Archives for posts with tag: television

The Wire came out during a time when television producers realized that they could make shows that were actually good in a meaningful way. The Sopranos sparked a golden age of television, and The Wire was hot on its heels to become arguably the best television show of all time.

I recently rewatched the series from start to finish, and genuinely found it better the second time. The slowness of season two was more compelling because I saw it in a wider context than I had my first time through. Season five is still hot garbage, but the overarching narrative throughout the show more than makes up for it.

The final season of The Sopranos didn’t exactly do much better. I’m still waiting for the Golden Age of Series Finales.

What I found compelling this time around was being reintroduced to Jimmy McNulty. The first time I watched the show, I was convinced that Jimmy was the main protagonist of the series. He’s not killed off, he’s charming and handsome, his character is explored in detail, and he has that infallibility in his detective work that is common across all cop show protagonists – they always catch the bad guy due to their unfailing ingenuity, even if the Bosses do everything they can to get in the way.

The Wire is special because there are no clear “good guys” and “bad guys” in the show. The most sympathetic characters are indeed those involved directly in the drug trade; this could be because they are children which naturally plays to our sympathies, but it can be said more generally that the creative team goes to great lengths to humanize a demographic that is almost unanimously depicted as one-dimensionally violent or evil in every other piece of media. The drug dealer exists as an evil scourge plaguing our world, but in The Wire, D’Angelo Barksdale is far more appealing and likeable than any other character portrayed in season one – except for maybe Bubbles.

One of the few redeemable qualities of season five

So in a show without clear heroes and villains, how can I say that Jimmy McNulty is the villain? Particularly when he’s on the side of police, no less; the side that doesn’t overtly use murder to negotiate their business dealings. I am definitely not saying that Jimmy is the villain because of his infidelity or even his show-polluting atrociousness in season five. That’s the flavour to his character and is irrelevant to his villainy.

Jimmy McNulty is the show’s villain because in his heart of hearts he wants the War On Drugs to continue. He might want it to be fought with more resources and to go after the generals instead of the soldiers, but ultimately, he is so passionately committed to the War On Drugs that the show portrays it as his literal vice. Policing is Jimmy’s drug; he is addicted to the War On Drugs. We are sucked into enabling his addiction because of his charisma and charm, and believe along with him that maybe we just need an extra few days on the wire, and drug crime will be eliminated forever. We’ll shut down Avon Barksdale; we’ll shut down Marlo Stanfield; these are the outcomes we cheer for. They don’t get to win!

The Wire is about the institutions of Baltimore, and in this depiction, speaks about the institutions of America more broadly. We see quite clearly how these institutions function only to perpetuate themselves – through policing stats, through political ambition, through an educational system detached from the realities of the children it is ostensibly there to educate. All of them function in ignorance of the actual problems because all of them are hyper-focused on keeping their heads above the water in an unsustainable status quo. The reality that they all seem to ignore is the reality created by the War On Drugs. This ideology manifests this problematic reality that all of these institutions do their best to dance around because denouncing the actual problem would mean confronting the status quo – likely ending their career.

Or being condemned to the “sympathetic” villainy of modern Marvel movies.

In season three, we see two approaches to dealing with the actual problems of the War On Drugs. The first is put forward by Major Bunny Colvin who creates safe zones where drugs can be sold without police interference. It is a very clear indictment of the pointlessness of the War On Drugs. What is less clear, but equally compelling, is the equivalent mirror being put forward by Stringer Bell. Bell and Prop Joe put together a co-op to try a new form of drug dealing – one closer akin to a normal business than to the “gangster shit” that dominates the Game in most other circumstances. They hold votes, they negotiate territory, they resolve differences diplomatically – all in an attempt to distance themselves from the widely acknowledged problems of illegal drugs: murders, insecurity, unpredictability, and police interference. Both factions want a better way to accommodate the hard reality that drugs will never go away.

Jimmy is mostly ambivalent to Colvin’s experiment. He looks more favourably at fucking over the Bosses than he is at what Colvin is actually trying to accomplish, and in no way sees the connection to what Bell is trying to do. He even resists focusing on the target of Major Crimes who is actively killing people, preferring to fixate on Stringer Bell because he knows that’s where the War belongs. Bell sees the wisdom of what Colvin is trying, and is explicit in this when he comes to Colvin at the end of the season to betray Avon. They both are trying to find a way to get around the dysfunctional status quo. It can be just a business as much as any other; the bodies are created by the War.

