TV on Disc: ‘Show Me a Hero,’ ‘Mr. Robot,’ ’12 Monkeys,’ and the rest of the best of recent TV on disc

Show Me a Hero (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD), a six-hour HBO miniseries developed by David Simon (The Wire) and William F. Zorzi from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin and directed by Paul Haggis (with a subtlety and nuance I didn’t know he had in him), stars Oscar Isaac as Nick Wasicsko, a city councilman who became the mayor of Yonkers in 1988 with an anti-public housing campaign at a time when resentment to the court-ordered low income housing was so fierce it bordered on hysteria.

A drama on public housing policy and city politics may not sound like the makings of compelling drama but Show Me a Hero showcases what Simon does best: exploring real-life events and issues through a dramatic lens that puts politics, economics, and social justice in personal terms.

Wasicsko runs an underdog campaign against a five-term incumbent by riding the wave of anger over the city’s “capitulation” to the court (after delaying for years through failed appeals). When the last of the appeals is rejected, Wasicsko resigns himself to the inevitable but the middle- and working-class white population that elected him sees it as a betrayal of their support and he suddenly finds himself in the impossible position of negotiating a deal that will pass the city council and meet the legal obligation, or face crippling contempt fines that could bankrupt the city in a month. He does the right thing for the city and is punished for it, destroyed by the very anger he stoked to get elected. The politics of denial drives the city elections and the city council meetings for years to come.

Sound like any political culture we know?

While Wasicsko is at the center of the story, he is only one character in an expansive canvas that encompasses not just the politicians but the white homeowners resisting change (Catherine Keener, whose bedrock civility gets carried away by the mob passions) and the folks struggling to make a life for themselves in the crime-ridden projects, from a health-care worker going blind from diabetes (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) to a single mother from the Dominican Republic whose best option is leave her children back in the DR while she supports them from Yonkers. The superb cast also includes Bob Balaban, Jim Belushi, Jon Bernthal, Alfred Molina, Peter Riegert, and Winona Ryder.

The tragedy evoked in the show’s title (the complete quote by F. Scot Fitzgerald is “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”) is Wasicsko’s obsessive quest to get back into elected office. While others are able to accept change and evolve their understanding, Wasicsko becomes a political junkie who needs the affirmation of election and he betrays friends and former colleagues along the way.

Simply put, this is one of the best TV productions of 2015 and a startlingly relevant portrait of the politics of anger and opposition at all costs.

And don’t skip the end credits: pictures of the real-life people are shown side-by-side with the actors, a reminder that this fiction comes from real life.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions include the featurette “Making Show Me a Hero,” somewhat misleadingly described as “an extended look at the series’ production” but is, at just over six minutes, more promotional short than documentary.

MrRobotS1Mr. Robot: Season One (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) – “There’s a powerful group of people out there who are secretly running the world.”

Rami Malek, who has given impressive performances in small roles for years, takes the lead in this cerebral conspiracy drama as Elliot, an intense, socially awkward hacker who works for a computer security outfit by day and metes out justice by night. It may make him sound like a superhero but Elliot is emotionally troubled and unstable, self-medicating to keep his equilibrium and spying on everyone in his life to discover their secrets. He’s recruited by a cabal of revolutionary hackers called fsociety, led by an enigmatic anarchist known as “Mr. Robot” (played by Christian Slater) to hack a powerful corporation known as Evil Corp and erase the debts of millions of citizens. Portia Doubleday is his professional colleague and best friend, bonded by a shared tragedy, Carly Chaikin a fellow hacker whose true identity is revealed in one of the show’s great twists, and Gloria Reuben (E.R.) his concerned therapist, one of the few people that Elliot genuinely cares about (which he expresses in his own destructive way).

It has an element of science fiction but it’s more of a conspiracy thriller viewed from the perspective of a schizophrenic hero, whose dryly witty narration reveals his tormented mind. He’s paranoid and has hallucinations and the series keeps us locked in his perspective, slowly sorting out what’s real from what’s in his head. The series, created by relative newcomer Sam Esmail, borrows from Fight Club and V for Vendetta(among other films and pop-culture artifacts) but takes the portrait of corporate power, cyber-crime, and grass-roots activists as anarchist hackers into unexpected directions. It earned rave reviews during its summer season debut and won two Golden Globes. A second series is scheduled for summer 2016 on USA.

