compelling narratives. Then...nothing. The writers threw in a clichéd scene in the final episode that involved him looking wistfully at two gay men. And that was it.

The absurdities are too numerous to detail here. But when you truly feel little when a character who has been on the show for five seasons is killed, you know something is wrong.

However, it is important to note that the quality of the show varied between seasons. Season one was quite good, and provided a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been an excellent show. Season two maintained some of the quality but  even then, the crime-of-the-week chintziness, the ridiculous plot twists and some of the other weaknesses detailed above were starting to push the show toward its borderline, melodramatic decline.

With the introduction of Glenn Close in season four, there was some hope that things might be improving. Unfortunately, season four was quite possibly the worst of the seven. On the other hand, season five was probably the best. With the appearance of Forrest Whitaker as Kavanaugh, the show received a much needed jolt of energy. A superb performance by Whitaker rejuvinated things and offered the possibility that The Shield might improve.

It didn't. The show withered from that point onward and offered one of the most ridiculous and unbelievable endings imaginable. The whole lack of authenticity surrounding the granting of immunity to a murderer/cop killer, armed robber, and drug dealer, was head-shakingly preposterous.

There are numerous holes in plots, continuity issues and scores of other amateur hour examples that further highlight The Shield as sub-par. In one scene, a temporary strike team member, Tavon, lies in a hospital bed being duped by Vic and his boys into believing that he had assaulted Shane's wife. After the fight with Shane and his wife, Tavon had subsequently been involved in an accident and does not clearly remember what happened.

Terrible writing, acting, and execution of the scene, make it laughably bad. The actor who plays Tavon offers up one of the worst crying scenes ever acted at anytime, anywhere in the history of acting. And then viewers are treated to a shot of an overhead microphone as it briefly dips into view. Horrid.

Other times, the lack of authenticity just screams: crap. In one scene, there is a streak of blood on a street from two criminals who have been dragged to their deaths. However, no one told the clods in charge that the average human has about five and half pints of blood in him, not the hundreds of gallons necessary to create the absurdity they chose to go with.


With seven years' worth of episodes, surely there must be some regular themes that crop up? Perhaps that everyone has an affinity for blowhards and bullies and even feels a twisted admiration for those pushy, self-serving fucks because they have the guts to do what we all dream about doing.

But apparently little sociopathic wackjobs like Mackey's character also have the ability to dupe most of the people they interact with while simultaneously using them for whatever purpose necessary. Of course, individual episodes also had themes, and those were always telegraphed in the most awkward and brazen way possible.

But why put in the time to watch all seven seasons if I have so much to criticize? As mentioned, numerous individual shows were very good, as were (usually) at least a few scenes per episode. And while the range of concepts explored was limited, at least the writers did close out the show with Mackey screwing over every last person in his dreary orbit.

A last minute change of character just wouldn't have washed although the writers did flirt with this idea throughout the last few seasons of The Shield. In the end, Vic Mackey was no better, and in many ways far worse, than the scumbags he arrested. Also, watching flawed television shows or movies increases a person's appreciation for the truly great efforts and sharpens the ability to dissect what went wrong in the second rate offerings.

The Shield: a sometimes good, often mediocre show that could have been so much better.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Breaking Bad Season 3 Review and Analysis

Breaking Bad Season 3A sign of a great modern day TV serial is that it gets better with every passing season. The characters have more depth and nuance, the storylines become more complex and intriguing, and everything bleeds together in a fantastic mix of themes, suspense and tension. Using that standard, Breaking Bad can now be considered one of the best crime dramas of the past few years. The third season has just wrapped up and AMC has renewed the show for a fourth season. 

Happenings in the Third Season
Albuquerque, New Mexico is still reeling from the mid-air collision of two airplanes that was caused by Jane's air traffic controller father who was destroyed by her drug overdose death. Jesse is in rehab, getting clean but also developing a fatalistic, harder edge that will serve him well.

Walt White's meth cooking activities ramp up to a new level. He gets more involved with the local drug kingpin Gus Fring (fast food chicken chain owner and local drug distribution king) and essentially goes for broke in terms of making as much money as he can in the time that he has remaining. Walt at first tries to tell Fring he wants to quit cooking, but in that long standing crime drama cliché, Fring and his thugs won't let him out.
Fring offers Walt $3 million dollars for 3 months of cooking and Walt at first turns down the amount. However, it isn't long before Walt goes for the dough, and later negotiates a longer-term deal worth $15 million per year.

Skyler (Walt's wife) knows for certain that Walt is a drug dealer, though she initially thinks he is only dealing marijuana. She claims that she wants a divorce, starts having an affair with her boss, but then starts having second thoughts. Later, she accepts Walt's involvement in the drug trade and the money that goes along with it.

A pair of evil twin brothers (known as The Cousins) from Mexico make their way towards New Mexico, and based on some wild-ass mysticism BS, there is little doubt that they are on a mission to sort out Heisenberg/Walt. The brothers are the cousins of Tuco, who was killed by Hank in season one. The twins figure out through some divination that Walt is the one they should kill to avenge their cousin's death. Later, they are also on the trail of Hank.

Saul, Walt's lawyer, is also in deep with Fring, and lets him know that Skyler is hip to Walt's involvement in the drug trade. This is the impetus for one of Fring's thugs (Mike) to start keeping tabs on Skyler.

