Imagine If Stringer Bell Had Won

The missus and I are three episodes into High Profits, a reality tv show about the legal business of producing and selling marijuana in Breckenridge, Colorado. It’s not great. But setting the drug trade — which is illegal and aggressive where illegal — on the right side of the law gives this show way more interest than most reality shows. You get to see city council members who have Chamber-of-Commerce outlooks and want to preserve a family-friendly ski resort town figure out what to do with a venture with which they have some experience in their youth. It’s like Walter and Schuyler White finding out there meth business is legit and trying to gain a business license to sell meth in one of the storefronts on Lomas Blvd. in Albuquerque. Or, it’s like Stringer Bell outwitting Avon Barksdale and eliminating the gangster element from slinging cocaine and heroin. The big question is whether drug business can be respectable. Of course, we all know it can. Can you say alcohol? But how do you take a drug that has all the not so attractive aspects of illegality and stoner culture and make it normal, even Chamber-of-Commerce promotable?

As I say we’re only three episodes in and the city council is debating the fate of the only in-town marijuana store. But in light of what I just read about David Bowie, I think I know which way the vote is going to go:

The media is portraying Bowie as a mainstream saint—one whose life and death are worthy of emulation. The Huffington Post ran articles entitled, “What Would David Bowie Do?” and “David Bowie—Our Hero.” In a piece that I first thought was a joke, Morgan Shanahan of advises parents on “16 Ways to Teach Your Kids About David Bowie (And the World).” BuzzFeed may not be a serious journalistic enterprise, but it has its finger on the pulse of society and is the primary news source of many young adults. Shanahan treats them to profundities such as, “Teach them how he was never anything less than his authentic self;” “Show them there are endless ways to reinvent yourself while staying true to who you are;” “Help them see there’s beauty in being different, the way he helped so many of us;” and “Show them the way he saw the world. Teach them to be superhuman.”

How is it that a man who was a drug addict, was extremely promiscuous, and flagrantly flouted all sexual boundaries is being held up as an example for our children to emulate?

With Constantine No Walter White

I wonder if those who long for a stronger Christian presence in determining cultural standards and governing society are willing to give up some of their sideline interests. If, for example, you happened to hear a person who advocated family values and traditional marriage also write about the brilliance of The Wire in its depiction of urban life and politics, would you not think the message a tad mixed.

I have before wondered about those who like Doug Wilson or the BBs who advocate a return to Geneva of the 1550s or Boston of the 1650s if they are willing to give up some of the liberties that Americans now enjoy this side of 1776 (like blogging). But I am even more curious about the larger and less vocal set of critics of our current scene for its indifference to a higher range of human aspirations and who follow with great enjoyment the latest hit cable TV show — Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective. Do these folks who hope for higher standards in government and culture make any calculation about whether their favorite shows will still be on the air if they get their wishes (the Gypsy Curse?)?

Take for instance this passage from Theodore Dreiser’s novel, Genius (1915) — hide the women and children:

She leaned back against his shoulder stroking his hair, but finally ceased even that, for her own feeling was too intense to make movement possible. She thought of him as a young god, strong, virile, beautiful – a brilliant future before him. All these years she had waited for someone truly to love her and now this splendid youth had apparently cast himself at her feet. He stroked her hands, her neck, cheeks, then slowly gathered her close and buried his head against her bosom.

Angela was strong in convention, in the precepts of her parents, in the sense of her family and its attitude, but this situation was more than she could resist. She accepted first the pressures of his arm, then the slow subtlety with which he caressed her. Resistance seemed almost impossible now for he held her close – tight within the range of his magnetism. When finally she felt the pressure of his hand upon her quivering limbs, she threw herself back in a transport of agony and delight.

By the standards and laws of the day (remember Comstock was still on the books), this passage was pornographic. It kept Dreiser and his attorney tied up in courts and prevented the book from being widely distributed for eight years. By those same standards, The Wire would never have aired.

Could I live without HBO or Netflix? I’d like to think so but aside from the ordinary routines of family life or the genuine enjoyment of clever plots and transfixing characters, I’d also like to think that I would not have to choose. I do know enough history to think that if the Christian political and moral types get their way and rectify the errors of a secular society that lives by the antithesis of a Christian w-w, my private amusements are going to resemble what transpires among my fellow church members when we gather for worship or merriment than what I now enjoy in the other kingdom of a 2k universe.

After The Wire They Broke the Mold . . .