10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with a featurette and deleted scenes.

12MonkeysThe SyFy original series 12 Monkeys: Season One(Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) takes the premise of the 1995 Terry Gilliam time travel film of the same name (which was, in turn, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 experimental shortLa Jetée) and springs off into a sprawling story that ricochets through a timeline that gets rewritten along the way.

In the movie, Bruce Willis is a time-traveler from a post-apocalyptic future trying to stop a plague that will kill most of humanity. In the series, Aaron Stanford (Pyro in the X-Menmovies) takes over the Willis role as time-travelling agent James Cole and Amanda Schull is Dr. Cassandra Railly, a virologist who overcomes her skepticism and becomes his partner in 2015. The series opens much like the film does, with Cole tracking the brief clues and landing in an asylum to find the meaning of the mysterious “Army of the 12 Monkeys,” then expands beyond the film with a complicated conspiracy involving black ops labs, biological weapons, an ancient plague, and a mysterious assassin known as “The Witness” (played by Tom Noonan) determined to unleash a killer virus upon the world.

This Cole enters as a seemingly unstable character but soon loses his schizophrenic edges (he ostensibly gets used to the physical and mental shock of time travel) and becomes a focused, committed professional. Taking over the madness duties is Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines, the daughter of a calculating corporate conspirator (Zeljko Ivanek, playing another of his icy villains) who dumps her in an asylum. Kirk Acevedo (a veteran of Fringe, another series with shifting realities) is Cole’s best friend turned nemesis (which is one of the show’s least convincing twists) and German actress Barbara Sukowa (a veteran of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s company) is the scientific genius keeping the machine working in the future.

It’s a part of the new wave of ambitious SyFy original shows and it has fun playing with the shifting timelines (each jump opens by identifying the year) and conundrums and filling out the bleak future (left largely unexplored in the film) where marauding gangs prey upon survivors and sabotage the scientists trying to save the past and create a new future. In terms of ambition and creativity, it falls somewhere betweenContinuum, another high-concept SyFy series built around time travel, and the superior Fringe.

12 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with deleted scenes, auditions, webisodes, and a gag reel. The second season begins on SyFy in April.

UnrealS1UnREAL: Season One (Lifetime, DVD), an acidic satire of reality TV created for the Lifetime Network, is set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-like show (here called Everlasting). Constance Zimmer is Quinn King, the manipulative producer who engineers conflict to manufacture the kind of showy drama that gets ratings, and Shiri Appleby is production assistant Rachel Goldberg, Quinn’s star protégé. Nobody is better at that kind of mind games and psychological manipulation than Rachel and it makes her miserable.

That pretty much sets the stage for everything that happens behind the scenes of the contrived dating show, in which a dozen or so contestants compete for a handsome young British bachelor (Freddie Stroma), the show’s shallow, self-involved Prince Charming and heir to a hotel fortune. But while there is a catty competitiveness between the women, the real drama is behind the camera where Quinn and her team conspire to bring out the worst behavior in the contestants. Created by Marti Noxon (a veteran writer-producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, andGlee) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (a war-scarred veteran of the real The Bachelor), it’s less a parody of reality TV than a savvy, scathing satire of the culture that feeds the genre. It also takes on issues of sexism and the position of women professionals in the entertainment industry, all with the same black humor and lively clash of personalities. It was voted one of the 10 best shows of 2015 by the AFI. A second season is slated for summer 2016.

10 episodes on two discs on DVD.

downton6Downton Abbey: Season 6 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) is the final run for the BBC series that revived the Upstairs Downstairs melodrama of the families living on inherited wealth and the servants who work for them as a portrait of a culture going extinct in the 1920s. It became a phenomenon in both Britain and the U.S., where it became the most popular show on PBS, and won multiple Emmy Awards and Golden Globes over its first five seasons. It’s an odd kind of social commentary filled with a nostalgia for that kind of class system, at least as practiced by patriarch Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his family, notably his more modern-thinking (but still class-conscious) daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and supported by the servants raised in this way of life, notably head butler Carson (Jim Carter).