Hank Schrader starts obsessing over the blue meth that is once again flooding the region thanks to Walt's production and Fring's distribution. He does some serious police work and tracks down the RV that Walt and Jesse Pinkman had used to cook meth.

While Hank is genuinely interested in finding the link to Heisenberg (Walt) and the meth dealers in the region, he also uses it as a way to avoid another promotion that would require he do work near the Texas/Mexico border. He tracks down Jesse and Walt as they are about to have the RV destroyed at a wrecking yard. Unknown to Hank, Walt is locked inside the RV with Jesse.

Hank receives a phone call telling him that his wife is in the hospital and he races off, allowing Walt and Jesse to have the RV destroyed. Later, Hank lays a severe beating on Jesse and is suspended from the force as a result. However, he receives a reprieve when Saul realizes that it would be in his best interest for Jesse to drop any charges against Hank.

In one of the most intense scenes in season three, Hank takes out the The Cousins, killing one, and slicing off the legs of the other with his SUV. But he also gets shot numerous times and is hospitalized for the remainder of the season.

A back and forth takes place between Walt and Jesse as their friendship sours, followed by the expected cool peace as they start cooking together in the state of the art lab that has been built beneath the industrial laundry that is part of Fring's fast food operation. When Walt first starts cooking in the new lab, Fring provides an assistant, the good-natured Gale. When Walt patches things up with Jesse and brings him back into the cooking fold, Gale is out.

Through one of those wild coincidences that come up in dramas (and for which audiences are fully accepting when the quality of the show is so high) Jesse hooks up with the sister (Andrea) of the youngster who shot Jesse's friend, Combo, in season two. As Andrea talks about how her 11 year-old brother Tomas is already lost to drug dealing, Jesse deduces who the drug dealers are who killed Combo.

Jesse's resulting dispute with the drug dealers causes him to get turfed from the cooking operation, and Gale is brought back in as Jesse's replacement. Despite an attempt at a truce between the drug dealers and Jesse brokered by Fring and Walt, the drug dealers murder 11 year-old Tomas.

In the penultimate episode of the season, Jesse heads out one night to avenge the death of Combo and Tomas. Armed and prepared for whatever comes his way, he stalks towards the drug dealers near the same corner where Combo was blown away. However, at the last moment Walt takes out the drug dealers with his car, and then blows apart the skull of one of the creeps as he lays dying on the street. Jesse is now on the run from Fring, and Walt senses his days are numbered as well.

The season ends as Walt is taken one night by Mike and another one of Fring's thugs to the lab at the industrial laundry facility. The ostensible reason given to Walt is that there has been some problem at the lab that needs to be sorted out, but he is convinced that he being set up and will be killed. A frantic phone call to Jesse and the season closes as Jesse heads to Gale's apartment and shoots Gale (or does he?). Whether or not Gale is dead, Walt may learn that Gale was in fact looking out for him, and the reason provided for taking him to the lab late at night may well have been legitimate.

Cranston is Breaking Bad
Bryan Cranston as Walter White continues to be the force that drives this show forward. Great acting on Cranston's part was on display again this year although the character of Walt White flattened out somewhat. White was in a constant state of unrelieved anxiety, and any internal conflict that he experienced was dealt with in one way: doing whatever a ruthless, money-grubbing piece of filth involved in the drug trade would do to protect himself.

This callous, do-whatever-it-takes and continue to shock the audience that such an apparently decent person is in it up to his neck and is going to out-nasty the real bad guys, has been part of White's character throughout the three seasons.

No saccharine sentiments or schlock to be had. White wants to be a nasty piece of work, and so it comes to pass that he is. He maintains the sympathies of the audience because we know he feels guilt, and there has to be a tipping point. There has to be a moment when some kind of revelation changes his character to a degree that will carry the show spiraling off towards its final conclusion. It's not quite there yet, but it's getting close. He either pulls back and seeks redemption (likely) or he breaks completely and is irrevocably changed.

While actor Aaron Paul, who plays Jessie Pinkman, doesn't have the chops of Cranston, he demonstrated some impressive acting in the third season—range that he really didn't have in the first two seasons of Breaking Bad.

Dean Norris, who plays Hank Schrader, also had an increasingly major role to play and he should be back with a force and playing a major part of the story in the fourth season.
Unfortunately, some of the other regulars really didn't have a chance to be part of the major action this season. Walt's wife, Skyler, really seemed to have a diminished role this season, despite the amount of time she spent on the screen. Her waffling on Walt's involvement in the drug trade, and her equivocating on whether to seek a divorce became tiresome after a while. Still, there were some great scenes between Walt and Skyler in which the familial conflict ratchets up.

Sour Notes
While Breaking Bad is a superb show, it is far from perfect. In the third season, as in past seasons, there were a number of examples of script transparency. In those instances, it is so brazenly obvious what the writers of the show were trying to do, that the results are awkward and cack-handed.
The clearest example of this was The Cousins, who made an early appearance in season three and were a major part of the plot for the first seven episodes. There might as well have been a text introduction flashed on the screen that said: "Now, we want you to know these two are bad. They are nasty. They are so bad that you are not going to believe it."

