December 10, 2004

WEEKEND RENTALS:

A Couch Potato's Guide to TV On DVD: We see the VHS tapes on our shelves and we want to smash them! Or, the brighter side of planned obsolescence in the field of home entertainment. (City Pages, 12/07/04)

THE TICK

Is this what Jerry Seinfeld watched after going into celebrity reclusion? Though it was only viewed on Fox by tens, perhaps hundreds, during the 2001-2002 season, The Tick would have made a fitting friend for the sitcom star.

The Tick DVD set, with all eight episodes plus a Lynchian pilot, carries on in the void left when Seinfeld went off the air. The four main characters--the Tick, his partner in crime-fighting "Duocracy" Arthur, Latin-lover Batmanuel, and comic sexpot Captain Liberty--play out an existential life together in a diner that would feel familiar to Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine. Executive producer Larry Charles was part of the Seinfeld brain trust. And Patrick Warburton fills the plastic-muscled body suit (and floppy antennae!) of the Big Blue Bug of Justice, having previously filled Elaine's bed as the hunk-of-manhood love interest David Puddy.

Mostly, though, it's the countercultural streak and the attention to minutiae that recall what was once actually Must-See TV. "I am the wild blue yonder," the Tick intones in each episode's opening sequence, "the frontline in the never-ending battle between good and not-so-good." It's a signal that there won't be much triumphing over bad guys here. (Batmanuel, for one, is too busy finding hookups on his cell to worry about actual criminals.)

What there is, instead, is plenty of failure, rooted in self-absorption. The Tick himself routinely brutalizes inanimate objects. Captain Liberty, as one villain puts it, has a "fear of being loved." And poor Arthur quits his dead-end accounting career to don a moth suit with bunny ears--and then feels like a mere sidekick. The Wild Blue Yonder--a master of the comic non sequitur--does his best to reassure the lesser half of the Duocracy: "Arthur, you're on a first-name basis with lucidity. I have to call him Mr. Lucidity."

Whereas the Seinfeld characters reveled in their lack of meaningful connection--no hugging, remember?--the Tick's posse is rooted in a Bizarro World where they are chronically searching for love, acceptance, and even justice. Is it any surprise the show only lasted for eight episodes? --G.R. Anderson Jr.

THE WIRE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON

Only some of The Wire's greatness can be measured by how thoroughly it demolishes the "realism" of other TV public dick shows and gangsta soaps. Every trick of television verisimilitude has a freshness date, and makes way for a new set of clich├ęs (think of the shaky camerawork in the now rote Law & Order franchise). Even FX's The Shield, once the cutting edge of morally ambiguous cop heroes, demonstrates the diminishing returns of constantly defying viewer expectations. In the end, its extremism is about nothing but other cop shows.

HBO's The Wire, however, is about work. And the genre it subverts isn't just the crime one, but the nameless category of TV and film that might be labeled "people who are great at their jobs and work like maniacs." Most characters in this emergent genre of the overworked '90s and '00s are judged by how well they serve their institutions. Yet in The Wire, it's the institutions that are the problem--including the illegal ones. Running a housing project in West Baltimore like a death squad might run a food court, local gang members adhere to a demeaning organizational hierarchy. There's no Bonnie and Clyde fantasy of freedom to this murderous pecking order, which exists only to perpetuate itself. (In one poetic touch, the kingpin's right-hand man takes macroeconomics at the community college. At the core, he's a company man.)

The narcotics detectives have their own parts to play, and it doesn't seem remotely heroic when they buck authority. McNulty, the romantic lead among cops (he carries a liquor bottle and spits when he talks), admits at one point that he's pursuing the gang as an ego trip. If characters find dignity anywhere in the Sisyphean drug war, it's in their duties to each other, and in their craft.

Created by a former Baltimore Sun reporter (David Simon, who also gave us Homicide: Life on the Streets) and a former Baltimore Police detective (Ed Burns), The Wire is clearly a work of journalism. But it never pretends that the truth can set you free. --Peter S. Scholtes


Check out Crime Story too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 10, 2004 7:38 PM
Comments

The Wire is probably the best show I've ever seen on television. I watch very little otherwise, but that's one I never miss. And since the plotlines are subtle and occasionally tricky to follow, you can rewatch a series 2 or 3 times over and still find something new.

Posted by: JB at December 10, 2004 8:58 PM

That 'Wire' review has that annoying quality of telling you about a show without giving you any idea what it's actually like. I usually can't get too enthused by a review that merely praises something. Besides, I don't have HBO.

Posted by: RC at December 10, 2004 10:23 PM

The original source of The Tick, the comic, is in my opinion much superior to the TV show - so furiously inventive that, like the characters, you eventually become consfused as to what is profound and what is merely silly.

Posted by: Mike Earl at December 10, 2004 11:01 PM

If comics aren't quite your thing, you can still forget about the live-action Tick.

Instead, pick up the animated series on VCD from eBay for about $20. It's gold.

Unfortunately there's never been an official release of the animated series, which is why the various eBay samizdat versions are the way to go.

Posted by: Anthony Perez-Miller at December 11, 2004 12:39 AM

The first season of The Wire was exceptionly good TV, the second, still better than anything on the networks, but HBO's tiresome agenda finally drove me away. I guess waiting for the DVD releases is a way to enjoy the occasional successes without having to listen to Bill Maher advertisements.

Posted by: ed at December 11, 2004 11:24 AM
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