The sixth and final season of the series delivers happy endings all around, as if rewarding viewers for their devotion to the lives of the wealthy and the service classes alike. Tom (Allan Leach), the working class mechanic who married into the family, returns to the manor. There are marriages (both among the aristocrats and the servants) and opportunities for the characters to grow and learn as the series observes the passing of an era (one family is forced to sell their manor and the Crawleys open their home to visitors as a fundraiser). Cousin Rose (Lily James) comes back for the finale and, of course, Maggie Smith offers her hilariously withering commentary throughout at Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess.

The show has a passionate following and the final season brings it all to a satisfying, audience-pleasing end that never dares question the privileges of inherited wealth and title. And, of course, there is no violence, foul language, or nudity, though there are the occasional breaches of etiquette.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions present 8 hour-long episodes plus the two-hour series finale (listed as “Christmas Special”) and 30 minutes of featurettes.

TrueDetS2True Detective: The Complete Second Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) of the crime anthology series created and written for HBO by crime novelist Nic Pizzolatto takes on an entirely new mystery, complete with a new setting and cast of characters. This one comes out of the tradition of L.A. crime fiction, the kind that James Ellroy loved to fill with political corruption and compromised cops, and creates an elaborate web of criminal cover-ups, gangsters, and graft.

Colin Farrell plays an unstable detective with anger issues who is in the pocket of gangsters, Rachel McAdams is a rising detective whose reckless personal life impedes her career, and Vince Vaughn is a smooth career criminal trying to go legit as a developer on the ground floor of a major new redevelopment scheme. His ambitions are short-circuited when a city manager is murdered and his seed money stolen, a crime that launches the tangled storyline of the season and lands Vaughn in trouble with his mobbed-up partners. Farrell and McAdams, joined by a motorcycle officer (Taylor Kitsch) who would rather be back on patrol, are assigned to the murder, an investigation that isn’t supposed to go anywhere but ends up sending them into a conspiracy involving the rich and powerful of this (fictional) economically depressed California town, an industrial town in the grip of recession.

After the (perhaps overenthusiastic) acclaim for the Southern Gothic first season, audiences were disappointed that the show left pulp weirdness for more familiar urban crime drama and critics lambasted the show for its more familiar character types and plot twists (not to mention its sometimes arch dialogue). But it’s a well-written show with a vivid atmosphere of seediness and desperation, characters and relationships that get more interesting along the way, and excellent actors delivering solid performances.

8 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary on two episodes by the creator and cast members and three featurettes, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the season.

LastKingThe Last Kingdom (BBC, DVD), based on the first two novels in Bernard Cornwell’s “The Saxon Stories” series of historical novels, retells the story of King Alfred the Great, the ninth century Saxon King of Wessex, through the eyes of Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon).

Born a Saxon but captured and raised by a Danish warrior, Uhtred is a man between two worlds. Blamed for the massacre of his Danish family (who are murdered by another Danish clan) and cheated out of his rightful Saxon heritage by his uncle, he pledges his loyalty to Alfred (David Dawson) to defend Britain against the invading Danish forces and seals his pledge with a marriage to a Christian woman, Mildrith (Amy Wren). A mix of historical and fictional characters, The Last Kingdom presents the birth of Britain as an uneasy alliance between the Christian Alfred, the sickly but learned and wise youngest son of King Aethelwulf, and the pagan peoples who identify themselves as neither Dane nor Saxon but simply Britons. It features a contemporary perspective on faith and religion, which imposes its own intolerance on the kingdom (and especially on Uhtred, a steadfast pagan who refuses to observe Christian rites), but it also allows for complex characters who see beyond religion, including Alfred, whose anemia is cured and dying infant son saved by a pagan “sorceress” and healer (Charlie Murphy).

The BBC series (which played on BBC America in 2015) is a handsome period production that tells a busy story of betrayal, vengeance, romance, conspiracy, loyalty, and a nascent sense of patriotism to the British kingdom represented by Alfred, and presents a realistic portrait of life in the dark ages and lavish battles that illustrate the tactics of medieval warfare. Matthew Macfadyen and Rutger Hauer co-star in the first episode as honorable Saxon and Danish elders, respectively. A second series has been announced for 2016.

8 hour-long episodes on two DVDs, no supplements.