And they were correct. I simply didn't buy it. With no resistance early on, the badness of these two mostly fell flat and left me snickering on more than one occasion. The choice of twins was likely also an indirect metaphor for the duality—good vs. evil, internal conflict, two sides to everyone's character etc.,—that has been a theme throughout the show (although they were identically evil and there was no real difference between them).

The fact that these two were supposed to be two of the hardest, nastiest individuals to ever walk the face of the earth was telegraphed in such a contrived and absurd way, that any part of the story in which they were involved became somewhat clichéd and annoying. The only exception is in episode seven in which Hank blows one of the twin's skulls apart and slices off the legs of the other with his SUV. Now, if the intent all along was to use these two walking clichés to build up to that one particular scene—one of the most riveting and intense in the series so far, and easily the best scene not involving Walt White—then OK, job accomplished!

While the creators of this show no doubt have the plot arc for the remainder of the show all mapped out, they are probably flexible and likely adapt on the fly when certain storylines don't seem to be working out or generating the suspense that they initially expected. I'm guessing that they too saw the absurdity that these clowns had turned into.

Wild Speculation
Numerous unresolved issues will no doubt be dealt with in the next two seasons (which is what I expect will take the show to its conclusion).

First, the fact that Walt witnessed the death of Jesse's girlfriend, Jane, and did nothing to save her will have to be sorted out. This is either going to be the point on which Walt seeks salvation or the spark that will cause an explosion between Walt and Jesse that cannot be patched over.

Walt's actions on that fateful evening, which saw Jane expire and ultimately led to the collision of the two airplanes, have been eating away at him ever since. And he came close to confessing to Jesse in the third season.

I expect that further details of that night in which he broke into Jesse's house and witnessed Jane choking to death on her own vomit in a drug overdose will be revealed. Maybe a flashback scene in which something further is revealed. Someone the audience didn't previously see perhaps witnessed the scene. Or maybe something much simpler such as Jesse reconstructing the events of that night in his mind and realizing that things aren't quite right.

The issue of Walt's cancer has two components that have to be resolved before the show finishes its run. It has been alluded to a number of times that Walt's cancer may be a result of the years he worked as a chemist developing products that made his former colleagues wealthy. I expect this storyline to be picked up in season four.

I can't see the focus of season four being solely on the machinations of the cooking and the drug operations conducted by Fring and his thugs. In keeping with the trend of this show to expand the scope of the drug dealing every season, I can imagine that the final step will see some link made between the former organization for which Walt worked and the world of illegal drugs in which he is now involved.

It may be as simple as highlighting some of the destruction wreaked by large organizations as compared to the world of illegal drugs that always generates disproportionately more heat. Or, we could see the characters from season one, Walt's former partner and his wife who Walt was involved with romantically many years ago, somehow worked back into the story.

Of course, Hank will return to the police force and take up his case against the meth dealing in Albuquerque and the surrounding regions. Is there a bent copper on the force who is helping Fring to remain untouched?

A show that really takes chances and isn't scared to send characters careening off in unexpected directions, season four of Breaking Bad is likely to contain the great writing, acting, and suspense that the audience has come to expect. Read a review of the first two seasons of Breaking Bad

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Breaking Bad: Seasons One and Two Review

White and Pinkman Breaking BadBreaking Bad is an AMC drama about Walter White,(played by Bryan Cranston) a 50 year-old chemistry teacher who has been diagnosed with lung cancer. With the prospect of a few more years of life at the most, White is distraught at the thought that his family will not be left with anything after he passes away.

White's brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, is a DEA agent in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the show is set. After hearing Hank talk about the methamphetamine problem in the area, White asks to go along when a meth lab is being busted. Later, White approaches a former student and proposes the idea of cooking crystal meth in order to get some quick money. The student, Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul, quickly agrees.

The cancer diagnosis is the final straw for White in many ways. He has led a life of conformity and fear (something that he states outright in numerous discussions with other characters). He has been less than successful—settling for a life as a high school teacher as his former friends went on to successful careers as highly paid chemists. One story-line that gets some play during the first two seasons details how White’s former partner and fellow chemist took formulas that they developed together and launched a company, becoming extremely wealthy in the process. White has always given off an accepting and good-natured exterior, while probably cursing himself at the same time.

As he embraces the role of cooking meth, and accepts the fate that he is not long for the world, he also starts lashing out at the kind of arrogant, self-serving behaviour from others that he always accepted in the past. White swings so far in the other direction, however, that by the end of season two, it's hard to characterize him as anything but a nasty piece of work (albeit conflicted about the recent decisions he has made). He is barely able to maintain his cover in front of his family, completely alienating his pregnant wife Skyler as season two draws to a close. But as with all great drama, despite the things White has done, most viewers will still find him likeable and will root for him in most situations.

White and Pinkman start at the bottom of the meth food chain, working with two-bit punks, then nastier individuals, and finally hooking up with big-time distributors. With great dialogue, superb character development, and a few strong themes throughout, every episode and scene ratchets up the tension and results in a fantastic viewing experiences. Whether White and Pinkman are involved in a showdown with some drug-world nasty, or there is a taut moment involving personal interactions of the main characters, the result is entertaining and always pushes the narrative forward.


How people deal with fear and pain, and the fact that the consequences of what people do can be wide ranging are two of the strongest themes in the show.

