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The Wire: It’s No 24!

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Dylan Matthews dug up Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times’ original review of The Wire. To say the least, it hasn’t aged well.

It’s all served up in dialogue heavy with police-speak and dealer-speak, sometimes unintelligibly so. The language is supposed to be realistic and maybe it is realistic, but it often feels self-conscious, like an overly thick Southern accent. That’s too bad, because when Mr. Simon and Edward Burns, who are credited with the writing of the first five episodes, pull back a bit, they sometimes achieve a rough eloquence.

”That’s what I don’t get about this drug thing,” McNulty tells D’Angelo in the second episode. ”Why can’t you sell the stuff and walk away? You know what I mean? Everything else in this country gets sold without people shooting each other.”

The real questions about ”The Wire,” though, involve not the style, but the audience’s level of tolerance. This is a series that requires commitment; it’s difficult to imagine a viewer dropping in for, say, Episode 3, then checking back again at Episode 8.

Yet ”The Wire” doesn’t have the pulsating, addictive urgency (or the obvious good guys and bad guys) of ”24,” which just completed a spectacular first season on Fox. It shows us a more realistic version of life, complete with down time, yack sessions, drunken story-swapping. Police officers (and drug dealers) are human!

I want to be fair here. First, there weren’t a lot of shows like The Wire in 2002 and so reviewers weren’t necessarily expecting the sort of long story The Wire was offering. On the other hand, The Sopranos had already pioneered this. Second, there’s probably a lot of regrettable reviews out there of art that was later widely acclaimed. Third, it does take a few episodes to really get into The Wire, although Genzlinger seems to have watched most of the first season here.

But still, to compare it unfavorably to 24. That is a very 2002 thing to do.

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  • Craigo

    “[24] shows us a more realistic version of life…”

    • MAJeff

      I think you’re misreading. The Wire, which isn’t as frenetic as 24, provides a more realistic version of life….

      • SP

        Ok, I can see that, confusing because the antecedant for “It” was “24”.

      • Craigo

        Oh, thank god, I think you’re right. I literally had no words.

        • MAJeff

          It took me a second read as well.

    • SP

      That was my first response. I know shit was crazy in the couple years after 9/11 but no one aside from some right wing nutjobs actually thought ticking time bombs were “a more realistic version of life.”

      ETA: Apparently a misreading, thank FSM.

      • UncleEbeneezer

        Alan Dershowitz would like a word with you, regarding his favorite documentary.

  • Antonin “Short-Time” Scalia

    Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles – he saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so. So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.

  • wengler

    The first season of 24 was actually good though. It was a new style of TV that was addictive and had good unexpected narrative turns. It’s very telling that it was the only season produced before September 11, 2001.

    • tsam

      I liked it all the way through. It just fun to watch.

    • Greg

      Not quite. I believe only the first episode or so of the first season was made pre-9/11. And they’d used up all the plot they intended for the full season by episode seven or eight.

    • CP

      I liked Season 1 for being (compared to what the show would eventually become) fairly low key. No WMD apocalypse, no Vast [whatever] conspiracies, just an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate, which turns out to be fallout from the Balkans war of a couple years earlier. Downright realistic compared to the next season and those after that.

      (Similarly, as much as I love watching James Bond take down Blofeld, Scaramanga, and Rupert Murdoch, my favorite movies will always be the less fantastic and more espionage centric ones like From Russia With Love, For Your Eyes Only and the Dalton era).

    • ochospantalones

      Yeah, 24 developed all sorts of problems over the course of its run, but the first season was quite good. The first half in particular is a pretty great thriller, and pretty much apolitical IIRC.

    • IM

      I only liked the first season too. I think the 24 hour concept didn’t age well

    • Gabriel Ratchet

      Also, while 24 was always pulp, it didn’t devolve into cartoonish right-wing wank-fodder until its later seasons. For instance, the first time the heroes consider using torture (which as I recall, didn’t even involve physically harming the suspect, but faking a video of his family being killed) they genuinely agonize over whether they really want to go there, whereas by the end they were basically saying “Perp won’t talk? Break out the cattle prods!”

      • CP

        Didn’t remember that. 24’s status as The Show Torture Lovers Keep Next To Their Bibles will always be a black mark against it, even though I still enjoy it (like you said, it’s pulp), but I didn’t remember that it had grown into it.