Videophiled: ‘The Wire: The Complete Series’ on Blu-ray

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HBO

“Follow the drugs, and you’ll find dealers and users. Follow the money, and you have no idea where the case will take you.” So began the first season of HBO’s compelling tale of cops, crooks, and the social and bureaucratic forces that both divide and bind them, and the begining of an epic series that set the high water mark for television drama. I’m not generally one for sweeping statements, but The Wire is the best original show ever made for television.

Created by David Simon (co-creator of the landmark cop show Homicide: Life on the Street), it’s marked more by the mundane realities of procedure and politics (on both sides of the law), and the intricate details building cases and connecting the dots of evidence, than by drug busts and shoot-outs. The first season follows the single investigation of an inner-city drug dealer and the violence surrounding his ambitious expansion, while the narrative is built around Baltimore police detective McNulty (Dominick West), a hard-drinking divorced cop whose dedication is endangered by a big mouth that gets the better of him when he’s indignant, and D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), the sharp young nephew of West Side drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). The structure recalls Richard Price’s novel Clockers (though not the movie) in the way it gives equal time to both worlds, exploring both the intricacies within each and the interaction between the two. (It’s surely no coincidence that Price was drafted to become part of the show’s writing bullpen.) D’Angelo opens his eyes to the street politics when he’s demoted to slinging product from the towers in the slums and the show opens our eyes into both worlds. The deliberate pacing and attention of complex detail marked it off from every other crime show on TV, and Homicide star turned director Clark Johnson can take some of the credit for setting the tone and style in the first two episodes (he did similar honors on the pilot of The Shield).

The second season opens with hard-drinking loose cannon McNulty shuffled off to the harbor patrol (his punishment for bucking the chain of command) and the special squad commander Daniels (Lance Reddick) consigned to the police archive dungeon. Then McNulty fishes a corpse out of the water and starts a whole new investigation rolling. The team is back in business, and this time they leave the drug crimes of the street for human smuggling and corruption on the docks… and it’s all kicked off by a spat between a petty Irish cop and the local dock workers union. The drama brings us into the complexities of organized crime on the docks, the desperate tactics and petty scams run by an underemployed dock workers’s union in a faltering economy, and the victims sacrificed by international crime lords in the human cargo trade, but Simon and company continue to follow the drugs as well. Avon Barksdale’s drug operation is now being managed by Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). His big ambitions sets the foundation for the third season, which pulls the story the task force back into the affairs of Barksdale’s expanding drug operation. But what makes this season so compelling is the doomed, inspired, and utterly unthinkable solution to the drug problem that Simon proposes and then illustrates, with startling frankness, both the pros and cons of his modest proposal.

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By the fourth season, as Simon and company boldly take on the broken education system, it’s clear that Simon’s ambitions are no less than a complex portrait of the American city (specifically Baltimore) with fictional stories illuminating the social and bureaucratic forces that make our cities work, or just as often, not work. Through the course of thirteen episodes that follow the lives of four friends in the eighth grade, Simon reveals the failure of the school system and the inability of the classroom structure to reach kids raised in a culture that is close to a war zone. These are kids on the killing streets of Baltimore’s drug-filled slums, where the behavior best suited to survival is the type that disrupts classrooms. It’s a devastating story with characters that are knots of complications and contradictions in a world where the internal politics of the system (any system) kills all innovation and stops progress dead in its tracks.

The Wire ended its run by casting a light on how and why the media covers the news. The newsroom of The Baltimore Sun becomes part of the narrative weave of the show, intertwining its challenges with the stories it’s supposed to be covering: crime, politics, the schools and the community as a whole. As with each previous season, the old stories are woven into the new: money earmarked for the police by the Mayor has been drained by the floundering school system, which had been starved and neglected and fallen in debt thanks to previous administrations. So wild card McNulty concocts a crack-brained scheme to pry money out of the city: he invents a big, headline-grabbing serial killer (a complete fiction) and Detective Lester Freaman (Clarke Peters), perhaps the most gifted and brilliant detective in the department, becomes his accomplice and retrofits the evidence to keep the fiction alive. He builds cases and pieces together evidence like a master puzzlemaker, and he and McNulty concoct a lie so big, with such far-reaching implications, that the city can’t risk the truth getting out. Certainly not the ambitious and irresponsible junior reporter (Tom McCarthy) who inadvertently contributes to the conspiracy by adding his own fictional details to the story, suspicious embellishments that glory-hungry editors are willing to let through without scrutiny. “We have to more with less,” proclaims its managing editor. “You don’t do more with less, you do less with less,” complains the newsroom’s voice of reason and bearer of standards, City Editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson, of Simon’s Homicide), and so they do, but with splashier headlines.