Every character is dealing with their own demons, and they all keep secrets from the people who should be able to help them the most. Walter White is the most obvious example. A secretive person to start with, White does everything in his power to prevent his family from discovering how he is making money to pay for his cancer treatment. White’s wife, Skyler, starts contemplating an affair with her boss, and begins sneaking the occasional cigarette, even though she is pregnant. Another character, Sklyer’s sister Marie, shoplifts. Marie’s husband, Hank, harbours a great deal of fear about his job, but hides it behind the bluster of his stereotypical, loud, guffawing, good 'ol boy exterior. But even as people go into themselves to deal with their suffering, the things they do to salve the pain often affects others as well.

Another theme that receives a lot of play, is how people in despair often feel that there is nothing more to lose. The horrible realization is that things can always get worse, and there is no limit to human suffering. This is very reminiscent of the Paul Bowles book Let it Come Down, in which the main character moves to Morocco after a failed life in Britain, and slowly spirals into a nightmarish situation.

Religious and Apocalyptic Themes

The writers of the show inserted religious imagery into various scenes in the second season. This reviewer saw many more examples than I was aware of (they seem obvious after someone points them out). The fear of some viewers is that there will be a sharp turn towards religious themes in the third season, and this may result in thinly veiled attempts at preaching right and wrong and a complete change in the show. At the same time, the religious imagery fits in with the dual nature of most of the characters—all of them are battling personal problems in some way. And none of them seem to be able to find solace in their friends and family.

There is an apocalyptic ending to the second season that has many wondering what direction the show will take in the upcoming third season. Will White start recognizing how far off the rails he has really gone? Will he finally have to pay in some, real, consequential way for all the misery he has caused?

Only time will tell. White's character goes so far over board in his behaviour, committing numerous murders, and choosing not to help someone as they lay dying, that you have to assume that there is going to be some kind of reconciling. Some kind of horrific realization of what he has turned into, followed by redemption seems like a possibility in the coming season.


I don't particularly like the cold open in which they often (but not always) give a glimpse of what is going to happen later in that show or later in the season. Of course, as the writers of the show say, it doesn't always go in the exact direction that the little glimpse might lead people to believe. But, the show is too good to need something like that.

In the world of cinematic and literary police forces, writers usually choose to depict them as incompetents or geniuses. In Breaking Bad, it's hard to believe that the police have not been able to draw a straight line to White and his rather blundersome attempts at becoming a local drug distributor. However, the power of the show means that most viewers won't give this much thought.

The performance of Bryan Cranston as Walter White is one of the driving forces behind the show. He puts on a stunning performance in the first two seasons. Like may great performances, you truly feel that he was made to play this role. But as with all great acting, it's only a fantastic script that allows such a performance to come through.

Breaking Bad does a great job of dealing with suspension of disbelief. This is largely down to the great storylines, dialogue, and performances from the actors. The absurdist humour that comes through also helps dispel those “as if” moments that could destroy a show that didn’t have the same level of quality as this one.

After 2 seasons and only 20 episodes, this show is already a classic. For fans of Breaking Bad, the much anticipated season three can’t begin soon enough.

Read a review of season 3 of Breaking Bad

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: Dexter Season 4 Premiere

The most frightening thing about the season four premiere of Dexter is the sight of John Lithgow's bare arse.

We are treated to this horrific sight on two occasions. Unfortunately, that is the biggest shock in what is an otherwise worn out show that has apparently failed to recover from a disappointing third season.

As season four begins, Dexter and his wife Rita are living in suburbia with their newborn child. Early on, Dexter flubs his courtroom testimony and a killer walks free. Take a wild swing in the dark and guess what happens next. You got it. Dexter is going to track down the nasty piece of work and lay a butchering on him, replete with all the accoutrements we've come to expect—the drop sheets, photos of the victim's victims (where on earth does Dexter get those photos and when does he find the time to get them framed?), and the assorted weapons. But first, the show has got to give us a glimpse of this year's major storyline and kick start some tired out sub-plots that have been meandering on with slight variations for the past three seasons.

The major storyline—the one that will slowly evolve over the entire season—is the one about the serial killer played by Lithgow. And in another demonstration of just how little imagination the writers of this show have left, we are told straight up by Dexter that "Trinity's [the nickname given to the Lithgow character] the most successful serial killer to get away with it." When facts like that have to be brazenly announced in episode one instead of using suspense and back story—it is likely an indication of quality of the season to come.

Debra is still involved with Anton—the oaf of an informant who she hooked up with in season three. The writers of the show seem fully aware that season three was lacking the appeal of seasons one and two, so they have brought back Frank Lundy (the aging FBI agent played by Keith Carradine) who Deb was involved with in season two.

And Deb is determined to find out which informant her father had an affair with years ago. And then we can know for certain what was already telegraphed to us in season three—that Deb and Dexter are actually biological siblings.

The character of Deb is in fact, one of the most mundane and annoying aspects of the show. Everyone time she uses the word "fucking" in her conversation, it punctuates exactly how devoid of new ideas these writers are. Just as this habit in the real world demonstrates someone lacking in imagination, here it is the same.

Tiresome and Predictable

The little nuances that added to the show in seasons one and two are meaningless without the suspense, clever twists, and great dialogue.

Now it's simply annoying to see Dexter don that stupid, long sleeved, tight-fitting, olive shirt and know that he is going to kill someone again. The weary internal patter/voice over is still there. The only problem is, Dexter has long since ceased to have anything interesting to say. It's just variations on the blandness of being forced to kill people, haunted by this, messed up by that, wot a burden it all is etc.

