Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Personal Diary of Claudius, King of Denmark

For so long, the story of Hamlet has been told only from the young Dane's perspective. But what about the perspective of the story's putative villain, Claudius? Finally, after so much time, we have a window into what the man was thinking during the events of the famous tale.
  • 9-Oct: Just reached the third month mark on my kingship. I am growing used to the job, both in the ceremonial and political aspects. You might think being a king would mean wielding absolute power and having people snap to attention whenever you walk by, but that is not the case! The high-handed peremptory approach is great if you don't care about the results, but I find that working with the ministers and Parliament is infinitely more successful. After all, one man (even a king) cannot be everywhere, give every order, supervise every worker and project. After the disastrous reign of my brother (who was the most high-handed and peremptory of all!), I can see the marked difference during my nascent reign. By sharing power, it turns out that I've actually increased my own! I've gotten far more of what I wanted in three months than my dear old brother did in years. Counterintuitive, I suppose, but making the politicians partners instead of subjects has reaped enormous dividends. Even that old ass Yorick admitted as much even before I stayed the execution my brother had rashly ordered upon him. An impression shouldn't lead to executions, I think. He died anyway, though, due to a stroke.

    Anyway, I very much look forward to young Hamlet's return from his theological studies. I've always liked the lad, and while seeing him will no doubt bring back awful memories of The Deed, I have always thought him clever, moral, and resourceful. Given the unlikelihood of Gertie bearing me any children, Hamlet must be considered the logical heir to the throne, and I intend to do my best to replace the void that I sadly created with my crime of passion.
  • 10-Oct: Busy day at Court today. Polonius and I, along with some of the other high councillors, debated the merits of a more egalitarian distribution of land for the people. I stand firmly in favor of it, as the nobles don't need a few measly acres, and dozens of poor families would be able to make something of it. We were able to come up with a workable plan that I fully expect the nobles to hate, but I hope to use a combination of a cut in taxes and populist peasant passions to crush the resistance. Tomorrow we begin discussions of reforming all courts and government offices, to make them more inclined toward the average man. I suspect the fight for this will be even fiercer than the others I have fought (and nearly always won) in my still-nascent reign.
  • 11-Oct: Oh, Gertie. 
  • 12-Oct: Young Hamlet has finally arrived, and I am deeply worried about the lad. He goes from utterly low energy to manic, even feverish activity in mere moments. He seems to prefer to spend most of his time muttering to himself and pacing. I have asked his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to figure out what bothers the young lad, though they haven't yet discovered anything. Polonius reports that Hamlet has treated Ophelia with remarkable cruelty. One wonders what is the matter with the boy.
  • 14-Oct: Very busy with work. Noble dissatisfaction with my reign is increasing--they figured I'd carry on with old Hamlet's buddy-buddy way of keeping the noblemen on his side and giving nothing to the great mass of his subjects. They thought incorrectly. I can see the tides shifting already. With just another few months of power, I should be able to empower the people to an extent never before seen in an European constitutional monarchy. This could truly be historic!

    Had a discussion today with Hamlet. I fear the Lutherans have made him bloody minded. Reformist, Counterreformist, Inquisition, heretics, I find all of it regrettable and silly. What difference does it make how one prays to God? I said as much to the King of Spain, an impressive man and a good friend, a reasonable man in most respects, but not in this case. And Hamlet seems to agree, only he's on the other side. I have severe doubts about this man succeeding me to the throne, he is changed and not to be trusted.
  • 15-Oct: Hamlet is out of control! I suspect the man is using substances--you know, what the young people use. He is nothing but mood swings and half-baked (so to speak) plans. The little twerp had some traveling players stage a play. As you know, I hate violent theater, just as I hate war and all violence (and myself for administering it to old Hamlet). His son, though, positively relishes in violent plays and such. He had his players do this terrible version of the story of Gonzago or some such, and I kept noticing throughout the play that Hamlet kept staring at me to try to make eye contact. Finally I learned why, the climax involved a man murdering his brother with poision. How did he find out? I will never know. But I hardly gave him the satisfaction of a reaction, I just left because I disliked the play. Shoddily written garbage. And the plot here is so over-obvious that one suspects Hamlet is inadvertently sabotaging himself to prove that he isn't the equal to his father. Must not overthink this. I'm sure the substances are to blame here.
  • 16-Oct: Hamlet has murdered Polonius! This is a disaster. Polonius was a critical part of my plans on a half-dozen different initiatives I was pursuing, losing him sets me back a month. This is entirely too convenient: I suspect that Hamlet is working with my enemies, the noble Lords, who must have gotten him hooked on substances and have been manipulating him in that way! Yes, that makes perfect sense. The murder evidently took place during an oddly aggressive discussion with Gertie about his father. My health minister assures me that one effect of the substances is misplaced aggression, no doubt also partly due to his being kicked out of the theological seminary (of which he has told neither of us). No wonder he got kicked out, he evidently never bothered to learn the Ten Commandments! I confronted him about it and he made several wisecracks and did his usual mumbling thing. Who is he talking to? Again, I must remember the man is likely on several substances, and is likely beyond reason. He claims he saw a ghost--most likely he had just taken substances before that. I know the guards are all hopped up on them, and I ought to jail the whole sorry lot of them. But I am too soft, too merciful.