Creator David Simon is especially critical of what he sees as the media’s dereliction of responsibility as the community’s watchdog and his insistence comes with a noticeable loss of nuance in that particular story, but the scope of the show remains just as ambitious and rich. The writing is the best on television (including scripts co-written by authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George P. Pelecanos), with a novelistic sweep and complexity unprecedented on the small screen and a brilliant symmetry as the show comes to a close. It doesn’t have the neat poetic drama of the “Dickensian” narrative (as the paper’s editors like to call it), merely the satisfying changing of the guard, with irony and poetic justice, rewards and punishments, guilty who go free and innocents who flounder. Yet for all the incompetence and corruption that keeps percolating to the top, there remain good cops, dedicated editors, honorable folks who take the places of those burned out by the system that resisted all efforts to change it. The show ends with a system that perpetuates itself – a system reproduced in microcosm in everything from city politics to the school system to the drug hierarchy of the streets to the newspaper to, of course, the legal system – and people that continue to struggle against it even as others give in. To complete the symmetry, co-star Clark Johnson, who directed the show’s debut episodes, returns to direct the 90-minute series finale, which appropriately enough features a spirited wake.

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There are a lot of “Complete Series” collections out there, but this an essential, not simply because it invites repeat revisits but because of the show’s unity. Each season is like a novel in a self-contained cycle and together they make a complete whole.

The Wire: The Complete Series was released on DVD in 2011 its original broadcast format. Since then, HBO remastered the series in Digital HD, and in the process they changed the aspect ratio from the squarish 4×3 of the old TV standard to the widescreen 16×9 format of the current flatscreen standard. This choice was made against the wishes of creator and producer David Simon.

Simon weighs in on his issues with the transformation in this feature on his blog from 2014, in advance of the launch of the HD version on cable and digital formats: “At the last, I’m satisfied what while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.” Sam Adams weighs in on the issue at Indiewire.

Many viewers won’t notice the difference. Even many fans of the show will likely ease into the widescreen without difficulty. But it should be noted that HBO did not give viewers the option for the original version on Blu-ray, so purists will want to hold onto their DVDs.

That said, it’s a handsome image with all the atmosphere of the original broadcasts, but with greater detail and clarity. It presents all 60 episodes of the five seasons of the TV epic, along with all the commentary tracks and featurettes from the earlier DVD box set, including the retrospective featurette “The Wire Odyssey” (a chronicle of the first four seasons), “The Wire: The Last Word” (a reflection on the state of the media today featuring series creator David Simon), and three character “prequels” (little scenes of Prop Joe and Omar and the first meeting of McNulty and Bunk, each running under two minutes).

New to this release is the “The Wire Reunion,” an 85-minute roundtable discussion recorded at the Paley Center for Media in October 2014 and featuring creator David Simon, producer Nina K. Noble, and 11 members of the cast: John Doman, Larry Gilliard, Jr., Seth Gilliam, Jim True-Frost, Jamie Hector, Michael Kenneth Williams, Sonja Sohn, Wendell Pierce, J.D. Williams, Michael Lee, and Bob Wisdom (Dominic West and Idris Elba were unable to attend but are represented by video messages). Also includes an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the entire series.

20 discs in five cases collected in a box set. It’s a simple presentation, which I prefer over the more elaborate boxes, which often look cool on a shelf but are far less convenient when it comes to actually accessing the discs.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled TV on Disc: Another Season in the ‘Treme’

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Treme: The Complete Third Season (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) continues the complicated and sophisticated mix of cultural exploration, social drama, and political commentary of the HBO series about life in New Orleans after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

This season, which opens in the fall of 2007, takes on the rebuilding of the city and the influx of outside money and insider politics to shape the city in a different image against the interests of many of the citizens. It also continues the series-long investigation into the cover-up of police misconduct in the weeks following the hurricane with Melissa Leo’s attorney taking on the police department, which forms the most dramatic story of the season.