And hey, here's the laziest aspect of every show popping up again—that wonderful computer of Dexter's at work that gives him every last bit of information about the people that he decides to kill. There is absolutely no sleuthing or clever problem-solving involved.

In a laugh-out-loud scene with all the usual subtlety of this spiraling farce of a show, Dexter's wife says "Aren't you as horny as I am?" Just as the rest of the show is bland and uninspiring, this scene is bereft of any appeal. And so, in keeping with his tired demeanor, Dexter is as uninterested as many viewers will be.

Dexter has ceased to be the clever show that challenged viewers to analyze their beliefs about right and wrong. It is now simply a vehicle for crudely set-up revenge scenes and a whole lot of nastiness for people who like blood and gore. There is no longer any tension or feeling of emotional involvement when violence occurs. The opening scene when guest star John Lithgow slices the femoral artery of a young woman who he is simultaneously strangling in the bathtub makes this repulsively apparent. And here is apparently another trend that the show will carry on until its demise—grade B has-been actors brought in to play the nasty for an entire season.

As the season premiere winds down, a sleep deprived Dexter careens off the road with a corpse in his trunk. This cliffhanger ending is perhaps the only way that the creators of the show will convince viewers to tune in for the second and subsequent installments.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: A & E's The Beast Series Premiere

Patrick Swayze as Charles BarkerOh dear.

The new FBI drama, The Beast, premiered last night (January 15th, 2009) on A & E.

I hadn't heard much of the show until a week ago when its star, Patrick Swayze, announced that he had come down with pneumonia, an apparent complication that had arisen from his fight with pancreatic cancer. As an actor who has been around for years and been in his share of hits, he has garnered the deserved round of sympathy from fans, actors, and other Hollywood insiders.

When such sad stories develop, it's only natural that people want to see things work out best for the stricken individual. In this case, with a new show set to launch starring Swayze, his physical appearance noticeably affected, and whispers that, despite his positive outlook, this could be his last performance, a collective hope that The Beast is something special quickly took shape.

There's only one small problem with that narrative. The Beast is a forgettable and tiresome disappointment.

The concept here is quite basic. Patrick Swayze plays an undercover FBI agent, Charles Barker, who breaks all the rules. Not the most creative starting point but intelligent and skilled writers have taken more pedestrian ideas and shaped them into entertaining dramas. Viewers can expect no such magic from The Beast.

No Suspense

The main problem here is that there is exactly no resistance offered in the face of the gesticulating, loud, blundering Barker as he breaks all the rules and does what he pleases. Apparently the writers of the show are fully unaware that for drama to work there must be suspense and tension. And the key to creating those two elements is resistance.

Now, there are a series of tasks Barker and his rookie partner, Ellis Dove, must accomplish to achieve their overall goal for this first episode. Those tasks are blandly telegraphed to the audience in the most unimaginative way possible. And when they arrive at each subsequent location to meet someone and extract information or goods, in the face of Barker's absurd tactics, the bad guys simply roll over and give it up.

Not Believable

This matter of Barker putting guns in people's faces in broad daylight and blowing up cars in the street with rocket launchers is slightly problematic as well. Let's see, undercover FBI agents... maybe some subtlety, blending into the background, not being found out, some imagination perhaps? All completely lacking here. With some skill and effort, writers can deftly swat suspension of disbelief out of the way with even the most outlandish premises. Here, the characters and situations are completely unbelievable.

Tired Clichés

Clichés are almost unavoidable in these types of police dramas. But they stand out even more in a show such as The Beast that is lacking in so many ways. Meeting someone with information at a lone park bench in a stark setting here, someone parking under a desolate elevated train line and shooting himself in the head there (I still have no idea what relevance that scene has), a long shot of someone walking away from a pre-arranged clandestine meeting there etc.

And in another tired cop show plot, Barker is showing his rookie partner the ropes using the tough love approach. This involves slamming him up against cars, making stern pronouncements, and testing him in various ways. I'm not familiar with the actor who plays Ellis Dove, Travis Fimmel. So I'm not sure how much of his poor performance is down to the terrible script. But he certainly does nothing to rise above the clichéd lines and predictable plot.

The absurdities run wild as the show draws to a close and things reach that cringe-worthy stage where things become unintentionally laughable. Barker slams on his brakes on another deserted, bleak side street that is slick with rain. He informs his partner that he is to play the role of a hick in their upcoming encounter with some heavies who are supposed to buy a rocket launcher from them (by the way, isn't this entrapment?). The result is truly pathetic.

All of this is compounded by some truly ridiculous dialogue. At one stage, Dove says to Barker,

"There's a line though, right?"

"Yeah, there's a line, so we know where to cross it."

Later, Barker rocks the audience with "Everybody's got choices."

And as the hour long premiere winds down, Barker informs us that "You see, "the beast" eats away at you."

Finally, the show wraps up with a scene that is apparently supposed to set the stage for the remainder of the series. A gaggle of unconvincing FBI agents (all of whom had appeared throughout the show as ostensible criminals; many of the skirmishes had simply been tests for the rookie) confronts Dove on a train and informs him that Barker is a rogue and they want to stop him. So, why exactly don't they? If this is supposed to be some clever mystery that will bring viewers back in the coming weeks, the creators of the show are sadly mistaken.