    Anyway, I have sent Hamlet away to England, to detoxify and recover from his odd presentiments. Hopefully, after a few months, we can resolve these issues like civilized men.
  • 17-Oct: Met today with young Fortinbras, who has called off military action against my country, and just went ahead and sent the troops to invade someone else. The savagery! I applaud my own diplomacy while sadly surveying the state of Norway's leadership. Young Fortinbras is every inch the violent savage, rattling on and on about the vengeance he has taken and the enemies he has personally killed, and his attitude suggests little respect for anything except power--his own. Lord help us all if that young monster should ever come to rule his country! Come to think of it, though, he couldn't be much worse than Hamlet as king. Can you even imagine it? Hamlet mumbling to himself, starting wars in a fit of passion before bemoaning them after the substances wear off? A frightening prospect, to be sure. The recent state of Hamlet has led me to consider altering the structure of Denmark's government, in such a way that the monarch will have their powers sharply curtailed and given to the elected officials. This will take time to do, though. Despite my reforms, the elected branch is as hopeless as ever, knee-deep in bribes and unable to solve even basic public policy problems. I have high hopes though. I believe the people, with better education, can rule themselves, and while I might not live long enough to accomplish this, I intend to make it the major concept of the rest of my reign.
  • 18-Oct: Hamlet has become a full-blown menace! He has had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, his own friends! The weasel. Why kill them? Why not just elude them? They aren't terribly bright, after all. I only picked them because I thought Hamlet trusted them. My mistake, to expect things like friendship and human decency from a substance-addicted sociopath who can justify anything with his bizarre internal nonsense. Now he comes back to Denmark. He has had three people killed in cold blood, and apparently without any particular shame and remorse. My crime was one of passion. His is one of bloody, mad revenge, and yet he has never once confronted me, asked me what has happened. I haven't given up my theory about his secret noble backers, by the way. Hamlet's nature is one that sees murder as fine if done in a just cause, very much like Signor Machiavelli might argue. He now has three bodies to his name, and poor Ophelia has fallen into great mental degradation as a result of Hamlet's actions. The doctors say her breakdown could be fatal. Which would make four! Will nobody rid me of this poisonous youth, whose anger at me will leave a trail of death that cannot be stopped?
  • 19-Oct: I have told Laertes the truth about Hamlet's vile actions, and he has agreed to take him down. At long last, someone who can protect us! Though Laertes's noble, gentle nature puts him at a disadvantage to my psychotic and murderous nephew.
  • 20-Oct: Hamlet has returned. He means to kill Laertes by fighting dirty in a fencing match. I have taken alternative measures to keep this from happening. Let us hope they work! At this point, I care not at all for my own life, my only hope is that he does not survive. Let this official chronicle serve as the rebuttal to any future version of Hamlet's story that casts me as the villain. Such a thing is inconceivable, whatever I have done, he has done worse!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kenny Powers: Anti-antihero

A decade ago, the antihero was a novel concept in television. Television audiences hadn't seen anything like Tony Soprano before, and the show featuring him became a huge success. Today, the antihero is incredibly common on television, so prevalent that a non-procedural drama featuring a good, noble protagonist is surprisingly rare.

What makes for a good antihero? So far as I can tell, there are two basic cogs that make the concept work. The first is that he (and at this point, they're mostly hes) has to have some considerable charm and redeeming attributes. Another major antihero touchpoint, The Shield's Vic Mackey, balanced his faithless policework with genuine effort to be a good husband and father. Tony Soprano wasn't quite so inclined to be a good husband, but he was capable of generosity and of being moved by his children in addition to being a mobster. The other part of it is that, bad as our protagonists are, their opponents have to be much worse. Tony was no catch, but it was inconceivable to support him against the psychopaths he routinely dealt with, who lacked even the barest humanity that Tony possessed. Similarly, as an audience, we were drawn to Vic because he was mostly doing good (though not legal) things, and because arrayed against him were brutal criminals and careerist supervisors who cared more about how Vic made them look than about getting him to do the right thing. Manipulating audience sympathies to accept terribly flawed men is complicated work, and The Sopranos and The Shield (and, more recently, Breaking Bad) have been very, very successful at it.

A show that is less successful at the job is HBO's Eastbound & Down. Billed as a comedy, the show examines the precipitously reversed fortunes of Kenny Powers, formerly a heat-throwing Major League pitcher, brought down to being a gym teacher at his own former high school. The problem here is that Powers isn't an antihero, he's a void. There is literally nothing positive about his character, nothing to rationalize away his awfulness with. He starts with such a low baseline of character that there's nowhere to fall, and the half-hearted "improvement" arc that Powers undertakes is hardly convincing. Additionally, Powers's nemeses--a former ballplayer played by Craig Robinson, a car dealer played by Will Ferrell, and a kindly (though strange) principal played by Andy Daly--come off as about as bad or, in Daly's case, significantly better than he does. The show banks heavily on Powers's humor and underdog status to make him sympathetic to us, but sorry, no dice. Powers is basically the show, his swaggering, aggressive, roid-rage persona sets the tone, and he is its sole focus. The first season consists of six episodes that form a single narrative, one that is curious to say the least. The show appears to be one of Powers adjusting to his fall from fame, sort of like a redneck I'm Alan Partridge, with Powers's attempts to make it back to the big leagues the equivalent of Partridge's desperate attempts to break back into television with shows like "Monkey Tennis" and "Around The World with Alan Partridge, In A Bullnose On The Left". These seem meant to be taken as jokes, causing significant underinvestment in the plotline that turns out to be the throughline, and retrospectively rendering the main narrative a dead end.

Seeing a bad man move up in the world is compelling to nobody. Powers is past his prime, outdone in his desire for a teacher (The One Who Got Away!) played by Katy Mixon, who is engaged to the school's principal, Daly. The thing is that there's not much reason to root against Daly, even though the show stacks the deck against him in later episodes, or for Mixon to wind up with Powers. I would assume the show knows that rooting for Powers is perverse, except it puts us in the situation of doing it, and routinely finds it awesome when he, say, knocks out a rival ballplayer's eye when pitching, or vulnerable when he prematurely ejaculates when getting busy with Mixon. The morality here is strictly teenage-sociopath, one that hates nearly everyone on the show and finds ways to show them at their worst as often as possible. And yet there is still a sentimentalism to the Powers-Mixon relationship even though, as the ending makes clear, Powers never really had anything there for Mixon, his redemption was a lie to himself that others believed. Those of us who were paying attention knew that already.

