January 2008 Archives
It's never been a secret that David Simon, one of the show's creators, has his background in journalism, while Ed Burns has his in police work and teaching. It was Burns's passionate feelings about the public school system that led the show into Season Four and its wrenching, complicated examination of kids who are slipping away before the eyes of caring, conscientious adults who, all too often, can do nothing for the kids and nothing to soothe their own consciences. It would be insane to fault the show for drawing on the personal experiences of its creators, because without their personal experiences, there would more than obviously be no show.
But I am worried. I am worried about Season Five, and I am worried about its focus on the media, and I am worried about the fact that Simon has appeared to be on a protracted crusade against specific people from The Baltimore Sun ever since he left. In particular, Simon has this thing about Bill Marimow, now the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and, when Simon was there, the editor of the Sun. If you recognize the name, of course, it's because in Season Four, Simon already went to the trouble of naming the horrible, incompetent, abusive lieutenant who took over the unit "Marimow." Just as a poke. Just as a big fat "I hate you." Just to do it. And now, a season later, we're in the newsroom of the Sun, confronting an editor who, in the first episode, is the only cartoonish villain I have ever seen on this show. While every other potential heavy the show has ever had has been presented complete with the pressures brought to bear on him that affect his choices, this editor seems to just be (pardon me) an asshole and an empty suit. This will be Simon's Marimow, without the name.
Read more about the feud here.
Here's my problem: I watched Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. And one of the things I thought made it such a miserable failure was that it wasn't really about what it wanted to be about. It wanted to be about trying to make smart television in the face of all kinds of pressure, but Aaron Sorkin's need to settle scores got in his way. Sorkin has commented intelligently on precisely what he was trying to get at -- particularly in SportsNight. But by the time he got to Studio 60, he was so mad -- he was so mad -- that there was no way he could clear-headedly address the complications of media and money. There were only saintly artists always saying and doing the right thing on one side, and wicked media bosses hating and abusing quality on the other side. Situations were contrived to make points, characters were sacrificed to clarify lines between good and evil, and ultimately, the show was about nothing so much as it was about Sorkin trying to take a series of pokes at various network people he had dealt with in the past -- not to mention venting his frustration over not being, in a conventional sense, an effective comedy writer.
Don't get me wrong -- David Simon is no Aaron Sorkin. I think he's a much more self-aware guy, he's a far more talented artist, he's got a lot more talented people working around him, and he has an A-plus-plus cast where Sorkin had maybe a B-plus cast. There's no way, based on the first episode of the fifth season (which is all I've seen), to say that the season will fall victim to Studio-60-itis. But I am worried as hell.
Most writers draw on experience, and God knows there have been plenty of successful satires based on a writer's desire to rip a strip off the idiots and weasels encountered in day-to-day life. Maybe Simon will do this brilliantly. Maybe I will swallow every word I'm saying here; I sure as hell hope so.
But I am worried. The thing is, all writing fails if it's about the writer. A drama where the villain is your lousy boss or your crummy boyfriend or whatever can certainly work if you can get enough distance from the subject matter that it's still about what you're trying to say, rather than how you're trying to make yourself feel. When I see David Simon say it was his "fantasy for revenge," even if he's later going to say that was hyperbole, that makes me feel like the season is being written because he's still so mad. You can be so mad -- Ed Burns is so mad about the schools. They're both so mad about the drug wars. But they write about being so mad in order to impart something to the audience, not as a "fantasy for revenge." My fear is that it really is a fantasy for revenge. My fear is that the priority in this last season is going to be getting digs in at specific guys and trying to make them squirm in public.
If you sit down to write a book or anything else thinking, "I am going to write this to prove a point to [this person]," you will, 99 percent of the time, fail. I firmly believe that writing has to be from your heart, but for your audience. I fear that this season will end with nothing finer than a big "Take that!", and I will be heartbroken if that happens. Simon has said in the past that you sometimes have to do things that serve the story, and that -- for instance -- failing to kill a character because the character is beloved serves the character, not the story. I am of the opinion that it is just as important to make sure you are serving the story and not the writer.
We will see.
It's one of the charms of Homicide that, most of the time, most of the characters have bad hair -- Falsone's slicked-back, mullety number; Kellerman's floofy zipper-parted job -- because the show isn't about that. They're homicide detectives; they've got bigger things to worry about. But some of these reruns are 15 years old now, and it shows. Especially in the hair of certain guest stars who went on to bigger and Ledger things, like the one pictured at right.
Yes, that's a fetal Jake Gyllenhaal, and that's the only photo I could find from his guest shot on H: LotS (it's the same ep that stars Robin Williams), but it only begins to suggest the tonsorial hilarity that awaits the viewer, because naturally he's got it shaved up in the back for that mushroom look -- a.k.a. "the David Silver." And he is teeny, too. Robin Williams, just out of frame, is not a big guy, and he's like a foot taller than Li'llenhaal.
My boy Jake is matching him pound for pound in the ham department, though, holy shit.
Thanks to the individual deal WWP reached with the WGA, Letterman and Ferguson can run their shows largely as they always do, and their shows aren't really struck anymore. This not only means that the CBS guys can, like, have content, but it means that guests on their shows don't have to worry about crossing picket lines. I'm thinking this means Dave and Craig will have a lot of famous guests, while Leno and Conan will be scrounging for non-union, non-actor famous people -- reality-show participants may have a better chance of seeing a mainstream late-night couch than they've had in years, as long as they don't have queasy feelings about picket lines.
This opens up an obvious opportunity for Letterman and probably an even bigger one for Craig Ferguson, who I'd think could make some serious advances on NBC as it prepares to replace Conan when he takes Leno's job. It's hard for me, though, to judge this accurately, because of the deep divide between my taste in late-night comedy and the tastes of everyone else. America freakin' loves Jay Leno, you guys -- the stupid, obvious jokes; the Jaywalking segments; the unfunny interviews -- and I've never gotten it, ever. So maybe they aren't subject to conversion to Dave's darker, far more rebellious outlook. But I've got to think that when Dave has other people they they love on the couch and Jay doesn't, they're going to be sorely tempted to show up. My guess is that in the short run, the NBC side won't suffer, because people will be so damn curious about what will possibly happen without writers. I know I'm damn curious. But in the long run, it just won't be that exciting -- it will be a lot of interviews and a lot of standing around.
I freely admit that I watch these developments with one hat on that's purely analytical/ethical, where I know which side my own mind is on, and one hat on that's eating popcorn and watching the totally fascinating way these things play out based on wackadoo intercelebrity politics matched in complexity only by, possibly, seasons of The Wire. If you're an actor who can't get on Dave's show but you can get on either Jay's show or Craig's show, is it better to take Craig's show with the much lower ratings but the lack of picket-line problems, or to take Jay's show and eat the hopefully short-term recriminations of crossing the picket line? Can you take Jay's show and use the time to talk about supporting the strike? If you go on Craig's show instead of Jay's show, do you earn a demerit with NBC that will haunt you when Jay/Conan returns?
And if you're Jimmy Kimmel, how do you remain relevant?
Okay, actually, if you're Jimmy Kimmel, you've probably already been working on that one for about ten years.
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