More media stuff

The Guardian seems to have started a Wire discussion group. It would be churlish to suggest that the Guardian, as an entity, never took as much interest in the Wire before it centred round a newspaper office.

(Charlie Brooker and a couple of other Guardian tv reviewers were the honourable exceptions to this.)

I’m going to steal its intro warning to explain why I haven’t been indulging in my customary gushing over the genius of the Wire:

SPOILER ALERT: Usual rules: No giving the game away if you’ve gone further; don’t spoil it for yourself if you are further behind.

Basically, it’s too difficult to remember which Wire events are OK to write about and which aren’t, in case I spoil someone’s enjoyment. Sadly, I’ve already spoilt it for myself by seeing it already. I know what’s going to happen in the wind-up part of the 5-series set, so I don’t want to watch it until I’ve forgotten enough detail to make it watchable again.

There’s an Iraq war short series from “the team who brought you the Wire.” I would be grateful if someone who’s seen it in the US will tell me if it’s good. I’ve decided to wait till it’s on television here, so as not to spoil it, in case it is good.

However, I’m so squeamish that I won’t want to watch it if it’s too distressing. Which, given that it’s about the Iraq war, is probably a certainty. So I’m in two minds about the whole thing and would welcome any guidance.

Otherwise completely unconnected to the above rambling, except for being also interesting in today’s Guardian, there’s an article by Hicham Yezza, the academic who’s waiting to be deported after downloading the al-qaeda manual for a colleague.

The UN’s committee on human rights has just published a report criticising Britain’s anti-terror laws and the resulting curbs on civil liberties. For many commentators the issues raised are mostly a matter of academic abstractions and speculative meanderings. For me, it is anything but. These laws have destroyed my life. (from Hicham Yezza in the Guardian.)

I had lazily assumed that this nonsense was all sorted out months ago. It appears not. Just because the media have lost interest doesn’t mean that this absurdity has been undone. In fact, some inexorable process – that Yezza characterises as Kafkaesque – seems have been set going.

Dawkins on Darwin, Part 3

Good programme. (Channel 4, UK. I should hope some socially conscious pirate has put it on You-tube by now. Or you could buy the DVD.) Dawkins and Dennet made a generally superb job of pointing out how the joys of the real natural universe piss all over the imaginary comforts of religion.

It was a difficult to decide which anti-evolutionist – the American woman or the British chemistry teacher – would be my first choice if I ever win a “Free kick the stupidest creationist who’s ever been on tv” competition. In the end, it has to be the British teacher. National pride requires it.

However, the American woman managed to combine a patronising manner with a studied and deliberate social “charm”. She smiled continuously – in what she must have been misinformed was a disarming way. She fixed Dawkins with steady (albeit slightly cross-eyed) eye contact and mouthed utter bullshit about “teaching the controversy.” So, it is with a heavy heart that I have to relegate her to second choice.

I was baffled by the English science teachers who declared themselves a bit scared about teaching evolution. Imagine a group of geography teachers worrying about teaching their subject, in case some student had a parent who was in the Flat Earth society. What’s the difference?

The Archbishop of Canterbury managed to tie himself in knots trying to square complete acceptance of the science with his concept of a god who set up evolution but kept out of it – while, at the same time, claiming to believe in the New Testament miracles. There was an entertaining moment where he more or less admitted his position was a fudge to deal with awkward questions.

Cross factor

Reality TV show producers are getting really desperate for topics. On the face of it, this would seem unlikely, given that reality is infinitely interesting, but to run out of ideas you have to redefine “reality” in a novel way. You have to take the word “reality” to mean “Start from an absurd premise. Gather a few people with moderate to severe psychological problems. Put them under pressure until they break.”

Granted this sounds like the actions you’d expect from a cult. So, it’s appropriate that a new UK Channel 4 “reality” show is called Make me a Christian. A crack team of four types of Christian try to change a comically diverse set of subjects.

Charlie Brooker’s introduction to this series in Saturday’s Guardian said more or less all you ‘d want to know about it.