All of this is so bad that something occurs I have rarely, if ever, experienced regarding a television show. I actually felt embarrassed for the actors on the screen.

I truly hope for Swayze's sake that this is not his last role. As for The Beast, it has no bite and deserves to wither away and die.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

HBO's The Wire: Series Review and Analysis

The HBO drama, The Wire, recently completed its fifth and final season.

It would be harder to find a serial that was better written, developed, acted, and which stayed truer to its themes over the course of multiple seasons.

The Wire explores the sub-cultures of various groups within society. Those in positions of power within each group better understand the dynamics and exploit them for their own personal gain. All the relationships, whether group or individual, are a struggle for power and control.

At the same time, the rebels and mavericks challenge and question the way things are done, upsetting the harmony of the establishment and creating conflict. Inevitably, the various organizations bang up against each other. While the outward manifestations are different, the inner workings of each group have many similarities. In the process, viewers are treated to one of the most relentless, in-depth dramas to ever grace the small screen.

Season OneSeason one focuses on the Baltimore police department and the drug gangs operating in the inner city. Police officer Jimmy McNulty, a maverick within the force, is largely responsible for the formation of a special unit to target a drug gang, the largest in the city, operated by Avon Barksdale.

McNulty is the de-facto lead throughout the entire five year run of The Wire, though there is a large ensemble cast that expands every season.

McNulty convinces himself that the questionable tactics he uses are acceptable because playing by the rules would leave the police at a disadvantage. That is accurate to a degree but self-interest as a motivator is a realistic aspect of his and most of the characters in The Wire. 

The commanders who are pressured to do something about the Barksdale gang throw together a special unit comprised of a rag-tag bunch of rejects and eccentrics from the force. The police establishment are convinced the unit will make little headway and the status quo will remain. 

The newly formed unit begins tracking Barksdale and his minions. But they only start making progress in their investigation when they get the go ahead to wiretap various telephones located within the projects where the drug dealers operate. 

Season one sets the stage for the entire run of The Wire. There is never an easy payoff for the police and, similarly, the viewer must be willing to invest the time and energy to see characters and plots develop. Probably one of the reasons the show was a critical success but also perhaps a clue as to why it has never enjoyed the viewing popularity of other HBO hits such as The Sopranos.

Season Two
In comparison to any other television drama, season two stands up incredibly well. However, within the greatness of The Wire franchise, it is easily the weakest. Again, that isn't to diminish many of the good story-lines and scenes that play out. Comparisons are inevitable and when such a standard has been set, season two falls somewhat short.

The police and drug gangs still make up the core of the show but the spotlight is now also on the local dockworkers. Times are changing and a unionized job working on the docks no longer guarantees a lifetime of steady employment and security. 

Frank Sobotka is the head of the longshoremen's union. Sobotka is a self-doubting and frazzled individual who puts up a blustering exterior. And the walls are starting to close in. A major drug smuggling operation is operating through the port. Sobotka turns a blind eye to the illicit activities his men engage in, tacitly allowing them to work with international drug gangs who supply the inner city drug peddlers we are already familiar with. 

What happens when the leader of a tribe is vulnerable and weak? How does he deal with the doubts from within and the attacks from those trying to corrupt and use him for their own gains? Humans have an innate sense of the weaknesses of those around them and inevitably go for the jugular when the time is right. Sobotka tries to do what he thinks is best, but ultimately fails his son, who also works on the dock, and others around him. 

The roles people play within various institutions and subcultures is again a strong theme in season two.

Season Three
While seasons one and two established The Wire as a show that was willing to challenge the viewer and introduce difficult and long running narratives, season three ratchets the quality of he show to a level that is hard to believe.
City hall enters the Scene as The Wire continues to build the city of Baltimore for the television viewer. The brazen politics of race take centre stage and for a change, blacks have the upper hand in terms of numbers and power. No political correctness in the story-lines except as the characters themselves deal with and shamelessly exploit it for their own agendas. 

The drug gangs surge out in front of the police in the third season. While the final show of the year culminates in an important bust for the major crimes unit and the arrest of Avon Barksdale and some of his key thugs, it simply allows Marlo Stanfield and his gang to fill the void. 

Idris Elba as Stringer Bell puts on an incredible performance during the third season. Driven by his desire to get out from under the control of Avon Barksdale and get involved in more legitimate business dealings, Stringer violates numerous codes that govern the street. Betrayals and duplicity from all sides result in a brutal end for Stringer. Despite his ruthlessness and cold blooded nature, many viewers probably felt a twinge of regret at seeing him expire. Both because his character accomplishes what so many writers of drama aim for: to elicit sympathy for even the nastiest of the nasty, but also because the viewer will no longer get to see him perform. 

There are some great new characters introduced in season three as well. Dennis "Cutty" Wise gets out of prison and has a hard time re-adjusting to life as a free man. He is briefly drawn back into life on the streets but eventually opens a boxing gym that is somewhat important in season four and five.

Season Four
After the dramatic intensity of season three, many fans probably thought it would be unrealistic to expect the quality to continue at such a high level. Incredibly, season four matches and, perhaps for some viewers, even surpasses the previous season's tour de force.

