Full disclosure: I am not a fan of this show's first season. Despite early promise, in the end I found the pacing dull and the characters thinly drawn, clichéd and difficult to care about. I thought the show made New Orleans look like a ridiculous cartoon of a place. And the music, which I normally enjoy whenever I'm actually in New Orleans, was so aggressively pushed as an additional character that after 13 episodes of non-stop blaring I now can't even look at a trumpet without bursting into tears. So now that the show's second season has premiered, has anything changed? The answer is sort of, but not really.
Post-Katrina New Orleans gets the David Simon treatment with HBO's Treme, a new series about one of the city's neighborhoods trying to rebuild after the disaster. The pilot aired last night, and at 80 minutes, it was a lot to take in, but much of it was pleasantly surprising. I expected it to be good, of course, considering the pedigree behind it and many of the actors cast (does it get better than Clarke Peters, Melissa Leo and John Goodman?), but I was blown away mainly by how joyful it managed to be despite the subject matter.
Before CBS officially fired Charlie Sheen this week, there had been some talk that maybe Chuck Lorre could step away from day-to-day production of Two and a Half Men as a way of keeping the peace if Charlie were to come back. We here at TWoP still think the idea of getting rid of Lorre is pretty good, even if Sheen is already gone, and we have some suggestions about who should replace both of them.
I love The Wire; I really do. I am in complete agreement with the oodles upon oodles of critical raves it has received, and I am right there with the people who state that the Season Four finale was probably the single most emotionally affecting hour of television ever broadcast, and that's not an exaggeration. The show leaves me breathless, often makes me laugh, but never makes me feel like I'm watching a self-conscious "look how good this is" production, a feeling that's interfered with my enjoyment of some other acclaimed shows that remind me of Julia Child's supposed comment about nouvelle cuisine: "It's so beautiful, you can just tell somebody's fingers have been all over it." It's a work of genius, probably one of the best pieces of art America has produced in the last fifty years, and I continue to enjoy and admire every minute of it.
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.
Assuming your brain has recovered from exposure to details of the Speidi wedding, take a break from the Monday blahs with these TV newsbites. There's some (mildly) good news for Deadwood fans, some bad news for fans of Sophie and Roommates (yes, those are TV shows), and some awesome news for fans of networks jumping on bandwagons!
Those HBO people are a bunch of nerds! Apparently John Adams was just the tip of the historical non-fiction iceberg for the cabler, because David Simon and Tom Fontana, creators of The Wire and Oz, respectively, are teaming up to bring us the story of the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth following the assassination he carried out against that one guy to the small screen. The miniseries will be based on James L. Swanson's book, Manhunt, with Simon and Fontana serving as scriptwriters and executive producers, which -- and don't take this the wrong way, people who made John Adams -- is likely going to make John Adams look like a Wipeout marathon by comparison with that duo behind it. The project is still coming together and no launch date has been announced yet, but you know how HBO is. They don't keep things like that a secret. On a related note, I'd just like to put it out there that if Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller were to maybe make a miniseries about Squeaky Fromme, musical or otherwise, that I would really appreciate it. (And don't act like that wouldn't be hot!)