Friday, March 11, 2011

T.V. or not T.V.? - Part IV - My First Step Into A Larger World

Greetings and Felicitations, T.V. Mavens!

For those of you who've been following along at home, you may have gotten the impression that my last job really sucked.  It did at the end, but it wasn't always that way.  Over the course of four years my assignment as an account manager for a major American office supply retailer took me from individual salesman to a glorified, pre-programmed auto-dialer.

We had ridiculous targets to hit.  We had to call one business after another in the hopes of successfully regurgitating as much of our intrusive, virtually-scripted sales pitch at our customers before they rushed us off the phone.  Since our message was about as welcome as a pair of impeccably dressed kids at your door asking if you've accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, it was almost impossible to keep them on the phone for longer then three minutes.

Despite how off-putting these transparently mercenary calls were to our trusted contacts, we still had to touch base with 28 people every day and complete this stilted, color-by-numbers dialogue with them.  If we failed in this goal we didn't get a dime of commission and might also begin to see progressive discipline leveled against us, including (but not limited to) verbal warnings, written reprimands for our permanent record, and random beatings presumably instituted to improve morale. 

Naturally, between the stress of this and the fact that we were all crammed into a space that would make lemmings feel claustrophobic, escapist conversations were de rigueur.  In fact, we took every possible opportunity to talk about anything but our lousy, mind-numbing, repetitive jobs, arguably even more then we should have.  I think we did it for the same reason that a person without money wants to buy stuff all the time just to prove that they aren't poor.

One of our more popular topics was television.  Now, by the mid-to-late 2000's (in which this long-winded preamble is set), T.V. had fallen into a real quagmire of demeaning reality shows and toothless sitcoms.  After all, we were now seeing such IQ-plummeting offal as Flavor of LoveCavemen, and Fat Dude, Hot, I mean According to Jim/King of Queens/Still Standing...etc, etc.

I remember openly declaring to everyone in my aisle (picture a series of adjoined kennel pens in a dog pound)  that "the reality-show-glutted, prime-time network television vista was nothing but a vast wasteland".

And that's when Mark Rose made me eat my words.

A brash, opinionated, entertainment connoisseur, Mark would often engage me in heated debates about the minutia of pop-culture.  The verbal donnybrooks that often resulted were often very cathartic.  Only now do I realize how important these dialogues were to staving off brain death resulting from interchangeable banal conversations with our customers or having to listen to the incessant bleating of soccer moms about the merits of American Idol or The Bachelor.

People sitting within earshot would witness our little U.N. style debates and marvel:

"My God, you guys know way too much about this stuff.  You're always blurting out the most obscure and twisted stuff about music, movies, television..."

"Yeah," I said in reply to Mark.  "It's like we've got 'entertainment tourette's syndrome'..."

Anyway, on that particular day, Mark wasn't about to let me off the hook with my broad proclamation that all television was crap.

"I'm gonna bring in a few episodes of a show that I want you to watch.  I'll bet you any money that you'll like it so much, it'll single-handedly change your perception about what a television show is capable of."

"Sure, whatever, pal," I loudly dismissed with a wave of my hand.  "But get ready to eat your words; I haven't seen a decent show on television since Buffy and Angel went off the air."

Mark practically laughed in my face.

"Yeah, well, what you watch tomorrow night will make those shows look like crap."

For the sake full disclosure, this was the show he was boasting about:

And deservedly so.  I dare you to watch the ending of the first episode of The Shield and then not burn through a slew of episodes every night like it's the entertainment version of a tube of Pringles.

Former Angel producer Shawn Ryan created in The Shield one of the most gritty, multi-faceted, morally complicated television programs I'd ever had the pleasure of watching before or since.

The show is set in the very troubled fictional Farmington district in Los Angeles.  Gang activity is rife, drugs flow like water and nut bars of every single persuasion walk the streets.  Into this is thrust a four-man Strike Team charged with cleaning up the streets.  It's led by Detective Vic Mackey: law enforcement's answer to a charging bull moose.  Although Vic's arrest record is impressive and he really is single-handedly lowering the area's crime rates, no-one really wants to know how much of a train wreck he is just below the surface.

But as an omnipotent audience member, we're privy to all things Vic, including his Lemmy-sized personality warts.  He's a womanizer, his family is falling apart, he's hot-tempered, hard-headed, abusive, violent and prone to routine tortuous brutality.  And, then, of course, there's the most difficult thing to reconcile about Vic: he gets results.  

Anyone who still sees Michael Chiklis as The Commish or The Thing from that excremental Fantastic Four movie needs to watch this show, stat to wash the taste of those bland characterizations out of their mouths.  It's high testimony to the actor's ability that, despite being possessed of some really repugnant qualities, he still manages to engender considerably sympathy amongst viewers.  When I was plowing through the show I'd often times catch myself actually rooting for Vic to extricate himself from the binds he put himself into. 