Ultimately, in television, likability in a character is probably more important than, you know, character. But only to an extent. Jody Hill has proven to be a master of alienating and inflaming people, sort of like Todd Solondz with a better filter. And boy, does E&D accomplish that, especially with some sex scenes that manage to be thoroughly icky without getting too explicit. But the fact is that all this provocation is not really in service of some broader moral framework, which again makes it feel somewhat teenage-sociopathic. The Sopranos and The Shield were successful because making their characters flawed to the extent they were let them examine questions of morality in great detail. Eastbound is a failure because it doesn't really get into that. The ending sort of does, but what point is Kenny Powers supposed to make? What is the takeaway from this show? That he's the same bad guy we first encountered, I suppose. Well, thanks for getting us exactly to where we started! Really, there isn't any takeaway from this, except that people are bullshit, man! The show doesn't develop much of a moral critique, and it borrows its ending from the Bob Rafelson film Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson, only from the girl's perspective. At best it's a nihilistic message, that all growth is illusory. But that's generous, it adds up to little, and the whole thing is little more than wish fulfillment of various sorts. Hill's toned down the rape humor this time, unlike in Observe And Report. That's something to be thankful of. But this show mostly just makes me feel annoyed at what passes for sophistication these days, where transgressivism has evidently become insufficient for some as a premise for a story, now we have to feel sorry for people who got their just desserts. God made no mistake with Kenny Powers, and neither should you by watching this program.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What A Disappointment Music Series: Lola Vs. Powerman And The Money-Go-Round by The Kinks

A new possible series in which I look at albums generally seen as not up to any given group's standard.

This is one seriously weird album. Lola Vs. Powerman And The Money-Go-Round (which I will shorten to LvP) is generally seen as a disappointment having followed a series of brilliant conceptual albums by The Kinks, including Arthur, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and others. I think it's because it's lacking the one neat throughline of those albums. And there's a sheen of self-pity and narcissism to it that is very off-putting, of world-famous rock stars telling us their problems are equivalent to starving strikers or nuclear war. It's pretty icky, though somehow ahead of its time. In some ways, the album plays better in the 2010s, when such sentiments have (regrettably) become more mainstream. Self-pity is now basically the coin of the realm in pop, self-obsession its reserve currency. In this, as in many other things, The Kinks were forward-looking.

But let's not go overboard--much of the album is pretty much exactly what you might want out of a Kinks album. You've got some killer singles--Lola and Apeman are truly great Kinks songs--and it might be their most rocking album ever. Powerman kicks so much ass it almost entirely redeems the album itself, a perfect rock track that combines message and medium perfectly. "Top Of The Pops" is one of the aforementioned "Woe is me!" Ray Davies songs about the music industry, but it is the least icky of them all because it's told first-person from the aspiring rock star, and its irony is much gentler than other songs. Rats is another one that is convincingly fierce, and it's one of several Dave Davies compositions on the album. You can hardly tell the difference between his songs and Ray's songs, which is high praise indeed.

But these songs are I guess supposed to complement songs like "Denmark Street", the aforementioned "Top Of The Pops" and "The Moneygoround", which frankly take the album in the wrong direction. This album is a beast with two heads, a work with two throughlines (the suckiness of the music industry and the loss of control and individual freedom) that it pretends to lump in with an overarching concept of weariness with modern life. If this sounds familiar, it's because the latter concept has served as the basis for most of their work, especially their next album, the superior Muswell Hillbillies. LvP is actually a great Kinks album if you yank off those tracks, which are uncomfortably on the nose lyrically (it's not unlike stumbling in on a bitter, heated argument that you're not a party to and don't quite get) and verge toward novelty songs in terms of the music. I'm sorry, Ray Davies, but your inability to get record executives to sign off on your ideas is just not in the same league as political oppression, it's just not, and it's just immature of you to suggest otherwise.

If you can get past those, though, you get some tracks that really shine. The pop moments on this album are the highlights, with the ubiquitous Lola (which hasn't aged seemingly at all, and is remarkable for how much The Kinks were able to get away with), Strangers as a gentle story of friendship formed in disastrous times and "This Time Tomorrow" as the dissolution of perhaps that very friendship. "A Long Way From Home" could function as a sequel to "Tomorrow" as well, in which we see the genesis of a greedy antihero who rises to the top to become Powerman, leaving his jilted friend to seek solace in dreams of living like an Apeman and how he has just "Got To Be Free". There is a concept to this album, and it gains an awful lot of power in the second half, when the junk is cleared away. Sadly, this album is no Muswell Hillbillies, but the songs on LvP are better than those on Hillbillies, it's just that there's not enough cohesion and too much self-obsessed ickiness here. Were it not for those (and arguably Lola should have remained a pure single and not have appeared on the album at all), one wonders if Davies would have kept his reputation alive--at least for a few more years, until his ill-advised Rock-musical theater fusion projects wrecked The Kinks commercially and critically, leaving the group to struggle through the '70s and have only a modest commercial revival in the '80s. And I'm sure it's all the record companies' fault.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Let The Dominoes Fall: The Great, Underrated Audio Masterpiece of the '00s

Excuse me for having a bit of a complicated relationship with the punk-rock band Rancid. They made some of the catchiest and best pop-punk anthems of the '90s and were miles ahead of their contemporaries (Green Day and The Offspring specifically) in terms of songwriting, passion and, you know, musicianship. I still think that the first ten or so songs of ...And Out Come The Wolves amount to one of the strongest halves of an album released during my lifetime, and once you start with it it's tough to stop (well, at least until "Old Friend" kicks in and lets us know that the party is breaking up, and it's time to go get our coats from Matt Freeman's bedroom). What's more, unlike a lot of punk bands led by dudes from the suburbs, Rancid actually speaks with some authority when it comes to talking about squalor and oppression, since the core of the group is three white guys from Oakland who were, um, not well off. These are guys who actually have something to say about this stuff, and deserve to be heard.

The problem with Rancid is often that while they obviously demand more attention than, say, blink-182, I don't think they've ever quite come together in the way they wanted to, or needed to. Rancid is easily able to have fun and write unstoppably catchy, well-written songs, as hit singles like "Ruby Soho" can attest to. They can also be politically astute and passionate in the classic left-wing punk tradition*. Their problem has been the lack of synthesis between these two objectives. I consider the band's first two albums to be mostly a warm-up, and ...Wolves, their third full-length, features political content, though much of it is fairly shallow when you think about it. "Roots Radicals" is the most political song on the album, but its political content is mostly invoking the names of other radicals and signaling solidarity with them. Life Won't Wait, the follow-up, is much more political and deliberately tries to evoke comparisons with The Clash's London Calling, but the songs don't quite take off as much as on the previous album. The exception is the title track, which gloriously melds island reggae and punk energy in the service of a blistering social justice message:

This is, unfortunately, the exception on the album. It generally sounds good, but its best moments are the least political, like the old-school punker "Leicester Square" and "Who Would've Thought", a surprisingly adept love ballad that evokes The Ramones' "Baby, I Love You" as an unlikely but delightful melodic surprise. One should never trivialize the difficulty of writing a good song in either of these styles--unless you've written a bunch of hits yourself--but much of Life Won't Wait is an attempt to try to meld social consciousness with verve and fun, and it doesn't quite all come together the way it should have. It's hardly a bad album, but not the masterpiece that "Life Won't Wait" pointed to.

