The Wire and more...
Dominic West, John Doman, Frankie Faison, Aidan Gillen, Deirdre Lovejoy, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce
(HBO; US: 2 Jun 2002)
“You just got to see that junk is just another nine to five gig in the end,” Jim Carroll once wearily observed about the drug life, an outlook that quietly informs HBO’s The Wire. Where most “cop shows” offer predictable pen-and-ink cartoons of their law and disorder antagonists, HBO (empowered by the success of its complex and ambiguous “mob show”) allowed David Simon and his writers to create a sprawling, full-color mural of a harsh Baltimore neighborhood where the police aren’t always the heroes and the drug dealers aren’t always the villains: Everyone has a job to do, and whether it’s keeping the drugs flowing or trying to sandbag against a tide that rises from every direction, it’s just another nine to five in the end. Where other police dramas present the officers and the perps as separate entities who meet for the first time on a particular episode, The Wire takes a different tack: In season one, a junior pedaler goes to the movies and sees two of the cops who regularly harass him when he’s dealing and the adversaries talk like co-workers who will be seeing each other at the office the next morning. We come to understand “the game” is simply a way of life, without convenient 55th minute closure and telegraphed moral certainty.
But to call it a cop show is a gross injustice: While the show delves deeply into life on the streets, over the seasons they’ve explored Baltimore’s public schools, the machinations of City Hall, and the various struggles of over 50 significant characters. (Yes, an org-chart would help, but you get to know them all easily just by watching every episode.) More so, The Wire pushes HBO’s penchant for fully-realized character studies to new levels: What the show is really about its 50-odd characters; Baltimore just gives them all a place to collide. The first three seasons are currently available on DVD, with season four arriving in December. (Season Five, rumored to be the last, will air on HBO in 2008.) For “extra feature” junkies, the offerings are scant: Audio commentary on only three episodes of season one, two for season two, and five for season three, as well as a brief but helpful episode guide for each season. But neophytes will soon understand that the value of The Wire discs isn’t extra digital fodder, but the episodes themselves: Engaging story lines, exceptional dialog, and thoroughly riveting characters. (All DVDs should be so generous.)
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
Dana Snyder, Carey Means, Dave Willis
(Cartoon Network; US: 30 Dec 2000)
Surrealism doesn’t get any better than this. Featuring no water, teens, or actual plotlines, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is the kind of show that Luis Buñuel would’ve made if he was a teenager growing up in California in the ‘80s while living on a diet of nothing but Crunch bars. The show—with each episode lasting only 12 minutes long—defines surrealism: a lovable meatball (Meatwad), an intellectual hovering box of fries (Frylock) and a smart-ass, narcissistic milkshake (Master Shake) hang around their low-rent New Jersey house, occasionally harassing their perpetually jobless and hilariously rude neighbor, Carl. That’s it. That’s all it is. And you know what? It still manages to be one of the funniest shows still running today.
What’s most compelling about ATHF is the pitch-perfect balance of power of the main trio: Master Shake continually trying to humiliate/kill Meatwad, Meatwad’s misguided quest for knowledge, and Frylock’s strong-willed peacekeeper status. It’s this framework that allows the Force to deal with Atari-graphic aliens (the recurring Mooninites), a confused-yet-evil rapping spider (Season One), a knowledge cube that spouts bumper-sticker slogans (Season Three), and a one-time shot when Meatwad wins tickets to the Super Bowl and decides to take his sass-talking, Shaft-imitating cardboard box friend, Boxy Brown. It sounds like the stuff of strange dreams (or even stranger acid trips), but it all miraculously works out before Schooly D’s top-notch theme song gets thrown on during the credits. You never walk away from an Aqua Teen episode with new philosophical quandaries a-brewin’ in your mind, but the show has become the unofficial mascot for the ADD Generation; providing tons of unique, original laughs in a very short amount of time. Harvey Birdman, Robot Chicken, and well over half of the Adult Swim lineup owes its very existence to ATHF. Years after its debut, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is still the single greatest show ever made about anthropomorphic food products, and that’s saying something.
Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET
Only the first two seasons of this great ambitious ambiguous show are out on DVD, and neither one is what you’d call generous with the extras; a few fluffs here and there, a handful of deleted scenes and featurettes, but no commentaries or anything like that. But one does not come to Veronica Mars for the bells and whistles, but rather for the whip-smart dialogue and the stinging observations about class and race and privilege in Neptune, California. Very few shows have ever dared to look as honestly into the dark heart of the American dream as Veronica Mars did… gee, I guess in retrospect it’s not so hard to figure out why viewers stayed away in droves, or why the CW canceled it in favor of some of the dreck infesting its fall schedule.
Any examination of this show must start, as always, with Kristen Bell, who plays the title role with wicked wit, intelligent sexiness, and great pathos. She manages to make the central conceit—private eye’s daughter helps him solve cases and investigates her town’s darkest secrets—not just plausible, but actually believable. The first two seasons used splashy horrific crimes to kickstart the rest of the plot, but the fun of watching the DVDs is the realization that these arcs were less important than the interactions between the well-drawn characters. Special nods to all the show’s young actors and actresses, who put heart and soul into Rob Thomas’ wisecracks and pop culture references; Jason Dohring’s poor little bad boy Logan Echolls is etched into the hearts of thousands of us forever. But the show’s true rock was Enrico Colantoni’s performance as Keith Mars, an awesome detective and sheriff who also just happens to be the greatest TV dad ever. This was brought home in the final episodes of the unfairly-maligned season three, when Keith sacrifices all—oops, don’t want to spoil anything, especially when the DVD is hitting stores next month. But it would have been one hell of a fourth season.
The story of Judd Apatow’s rise/fall/resurrection from a failed TV producer of two of the most genuine sitcoms in the last decade of television to replacing Ivan Reitman as the Czar of the summer movie blockbuster is one of the most satisfying yarns to grace Hollywood in many a year. Especially for those of us who cherished both his 1999 early ‘80s-set dramedy Freaks and Geeks and its 2001 college-based follow-up Undeclared and have the well-worn DVD box sets to prove it. Though not as critically revered as Freaks, nor as decried upon its swift cancellation from Fox’s fall lineup shortly upon its premiere the week of 9/11, Undeclared nevertheless stood out amongst an embattled season as perhaps the most accurate depiction of real college life ever captured on television. From getting saddled with a roommate who gets all the chicks and makes you sleep on the couch every night to the imperfectly sexy girls you tend to fall in love with and their psycho ex-boyfriends who cock-block you to the strange weirdos in the dorm who try to get in with your crew, Apatow nailed that shit. Perhaps its because many of the plots were derived from actual events that happened to the cast, which made Undeclared all the more real and appealing.
And the cast is top notch, from the placement of Apatow veterans like the now-larger-than-life Seth Rogen as lead character Stephen Karp’s sarcastic suitemate, Jason Segel as Stephen’s love interest Carla Gallo’s crazy ex and Martin Starr as Karp’s uber-dorky best friend from home who comes up for a surprise visit, to the inclusion of Dawson’s Creek hottie Monica Keena and Loudon Wainwright III as Stephen’s recently-divorced father. But its Jay Baruchel who was the absolute star of this series, perfecting the role of loveable freshman geek who seems to have everything and nothing going for him almost simultaneously. Everyone has a little Stephen Karp in them, especially those of us who hold both Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks so near and dear to our hearts. Here’s hoping this DVD, which is packed with extras, including two previously unaired episodes and an extensive interview with the entire cast (minus Keena). Here’s hoping Apatow’s recent success on the big screen inspires him to reconvene his ace troop of actors for the boob tube once again.