In addition to Chiklis serving as a solid anchor, the show benefits from a truly charismatic supporting cast.  Catherine Dent as Officer Danielle Sofer doesn't always make the best choices, but that's what makes her realistic and relatable.  Paula Garcés as Officer Tina Hanlon does a masterful job trying to convey the unique challenges of a female cop in a predominantly testosterone-fueled realm.  Speaking of challenges, Officer Julien Lowe, who's portrayed expertly by Michael Jace, is a character with a strong Catholic faith who struggles to excise his latent homosexual desires.

Shawn Ryan's real-life squeeze, Cathy Cahlin Ryan, is completely convincing as Vic's long-suffering ex-wife Corrine.  Slack, lazy and opportunistic Detective Billings as played by David Marciano is such an infuriating bastard that you just count the seconds for his comeuppance.  Benito Martinez brings an alternately aggressive and twitchy approach to the role of ambitious councilman David Aceveda.  Something happens to his character half way through the run of the show that's so joltingly awful that it's difficult to process.

The Strike Team that serves as Vic's most guarded and insular allies (at least in theory) are also a colorful and ethically shaky lot. Walton Goggins is superb as good ole' boy Shane Vendrell.  Shane is occasionally capable of loose-cannon bravery but he's also a sucker for easy women and readily available narcotics.  The more he tries to emulate Vic's ability to extricate himself from tight spots, the more he tends to bury himself.

Kenny Johnson's Curtis Lemansky is Beavis to Vic's Butt-Head.  He a sweet, sensitive character that's swept up in the Strike Team's more unsavory pursuits mainly due to his history with and loyalty to the others.  As per the thematic drive of the show, "Lem's" desire to do the right thing ultimately leads to disastrous results.

Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) is the most utilitarian member of the Strike Team.  He's an interesting cat, kinda like that quiet person at work that you're around for eight hours every day but you still barely know anything about them.  He's competent, fearless, level-headed and intensely committed to the other members of the team.  His only hubris: believing that Vic will be as stalwart as he would be when his own ass is on the line.

But my favorite characters certainly have to be Claudette Wyms and  Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach, played by CCH Pounder and Jay Karnes respectively.  The two make for an unlikely but highly effective investigative partnership.  Claudette is the conscience and soul of the department.  Although sometimes she's ruled by her passions, she's a brilliant interrogator, a three-dimensional thinker and a highly competent administrator.  Revelations about her health mid-way though the run of the show is appropriately heartbreaking and there are no tidy resolutions.  The Shield, just like real life, certainly doesn't play favorites with the traditionally "good" characters.

Dutch is a learned and tireless investigative savant, but he's often frustrated when his theories don't translate to the unpredictable real world.  He's a bit socially retarded and his recurring soft spot for bad 80's pop music makes for some rare moments of levity in the show.  Towards the end of the program's seven season run, Dutch begins to realize that everything isn't quite as black and white as he first thought it was.  This comes to a head when he matches wits with a teenager whom he believes is a burgeoning serial killer.

Rounded out by a veritable rogues gallery of amazing guest stars (Glenn Close, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Anderson spring to mind for starters), frighteningly authentic production design and excellent hand-held camerawork which effectively conveys a constant sense of unease and documentary-like realism, The Shield still stands as my all-time favorite dramatic television show.

As if to underscore just how right he was, Mark's next revelation came in the form of this HBO gem:

Entourage has a giddy amount of fun breaking through television's "fourth wall".  Allegedly based on "Marky" Mark Walberg's inexplicably meteoric rise to fame, it centers around Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), a charismatic pretty-boy from Queens, New York who, through some lucky bounces, becomes an A-list movie star.  He moves out to Hollywood, California and brings along a parcel of childhood hanger-on's with him.  The titular Entourage consists of his terminally frustrated manager Eric Murphy (Kevin Connolly), his gofer/driver of dubious worth Salvatore "Turtle" Assante (Jerry Ferrara) and Vinnie's older brother Johnny (Kevin Dillon).

The chemistry and banter between our four intrepid heroes is completely seamless.  The actors inhabit their roles so expertly that at no time does it ever feel like your watching someone "act".  I think I relate to this show so much because it reminds me of the questionable chicanery and fraternal bonds of brotherhood that living in university residence provides.  I know for a fact that if I suddenly became as rich and influential as Vinnie here, I'd certainly have my own ersatz support system around me.

It's a hilarious show because you can just see how much these guys relish their new lives.  You can only imagine how much insanity can occur when you take a bunch of arrested development a-holes, put them in decadent L.A. and then give them as much money and vice as their constitutions will allow.