In any event, the next three Rancid albums smacked of flailing. The next album was the self-titled Rancid and found the band moving in a hardcore direction, and was followed up by the groove-and-hangout vibe of Indestructible and the clearing-out-the-cabinets B-Sides And C-Sides. Indestructible was released six years before they'd come out with Let The Dominoes Fall, during which point people seem to have moved on from Rancid entirely. After nearly a decade of flailing to define themselves (or even put out new content at all) I can hardly blame them. So little of an event did the band's most recent release make that my Rancid-loving friends hardly mentioned it, and perhaps didn't even bother to purchase it. Dominoes opened to lukewarm reviews generally, with only IGN sounding particularly favorable:
With punk now more than ever a fashion statement keeping the likes of retail shops such as Hot Topic afloat, it's refreshing to see seasoned vets like Rancid back on the scene to show the new kids how it's done. Rather than merely resting on its considerable laurels, the band continues to cross boundaries, genres and scenes, all while retaining its punk core. Let The Dominoes Fall is full testament to that.
I think this is right, but it doesn't go far enough. I've listened to the album five times now, and every time I become more convinced that the album is a real breakthrough for Rancid, and a bona fide masterpiece that perfectly captures the full flavor of the present time. Rancid leaves a lot of stuff off the table here--the fixation on their place in punk and the obsession with copying The Clash particularly--and instead makes an album that's mostly about how they're feeling these days. That might not sound like much, but it is not only their most authentic record (not just an "authentic" record, whatever that means to audiophiles) and it's the most urgent and compelling thing they've ever done.

Things get started with "East Bay Night", very much a hard-charging (but very, very fun!) Rancid tune in the classic fashion. It hints at the album being another Indestructible, though that turns out to be a complete head-fake. It is meant to lull you in for the kill:

The big show-stoppers here are "New Orleans", which songwriters should study as the way to make a song about a traumatic disaster without overplaying it. No angry tirades, just telling details ("a scar across her velvet face") and an undertone of sadness that still manages to rock.

Then there's "Civilian Ways", which is the emotional center of the record. It's basically about a soldier trying to fit back into civilian life after coming back from fighting overseas, which might not be a completely original idea for a story, but it's executed well here. The band goes for an unusual for them mandolin- and drum-centric arrangement, and imbues the song with a pathos that goes beyond politics. We are living in a time when America is still fighting wars overseas that everyone who doesn't watch Fox News regrets as mistakes and that most people (myself included, regrettably) rarely think about. But Rancid thinks about them, and "Civilian Ways" is as straightforward and honest an attempt to come to grips with our state of affairs as you're likely to hear:

This is followed up with "The Bravest Kids", which continues in much the same vein, with Tim Armstrong offering a tribute to the titular kids, the ones who went over there to fight.

Much of the rest of the album is an attempt to grapple with our post-Bush, post-financial crash country. "This Place" mourns corporate power, Armstrong feels "Disconnected" from the country he loves, and "I Ain't Worried" gets the gold prize for irony. Plus, there's "Let The Dominoes Fall", the title track, where Armstrong sighs about his political alienation and the lack of accountability of people in power, which is reprised in "That's Just The Way It Is Now". For a group that has prided itself on being more progressive than your average band, it's surprising just how keyed into the current mindset Rancid gets here. There's no talk about revolution or radicalism, but that actually makes the actual radicalism of the record stand out. And though the album is despairing at times, there are hints of optimism too. This isn't a giving up record, it's a "we lost this one, but we'll be back" record, and it's one that happens to be a nice exponent of left-wing patriotism, which to Rancid means a hell of a lot more than flags and car magnets. The album ends with "The Highway", a subdued song about how making music can ease tensions and provide joy, which seems almost necessary after going through the darkness of our present situation. And then there's the structure of the album, nineteen tracks that cumulatively clock in at about 46 minutes, which means that the average song is a bit over two minutes. Not that unusual for punk rock, but it really works well on this album, since each song constitutes one coherent thought or emotional fragment that speaks to the album's themes. It plays to their strengths, as the group is easily able to find lots of exciting music to put them all too, and it manages to be varied without feeling like a self-conscious attempt to ape the variety of The Clash. What's more, the album sustains its power and listenability the whole way through, and doesn't peter out like some Rancid albums I know. Desperation suits Rancid just fine, and the introduction of real stakes to the proceedings seems to have focused the group as never before. Not that it's all serious: "Skull City" is something of a love song, and "LA River" features bassist Matt Freeman on vocals (as do a few other songs on the album), something of an odd choice that actually fits the record quite nicely. (The only Rancid member missing in action on vocals: new drummer Brenden Steineckert.)

At some point, I'm going to have to stop gushing about the record. It's a masterpiece, with strong lyrics and a great cumulative power that speaks to a lot of things people are working out right now. The irony is in that by not trying to be The Clash, they've put out their Clash-iest record yet: the pointing out of problems coupled with the vulnerability of not being able to fix them is something that American punk doesn't often do (Because what social problem can withstand a blistering punk rant, of course?), but it is quintessentially British. The Clash wrote songs about Britain's problems of the time with urgency, as Rancid does here, but both bands get at anger and frustration that surpass the immediate time and place that incite them. And the image of Rancid that comes through here is one that represents their ambitions fulfilled: a band that can channel the friction and dark energy of society into music, and make the sound of that music accessible, fun, and weighty. The modest, even self-effacing Rancid that made this album is completely different from the Rancid that once blabbed about revolution: they've discovered that the world is a serious place, that behind the abstractions of banksters and politicians are real people who will suffer, and that it's okay to feel as if you can't do it all alone. In other words, with Let The Dominoes Fall, Rancid has finally grown up.