In true oversimplified TV-conflict tradition, it’s a clash of absurd extremities. The Christians, for instance, consist of an evangelical preacher, a lady vicar, a Catholic priest and – very much heading up the pack – the Reverend George Hargreaves, founder of Operation Christian Vote, and the Christian Party, and the Scottish Christian Party, and the Welsh Christian Party. If it’s Christian and a Party, chances are George is its figurehead. He scatters Christian joy like a muckspreader flings shit: indiscriminately and everywhere.
Said Christians are pitted against a group of volunteers containing the following widely representative social types: a lesbian schoolteacher, a tattooed militant atheist biker, a white Muslim convert, a boozing fannyhound who claims to have slept with over 150 women, and a lapdancing witch. Nice work, C4. I’m sure we can all learn from this. Let battle commence.

The atheist (militant, tattooed, biker, yada, yada) complained about brainwashing. He refused to even go into York Minster, on the grounds that it was built just to keep the peasants down and had nothing to do with the “love” that this programme is supposed to be about. Well, this may have been pretty a statement of fact, but his attitide didn’t exactly endear him the other volunteers. The others hated him for his strident opposition, seemingly becoming more responsive to the evangelical message just to prove that their manners were better.

While the evangelists were cleaning out the suspiciously generic items of decor in the lesbian’s and lapdancer’s homes, the Catholic priest was bringing fresh kitsch to the home of the 17-year-old lapsed catholic father-to-be. A terrifying picture of the Pope, for instance. Some icons. You know the sort of thing. The participant’s girlfriend drew the line at one item of sculpture. “I don’t think that a dead man hanging on a cross is a nice thing to have hanging up in your house.”

When I say that the decor was “suspicious,” I mean this in the sense that the mansions of minor rock stars are suspcious on MTV Cribs. Just as the owners of many Cribs don’t seem to have ever walked through the front door before the start of filming, these people’s homes seem to have been madeover in special “reality” mode. They didn’t seem to have a book or a photograph that didn’t fit into their TV programme persona. You didn’t see the random trash that turns up in real people’s rooms. The witch’s books seemed to have been bought by the yard from the New Age section of Waterstone’s. It looked as if none had ever been opened.

She didn’t really seem like a great reader. For a start, she’s a lapdancer and would-be glamour model who has had her chest and nose cosmetically enhanced and who owns thousands of pounds worth of hideous and expensive shoes. Call me a godawful snob, but there is nothing in that list that you would usually associate with the profile of a deeply philosophical thinker.

She was a great crier, though. She was sobbing at the first suggestion from her selected christianiser that her lifestyle may not be ideal. Well, he put it much more forcefully. He said she was chasing the false idols of materialism and demonic powers and was on a trajectory to hell.

Her achievements to date don’t suggest philiosophical depths, but they do suggest a pretty low level of respect for herself and an excessive willingness to please. So, she seemed to me to be fair game for a conversion.

Her evangelist clearly felt the same. He said “She is a broken lady … but it’s a good place to be to welcome Jesus into your life.”

How transparent is that? The more fucked up the person, the more likely that the Christian can get them to accept Jesus into their lives, yada yada. What was it the biker chap said about brainwashing, again?

The religious converters have been recruited as a spiritual makeover team. The equivalent of those TV presenters who tell receptive morons how overweight they are, how filthy their houses are or how badly they are dressed.

It’s exactly in tune with standard reality tv – a messed-up person is encouraged to fall to bits on camera for the entertainment of the masses. In return they get access to the magic of fame and, if they are really lucky, a couple of years in which they are mildly interesting to the readers of Heat and can earn good money for nothing.

I tried to come up with good arguments for why the existence of a religious makeover show is even more disgusting. But I’m not going to bother. It just somehow seems even more repellent when religion comes into it.

New Dr Who series

There’s a hallowed Whydontyou tradition that this blog has to get out a quick comment on any new Dr Who series. The first episode was OK, on balance.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Catherine Tate (a UK comedian) and it was a national embarrassment to see Tony Blair mouthing her catchphrases (worse even than his Simpson’s cameo.) Her Dr Who character just seemed like a more sympathetic portrayal of half of her standard comedy characters. All the same, she’s very gifted and wasn’t as irritating as she might have been.

