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The Wire (2002)
The Greatest Show on Television
Having just seen the fifth and final season of The Wire, I have to agree with the vast majority of comments that this is simply the most compelling, sophisticated and realistic programme on television about America and the decline of an American city. More a novel, with slow burning story arcs and a vast ensemble of textured characters, it was an unapologetic portrayal of drugs, corruption, justice, education and the media at a local level. Even a subject as simply as office politics was explored with honesty and occasional humour.
It also challenged the audience to change the conventional approach to viewing television: plot lines were not neatly presented, and threads continued for the entire five series. Where most shows wrap up their issues in 45 minutes or less, The Wire forced viewers to remember and reflect on subjects over the entire show. Characters moved in and out of focus, and at times The Wire relied heavily on young actors.
I am not sure if the reason for its lack of mainstream popularity was because of its thought provoking subject matter, its relatively unknown (and largely black) cast, or because it demanded a dedication from its audience beyond traditionally programming. Certainly, in some countries outside the US, you could barely find it being screened (I relied on buying the dvds). But it's great that when people have found it, they have generally raved: it deserves any and all the acclaim it can muster.
Spooks: The deterioration of a great show
The early seasons of Spooks, a well-produced BBC action-drama about a small band of MI-5 agents serving to protect the UK, provided compelling entertainment. Giving the writers some latitude in developing plots that had the same team of MI-5 saving Britain each week from a variety of home grown and foreign militants, the show had excellent production values, good story lines and developed the characters' background to help create audience empathy. Led by Matthew Macfadyen and Peter Firth, the actors had good chemistry and, occasionally, the plot raised interesting questions about the dilemmas faced by domestic intelligence agencies.
In later seasons, however, notably five and six, and integrity of Spooks seriously deteriorated, as the quality of the plot became ridiculous, and then absurd. Life-long conspiracy theorists would have had a good laugh and Spooks adopted repetitive themes of general xenophobia, targeting particularly the United States, but also generally simplistic conspiracy themes within most of the UK Government (virtually everyone except our intrepid MI-5 team). Simultaneously, the show forgot to focus on the individual characters, providing two- dimensional studies of the new MI-5 players, with the exception of Adam (Rupert Penry- Jones), who carried the brunt of providing some unsophisticated examples of conflict. As a result, it became more difficult to care about the fate of the team, or of the country, the supposed threats so outlandish it may as well have been science fiction.
It is a shame, because obviously there is an audience for this type of show, and a basic idea that would be engrossing. If only it felt a little factual.
Friday Night Lights (2006)
Why I love Friday Night Lights (Season One)
I'm not American. I have zero interest in American Football. But I have a real interest in quality television, and FNL fits that bill.
Football, of course, is not the focus, but merely the glue that frames the storyline. The real focus is ordinary people: stories about community, how people cope with pressure, deal with lost dreams, family betrayal, and discrimination. It's fresh from other American television shows because (a) it's not about cops, doctors or lawyers; (b) it's framed squarely in a small Texan town, showing a slice of American life unfamiliar to many foreigners; and (c) it deals with class issues in American society without stereotype, pretension or pandering. The characters are extremely well-drawn, the story-line is well-developed and engaging. The writing is funny and touching, without dwelling on emotion or cliché. The show's music is especially effective.
A lot has been written about the camera work - I admit initially it was distracting, but by episode three, it was forgotten, as I was too intrigued by the story and characters. And it is the development of these two things (story and character) that makes FNL compelling: story lines are not resolved simplistically; characters are flawed, but positive, and they face the consequences of their decisions. But most of all, it's extraordinary in how it deals with the ordinary: there's nothing supernatural, no grisly murders, no sensationalism. Just average folk facing everyday problems, but in a show displayed with intelligence, integrity and real heart.