The character of Roland Pryzbylewski, who was a member of the special unit but had to leave the force after mistakenly shooting another officer during season three, is back as a school teacher in one of the city's troubled districts. The school system takes centre stage while all of the previous institutions and its members (save for the dockworkers, whose story-line essentially ended after season two) continue on. 

A group of talented teen-aged actors steps into the line-up as students at the inner city school and some other characters introduced in earlier seasons are given more prominence. 

The lure of the street for many of the youngsters is a focal point for much of the action in season four. The results are both fascinating and heart-breaking. 

As with all the myopic and bloated bureaucracies in The Wire, the ostensible goal of the school system--to educate children--often takes a back seat to politics, personal ambitions, and numbers games.

Season Five
Season five introduces the newspaper and its news room workers as the final social group to be splayed open for analysis. As usual, some excellent characters, interrelationships, and story lines come from this new element. And, as is the pattern, the characters from the newsroom become involved with the other characters and institutions already in play.

The series title "The Wire" describes both the listening devices the police use to gather evidence and the fact that the audience gets a glimpse inside all the various social institutions explored on the show. So it's fitting that the newsroom is the last major social unit examined as it is concerned with observing and bringing information to people. 

A theme that has cropped up numerous times throughout The Wire is the manipulation of the truth, and the effect that shared beliefs of reality have on groups of people. In season five this theme takes centre stage. 

One of the last major plots confirms that The Wire remains relentless and unyielding in its realism and cynicism to the bitter end. However, like the character of McNulty, who has a fatalistic smirk and an ability to enjoy the ride despite the despair and corruption that permeates the city, The Wire gives viewers small and genuine glimpses of hope amidst the violence and filth. 

No show that lasts five seasons and provides such compelling and in-depth story-lines can ever close out in a way that is satisfying to everyone. But The Wire has provided so many angles, reflections, fantastic characters and intriguing plots, that most fans will be hard pressed to feel anything but a wistful admiration and disappointment that there aren't more seasons left to come.

Gay Characters
The Wire contains at least three gay characters, a relatively high number in comparison to most dramas. This is especially significant because homosexuality is not the focus of the series or any particular episodes. Also, none of the character's homosexuality becomes an issue per se, nor is this aspect of their characters examined in any real detail.

So why it relevant at all? It simply reflects the maturity of The Wire that characters who happen to be gay are included without it necessitating the usual cliched crap and cringe-worthy stereotypes. It is an incidental aspect of the characters' lives and reflects the way society has evolved. 

The gay characters are: Kima Greggs, a detective who is part of the major crimes unit, Omar Little, a lone criminal who robs drug dealers of their cash and wares, and Snoop, a female gangster who is part of the Marlo Stanfield crew. 

The choice of Omar as a character who happens to be gay is especially interesting. He is the most feared individual in the neighbourhood and, until his demise in season five, is nearly invincible. The writers use Omar as one of the only instances when they step outside the realism that makes The Wire so powerful. He is painted as an almost mythical figure capable of making otherwise nasty individuals shake with fear.

A fourth character, Major William Rawls, is also apparently gay. In a season three episode, he is briefly seen in the background during a scene in a gay bar. If the viewer blinked, they would have missed it. Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell seem to hint that they are aware of this bit of information as well, as if the fact will be exploited by them for blackmail purposes down the road. Then later in the series, some toilet-wall graffiti also alludes to Rawls's sexual preferences. However, this is one thread that is never explored or again touched on in any way. But in fact, it really is perfectly in line with how the issue of incidental homosexuality is dealt with throughout. Perhaps it's a way for the writers to make the viewer ask "What did you really expect to come of this anyway?"

A Rare Accomplishment
One of the most rewarding aspects of The Wire is that it makes the viewer think. It is rammed full of ideas, themes, and well developed narratives. Many viewers may disagree with many of the observations I have made here. And they may have seen things that didn't even occur to me. The Wire is like a great book that is worth reading more than once. It gets better on every occasion, there is something for everyone, and half the enjoyment is in the times you put it down to reflect.

The Wire is a unique, profound, and moving drama that not only establishes itself for the stories it delivers but also for the look and feel of the show. The stark inner city settings are easily the most memorable. The language the characters use is also effective and rare for a television drama. Taut dialogue rammed full of the slang and jargon specific to each group is a feature that continues throughout. 

The Wire took numerous risks (for example, it was the longest running television drama with a predominantly black cast) and many of them paid off, at least in terms of the credibility and artistic acclaim it received, if not huge viewing numbers. 

Here's hoping that The Wire has set a new standard in television drama to which others will aspire.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dexter Season Three Review

Dexter posterDexter Morgan is a blood splatter analysis expert working as part of the forensics team in the homicide division of the Miami-Dade police department. Dexter's secret is that he tracks down and butchers criminals who have escaped the law.

The idea of someone working within the police department by day and operating as a murderous vigilante by night was a unique and intriguing concept that the creators of the show pulled off with success during the first two seasons. The dark humour combined with the jolts of pure drama and suspense worked well. Looking back, such a combination had to be done almost perfectly for it to hang together.

However, the third season of Dexter ranks as a major disappointment.

Even in those first two seasons, you could feel the suspension of disbelief get a bit wobbly at times. As the season finales approached, the humour got shunted to one side and the story-lines converged and exploded into the climax. That fine line between ridiculous and seriousness was suddenly gone and the closing drama in each season had to be well executed to succeed. You couldn't help but admire the performance of the writers, actors, and directors for actually making it work.