It was telling to realise that I was actually hoping for the return of Billie Piper, although her apperance seems to have just been a two-second teaser. According to the Register, Lily Allen was the top assistant choice in November. I don’t know if that was just a wild Register rumour or if it’s still a possibility. IMHO, the best assistant in the new set of Dr Who series has been Freema Agyeman.

The space ship effects were good. I’m a sucker for well done 3-d graphics and good special effects.

(Except for the hanging bit, which was exactly as silly as almost every other “hanging from the side of a building” scene ever. I mean, just try hanging from anything, even if your life DOESN’T depend on it. If you can manage 15 seconds and you aren’t an experienced mountain climber – total respect. Or try and find a multi-storey building that doesn’t generate its own wind system. )

Cultural refs:

  • A merge of the Supernanny and Anne Robinson stereotypes of bossy female Englishwomen. There aren’t many recognizable examples outside the TV world and some newspaper columns, but, hey, that’s the world now anyway.
  • The supposedly increasingly fat UK population is a really popular topic, of course. Here the idea was that excess lard turned into a life form, which was an entertaining idea.
  • People’s endless desire for any diet pills that will magically trim fat.
  • Office work. Office blocks. Those cages that hold the window cleaners who don’t actually have to abseil down the side of your building.
  • Alien visitor, crop circles and random conspiracy theories. Need I say more. Obviously, they usually turn out to be true in Dr Who.

Don’t have nightmares

This is a link to a really good, if disturbing, video. It discusses parallels between extreme Islam (in the shape of a Muslim man with a Hitler moustache) and Christian fundamentalism and how this has given our rulers a pretext to build up our fears to achieve their ends.

h/t to paul canning whose blog reminded me about the video Charlie Brooker showed to da yout’ this week, and even provided a link.

Charlie Brooker’s sample of young people found it infinitely more interesting than the youth tv dross he also showed them.

Oddly, given that Charlie Brooker is a tv critic so brilliant that he can make you chortle out loud, (hence giving away the fact you are secretly reading his Guardian column in work) his own tv ventures are not usually crowned with glory. But, even so, it takes a superhuman effort of will to disagree with his conclusions on any programme. And, he’s right on this one.

In praise of the BBC

This blog does its fair share of whining about daft things on the BBC, especially its website (“constructive criticism.”) There are disturbing current plans to cut back on everything good about the BBC, with a loss of 2,500 jobs. According to last week’s Guardian, the BBC’s high-profile serious journalists, such as Paxman, have been told not to express their criticisms of this sort of stuff on air.

The director-general has been quoted voicing the sort of Dilbert-speak that bodes ill for any organisation, from the perspective of both staff and customers. For example:

….his plan would deliver “a smaller, but fitter, BBC” in the digital age.
The six-year scheme, called Delivering Creative Future…..

Over the past few years, the BBC has expanded from being a public-service broadcaster – worthy enough in itself, to providing an almost unequalled Internet news resource. In the face of a general dumbing-down of television to a level that the average pet tortoise would find intelligible, the BBC still provides some tv and radio of amazing quality .

Well, it seems this all has to stop. The new plan is for more repeats, cuts to the television news, fewer current affairs programmes, fewer non-commercial kids’ programmes, ads on international stuff..

The editors’ blogs sound like it’s all an exciting new opportunity. Well, wouldn’t you, if you might be facing redundancy and criticism wouldn’t keep you out of that media dole queue?

…standing still is not an option because our audiences are changing and we must change with them….

Changing? More than normal changes then? In what ways? Granted most people have cable or satellite. I admit to watching minimal terrestrial tv, but that’s not because it’s over my head. It’s because most of it is hopelessly poor:

  • Soaps that should be poured down the plughole.
  • Reality shows that would make you want to Columbine the whole human race, if they actually bore any relationship to “reality”
  • Home / clothes / lifestyle makeovers, all aimed at a general transformation of the UK into a giant open-plan Stepford.
  • Programmes about raising children that make B.F. Skinner look laissez-faire
  • Plastic surgery programmes that actually promote it
  • Programmes about celebs and their weight problems
  • 100 greatest/worst adverts for car wax, or similar. With slightly recognisable talking heads discussing the choices
  • “Programmes” with a chirpy talking head and a screen puzzle designed to keep the drunk or mentally ill phoning in to “answer” trick questions at £300 a nanosecond

Basically, tv that would make the choice between watching it and gnawing off your own arm quite a difficult decision.

