Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Lost in citation

Abandon all hope, ye who tune in to ABC on Wednesday nights: On February 7, the dense, allusion-packed sci-fi epic returns to prime time. And if you’re smugly congratulating yourself right now for catching the Dante reference above, wipe that smirk off your face.

There’s been a flurry of speculation and rumor about Lost during its months-long mid-season hiatus. Have the writers finally run out of ideas? Have they been flying by the seat of their pants all along? Matthew Fox, who plays primary character Dr. Jack Shephard, told the Herald that the show has been shooting episodes without him. Does that mean he’s been killed off? And more importantly, does anyone really care anymore? With a drop in the ratings and a growing ambivalence among the once-fevered internet fan base (in part due to the bevy of new Lost-inspired shows like Heroes), perhaps this exceptionally original television series is collapsing under the weight of its own strengths.

Up until now, chief among these strengths has been the series’ broad tapestry of allusion and its seamless stitching of high-minded philosophy into an action-adventure setting. In the same Herald interview, Fox cited exactly that as the reason the show intrigued him in the first place: “I saw in the pilot the possibility for really, really cool philosophical questions and dealing with those questions on the show.”

But now, some 50-plus episodes in, that joke just isn’t funny anymore.

The opening scene of the third season started with Elizabeth Mitchell’s character, Juliet, popping a CD in her stereo and playing "Downtown." This was a well-chosen bit of incidental music—it seemed like a simple tone piece to establish the scene. But anyone familiar with Lost knows there has to be more to it than that. In the peculiar tradition of expectations set up between the producers and the diehard audience of network television’s most dense, literary show, any reference’s connection with the character must be a clue to the island’s secrets. Soon after, Juliet holds up Stephen King’s novel, Carrie, sending the tens of thousands of Lost messageboard sleuths into online investigative hysterics.

But what if, sometimes, a book is just a prop and a song is just soundtrack?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Lost, and it’s the most frustrating aspect of the show. Viewers hadn’t even reached the first commercial break in the season premiere, and the writers had already given out two pieces of homework. At first, the show’s keen eye for extra textual references was invigorating, but by this point, it’s become overkill. When nearly every scene references something—religions both Western (the Virgin Mary) and Eastern (Dharma), psychology (B.F. Skinner), philosophy (Locke’s “tabula rasa”), ancient history (hieroglyphics), comic books (Green Lantern), music (“Moonlight Sonata”), art (Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ), films (To Kill a Mockingbird), and vast troves of literature and science—the allusions cease to be meaningful and become red herrings.

An abridged list of the books that have appeared on, or are connected to, the show include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Brothers Karamazov, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Third Policeman, The Turn of the Screw, Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time and Of Mice and Men. In Episode 3 of the third season, we’re meant to linger over a biblical passage scratched onto a walking stick. What could it mean?

How about: Who cares? In its exponentially complex yet increasingly unsophisticated allusions, the show has begun to read more like multi-linked hypertext than compelling drama. “Allusion as character” works well in small doses, but what happens when every name calls to a mind a passage from the Bible or suggests a relevant historical or mythological precedent? Lost‘s allegorical character lineup includes philosophers Locke, Hume and Rousseau; Jack Shephard, (as the savior/Christ figure), baby Aaron (a nod to the Old Testament) and the anagrammatical Ethan Rom (“Other Man”), to name just a fraction.

But this sort of etymology can be applied almost universally. Juliet is so obviously serving as the “forbidden love interest from the rival faction” for Jack, one wonders what’s gained by giving her that most clich├ęd of allusive names. It’s just piling on—it ends up cheapening the clues we’re really supposed to pay attention to.

As the show itself works as a sort of Wikipedia of convergences, it’s appropriate that viewers turn to a host of fan sites where they can keep track of the symphony of citation—the show has even spawned its own wiki, Lostpedia. Truly, the simple joy of being “in” on a reference is one of the main reasons a show like Lost thrives.

And in the end, maybe that’s where the real problem lies—with you and me. We’ve been taken in by our own egos. The show tempts us with impressive-seeming but ultimately empty intellectualism, making us feel smarter than we really are. Perhaps what we have here is nothing but a prime-time science-fiction soap opera that’s serving as a multimillion-dollar version of an overcompensating grad student’s cluttered thesis. Or worse still, a case of a middlebrow showoff hammering his education down our throats.