But as before, this is a grand quilt of a show embracing all aspects of New Orleans life and culture, and creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer continue to offer a complex, politically-relevant show that explores the city by engaging with the culture and the controversies of New Orleans through the experiences of characters at all levels of society. Music plays a defining role in the series, and along with the rich array of New Orleans music (old-style jazz, R&B, rock and roll, brass brand, traditional chanting, and more) and the stories of musicians trying to sustain careers in difficult times, there are guest appearances by Fats Domino and the Neville Brothers, among others. And New Orleans food and restaurant culture is explored through the story of a chef (played by Kim Dickens), who returns home from New York this season to open a new restaurant with a partner she doesn’t completely trust in a storyline that was developed with Anthony Bourdain, who joined the show as a contributing writer this season. The ensemble also includes Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, handi Alexander, Rob Brown, David Morse, Jon Seda, and Steve Zahn, among others. A short fourth and final season will run on HBO at the end of 2013.

Ten episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, plus commentary on five episodes, select music commentary, and three featurettes. The Blu-ray includes two additional interactive features about the music and culture of New Orleans.

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 5 (Paramount, Blu-ray) opens with the conclusion of the Season Four cliffhanger that left the Klingon Empire hanging in the balance, brings back Denise Crosby as a cunning Romulan commander, guest stars Leonard Nimoy in the memorable two-part galaxy-threatening “Unification,” and concludes with another cliffhanger, this one involving Data’s decapitated head, Mark Twain, and a visit to 1890. Other highlights include the first appearance of the rebellious and angry loner “Ensign Ro”(Michelle Forbes), “The Game,” in which an addictive toy makes the Enterprise crew mind slaves but for Wesley and a guest starring Ashley Judd, and “I, Borg,” where the crew befriends an orphaned Borg soldier while plotting to infect the entire Borg colony with a virus. On the other hand, Worf’s son Alexander returns in this season (when will they learn: children and starships don’t mix!).

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Down in HBO’s “Treme”

Season One

Treme: The Complete First Season” (HBO)

David Simon followed up “The Wire” with this beautifully textured series set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the locals tried to pick up their lives and careers in the face of the devastation and damage, the exodus from homes left unlivable by water damage and mold, and the frustrations of bureaucratic tangles, government failures and overloaded demand on private contractors.

But don’t think this is a documentary. The plight of the citizens in New Orleans is illustrated through the experiences of the characters (most fictional, some real) that make up the sprawling community created by Simon and co-producer/writer Eric Overmyer. And if it seems like we’re getting lectures now and then from some of the more outspoken characters, such as John Goodman’s novelist and literature professor Creighton Bernette or Melissa Leo’s bulldog of an attorney Toni Bernette or even Steve Zahn’s community character and goofball activist Davis McAlary, it’s out of frustration, anger, loss and a feeling of helplessness against a juggernaut of apathy.

Continue reading at MSN Videodrone

DVD of the Week Extra – ‘The Wire: The Complete Series’

“Follow the drugs, and you’ll find dealers and users. Follow the money, and you have no idea where the case will take you.” So began the first season of HBO’s compelling tale of cops, crooks, and the social and bureaucratic forces that both divide and bind them, and the begining of an epic series that set the high water mark for television drama. I’m not generally one for sweeping statements, but The Wire is the best original show ever made for television.

The task force follows the evidence in Season One
The task force follows the evidence in Season One

Created by David Simon (co-creator of the landmark cop show Homicide: Life on the Street), it’s marked more by the mundane realities of procedure and politics (on both sides of the law), and the intricate details building cases and connecting the dots of evidence, than by drug busts and shoot-outs. The first season follows the single investigation of an inner-city drug dealer and the violence surrounding his ambitious expansion. Baltimore police detective McNulty (Dominick West), a hard-drinking divorced cop whose dedication is endangered by a big mouth that gets the better of him when he’s indignant, and D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), the sharp young nephew of West Side drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). D’Angelo opens his eyes to the street politics when he’s demoted to slinging product from the towers in the slums and the show opens our eyes into both worlds. The deliberate pacing and attention of complex detail marked it off from every other crime show on TV, and Homicide star turned director Clark Johnson can take some of the credit for setting the tone and style in the first two episodes (he did similar honors on the pilot of The Shield).

Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale confer
Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale confer

The second season opens with hard-drinking loose cannon McNulty shuffled off to the harbor patrol (his punishment for bucking the chain of command) and the special squad commander Daniels (Lance Reddick) consigned to the police archive dungeon. Then McNulty fishes a corpse out of the water and starts a whole new investigation rolling. The team is back in business, and this time they leave the drug crimes of the street for human smuggling and corruption on the docks… and it’s all kicked off by a spat between a petty Irish cop and the local dock workers union. The drama brings us into the complexities of organized crime on the docks, the desperate tactics and petty scams run by an underemployed dock worker’s union in a faltering economy, and the victims sacrificed by international crime lords in the human cargo trade, but Simon and company continue to follow the drugs as well. Avon Barksdale’s drug operation is now being managed by Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). His big ambitions sets the foundation for the third season, which pulls the story the task force back into the affairs of Barksdale’s expanding drug operation. But what makes this season so compelling is the doomed, inspired, and utterly unthinkable solution to the drug problem that Simon proposes and then illustrates, with startling frankness, both the pros and cons of his modest proposal.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week Extra – ‘The Wire: The Complete Series’”

DVD of the Week – ‘The Wire: Season Five’ – August 12, 2008

I’m not one for sweeping statements, but here’s one: The Wire is the greatest show on TV. Not just now. Ever. During its five year run, it sketched a complex portrait of Baltimore with fictional stories illuminating the real social and bureaucratic forces that make our cities work, or just as often, not work. Creator David Simon and his writing/producing partner, Ed Burns, worked and lived in many of those bureaucracies: the police department, the school system, and the newspaper, the new focal center for the fifth and final season. They aren’t shy about telling us how and why the system is broken, and what it costs.

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Lester Freaman follows the evidence

As with each previous season, the old stories are woven into the new, and this season the new are the reverberations from budget cuts at The Baltimore Sun (from reduced news coverage to slipshod reporting of that which does get covered) and a crack-brained scheme from wild card Detective McNulty (Dominic West) to pry money out of the city. The money earmarked for the police by the Mayor has been drained by the floundering school system, which had been starved and neglected and fallen in debt thanks to previous administrations (see Season Four). What better way to loosen up the city purse-strings than a big, headline-grabbing serial killer story, even if the whole thing is a fiction brainstormed by McNulty on impulse and retrofitted into a conspiracy by Detective Lester Freaman (Clarke Peters), perhaps the most gifted and brilliant detective in the department. He builds cases and pieces together evidence like a master puzzlemaker, and he and McNulty concoct a lie so big, with such far-reaching implications, that the city can’t risk the truth getting out. Certainly not the ambitious and irresponsible junior reporter (Tom McCarthy) who inadvertently contributes to the conspiracy by adding his own fictional details to the story, suspicious embellishments that glory-hungry editors are willing to let through without scrutiny. “We have to more with less,” proclaims its managing editor. “You don’t do more with less, you do less with less,” complains the newroom’s voice of reason and bearer of standards, City Editor Augustus ‘Gus’ Haynes (Clark Johnson, of Simon’s Homicide), and so they do, but with splashier headlines.

Simon, a former reporter with The Baltimore Sun himself, is especially critical of what he sees as the media’s dereliction of responsibility as the community’s watchdog and his insistence comes with a noticeable loss of nuance in that particular story, but the scope of the show remains just as ambitious and rich. The writing is the best on television (the season features scripts co-written by authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George P. Pelecanos) and the writing and construction has a beautiful symmetry as the show comes to a close. It doesn’t have the neat poetic drama of the “Dickensian” narrative (as the paper’s editors like to call it), merely a changing of the guard, with irony and poetic justice, rewards and punishments, guilty who go free and innocents who flounder. Yet for all the incompetence and corruption that keeps percolating to the top, so there are good cops, good editors, honorable folks who take the places of those burned out by the system that resisted all efforts to change it. The show ends with a system that perpetuates itself – a system reproduced in microcosm in everything from city politics to the school system to the drug hierarchy of the streets to the newspaper to, of course, the legal system – a people that continue to struggle against it even as others give in. To complete the symmetry, co-star Clark Johnson, who directed the show’s debut episodes, returns to direct the 90-minute series finale, which appropriately enough features a spirited wake.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘The Wire: Season Five’ – August 12, 2008”