Is it the changing audience that’s driving this? If the audience is changing to be made up of the bedbound with broken remote controls, then maybe.

The BBC, although not blameless, is the least offender in this crap. It still represents so much of what is worthwhile in British culture. Cuts in its budget, cuts in its real staff….

Argh. That was the crunch of tooth on right arm flesh.

Wire 1 on FX-truly great episode

After mildly slagging off the Wire (that’s British for insulting, I have decided to insert idiomatic translations) I am forced to bow before it. I had forgotten that it ebbs and flows in quality. From great to genius, The episode on Monday on FX was a true work of genius.

The programme focuses on Bodie, di Angelo and Chief Daniels, each of whom is at a pivotal moment. There are so many layers of meaning that it I can’t begin to do it justice. I would be outputting exhuberantly semiotic stuff until next year. And that would be just for one episode.

So, I’ll just pick out a few points in a shamefully lame way.

On third viewing, I realised that Bodie puts on the executioner’s cap before he shoots the other child, in an episode of true horror. After this, he wears it more or less consistently. It expresses Bodie’s having become a “soldier,” a disposable cheap executioner for the Darksdales.

At the moment of the shooting, Bodie’s lieutenant is sobbing. The about-to-be-victim pisses himself. Bodie is horrified at having to shoot a boy. But he is not going to stop what he is doing either. He gets the boy to affirm that he is a man not a boy. Earlier, the about-to-be-shot boy has told Bodie that he is “a man” rather than a boy. At which point he looks about fourteen. Even the killers, despatched by Stringer Bell to do the shooting, look older. And one of the them looks 16.

Bodie has made a sort of low-level Faustian deal with Stringer Bell, as Stringer has implied that he can rise in the business if he gets rid of Ritchie. So, Bodie has already prepared to kill for a slight chance of a small improvement in his circumstances.

The Wire writers are showing us that the soldiers are children, living in desperate poverty and shooting each other over crumbs, both victims and perpetrators of the social values that support the whole system.

The moral implications of this killing are played out for Bodie through later series, as Bodie begins to dissent more and more from his role and to pay a heavy price for becoming an ethical being.

One immediate moral implication is that diAngelo, who has been getting increasingly disenchanted with his part in the Barksdales and is coming to ask himself moral questions about his life, explodes with anger about the murder of the child. This sets in train a decision to betray the gang. Which will soon become an epic moral struggle for him.

Both diAngelo and Bodie find that the development of remorse and the stirring of an ethical conscience do not bring any rewards. I think the Wire breaks some ground here. There is no sense of virtue justly rewarded and villainy justly punished. It is not a simple morality tale. Characters are killed off or survive, partly as a result of their actions but mainly as a consequence of the actions of others. You can’t just step out of “the game” by repenting.

At the same that diAngelo is developing an ethical sense, Chief Daniels is doing the same. There is battle of wits, rather than guns, between Commissioner Burrell and Chief Daniels. Burrell tries to applythe blackmail leverage he’s been holding over Daniels. He is being ordered by the political machine to stop the investigation, because it had uncovered a money relationship between the Barksdale gang and some Senators.

Daniels stands up, literally and metaphorically. As does di Angelo when he challenges Stringer Bell.

Daniels reminds Burrell that others would lose more by exposing him than would Daniels. They would have already used their leverage but for the fact that the greatest fear of the political machine is publicity. They have no intention of using their information against Daniels. So he calls Burrell’s bluff.

This stuff was powerfully moving. The moral complexities are laid out brilliantly through the masterly acting.

(As well as the writing, – taken for granted as pure genius-, the direction, the costumes, the sets, the use of music and anything else you can think of. The HBO marketing is naff, but The Wire’s got to pull an audience to satisfy its paymasters. And for bringing the Sopranos and the Wire to the television, I will forgive HBO pretty well anything.