*The most prevalent tradition, anyway. You have your fascist punks and nihilist punks too (Sex Pistols being an example of the latter).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reconsidering the controversial fifth season of The Wire

I recently decided to revisit the most acclaimed television show of all time, The Wire, because...well, do I need a reason? It's a brilliant show, albeit not the uniform paragon of amazingness that some critics suggest it is. I'd argue that the show's third and fourth seasons are virtually perfect and constitute some of the finest television ever made, while the other three seasons fall short by varying degrees. Of course, all five seasons are extremely high up there in terms of quality--even the weakest season (that'd be number two, with the docks) is classic television, filled with terrific artistry, ideas and observations. Season one is a bit choppy compared to later seasons, as most first seasons usually are. The earliest episodes often include scenes that are a bit clunky--for example, the scene in which McNulty refuses to go on Daniels' raid falls flat because neither of the actors in the scene were quite comfortable with their characters yet to really go too far with it, and then there's the overwrought symbolism of D'Angelo teaching his underlings the rules of "The Game" by analogizing with a chess set--but it rights itself completely by the end of the season, and as far as character development goes, I doubt another season of television will ever match it. We are initially introduced to the characters and see only one side to them, but over the course of the season we see more and more sides in such a way that established character never quite gets broken so much as filled-in. Not only that, but almost everyone at the show has a chance to exceed expectations, though more than a few have chances to disappoint as well. The show handles character and theme so well that you might not even expect there to be a solid plot, though there certainly is. It's absolutely a classic, though with a few rough edges.

Season two marked a different direction for the show. The Wire went from being a cop show that tried to show both sides of the drug war from a variety of angles to a show trying to do something broader about life in America circa 2003. I think the show was successful at doing this, but only partly so. The plotline about the docks was interesting and engaging in a way that demonstrates the show's genius, but the show wasn't really able to balance the docks stuff with the police stuff, so the entire show was the docks that year. This was a little frustrating to people who wanted more season one-esque action and plotting. So little were the characters we met the previous year developed that you can effectively skip the second season, move onto the third, and not really miss too much that can't be quickly picked up, which is the only season that this is true of. McNulty spins his wheels, Daniels and Kima get estranged from their spouses, and we don't see too many new sides to any of our characters. The most relevant thing here is that D'Angelo gets murdered by Stringer. Now, none of this is bad or ineptly managed, so much as it's given too short shrift. As for the docks and dockworkers, they are mostly there to stand in for the beleaguered American middle/lower-middle class, which is fine enough, but the big problem here is that David Simon's anger about these issues is extremely palpable, and when Simon gets angry, he gets propagandistic. Hence the presence of Saint Frank Sobotka, the most noble union racketeer in history. The show portrays him in very favorable terms, as someone who is doing everything for other people and none for himself. He even lives in a normal, crappy house! I think the show ultimately decides that Sobotka's decision was the wrong one and had some bad consequences--dead girls, his son careening off the rails, and ultimately his own demise--but it doesn't seem like he had any other choice but to turn to crime, as the presence of a dockworker as a homeless person in the fifth season seemed to suggest. And the closing montage of season two suggests strongly that all the same stuff was going to happen with or without Sobotka, so why not try to save his union? Every season of The Wire contains a number of arguments, but in season two it all gets muddled. What are we supposed to take away from the second season? That the middle class is screwed, I suppose. This case, though powerful, is made unevenly. Sobotka's parting words about how we used to build shit in this country, but now we're just sticking our hands in everyone's pockets are actually more powerful now than they were back then, but getting there requires being the subject of a fair amount of proselytizing. I'd say it's worth it, but the concept needed a bit more playing around with to work.

Seasons three and four are the show's finest accomplishments, though they are surprisingly different in a lot of ways. Season three is a fulfillment of the show hinted at in season one--it's mostly about drugs, cops and crooks, though with a bit of political material that remains only a minor focus for the season. Fundamentally, season three is about the "Hamsterdam" experiment to tolerate the drug trade, and while the show in no uncertain terms believes that Bunny Colvin's experiment is disastrous, albeit one with a few good side effects (and, coincidentally, it is proof that the show's political viewpoint is decidedly not libertarian), the show treats Colvin as a good guy who tries something desperate with the best of intentions. Unlike Sobotka, Colvin is a real person, you have some idea of where he's coming from and you root for his experiment to be a success. Season four, conversely, is a fulfillment of the show hinted at by the second season, one that explores the city from top to bottom in an allegorical fashion, but one that achieves a much greater sense of balance among its storylines than season two did, and one that has a much greater sense of momentum. The season accurately diagnoses the problems of politics and education effectively, and it is able to turn unlikely things (like government finance) into compelling drama. There's a genius to all that, and The Wire seemed like The Clash after London Calling came out: it seemed like they could do anything. In both cases, that perception was quickly reversed upon the next release, but both cases produced flawed masterpieces that were excessive but packed with genius. Okay, I'm really done with that metaphor. Honest.

Season five is not quite as weak as season two, but it's got similar problems. Simon has often been noted as the angriest man in television, which is probably true, but while he's clearly angry at many things he's also quite good at making us feel empathetic toward people who are clearly pretty bad people, like Avon Barksdale or Stringer Bell. Every institution in The Wire seems to have its comparatively good people and its assholes. Moral comparisons are difficult--someone like D'Angelo is a killer, after all--but D'Angelo is clearly a conscientious guy who isn't comfortable with a lot of what he's been pressed into doing. The show is extremely good at manipulating empathy and showing how complicated people really are--even someone like Bill Rawls, who mostly exists to sabotage good police work and make the department look a lot more effective than it is--is a plausible character that you can identify with at times. I don't think too many other shows even try to show how complicated and contradictory human beings can be, but none are as successful. At least, none that I've seen.