The missus and I finally polished off Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned meth cooker and dealer, the principal character of Breaking Bad. As I have indicated several times, Breaking Bad always left me (and the wife) feeling manipulated. Walt never seemed like a real character with genuine demons. He came across, instead, as a vehicle for writers to fashion for the purpose of extending a story line. Schuyler, his wife, also never seemed credible in her transformation from vapid housewife to gangster spouse. But then, the operation that Walt worked with either to cook, distribute, or make money never seemed credible, as if he could stand up to existing drug cartels and assorted kingpins and live to tell about it. The only likable characters were Saul, the lawyer, who is more cartoonish than real, Mike, the hitman who clearly would have cleaned Walt’s clock any number of times had it not been for the writer’s hi-jinks, and Hank, who seemed competent until he learned that Walt was the object of his long search and turned into a brooding bowl of jello for several episodes.

I am glad the series is over. We stayed with it only to see what the writers would try next.

But to compare this to the Sopranos (which I haven’t seen much) or The Wire defies belief. First, the characters in both of those shows seem plausible and are likable, even with their faults and wickedness. Second, the writers seemed to know something about organized crime and that you don’t simply decide one day to open up a drug operation and keep your life without gangstering up with a lot of protection. Third, in The Wire, as I’ve said, you like almost every character even if they are against each other — from Jimmy to Stringer Bell, from Prop Joe to Avon Barksdale, from Bubbles to Omar. And as the wife said, never has a show had so many African-American characters that you were sad to see go when the series ended (or when they died).

Of late, some commentators have wondered about the problem of binge viewing — the practice of watching numerous episodes over the course of one evening rather than seeing them in real time when they originally air. This may be a problem in the television series genre but I have no idea how anyone will remedy it. What concerns me is the knowledge that viewers have about the number of episodes left in a given season or show. In Homeland’s second season, for instance, several significant plot twists occur in the first two episodes in a way that leaves you wondering how the writers will get through all twelve episodes. The same happened at the beginning of the second part of Breaking Bad’s last season — though the habit of showing the result of a plot line, say Walt arranging his bacon into a 52 and then backing up to show how Walt got there felt contrived (as did too much of the show — have I already said that?). At least in a movie, even if you know how long it is supposed to be, you have a sense that before you is a complete unit that will resolve itself and let you walk away. With a television series, you have too much time to wonder what the writers are scheming and whether they are doing so simply to secure a contract for another season.

Unless, of course, you’re watching The Wire, in which case, you’re only left hoping that David Simon might consider another visit to Baltimore to update the doings of Gus, Bunk, Bubbles, and Marlowe.

Breaking Bad Is Peaking Early

The cats have been sleeping through a lot lately, especially the little hellion (Cordelia) who now that the wood burning stove is running cooks until she almost turns soggy. We have watched, for instance, Margin Call (a well done movie about Wall Street on the eve of the 2008 meltdown), Newlyweds (pretty good movie about modern romance even if borrowing too much from Woody Allen as Edward Burns is wont), Whistle Blower (a decent English movie about intelligence and the Cold War that pines for an England innocent of espionage and mightier than the U.S.), and Republic of Love (a lame movie about modern romance unless you like seeing Bruce Greenwood’s naked chest — I am not that metrosexual). But the subject of discussion between the missus and me of late is the television series, Breaking Bad. Having spared Mrs. Hart of the ghoulish opening episodes and the indelicate elimination of bodies (I believe in eschatological discontinuity but I hope the resurrection won’t be so radical), we are now into the second season and the era of Walt’s shaved head.

The early returns are that the series has transgressed the line of suspension of disbelief. The reason for the trespass may be the writer’s sense of needing to keep viewers’ attention with a fairly minimal set of characters. Compared to The Wire which had all of the resources of Baltimore at the creator’s disposal, this is supposed to be the story of one man’s struggle to survive.

Whatever the reason, the episodes with Tucco, while entertaining and dramatic, are simply implausible and make the prospects for another three seasons after this one even more unbelievable. How is Walt going to keep this a small operation? Or will he need to become an Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell in order to pay his medical bills? But to come as close to being killed (by Tucco) and discovered (by his DEA brother-in-law, Hank) and live to see a return to cooking seems just too much. These tensions would have been more appropriate at the end of Walt’s tenure as meth dealer, not as the beginning of a new stage in his evolution.

The most unbelievable part was Tucco’s father failure to ring the bell on Jesse while being interrogated by Hank. If this had been a stand alone instance of remarkable providence, maybe it would have been plausible. But it was part of too many other very strange circumstances that had to break not bad but right for Walt and Jesse to live to see another batch. And the problem with cutting it so close to being discovered — can we really believe that Hank doesn’t know what’s going on — is that the writers don’t have the backup that David Simon did in The Wire. If Walt goes to jail, the series ends. When Avon went to jail, The Wire became even more interesting.

This doesn’t mean that Breaking Bad is bad. It only means that so far the Harts are not hooked. After season one, episode five of The Wire, we were all in.