The writers also have a blast playing with show business conventions.  Vincent has to contend with flighty indie directors, a slush-pile of crap scripts, a big-budget superhero flick (helmed by James Cameron, natch!), adoring female fans with questionable motivations and the constant debate of art versus commerce.

My favorite character has to be Kevin Dillon's Johnny "Drama".  Johnny actually found fame years before his little brother thanks to a little seen, cheezy sci-fi/fantasy series called Viking Quest.   In addition to kicking off his career, playing Thorvald in Viking Quest also apparently killed it.   When the first season of Entourage begins, Johnny hasn't worked a proper acting gig in years so he's currently riding on his little brother's lengthy coat-tails and acting as his "personal chef and trainer".

It's with a giddy sense of fun that we watch Johnny's career slowly experience something of a resurgence and even threaten to overtake that of his fraternal meal ticket.  Alas, Thorvald's oft-heard battle cry of "VICTORY!" is something Johnny doesn't get to a chance to say very frequently as the seasons ream by.

And, of course, who can talk about Entourage without mentioning Jeremy Piven's brilliant turn as the excitable, avaricious, scheming uber-agent Ari Gold?  Here's just a sample of some of his finer moments:

As if the first two recommendations weren't enough to prove Mark's case beyond a shadow of a doubt, he promptly took my tunnel-visioned anti-T.V. stance into a isolated room, tied it to a table with Saranwrap, nicked it on the cheek with a scalpel, eviscerated it, put the bits into garbage bags and then threw it off the side of his boat in the Florida keys.  If case you haven't puzzled out my lame, hyper-extended metaphor by now, please know that I'm referring, of course, to this stellar little program:

The premise for Dexter just makes you wonder why someone didn't come up with it earlier.  Dexter was horribly traumatized as a child when he witnessed his beloved mother's gruesome murder.  Orphaned by the tragedy, he was adopted by Harry Morgan, the cop that found him.  As he begins to grow up, Dexter's odd behavioral tells are noticed by his foster father, who decides to try and channel the boy's dark side towards something constructive.  From there on in, the hallowed "Code of Harry" dictates that Dexter can only ever prey upon the most undesirable elements of society like a serial killer vigilante.

Now, no-one can really claim that there's never been an example of sympathetic serial killers (witness Hannibal Lecter and Johnny The Homicidal Maniac for starters) but the titular focus of this show is constantly struggling to retain a facade of normalcy.  He has an ironic, yet logical, career as a forensic blood-spatter specialist.  He's a reliable and straight-laced foundation for his sister Deb.  He's a dutiful boyfriend to the damaged-goods Rita and her winsome, adoring kids.

But he also murders scores of people in the most horrific manner imaginable.  Which brings us back to The Shield's climate of moral ambiguity.  Do the ends truly justify the means here?  And, if so, how does that reflect on us, the audience?

The cast is phenomenal.  Michael C. Hall strikes a pitch perfect balance between perfidious murderer and charming everyman as the eponymous anti-hero.  Jennifer Carpenter, who's proved her acting chops before in such challenging roles as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, excels as Dexter's potty-mouthed, dogged sister who seems to keep falling for the wrong guy.  Once can't help but wonder if life imitated art somewhat when the two leads defied fictional taboos and married in 2007 and then promptly divorced three years later.

Two more supporting actors deserve special mention.  I make no secret about my love for Julie Benz and no one can slight Dexter for wanting to take care of her.  Also Erik King is fascinating as Sgt. Doakes, who seems to be the only one on the police force who has the ability to see through Dexter's machinations.  His humorously dogged attempts to bully Dexter into betraying his true nature is just one of the many reasons why  the second season of this show might represent the best television I've ever seen.        

These three revelatory shows sent me on a quest to find my own small screen gems.  Up until Mark's intervention, I'd been perfectly content to write off television as a vast wasteland, but after my own cursory investigations, the floodgates opened up and I suddenly found myself inundated with an unexpected wellspring of entertainment value.

Thank you, sir.

   The Shield: Season One   Entourage: First Season [DVD]-Disc 1&2 episodes 1-8Dexter: The First Season

FAIL:  Roll Call for a Dark Time...


Brodie said...

Awesome shows!

I highly recommend, if you haven't seen them yet - The Wire, Deadwood, 30 Rock and IT Crowd (UK).

re: your fail entry - I'm one of two people I know who really dug John from Cincinnati - I don't think that not knowing what a show is about doesn't make it bad, it just makes it hard to sell

David Pretty said...

Just watched the first season of "The Wire". Consider my mind officially blown.

The more evidence I see like this the more I'm beginning to suspect that theatrical movie releases are starting out-shlock the once- risible "boob tube".

AMC, HBO and F/X are all proving that cable T/V. is now the pinnacle of quality entertainment.

Next on my viewing "hit list"..."The Sopranos"!