All the bodies.

The second nice thing I’ll say about season five is that it showcases the Sisyphean meaninglessness of the War On Drugs. The police win. Marlo and Avon are arrested; their gangs dispersed. But we see as the season ends that Michael turns into the new Omar, that Kima becomes the new Jimmy, Carver becomes the new Daniels, and Duquan becomes the new Bubbles. The pawns have already been replaced so often throughout the show that the bottomless pit from whence they come has already been well-established. The boulder goes up the mountain once again, and the War continues – and for what? A few people got promoted, and many more died. Jimmy’s belief that policing ought to confront the War On Drugs more effectively is only a means of finding a more efficient way of getting the boulder up the mountain.

The War On Drugs is the villain of The Wire. The champions that we’re used to seeing from other cop shows are seen here perpetuating it in all its pointless glory. There cannot be any heroes because all of the characters are produced by a villainous system. There are only survivors, mercenaries, and profiteers. The only reasonable heroics would be to challenge that system itself, and under that rubric, ironically it is Stringer Bell who ends up on a pedestal higher than Jimmy McNulty.

Famed existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was all about dat ass. I mean, not really. Only for about half a book. Within that half a book he created a philosophical outlook that drew its inspiration from Don Juan, the eternal seeker of dat ass. The aesthete, personified by Don Juan, is compelled to constantly seek pleasure; an unquenchable hedonist lifestyle. This is not an obsessive addiction to poon under which Don Juan suffers, it is an authentic choice made with genuine intent. This is how Don Juan chooses to live his life. This authenticity manifests itself when Don Juan continues to chase tail even in the face of fatal consequences. It’s not that he can’t stop, Bro just won’t stop.


I use the misogynistic manipulation of hundreds of women to make a point. 

The aesthete is not limited to lethal amounts of promiscuity. Sex is just an easy metaphor for any kind of pleasure. Kierkegaard follows up the story of Don Juan with a series of diary entries by a man who meticulously creates a scenario where a woman falls madly in love with him toward the ultimate aim of marriage. Of course, he leaves before the wedding because love was the conquest to be won, and must be won yet again in the next town. Settling down is antithetical to the aesthete who must repetitiously manifest their pleasure until, presumably, the happy ending.

Which brings us to Meredith Grey. Meredith Grey can never settle down. Meredith and Derek Shepherd are constantly on again and off again because they are not allowed under the premise of the serial drama to have functional peace between them. She and Doctor McDreamy are faced with an impossible relationship goal because they live in a universe built on the principles of the aesthete. Never settle. Always seek new pleasures. If it seems like things are on the verge of structured and maintainable happiness, BAM! Car crash! Meredith must begin anew.



It is the same with every serial. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby would never be able to actually meet “The Mother” until ratings began to drop. The promise of the show needed to be constantly pushed back in order for the hedonic loop to continue. It’s not that the characters themselves are modern manifestations of the aesthete, but that the nature of the show itself builds those principles into the foundation of the universe. No character is immune because they exist under the scripted laws of serial television where stability is seen as stagnation and stagnation means cancellation.

The aesthete is not condemned as a morally reprehensible lifestyle choice. It is an option among others on how to live life in the face of existential dread. One cannot sink into nihilistic despair if they never stop gamboling around long enough to pay attention. Kierkegaard would certainly not place it at the top of his list as far as options go, similarly to how the Hindus do not admonish those on the path of desire despite its own lower status. It is a way of life to grow out of, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it.


Hot dog legs may be a smidge immature, but condemnation just seems a bit pretentious

There is still a problem with the television serial as a manifestation of the aesthete. It’s not necessarily its celebration and propagation of the philosophical aesthetic lifestyle, as its immaturity is not a serious enough criticism of its value to dismiss it. The problem arises in the vicarious living that television encourages. Our Don Juan hopefuls may never reach even the fairly low peak of the aesthete lifestyle if they spend their time sitting and watching Barney Stinson live out Kierkegaard’s guilty pleasure on their TV set.

We can understand Kierkegaard’s aesthete through our television screens, but we can’t live it. We get sucked into the hedonic loop without even the benefit of the hedonist pleasure that would otherwise accompany it. We escape nihilistic despair through distraction, certainly, but we escape it without doing any actual living. We escape through death.