In season five, though, this quality is simply not much in evidence. As in season two, Simon has found a topic that absolutely infuriates him: the state of the media. As in season two, this compromises his arguments, in many cases significantly. The newspaper plotline is clearly the season's albatross: full of unrealistic characters that are more types than people, where the internet doesn't seem to have been invented and that puts its points baldly and preachily. It's David Simon's Network. This isn't to say that all his points are wrong. Simon believes that cutbacks have significantly affected the quality of news, which is by all indications true. He believes that too many news executives care more about prestige and selling papers than saying what's really going on in the world, which seems to be true to me. He doesn't much care for big paper chains, which could be right. But all of these points are made with text (technically, with dialog), which is a problem. What's more, he adds in a fabulist character (a la Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair), which is supposed to tie in by showing that having to do "more with less" means that there's less resources/experience/will to crack down on bad reporting. But this whole story doesn't make much sense. Templeton (the fabulist) isn't able to get away with what he's doing because nobody has time to catch him. His editor is onto him from the start. He's able to get away with it because the paper's bosses are insufferable tools. Which is not really a new problem for news, I suspect, so much as it is grudge-settling for Simon himself after his forced departure from the Baltimore Sun some years ago. Simon doesn't get inside the heads of Klebanow and Whiting because he doesn't really try to. They're liars and idiots who are respectively evil and out of their depth, and no further nuance is required. The newspaper material is less of the season than I recalled, and it's not as prevalent as the port material was in season two, but it unfortunately sets an aggrieved tone for the rest of the season.

Indeed, that anger seeps into many other storylines this season. After spending several seasons hoping that McNulty would get his act together, the show has him backsliding right off the bat. Previously, the show always held that people could change, could be redeemed, with McNulty as the subject of all of this. Can McNulty straighten himself out? At first the answer seemed to be yes, and all of a sudden that is no longer the case? It's just anger, really, though those dramatic beats could have been done convincingly. Anger also in the case of Omar, who breaks his code to go after Marlo when Marlo kills his best friend. Anger in the case of Carcetti, who goes from firing a bad police commissioner for bogus stats to firing one himself for not falsifying stats in the course of less than one season. It's not that none of these character beats make sense, it's that they're all distinctly uncharitable and they're all really sudden. One can blame this on the shortened season, but I think it's just a factor of Simon's anger. That Namond, Carver and Bubbles stay on the straight-and-narrow muddles everything further. Then there is Herc, who seems to be all over the place this season. When the story requires him to be a mole for the cops, he is. When it needs him to be on Levy's side, he is. It's all rather sloppy, and while it does lead somewhere it's hardly satisfying.

It's too bad that this anger is so pervasive, because the major stories here (aside from the newspaper stuff) are actually quite good. Having McNulty and Lester fake a serial killer is a great idea, one that shows the self-righteous and self-immolating martyr sides of their personalities in new light. It's good character development, if not the sort of character development we might have hoped for. Really, it's the other side of the coin to all those sympathetic portrayals of drug dealers--we also have to see the ways in which our heroes are flawed in a way that we can't really relate to them. And then there's the Marlo stuff, which nicely shows his totalitarian impulse in some striking and shocking ways, and the brilliantly ironic ending to his arc is the perfect way to wrap up his story. Some of the final season's "reunion" moments--like Sobotka's nephew yelling at Carcetti--are really lame, while others (like seeing Randy again) are extremely effective. I suppose it makes sense that the most sturdy material of the show is the material that Simon is best able to understand and see multiple sides of, which is to say the cops/criminals material. That shines through in the fifth season, if a lot of other stuff doesn't.

Perhaps the problem isn't really anger so much as it is taking it personally. Simon is clearly angry about the drug war, but he doesn't take it personally and can view the whole thing with journalistic restraint. When it comes to the struggling middle class, or the even more struggling news industry, he can't quite find the distance to be objective. The generosity and empathy that Simon is usually able to find become scarce when things get personal. But while there are a number of problems here, I do feel like the pro's easily outweigh the cons here, and that a lot of the bellyaching really is because people didn't want to see Omar die, or McNulty fall off the wagon, instead of out of an objective view of what the show set out to do. Despite the angrier tone, the season really is a great accomplishment--perhaps not a masterpiece like its two preceding seasons, but still a show with something to say and some ability to say it. I can't say I'm sorry that season six of The Wire never happened, considering the trend here, but season five is still worth your time.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Worst Job Interview

For some reason, recently, I've been thinking about the worst job interview I've ever been on. I've been on a number of them in my day for programming positions, and the experience is usually about the same. There's usually a general portion that's similar to a garden-variety interview anywhere, and then often a part that seeks to test your technical knowledge by asking how you'd solve various technical problems. For example, you might be asked how you detect if there's a loop in a linked list of items. This stuff is usually more analytical than skills-based, and it's meant to tell if you can think like a programmer. Some companies switch this up, but most software shops do something along these lines. But few experiences in my life compare quite so negatively with an experience I had as a grad student checking up on a job prospect in San Diego, for a startup whose name I don't particularly want to mention.

Basically, the moral of this story is that I was young and stupid (and desperate to find a job after graduation). There's no other real explanation for why I endured such shabby treatment and didn't see so many obvious red flags. I'm not bitter about this experience only because it's quite obvious that these people had no idea what they were doing. Their recruitment process was amateurish to the extreme, and I generally attribute that to the ramshackle nature of the company. Most of the people I met there were nice, and the project, which was for a web-based OS, interested me. The leader seemed like a smart guy with some good ideas. I checked the interwebs and they're still around despite the economy, which doesn't bother me. In fact, I wish them luck. I'm just glad I didn't work for them.

Okay, the interview. The first sign of trouble was the itinerary. I was called out of the blue by someone from Company X (not its real name). The recruiting guy and I talked for a bit, and he asked some basic questions about projects I'd been on, languages I'd used, and so on. Evidently it went well enough for him to invite me to a proper interview over at the company's headquarters in San Diego. I thought this was really cool. In fact, my excitement was somehow not moved by the little fact that the plane left from SLO Airport at 5:15 AM. Now, that's early. But it meant I had to get up at around 3:00 AM, since I was living about 20 miles away from SLO at the time, in Atascadero. I'm not a morning person under the best of circumstances, but waking up at 3:00? Before an all-day job interview? I should have made an issue of it. I didn't know better then, I guess. I figured that this new company was cash-strapped and wanted to avoid having to pay for a hotel room for me, but I was really being set up to fail from the start.

