The Shield: Season 1 (Ryan, 2002)

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It’s strangely ironic that The Wire and The Shield, two vastly different but equally influential cop shows, both premiered in 2002. If David Simon’s Baltimore-based urban mosaic is a sprawling, intelligent, and insightful window into the contradictions plaguing modern day institutions, then Shawn Ryan’s L.A. cop show is its schizophrenic, brutal, and raging younger brother, a West coast beast consumed by horrific representations of good and evil and the blurring of ethical and moral lines post -9/11. If anything, The Shield never pulls punches when it comes to characterizations and story. The Farmington Police Force provides the focal epicenter for the show, a group anchored by a special Strike Team led by Vic Mackey (played to perfection by Michael Chiklis). Drug dealers, pimps, murderers, and rapists are the local flavor of the week, but the narrative runs on the fuel of deception, greed, corruption, and guilt within the departmental ranks. Unlike The Wire, Ryan’s vision centers specifically on cops, both dirty and clean, ambitious and contentious, and the devastating stories they both solve and create. It’s almost never a pleasant world to inhabit, but shards of light fill the frame every once in a while, complicating what should be black and white judgements. The first season of The Shield uses shock and awe tactics to create a chorus of long-lasting visceral moments, however it builds to a startling crescendo through the audience’s connection with each character, and the complexity of their plight. It’s hard to imagine six more seasons of such a draining story, for the characters and especially the viewer. But the beauty of The Shield lies in it’s desire to keep pushing genre toward the edge, both curious and frightened at what will happen when the entire whole tips over the side. Objects of heroism have never been more clouded with doubt.

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Damages: Season 1 (Kessler, Kessler, Zelman, 2007)

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Have we now reached the point where American Television provides consistently better acting and storytelling than home-grown feature films? Possibly, but it might be better to point out that the sheer dynamics of a television show has a key advantage over film. Great shows like The Wire, Deadwood, and Dexter spend multiple years developing characters and plot-lines, ultimately allowing for a deep audience connection throughout a meticulously crafted process. Also, quality television shows sometimes create a fascinating bridge between literary and cinematic devices, as in The Wire, transcending expectations and genre for a more substantial, crucial vision of our modern day world. For these reasons, Television has made itself indispensable again, and I’m keen to explore the many possibilities on the airwaves today.

Damages, a gripping legal thriller from F/X (now in it’s second season), takes themes of deception and manipulation as its key thematic pair, deconstructing scriptwriting expectations at every turn from the Pilot on to the gripping first season finale. But maybe more so than any other modern show, Damages depends on the potency of performance, and the nuance of cinematic acting. Glenn Close plays high-powered NYC attorney Patty Hewes, a woman of great intelligence and influence currently embroiled in a civil suit against a corrupt CEO played to sleazy perfection by Ted Danson. By the end of the Pilot, it’s clear Patty isn’t your normal heroine, and the show’s creators go to great lengths to complicate her brutality and rage. But Damages is so fascinating because of the character trajectory of Hewes’ foil, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), a young lawyer whose entanglement in the case sets of a dynamic chain of narrative events that structure the entire first season. The battle between Ellen and Patty becomes the core mind game within show a stricken with betrayal. The casualties of this bloody and verbose war make a lasting impression, and like in all great television, keeps you invested during the long, painful wait for next season.

The Mosquito Coast (Weir, 1986)

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If anything, Peter Weir’s uneven but ambitious film The Mosquito Coast offers a glaring reminder of how good an actor Harrison Ford can be. No doubt that in the past decade Ford’s star has fallen to almost inconsequential status, a shame considering he was once a rare movie star who could lose himself in great character roles. As Allie Fox, a brilliant but misguided inventor who shuns mainstream American life and takes his family to live in the jungle, Ford brings a combination of manic charm and subtle unease to a character on the brink of self-destruction. Allie relishes in his own genius and can’t imagine why anyone else would listen to dissenting opinions, a tragic flaw that reveals the insecurities and manias brimming beneath his dashing good looks and eccentric charisma. It’s a complete performance ranging from distilled moments of reflection to brutal outburst aimed at those who love Allie the most; his dedicated family. The final scene resonates with a calm sense of dread and regret for both Allie and his oldest son played to perfection by a young River Phoenix, a moment drenched in sadness toward what could have been. The film itself becomes consumed by Ford’s performance and offers little else in terms of dynamic narrative threads, however this one man show contains enough scene chewing for multiple films and offers a surprising counterbalance to Ford’s other great performance of the 1980’s in Witness, not surprisingly another Peter Weir film.

Le Plaisir (Ophuls, 1952)

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Watching back to back Ophuls is like having a bit too much champagne – the costumes, the tapestries, the elegant glances begin to overwhelm the senses and go right to your head. In this regard, maybe I should have waited for the glorious high of La Ronde to pass before sitting down with Le Plaisir, because the many obvious pleasures of  the latter seem redundant and flimsy in comparison. Not to say Le Plaisir isn’t a beautiful and entrancing experience, just not that memorable. Ophuls weaves three stories by  Guy du Maupassant into distinct short vignettes, moral lessons on romantic yearning and desire concerned with class, gender, and of course, sex. Yet the very format of the film – disconnected narratives – takes away from the overall impact each story is supposed to relate, separating Ophuls’ themes over various temporal and spatial grounds, diluting them in the process.  Like all Ophuls, tragic love and fate define Le Plaisir, but the subversive undercurrents of The Earrings of Madame de… and La Ronde are noticeably absent.

Blast of Silence (Baron, 1961)

Watching Allen Baron’s riveting Blast of Silence is like experiencing the hit man sub-genre with a completely fresh perspective. Every familiar element, from the lone, anti-social protagonist on down to the stark, seedy New York City locations, feels innovative again. Baron himself plays Frank Bono, a low level assassin out of Cleveland who’s reluctantly come back to his childhood stomping grounds for an important job. By chance, Frank runs into an old friend at a restaurant, a meeting that jettisons him back into a minefield of past traumas while upsetting his impending and crucial assignment.

Through the use of a staggering, schizophrenic third person voice-over narration, Baron addresses the timeless conflict between calculated professionalism and human connection, a device that brilliantly paints Frank as a ticking time bomb of unchecked anger and guilt. As Frank traverses dark alleys, ferry terminals, and nightclubs waiting for his prey to line up in his sights, Baron highlights the complexity of his character’s conflicted decision-making, revealing an ideology driven by a deep hatred stemming from a lifetime of disappointment and abandonment.

In Frank’s eyes, the real world signifies uncertainty, false impersonal interactions leading nowhere, and to exist within such an environment is worse than death. In Blast of Silence, Frank tries one last time to understand such a place, but ultimately chooses to live and die on the fringe of society, a dirty, sadistic, and brutal place of his own making.

La Ronde (Ophuls, 1950)

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La Ronde, with its hypnotic camera movements and circular narrative, beautifully fulfills the whimsy of fated love. However, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece is one of the most uncomfortably subversive Romance pictures ever. As each fleeting couple momentarily begins and abruptly ends, the playful tone masks a consistent sense of disappointment and longing. Seduction and lust often substitute for genuine connection, while the only substantial element connecting each vignette is the art of off-screen sex. Ophuls is a master of capturing the sporadic moments of silence shared between lovers at the worst possible moment, when one or the other decides to pull away, or leave altogether. No one character in La Ronde is spared this heartache, yet the women in the film (except for the actress) seem more at odds with the reality of love than the men, who not ironically care more for the perception of their own ego in relation to love. La Ronde weaves a delightful tapestry of oscillating romantic dilemmas, but underscores each smile, each kiss, and each glance with an artificial sensibility that transcends the medium.

Southland: Pilot Episode (Biderman, Wells, 2009)

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I don’t write about television very much on this site, probably because specific programs need years to develop a voice, and in turn are far more difficult to consider in short format. But sometimes a show immediately grabs you with its distinct vision of the world, characters, and tone (Sports NightBoomtown, and The Wire come to mind). Having just watched NBC’s outstanding pilot Southland, I can affirm that this is one such case (see it for yourself here). Procedurals often offer the most potent and sane approach to the unthinkable horrors of everyday life, and Southland tries to examine the difficult complexities of urban existence through a juxtaposition of devastating moments of senseless violence and the professionals and civilians caught in the middle. The show considers a mosaic of peace officers – a stoic rookie (Ben McKenzie), worn beat cops (Michael Cudlitz), and detectives of all sorts (Regina King being the stand out), thankfully favoring them as a collective, individuals staring the same social contradictions in the face, yet choosing to go on with the job. These characters matter from the start and their decisions make an impact on everyone around them, letting the dramatic moments ring true. This is possible because the writing paints these people as conflicted, not indicative of simplistic cliche. Like all good pilots, the first episode opens countless inroads to intriguing story-lines, while reveling in the fascinating ambiguities surrounding each main character. With a show like Southland, it’s all about the atmosphere, and it creates a powerful menace that seems to linger around each corner. With Southland, for an hour each week, we might get a sense of what it’s like to be a police officer, putting yourself out there in an ocean of uncertainty because you have no other choice.  But it’ll be the varying layers underneath the genre facade that will make this show particularly viable and valuable.