Originally publishd in the Weekly Dig

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Wire Interview: Ed Burns

Returning for it’s fourth season, HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire gives us a seat on the metaphoric corner stoop in the inner-city of television‘s all-encompassing neighborhood. Although the show‘s protagonists are largely police and the criminals they pursue, the Wire bears almost no resemblance to the cookie cutter network procedurals. No heroes, no hearts of gold. The main character is the city of Baltimore. And while the deception and corruption and the indifference that plague the city is the stuff the Wire is made of, this is not necessarily what it is “about.” At its core, the Wire is about organizations, big and small, and their inner workings, however mundane, are drawn here in captivating strokes. The Wire is a story epic in scope, brilliantly scripted, set, acted, edited, designed and conceived of in every way. It’s a tragedy of Shakespearean depth and proportion and eloquence, but its subject matter is the dirt that seeps through the cracks and pulls these institutions, and the people who belong to them, apart from within. As a work of fiction, a veritable novel for television so dense and layered and so brilliantly literate, it approaches perfection in its depiction of so much so very far from perfect.

The fourth season shifts its theme to education, opening with a group of young boys at a pivotal moment in their lives. Who will educate them, the school or the street? This story is inter-cut with the arc of the ascendant drug kingpin Marlow, who serves as an interesting parallel to the rise of the now jailed Avon Barksdale as well as the Mayoral run of Tommy Carcetti. Watching Carcetti’s disintegration from wide-eyed idealist to politician playing the game is particularly painful, but it’s every bit as addicting as the previous seasons. Producer and writer Ed Burns draws on his experience as a former Baltimore police and schoolteacher to shape the show.

Are the school systems really this bad?
The schools are not as bad as we portrayed them, they are infinitely worse. Failure has become the outcome of process. And our drama of film cannot do justice to the drama of reality that plays out day after unforgiving day in our classrooms. We are illusionists conjuring up images that, while gripping, can only suggest the extent and depth of the debacle we call public education for the have-nots.

What is it we are addicted to when we say we are addicted to The Wire?
The struggle of characters, who we identify with, who are pitted against either indifferent institutions or an uncaring environment.

Is the Wire a cynical show, or merely a realistic one?
The characters on the Wire have the odds stacked against them. The strength of the show is the focus on how they continue to endure rather than on what they face. It's drama and I think a cynical view overlooks the characters' guts.

Are we foolish to align ourselves with the drug bosses like Stringer Bell, the lawless and charismatic mercenary Omar or the drunken, corner-cutting cops like McNulty?
Hope is never foolish, it just looks that way sometimes. Stringer and McNulty, like many of our characters, play on the big stage, where things are at risk, lives at stake. They capture us by how they struggle against what seems the insurmountable, while we sit on our couches in our sanitized world, and watch, envious of not being tested as they are. Not that we want to be tested like that, but we become emotionally invested and hopefully feel a catharsis when our heroes draw the deuce. Omar is different, he is free of the pull of institutions, a man who shaped his own code, and someone out on the streets who helps balance the scales.

Is it the blurring of the lines between good and bad that makes us feel such a connection to other’s humanity on the show?

John Donne said it. ‘No man is an island.’ And we have become less as a people because we have made others less.

Series creator David Simon has said the voices on the Wire are voices that we don’t listen to. But isn’t American popular culture filled with tales from the ghetto?

Picture a couple or three white kids rigged out in their cul-de-sac with hats askew and pants down around their ankles, chanting “fuck this and fuck that,” and “I'm'a gonna bust a cap in your ass“...then mom calls them in for dinner. They don't live the ghetto, they're slumming. That's fine but it isn't what goes on in the streets. We are deaf to the voices of the ghetto because we don't want to hear them. It took Katrina to blow away the myth that the poor, dispossessed and the down-trodden were the stuff of CD's and videos.

Is the Wire an underdog?

The Wire is what it is: Sort of the saga of an old western staged on the urban streets where all the hats are colored gray. Some viewers are willing to go with us and tread on those streets and watch, while others find it too remote, too "dark" or too depressing. I'm proud of what we accomplished. It's an example of great actors working with decent material, which is pretty much the HBO formula for success.

From everything I’ve read from people who work on the Wire, it seems like you want, deep down, for something to change, and perhaps hope that part of that change can come from your work. Is that the policeman or teacher in you?

We would have to be inhuman not to want change. After we did the Corner, (a previous HBO mini-series about drug-ridden Baltimore) I had hoped that the right eyes would open a slit, but that didn't happed, so I don't hold out much hope for the Wire to change the minds that need changing. What the Wire is for me first and foremost is a hell of a story, well acted. And it's great to have the opportunity to tell the story. What happens after that happens.

Chuck D once said that hip hop was the black CNN, but in a way I suspect that for a lot of suburban television viewers, a show like the Wire is as close to the real urban news as they get. Do you think this is accurate? Is that a problem?
In America we are armored with the mantra of the individual, the belief that what you are was your choice. Such a view gives us the right to ignore what is right there for anyone to see. So the Wire's peak under the blanket won't change the presumption that people chose to get under that blanket.

Originally published in the Weekly Dig