But I went ahead with the plan. Got ready, drove really fast to SLO Airport. I actually rather enjoyed driving there at 4:00 AM, despite the tiredness. I encountered literally not one car on the 45-or-so minute drive, and I got to pretty much set my own speed limit. Quite a bit like Montana in many ways. I got there with not too much time to spare, paid for my parking for the day in advance (SLO has a weird system), and got on my plane to Los Angeles Airport. Yes, little SLO Airport doesn't do direct to San Diego. It felt a little silly to connect through LA to San Diego, but it wasn't that big a deal. I arrived at San Diego at around 8:00 or so. Needless to say there wasn't a car waiting for me. Needless to say the recruiting guy didn't even bother to tell me how I was to get there. I had an address, at least. Took a cab to the place. I was there an hour early, so instead of going in I just walked around San Diego for a while. I really liked what I saw. Every city has certain rhythms that are just embedded in its DNA, as well as its own look and feel. I really liked what I saw of San Diego, which put me in a good mood for the day. In retrospect, it would have been better if it had been a terrible, rainy, ugly day to put me in a skeptical mood, but it's San Diego! They never get those. I liked San Diego more than any city I'd been to since New Orleans. I was actually easily able to visualize myself there fairly easily, despite my non-partying ways. My impression was that it's a city full of outsiders, which is something I can definitely relate to.

I arrived at Company X's headquarters at the specified time. Met the recruiting guy. The first hour or two involved a tour of the facilities and meeting some people there. Not too much interesting here, though the tour guide had a tendency of talking up things as being more impressive than they were. It wasn't like she was talking about how awesome it was that they finally got flatscreen monitors or anything, but sort of in that vein. It just looked like a typical software shop to me. After all that, I listened to the bossman talk about their project. As I stated before, this was fairly interesting. He talked numbers and it certainly seemed like the business was growing fast. Considering how much stuff is done online now, the guy seems pretty prescient with his web-based OS (this was 2008 or so). Before lunch I did a paper exam sort of thing that was like the standard technical interview material I've described before.

Up until this point, I didn't really have much to complain about. Lunch was okay. There were, by the way, a whole batch of people interviewing with me. I seemed to be the only one from the West Coast, which was bizarre to me for some reason. Lots of people from the East Coast and the Midwest, but not really from the top schools in those regions. Lots of University of Iowa, stuff like that. I'm not being a snob here or anything, it was just curious what pool they were pulling from. And then there was me, geographically isolated. I could tell that the company people were really trying to push this thing about how work for them was a fun place to hang out, and they were really pushing that vibe, but frankly the whole thing was incredibly tedious. It's a job interview! Everybody was on edge, and the attempts to make everyone relax just put me more on edge. There were big stakes here, after all. It would have been better if they'd had an efficient, orderly process to get this done, instead of having me wait for two hours before I went on to the next phase of the interview.

And that next phase is where things started to go south. Keep in mind this was about 2:00 PM. I was already tired. I'd been up for eleven hours, with not a terribly great amount of sleep that past night. My brain was starting to shut down. My temper was starting to get a little more pronounced. I wasn't in a bad mood yet, but I was getting there. So now we were doing one-on-one interviews with their software people. Interminable waiting, as I said. They sent some people home after the written test, so I figured I was doing pretty well. I figured I'd have a quick sit-down with somebody and do a riff on the general questions about work experience, languages I know, and so forth. Most companies would do something like that. Instead, and I'm not making this up, it was an hour of lateral thinking puzzles.


Admittedly, this is a real bete noire of mine. I hate these puzzles because they usually have about fifteen different correct answers, only the "right" answer is the one the person happens to be thinking of, so ultimately it's a matter of whether you can guess what the person is thinking. This is worthless as any sort of measure of intelligence or creativity because it is not fundamentally testing my intellect. It is testing my guessing ability. This stuff might be fun as a game for junior highers but as a test of who you're going to hire? Better to know how quickly a person can learn a new programming language, or how easily they can explain what they've done on a project, or any manner of other things. Instead, we got asked questions like, "If you have two sticks that take 30 minutes to burn, but don't burn at a constant rate, how can you tell when fifteen minutes have passed?" I should have asked this dude if they write a lot of code about burning sticks, but I mostly just sat there for what felt like ten minutes (it was probably about ten minutes) stumbling, trying to get my tired brain to figure out how to burn sticks. It pissed me off quite a bit.

And the fun train didn't stop there. I got another interview after that (evidently we were supposed to have three sit-downs), and it was with this younger guy who thankfully left his Mindwarp book at home, but he asked me some questions that were so cliched and obvious that I wasn't even prepared for them. He literally asked me about overcoming an obstacle. What am I, applying for college admission*? I'm trying to get into UC San Diego or something? Who cares! He literally asked me for an instance when I thought outside the box. Outside the box! The "Where's the beef?" of tech talk. This was clearly a guy who took cliches seriously. What does that expression even mean? Does it just mean being creative? Because yes, I have been creative before. Does it mean taking an unusual approach to a problem? I'm doubtful that that's something to be celebrated in and of itself. As Michael Jackson (the software guy, not the late King of Pop) taught me, the problem with software is very often that it's needlessly messy and complicated. The virtue is finding the simplest, easiest, and best approach to a problem, not the most off-the-wall different one that nobody can even understand, not even the dude whose job it is to write it. Not only was this guy using cliches from 1998 or so in 2008, he didn't even seem to know what these questions were to mean. I froze up on the out-of-the-box one a bit because I was so tired, to my continuing shame. I wish I'd busted out something like this speech back then, but I would have been happier if I'd just left. Which I did shortly after that. Recruiting guy escorted me out, didn't say that I hadn't passed the test, but the fact that hardly anyone else was leaving was kind of a clue.

Here's the problem, though: I finished at about 2:45 or so. My plane left at 6:30. I was quite upset at what had happened and decided I just wanted to get to the airport to go home. Unfortunately, San Diego seems to be the worst place in the world to get a cab. The airport was only a fifteen minute drive from where I was, but the cab companies were not very responsive to my calls. I called one up and they said they'd have a cab over in fifteen minutes. A half hour later I called back. They said a few minutes. This happened a few times until I finally flagged one down myself. I didn't even call the jerky cab company. My mood was so bad by that point I wanted the cabbie to have wasted his time like he wasted mine. I went to the airport and thereby began the final, "adding insult to injury" phase of my journey.