We live in a culture of distractions. We watch TV and movies, or browse the innumerable Buzzfeed, 9gag, or Reddit pages, or become sucked into a spiral of Youtube videos, or spend endless hours plugged into our phones even when in the company of friends and family, or play video games of all genres and platforms.

What qualifies these as distractions, rather than play? They are all passive consumption, whereas play is an inherently creative act. It is the difference between playing a sport, or watching it on TV. Of telling a story, or having one told at you. At least books require the creative power of imagination, compared to a television show where the mental faculties required are less than when we are sleeping. Some might argue that video games, since they require input from the player, might escape the definition of a distraction, but actions in a video game cannot evade the programmable components of its software. All the possible outcomes of the game have already been foretold, and it is simply a matter of finding and consuming them.

Think of when you were a child, playing with your friends and siblings. You would create ideas, stories, and whole worlds with something as simple as a cardboard box. Sports and board games frequently had completely made-up rules that were only understood by those playing them. There was a shared intimacy, a bond, created in this play that adults in their more nostalgic moments despondently recall as having lost forever.

Think of your friendships and relationships now. How often does your “play” with friends require passive consumption? Do you go out to consume food? Or drinks? Or a movie? Maybe you play video games. Even playing in organized sports is more about conforming to rules and authority, than it is about engaging in a creative output. Do you feel as though you are not as close with your adult friends as you were with your childhood ones?

Distractions are a narcotic. They are an escape from the world we live in. They offer stimulus without effort. And, like a narcotic, we are developing a tolerance for them. Our movies are a prime example of this: movies today have faster cuts, more special effects, more explosions, more Michael Bay. Movies of the past are frequently referred to as “boring” because of this developed tolerance. Boredom is a withdrawal symptom of the lack of stimuli that our body now craves.

Busyness has become a virtue. Filling our time with something, anything, is a commendable feature of contemporary culture because it means that there is no time for that person to get bored. To stop and appreciate life, to clear one’s head in meditation, to slow down; these are all boons to both health and stability. But too often they are dismissed as “boring”, and people are frequently unable to participate in these slower activities, despite even an active attempt to try them.

The peril of distractions comes not just from their narcotic effects on our minds, but in the literal sense of “distraction” as well. If we are pacified and preoccupied, we are not paying attention to the world around us. This allows unchecked oppression, war, and other such human rights violations to occur while most of the developed world focuses more on celebrity gossip than the strife that surrounds them. The promise of the internet was a worldwide voice, access to infinite knowledge, and with that knowledge and voice would come revolution against oppression and hate, and equality for all. But if you ask anybody today what they use the internet for, typically the answer will be pornography, epic fail videos, or sports statistics.

We also tend to miss out on life; we miss out on the connection with our loved ones, if we are too busy with our distractions. If the time we spent on Facebook was spent with friends, or the time watching cat videos was spent adopting and playing with our own, or if we tried new and exciting activities rather than watching the epic fails of others, the enrichment in our lives would be exponentially higher.

Further tragic correlation with the proliferation of distractions is the jingoism that seems to almost be an inherent aspect of them. Sports fans will become physically violent with other fans, despite no real connection to anybody on “their” teams. People will get up in arms over their choice of computing or gaming platform. People will even define their lives by the television, or other mass media productions, they consume. Any perusal of an online dating website will reveal the dependence on the series Game of Thrones for a person’s sense of identity.

Do these distractions merit the emphasis and importance that we place upon them? Probably not, since they have absolutely no relevance to life, and any meaning we place on them would be purely without basis.

It is true that listening to someone else’s music or stories can affect us emotionally or stimulate us intellectually. Even regular drugs can induce creativity or offer new ways of appreciating the world. But to rely on them, to make them the foundation of our lives, that is the life of an addict.

We do need to escape sometimes. I myself enjoy movies and television, and when I go out with friends, it’s usually for a beer or a meal. The way life is set up almost requires escape; distractions are a necessary coping mechanism to deal with our day to day working lives. But what does that say about the system of our culture if it saps the life and creativity out of us, requiring us to run away with our distractions just to survive?

Post-script: Creating a story or a song requires a passive receptor of that story or song, it’s true. But often the missing component is intimacy and connection in that process. For example, being able to look and experience, or even interact with the person delivering the creative output is far more valuable than seeing them on a screen. Even with this blog, I find it much more rewarding when someone comments or brings it up with me in person, and I’m sure the reading experience is more rewarding as well if there is a connection with me as an author.

Also, for an even more critical look at distractions, specifically sports, listen to Noam Chomsky: