Empathological behaviour

On most message boards, forums and online communities that I’m a part of (all… let’s see… 3 1/2 of them) I probably post most frequently in threads relating to films, TV series, novels, plays, comics and other media that are largely dedicated to storytelling, characterisation and the like. One recent discussion I took part in was about the HBO series Game of Thrones, and while many of the topics were predictable (OMG sexposition! Just how much does Tyrion rule? Is there such a thing as posting that animated GIF of Joffrey being slapped too often?), one caught me by surprise: a poster criticised that there’s barely anyone in the series to root for.

The reason for my surprise was this: I realised that ‘rooting for someone’ has never been a measure of whether I enjoy a story or not. Of course I root for the Indiana Joneses and John McClanes, the Bastian Balthasar Buxes and… I’m actually finding it difficult to come up with more examples, which is quite telling. Some kinds of stories necessitate a ‘good guy’ to root for, but this isn’t anything I’m looking for in storytelling. On the other hand, what I am looking for is the potential to empathise with the characters whose lives I’m following. And that’s something I find quite easy – you could go so far as to say that I’m a bit of an ’empathy whore’. I’ve never really rooted for Tony Soprano, Richard III, even a Darth Vader – or, for that matter, a Cersei Lannister, not exactly one of the nicer characters in a series that isn’t exactly famous for its many loveable protagonists.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve greatly enjoyed series whose protagonists do questionable, petty, selfish things all the time, from the characters in Six Feet Under (as the series goes on, Nate becomes more and more selfish in his actions, yet that never makes me care about him any less), to the shades-of-grey cast of any season of The Wire (yes, I even care about Rawls, while fully acknowledging what a dick he is) to the moral monsters of The Sopranos. Which is also why the flip-side of rooting for a fictional character is something I very rarely do – I often read about other forumites wanting this or that character to die horribly, to get knifed in the back or thrown off a cliff or get a bullet in his head, which I just don’t get. I don’t get the vehemence and sadism with which these things are often formulated (and yes, I do understand that wishing death on a fictional character is not the same as wanting a real person to die), but more than that, whether a character is morally reprehensible or not doesn’t have anything to do with whether I want to continue watching them. Al Swearengen is a Machiavellian monster, happy to kill, or have killed, anyone who stands in the way of his plans, yet I can think of few characters who are as enjoyable to watch as him. Tony Soprano made The Sopranos must-watch TV for six seasons, even in the worst episodes. Even generally likeable characters like The Wire‘s Bodie or Rome‘s Titus Pullo do horrible, heinous things. It’s not just that I don’t get why or how the moralities of their actions would influence my wanting to watch them: it’s that their flaws, their ambiguity, often make them more interesting characters for me. (Obviously my enjoyment of the characters also has a lot to do with how they’re written and acted – I want to watch an Al Swearengen at least as much because of Ian McShane’s performance as because he’s a fascinating, complex character, and the same’s definitely true for Breaking Bad‘s Walt White and the fantastic acting by Bryan Cranston.)

However, there are characters – very few, but they exist – that don’t evoke any empathy on my part. There are some that I dislike so much I wouldn’t mind something horrible happening to them. I’ll admit it right here and now: every time I watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I hope that McMurphy will succeed in strangling Nurse Ratched to death this time round. I guess that while I’m a bleeding heart of the worst kind when it comes to fictional characters as well, there’s still a tiny little reactionary inside me wanting to get out and flip the switch.

Vale of Tears, HBO style

My tastes probably tend towards the dark and tragic somewhat. For a while David Fincher’s Seven was my feelgood film (and I’m only exaggerating slightly). I’m not particularly into comedies, mainly because I don’t tend to find them funny – but I think that Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are both rich in humour, though of the blackest sort. I tend to label things as “bittersweet” that my Significant Other would call “depressing as hell”.

Imagine my surprise when we finished watching season 2 of Oz… and my reaction was pretty much this: Whoa. This series may be too negative, too pessimistic, too “everything is going to shit” for me. By comparison, the last two seasons of Six Feet Under were light tragicomedy, The Sopranos is Analyse This! and Deadwood is Paint My Wagon. In the season 2 finale, Oz gives us a pedophile ex-priest getting crucified by Arians, a Latino guard’s eyes getting stabbed (with disturbing visuals of the damage) and one inmate’s arms and legs being broken. (I can still hear the snapping sounds…) When an old Nigerian gets stabbed to death, it almost feels like a relief: Thank god, they could have put his arm down the garbage disposal and then fed him his own kidneys!

Oz is open to allegations of being gratuitous in its use of violence, at least in this episode – but then, I can think of scenes of Deadwood, Rome and indeed Six Feet Under (elevator bisection!) that are as visceral and gory. So what is it, if not the gruesome depiction of violence? Is it that the characters are by and large doing evil things? Hey, Al Swearengen could pull off as many as six evil things before breakfast, without breaking into a sweat. The Soprano mob was no bit more angelic than the inmates of Oswald Penitentiary. So, again: what is it that makes Oz less bearable?

I think it’s this: Oz is about a world where hope is mostly dead, and what hope is left is killed over and over again. All these other series, for the pain, suffering and evil acts they depict, they haven’t killed off hope. Goodness can exist and survive and sometimes even thrive. In Oz, the only way that goodness can avoid being trampled is by hiding away, making itself smaller. There are sparse moments of light, but they are so exceptional and all the characters seem to know it that you almost dismiss them as a mere distraction from the doom and gloom. And yes, there is humour, but most of the time it’s grim as hell. Even the world of The Wire is more hopeful. Consider that: The Wire is more hopeful than Oz.

Arguably, that’s the world the series depicts: its version of the American penal system is Hell, an institutional hell where goodness is weakness, and the weak get their arms and legs broken. But if a series is that relentlessly negative and nine out of ten times something good happening is just occasion for the characters to fall from a greater height, it becomes wearying. And it’s the first HBO series where I’m not exactly eager to get started on the next season as soon as possible.

Perhaps I need to recover with something lighter.

Blood Wing? True West? Something along those lines…

Since Switzerland is behind the rest of the world in all things pop culture, we’ve only just finished watching the first season of True Blood. Now, for those of you who have been following my HBO fetishism for a while, this will come as a bit of a surprise, but… I thought that True Blood was nothing much to write home about. It was entertaining enough, but I wouldn’t give the best episode of the series for the worst of Deadwood, The Wire or Six Feet Under, that other Alan Ball series. (I might be willing to exchange any episode of True Blood for that episode of The Sopranos where Tony meets his father’s mistress. Shudder…)

One major problem with the series, at least from my point of view, is that the main characters are much less interesting than the side characters that wander in for a couple of episodes. Bill and Sookie (or “Sookaaah!”, as Bill might put it) are okay, as are Sam, Tara, Jason and all the others, but I never really cared all that much about what was going to happen to them. On the other hand, I cared about poor, shlubby, gay vampire Eddie, I cared about psychotic, sexy hippie/murderess Amy, and I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more of Kurt Kobain lookalike Eric (a charismatic performance by Alexander “Iceman” Skarsgard) or the Magister as played by Zeljko Ivanek.

At the same time, True Blood is almost perfect fare for a tired evening after a day at the office. It’s fun, it’s nice to look at, and that title tune always gets my toes twitching. Now, if only it was on offer as a downloadable track for Rock Band

We’re also almost at the end of the first season of The West Wing. It took me an episode or two to forget that the guy playing the President had also been Greg Stillson in David Cronenberg’s film version of The Dead Zone, i.e. not a man you’d want anywhere near the White House, but now I’m okay with Prez Jed Bartlett sitting in the Oval Office.

So far I’m enjoying the series a lot, although it’s pretty much the opposite of True Blood – intelligent writing, heavy on words and ideas, and very little in the way of graphic sex, fangs, shapeshifters and blood. It does, however, have Allison Janney, an actress who I’ve come to like a lot. If I had to single out one of the characters from the series as my favourite one, it’d be her C.J. Gregg. Janney is as pitch-perfect with scenes of political drama as she is with understated humour and outright goofiness.

It’s amazing, though, how bad most of the characters on the series are when it comes to interpersonal relationships that aren’t primarily defined by work. They make great colleagues (when they’re not making vicious fun of you after a root canal) – they seem to make for lousy boy- and girlfriends (though mostly boyfriends). Déformation professionelle, I guess.

The end is the beginning is the end

HBO has been known to do some killer season finales – no pun intended, although it would be a perfectly accurate one in the case of the last episode of Rome‘s first season. The lead-up to the murder of Caesar is masterfully composed and reminiscent of another plot to have a leader and father figure killed in another HBO series: Livia Soprano’s planned killing of that disappointment of a son. (Is it a coincidence that Livia was named for another larger-than-life mother from ancient Rome?)

Throughout the season I’ve been impressed with Ciaran Hinds’ layered portrayal of Caesar, a man whose fierce intelligence, pride and ambition inspire awe even when he’s at his most arrogant and dismissive. His death, even though it’s clear that it’s coming, is startling in its force and brutality – not just in terms of blood and gore, but in terms of the story and the characters. Another favourite of mine (other than Titus Pullo, of course, who’s just a big sweetie when he isn’t murdering people in a jealous rage) is Brutus, who is portrayed by Tobias Menzies with a fascinating mix of hurt pride, bitterness, self-loathing and, strangest of all, genuine love for Caesar.

Another HBO series finale that pushed all the right buttons with me was Generation Kill‘s final episode, “Bomb in the Garden”. It’s rare for a series that is so documentary in its approach to manage its story and character arcs so deftly, but David Simon and Ed Burns have done a brilliant job. The final scene recalls another work by Simon and Burns, namely the ending of The Wire’s season 2, both scenes using a Johnny Cash song (in both cases making me think that perhaps, just perhaps, I ought to check out that Cash guy’s music). And yes, I am quite okay with admitting my considerable man-crush on Alexander Skarsgard.

With all these endings, it’s only fitting that I finally finished Grand Theft Auto IV. So much has been written about the game already that I won’t add anything other than this: I enjoyed the latest installment of Liberty City. If there’s a more convincing, living and breathing city in any game, I haven’t played it yet. Take it away, Philip.

It was you, Bodie. You broke my heart.

Life (and Death) on the Streets

I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I been straight up. But what come back? Hmm? You’d think if I get jammed up on some shit they’d be like, “A’ight, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his pay lawyer. We got a bail.” They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they at when they supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when shit goes bad and there’s hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like the little bitches on a chessboard.

Poor Bodie. Poor loyal, misguided, tragic Bodie. Like so many on The Wire, we’ve seen him do terrible things ever since he and Poot shot Wallace back in season 1 – yet he wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t evil. He was just one of those little bitches on a chessboard, just like another tragic player who decided that enough was enough and ended up hanging from a prison doorknob with a belt around his neck.

Poor Randy. Screwed over by the stupidity of a cop who doesn’t get that he’s betraying this kid – but screwed over even more by a society where talking to a cop is much worse a crime than putting a bullet in someone’s head, it seems, and by a system that at best can keep an account of the people it’s failing – but actually helping them? Sorry, no. Not enough money, not enough people to do the work, not enough of an incentive to cut through the red tape.

Poor Carver, trying so hard to do right by those under his care. Poor Dukie, for whom a day in high school is more frightening than a life on the corners. Poor Michael, killing his soul to protect his little brother. Poor Bubbles, saddest of all. You all broke my heart… and I know I’ll be back for more.

bubbles

I’d thought that season 2 of The Wire was as tragic as it would get. Frank Sobotka going to his death, thinking that he had even the tiniest chance of patching things up for himself, his nephew, his union, for the men he felt responsible for. But the slow, drawn out death of the working stiffs’ union doesn’t hold a candle to the perpetual, systemic sickness which The Wire, season by season, evokes for us, and the way it infects the youngest already.

With “Final Grades”, the season 4 finale, The Wire may just have topped Six Feet Under as my favourite series. The care and intricacy with which the characters are developed, the interconnecting themes play out – has there ever been a series as perfectly constructed yet feeling so right and so true? I could point to episodes, plot strands and even characters in Six Feet Under that didn’t add anything much to the overall series. The Wire? Everything adds to the whole, coming together with dizzying precision, affecting me to an extent that I never would have expected from what looks like a naturalistic cop series about drugs and crime.

Chris, Michael and Snoop (shudder...)

All of this might sound like The Wire is too complex, too constructed for its own good, but the scenes and the characters breathe with a lightness of touch that has to be seen over a number of seasons to be appreciated. It’s only when you take a step back that you can see just how perfectly wrought the series is.

Okay, enough of this clumsy attempt to put into words the effect that “Final Grades” had on me. Unless you’re scared of spoilers, you may want to check out this page (http://www.theguywiththeglasses.com/2008/03/wire-top-scenes.html) as it deftly picks some of the best scenes of the series up to the end of season 4.

And, apart from anything else, it’s good to see a quality series that actually makes it to the end without being cancelled prematurely. (There is something cruelly ironic about releasing a DVD set called Deadwood – Complete Collection. Be honest, cocksucker, and call it what it is: Deadwood – Dead Before Its Time or Deadwood – We Killed It Because We Had To Pay For This Weirdo Surfer Dude Series or Deadwood – Because A Good Novel With The Final Chapter Ripped Out Is Still A Good Novel, Right?)

Shame I’ve already used “A Death in the Family”…

Anyway, it’s really two deaths I’ll be writing about. And the whole notion of family… well, let’s put it this way. It’s complicated.

I’m currently rewatching The Sopranos and I just finished season 3 (“… In which an old friend’s son is shot in the back of the head and Meadow interrupts a sentimental song with thrown chunks of bread and a rendition of a Britney Spears classic”). While the series dealt in ambiguities from the very beginning, season 3 is perhaps the first one where the audience’s complicity is brought to the fore. We root for Tony Soprano, paterfamilias to two families, but for all his charm and for all our sympathy for him (when he’s not being an asshole to the people around him) he is evil – if he is defined by who he is and what he does, he’s evil. Less so than the outright psychos in his entourage (I’m mainly looking at you, Paulie and Ralphie) and more self-aware, but he enables them and depends on them and their actions for his own success.

Up to the end of season 3, we’ve never seen him quite this manipulative and hypocritical, and now it’s seeping into his children more and more. Knowing quite well on one level that her idiot ex was killed because of the system her father upholds, she now defends it – to the face of idiot ex’s sister and with a degree of self-righteousness that is nauseating.

He's behind you!

The problem I have with rewatching The Sopranos, though, is that differently from, say, Deadwood, Six Feet Under or (most of all) The Wire the episodes and seasons are pretty much exchangeable. There’s very little character development – which may be the point, but if you could watch the episodes in pretty much any order and the only thing you can determine by whether it’s season 1, 3 or 6 is how old the kids are and whether Pussy Bompensiero is around? In my books that diminishes the lasting appeal and success of the series.

Talking of deaths in series: since Switzerland is a couple of months behind the States with respect to TV, we only got to see the House season 4 finale now… and what a downer that one was. Even though season 4 was the shortest season of the series ever, most of the episodes after House had chosen his new team felt like retreads (or, in fact, re-re-retreads), but the two finale episodes, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart”, were among the best and definitely the emotionally strongest episodes. I remember pretty much hating Robert Sean Leonard in Much Ado About Nothing, but together with Hugh Laurie he carries the series even in its most generic episodes. Give him material such as this and he absolutely shines. (And I don’t know what it is, but give me a well-acted man crying his eyes out in a series and I get a big lump in my throad…)

I still don’t think that Kate Beckinsale is talented or particularly beautiful, though, so there.

Give me Emma and Kenneth any time. Please.