Company X's goal with me was to interview me without paying for a hotel room. After all, I was sorta local. But the return flight to SLO was not as simple as the flight in. I had two connections, which essentially meant I had to catch three flights: San Diego to Phoenix, Phoenix to Vegas, and then finally Vegas to SLO, for five separate flights on the day. Estimated Time to Arrival: about six hours. So, basically, I was spending an equivalent amount of time on the plane as if I were going to New York. I didn't go into this thing very enthusiastically, knowing I'd botched the interview, angry at the inane questions. The whole thing felt like a waste of my time. But I was frankly pissed off at having to set foot in three states because the company was too damn cheap to spring for a hotel room (despite the fact that they were interviewing 30+ people from across the country and they sure as hell wasn't making them get on a plane at five in the morning). There was simply no choice at that point, though. I took the plane to Phoenix, which was fine. I have a very strong reaction to air travel--I wouldn't quite call it fear, because I'm not really that afraid that we'll randomly lose a wing or have a midair collision or something. I do have a fear of crashing, particularly into the ocean, but this is not relevant to the case at hand. I just hate air travel. I hate the police state that is the airport/airplane. I hate the cramped confines, the recycled air, the uncomfortable seats, and the rest of it. If it were a realistic option I'd absolutely take trains everywhere. I absolutely love public transportation.

As I indicated, though, leg one of The Long Journey Home was fine. It was leg two where I really began to feel it, though. For one thing, the Phoenix plane was delayed 30 minutes because we were waiting for other people to board--presumably people whose connecting flight had come in late. I wondered whether my plane in Vegas would behave similarly if I didn't make it there in the fifteen minutes I'd have once the plane landed. But even if that was at the forefront of my mind, I was frequently unable to concentrate, thanks to the baby who cried for every one of the 53 minutes of our flight. I felt myself getting sick (and I did indeed get sick shortly after the trip). Finally, we touched down in Vegas, and I literally ran across the entire airport in ten minutes to make my flight back to SLO. To borrow from Kelly McGillis, by this point my body was writing checks that it just couldn't cash. I made it to the SLO plane feeling like absolute garbage. Of course, the 30 minute wait until our turn to take off made me concerned about whether we would arrive before my car was towed away. I had prepaid the parking for just that day, you might recall. I tried to sleep but I was feeling a bit feverish. My brain wouldn't turn off. I tried to concentrate on the clouds to take my mind off of that day. At least when I arrived my car was still there. I don't remember anything about the drive back. I slept until late afternoon that day, which was lucky, since I only had a 5:00 class on Wednesday. Ah, the life of a grad student. How I do miss it.

And that's pretty much it. I got a call in a few days saying that I wouldn't be getting a job offer. I was less than broken up about it. And my anger subsided when I got a pretty good offer from the company I'm working for now. But this was such an epically bad experience--really, one for the ages--that I no longer felt like keeping it to myself. Hope you enjoyed it.

* For the record, I have never written an honest answer to any of the following questions for college applications: How did I overcome an obstacle? How did I rise above adversity? What was a difficult experience and how did I deal with it? Partly because the truth would be blunt and uncomfortable (i.e. for the first one, "I'm a straight white boy from the suburbs. I have been faced with zero obstacles. Please pick me for your school and help me dodge another one."), but also because I simply don't like this idea of using essays like this as shorthand for character. Having a stable upbringing isn't really a handicap, and while overcoming obstacles is admirable and definitely shows character, it's not the only way to acquire it. Of course, I wound up going to Cal Poly, the one school I applied to that seemingly had no interest in biography, so it was all beside the point.

Monday, April 5, 2010

In which the economy's heavy hand is stayed, at least for a time

I've never been a big fan of golf, despite my father's best efforts. He's always tried to get me into the game, but I've never really seen the appeal. I do like that it doesn't really require special clothing and that it usually takes place in very nice-looking locales, but I don't care for the pace, which is sluggish at best and absolutely intolerable at worst (i.e., when you're behind a slow group), I don't like the lugging of equipment (carts being verboten as somehow a negation of the whole thing as a "sport") and ultimately I can think of better ways to spend six hours. And being outside for that long is often unpleasant for me. When's the weather ever right for golf? In the Summer it's too hot to play, in the Fall it's too windy and chilly, Winter is deeply unpleasant, which I guess just leaves Spring, at least when it's not raining. My guess is that there are only about five or so weeks that are fit for playing a year. The only real reason to play is for the camaraderie, which is admittedly nice, though achievable via other means.

In any event, my dad and I were driving past the old course we used to go to in Roseville, Indian Creek. Which is something of a dump and long has been. There's more weeds than grass, it's only nine holes, barely raked sand traps, etc. My dad dubbed it "Billygoat Acres", which has sort of stuck, and while we have some fond memories of the place (and more than a little nostalgia), I don't really think we'll miss it, since it's been some years since we've gone there. Still, it's been there for who knows how many decades, a beacon of semi-rural continuity, manifested in the form of mediocre golf.

Anyway, The Goat (as it can be called) was sold a while ago to a developer in order to build new homes, which makes sense. You very rarely see new golf courses opened these days in California because they almost never make their money back. The only profitable ones are the ones where some guy bought 100 acres of land back in 1936 or so, when land in California was dirt cheap (pardon my pun) and set up a course. Now, land is just too expensive. California's housing market has been exploding for decades (before imploding a few years ago), land has become expensive, and when it comes to building a big new golf course, the numbers just don't add up. It's unsurprising that some golf course owners are considering dumping the land off to developers to build houses on--golf courses are usually in the nicer parts of town, and the land itself is usually very lovely. It's basic economics.

Except for that little housing downturn a while ago, which wound up ruining a certain developer's plans for The Goat. So, it's still there, in all its glory, and probably will be for some time to come. I have no idea if it's still operating (I sure hope so), but it survives for the time being. Knowing that makes me happy, though I'll probably never actually play another round there again.