Saturday, January 12, 2008

Cop Shows


The Wire on HBO has come back for it's fifth and final season, and for one last time we get to witness the further doings and undoings in the city of Baltimore. There isn't a television drama, let alone a crime drama , that's done what this program has done, construct a narrative line with a novel's depth and complexity .Each class level is explored, characters of high, low and pragmatic motivations are given full back stories and who's personalities and motivations are subject to unexpected fluctuations of mood, tone. There are no cardboard characters in this drama.Created by author David Simon, who authored the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the drama began as an investigation by a rag tag Baltimore police unit into street drug trafficking, a covert activity informed by the phrase "follow the money". Follow the money this crew did, and what's unfolded in the four previous seasons is a textured, superbly layered of how all that unmarked cash has found it's way into the social,educational, religious and political institutions that nominally exist to improve the quality of civic life; corruption blatant and subtly seductive both undermines the best intentions of the virtuous and deludes those with power that there efforts in this corrosive mire is progress toward a brighter day. Hard truths triumph, though, and matters get worse. The heros , as it were, fight off the a bitter cynicism and apply their ideals to unforgiving circumstance. The Wire is a true tragedy,and nothing else is likely to be as compelling a television experience for many years to come.


I was an obsessive viewer of the genius television cop drama Homicide:Life on the Street, one of the faithful who stuck by the show during it's wobbly seven year run. The show never gained a huge audience, but it has had a huge influence on serialized drama to come; demon-plagued murder police trying to make up for shortcomings but speaking for the murdered dead, the grit and grease of dogged police investigation, tersely eloquent dialogue where the characters considered larger things in the universe other than themselves without a trace of writerly strain or artifice.Elmore Leonard meets Ed McBain. The writing and acting on the show was superior to what one would pay ten dollars for at the movie theater, and thanks to the release of the entire series on DVD and the insane convenience of Netflix, one can view the classics over and over, until they are well sick of the show and the actors. That has yet to happen with me, and a recent viewing of the last episode of the last season, gets me just a little choked up. I try to be a cynic and come across as hard, hard to impress, but somethings get me just a little weepy.

The sense of the show is that at anyone time a character thinks they've come to an understanding of how some universal principles operate in the world, some crisis, some kind of natural catastrophe or outbreak of meanness upsets their paradigm, leaving them confused, angry, demanding answers about the "why" of evil from a sheer surge of global energy that never bothers to answer. Frank with his arguments with his Catholic God come to mind, but also G with his Blue Brotherhood provincialism, and even Bayliss, with his Zen enlightenment being only another Totalizing paradigm that works only to shield him from the nagging notion that perhaps there is no "why" behind the random homicides he investigates, and that the only reason to track down and bring killers to justice is all show and tell, a flurry of activity that distracts the grieving and the frightened from what may be this worlds' scariest truth: there really is nothing behind any of these things, nothing to maintain, no "great' truths of moral virtue to be upheld. These detectives have been pounded relentlessly from the first day of the show, and since it , despite the strong vein of humor, is mostly in the Tragic form, we have displays of Hubris being smashed to bits, slowly, rapidly as the situation fits the action: expectations are constantly downsized, withered, dying from the sheer onslaught of raw phenomena that has no humor , or inkling of irony. Bayliss, at the end, displayed an air of listening to one view after another, realizing that from Munch to G to Lewis , the world views expressed are as valid as it makes the skin of the sayers fit better, yet the only thing he learned was that he had loved Frank, and that thing, that person, who had given his job meaning at all was gone, and with the departure, his reason to stay.We have Bayliss leaving through the door he came through seven years earlier, knowing at last that only love gives meaning to the world, and that the lack of love kills it.

There were some middlebrow revisionism in the TV columns that have made the case that NYPD Blue, an cop show that ran on ABC for year seasons, was a sexy TV show. Scratch that. Not sexy,but erotic.Hardly. Even in the early days when this program was supposedly "pushing the envelope" regarding what they could get away with on a broadcast network drama, there was an aggravating smugness to all the pressed-ham glimpses of butts and sliding side views of women's breasts.

Nudity and sex had long been accepted in commercial films , and the response that Steven Bocho and David Milch came up with , a timid glance of nudity, became distracting set pieces in the story lines; in the interest of perpetuating the "drama" of the program, everyone who had sex in this show never seemed to enjoy themselves leading up to, during, or after the fact. NYPD Blue were cops in a perpetual post-coital funk. Intercourse wasn't an expression of love but rather something that resembled sporadic acts of desperation.A good part of the meanness and bad faith that inhabited the characters simply continued beyond the stumbling awkwardness of the act. One can, of course, make the case that this is a storyline in which intimacy is well-nigh impossible for cops whose job requires them to observe the endless insults foisted on human dignity and decency, but there are limits to the dramatic plausibility as it played out each week.

Between furtive sex scenes,NYPD Blue became rudderless over the seasons, reduced to a few plot moves to justify another three-five episode story arc; let's kill Andy's partner, let's make Andy drink, let's kill Andy's son, let's make Andy get sober, let's kill Andy's wife, let's make Andy drink, let's get Andy sober again, let's kill Andy's new partner, let's make Andy stay sober this time. This set of variations of deaths and relapses got old over the last five seasons, and all you could wonder is why any Detective would partner with Sipowicz given the trail of bodies he left behind. One wonders, also, why it was this battered soul remained a cop considering it didn't seem Fate would cut him any slack.