However, during the third season, that suspension of disbelief falls completely out from under the viewer. Absurdities abound, the writers fail in ramping up the suspense, and any semblance of broader themes that existed before are rendered almost meaningless.

Out of Character

First, the notion that Dexter would so readily take on an accomplice and share his secret with an outsider as he does with the Miguel Prado character (played by Jimmy Smits) just doesn't wash. Any plot twist or character development is believable if done right. But here, the attempts are ham-fisted and the results sometimes border on the ludicrous.

Smits does a decent job with the material he is presented with. The Prado character is highly cliched from the beginning: an emotional, hot-blooded Cuban American who has a free pass from all the other one dimensional Cubans because Prado is a local hero.

The problem here is that things "just happen" without the appropriate level of suspense or in ways that aren't believable for the characters the audience has come to know. In the world of dramatic writing, this failure to adequately create suspense is known as "jumping." This is something that plagues the entire third season of Dexter.

More Absurdities

There are several story-lines that simply don't work and are, at times, unintentionally farcical. First, the character of Camilla Figg, who has been a connection to Dexter's past throughout the series, is dying of cancer. Dexter visits her in the hospital on numerous occasions and plays along with her desire to sample the perfect key-lime pie before she kicks it. Perhaps an attempt at the quirky, noirish aspects layered with double meaning that worked in the first two seasons? Regardless, it simply falls flat. Easily the most saccharine, melodramatic scenes to play out in the series and ineffective as part of any attempts at character or plot development.

Also, an Internal Affairs detective named Yuki Amado starts badgering Debra Morgan, trying to convince her to provide information on her new partner, Joey Quinn. Yuki is a foul mouthed little viper and, not surprisingly, she and Debra take an instant dislike to each other. Finally, Debra tells Quinn about the entreaties, then in turn lets Yuki know she has revealed all to her partner. Yuki discloses that Quinn may have been responsible for the death of a police officer. Apparently, this revelation is supposed to rock Debra and the viewing audience to its core.

But why wasn't this little tidbit mentioned by Yuki in the beginning? Perhaps that would have spurred Debra to consider informing on her partner (though what relevant information she could have provided is never mentioned). This sub-plot comes across exactly for what it is: an ill thought out storyline made up on the fly. The thread peters out in an completely irrelevant way, leaving the viewer to wonder why it was included in the first place.

Another Serial Killer

An indication that the well of ideas has run dry is that a serial killer appears who is very similar to the season one monster. Same consistent pattern, same cutesy nickname, same surreal crime scenes. Only this time around, there is none of the intrigue of the Ice Truck Killer from season one.

Back Story Has Run Its Course

The back story of Dexter's development as an apparent ruthless sociopath seems to have run its course. The image of Dexter's long dead adoptive father is still here, warning against all the decisions he makes, all of which turn out badly. In seasons one and two, Dexter's father showed up in entertaining flash-backs that provided necessary information to the viewer. However, in season three his father appears as an illusion or apparition visible only to Dexter during scenes involving other characters. Simply not as effective as the flashbacks.

Themes Shredded

The ostensible themes that showed up in the first and second seasons are eviscerated this time around. Any sense that all the torture sessions that eventually lead to murder are somehow justified no longer holds water. More and more, the lead character comes across as a self-serving, sociopathic murderer. As an antidote to this, the Dexter character's voice over comes to the rescue numerous times with some convoluted logic in the hopes that the viewer will keep tuning in and going along with the premise.

It seemed fairly evident in season one and two that Dexter was destined to evolve and realize he did in fact have feelings and was largely a product of his upbringing. He showed feelings towards his step-sister and girlfriend, and he had a code he adhered to (i.e. morals, however twisted). These themes don't seem as credible after season three.

Further Problems

These shortcomings only further highlight the fact that Dexter operates in a department full of what must be utter buffoons and incompetents who have no idea he is a serial killer. Again, the glaring holes for which audiences are endlessly forgiving if they are presented with a class A drama. When things start to falter, those inconsistencies and flaws become annoyances and start to drive people away.

And Yet

The show has been renewed for a fourth season and if the producers can't recreate some of the earlier magic, this show should die a rightful death. Many viewers couldn't see the show going beyond season one but were pleasantly surprised with the follow-up. The same concerns were voiced after season two and season three has mostly confirmed that line of thinking.

A handful of teasers from the end of season three will likely be explored next year. It appears Dexter is actually Debra's half-brother and not only a step-brother. Also, Dexter's wife Rita (they were wed in the concluding episode of season three) was apparently married for a brief time as a teenager; something which she is hiding from Dexter. However, the brazen way these facts were telegraphed to the audience provides little hope they will be developed in a convincing way that can salvage the series.

Was season three of Dexter a complete write-off? Despite all the problems listed above, it was Dexter torturestill watchable. The noirish shots of Miami, the occasional bursts of memorable dialogue, and the performance of Michael C. Hall as Dexter were all bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season. Most viewers probably kept watching in hopes of seeing the standard rise close to the levels of previous seasons. There was a lot of capital built up in seasons one and two that kept many fans loyal.

Or perhaps many viewers simply get a kick out of the whole concept and enjoy those nasty scenes where Dexter plays judge, jury, and executioner.