        I do remember watching Jack Bauer shoot a suspect in the first or second episode of Season 2 so that he could take his place and infiltrate the bad guys or something like that, and then telling off Mason by saying that people like him never want to get their hands dirty… and I remember being mildly startled by it. I remembered from Season 1 that Jack was capable of doing ugly things, but not that it was a default, go-to Plan A reaction.

        • liberalrob

          I’ve managed to not see a single episode of 24 so I’m not going to comment on its content…I will say that I’ve always read the arguments against 24 as not being so much about the show itself as how it was used as justification for bad policy and as a model for how things should work in real life.

          It’s called fiction for a reason, people! Real life doesn’t work like that!

          • CP

            Yeah, that particular excuse… only goes so far.

            Look, it’s a TV show the bulk of which was written in the Bush era/war on terror, which repeatedly showed a federal agent stopping terrorist attacks by torturing suspects. It wasn’t a little thing they picked up by osmosis: torture is as central to “24” as the “events occur in real time” format. There’s a reason TVTropes calls it a “Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique” and Jack Bauer Facts refer to his ability to find out anything through torture. Furthermore, people who object to torture and think it doesn’t work appear repeatedly throughout the show, and are repeatedly shown to be wrong, weak-kneed and unwilling to do what’s necessary to save American lives.

            It’s not just that stupid fans took “24” literally. “24” was pandering to these fans in the first place by creating a world in which all the fantasies they wanted to believe were vindicated. To handwave that as “it’s just fiction” is nonsense: the show was explicitly tapping into real world paranoia and anxieties and picking a side in a real world debate.

            It doesn’t mean “24” was pure right wing propaganda – many times it wasn’t (the thinly-veiled anti Iraq War subtext in Season 2 being an example). It doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy the show – most of us don’t pick our entertainment based on its ideological rightness. But neither is it just fiction unaffected by the real world, nor did it leave the real world unaffected.

            (Sorry for late response, was just rechecking old threads).

      • Halloween Jack

        Any discussion of 24 and how it changed from the first season (and particularly how it in turn changed the public perception, and government use, of torture) should include this New Yorker article on Joel Surnow and the show’s team; they heard directly from interrogation experts who told them that torture doesn’t work, and ignored them.

    • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

      The first season of 24 was damn good. It was all downhill from there, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t get it correct out of the gate (except for the Terri Baeur amnesia arc, which was obvious bullshit).

      And also, even the most dedicated Wire partisans acknowledge that you need at least the first 4 episodes to figure things out if you’re going in cold. Not sure where the implication is that the NYT reviewer watched most of the season, as sending out full or even majority-season screeners wasn’t a practice in 2002.

  • Joseph Slater

    I have no brief for “24,” but I do think the first season of “The Wire” was not nearly the best of the series (in fact, I would rank it ahead of only the final season).

    • wjts

      The first season wasn’t as good as Season 2 or Season 4, but I think it was at least as good as Season 3 and better than Season 5.

      • timb

        And, still pretty damn good. Wallace, D’Angelo, pawns, the slow emergence as Lester….what a great show.

        It’s not it’s fault that Seasons 2-4 were better

        • Lester Freamon is one of the great all-time characters.

          • Linnaeus
            • timb

              His insistence on the 4 months made m love him more

          • wjts

            I strongly suspect that The Simpsons is the only show that compares to The Wire in terms of the sheer breadth of interesting and distinctive characters.

          • Barry Freed

            Yes, so many in that series. And Stringer Bell is one of the all time great American characters ever. A Horatio Alger mash-up John D. Rockefeller and Al Capone.

            • All I know about managing a business I learned from Stringer Bell and Al Swearengen.

            • ThrottleJockey

              Stringer Bell…I loved him (though my gf loved him more–and for totally different reasons ;-)

              The only character I might have loved more is Omar. He was as ruthless as Stringer was cool.

              That was a damn good show. Certainly among the Top Ten in my lifetime. Maybe Top Five.

      • Linnaeus

        I’d say the first season was better than both season 3 and season 5, and as good or pretty close to season 2.

    • Katya

      The first five minutes of The Wire had me hooked. “Got to. This America, man.” It may not have been the best of the series, but it was still amazing. I knew from the first few episodes that I was watching something new. And I’m not the NYT tv critic.

      • Greg

        I was too distracted by Dominic West’s accent to appreciate that scene the first time through.

        • nixnutz

          I liked The Wire well enough but I never really warmed to McNulty, I always thought he was the weakest part of the show. It’s one of the reasons why I much prefer Treme.

          • wjts

            McNulty was a more-interesting-than-usual gloss on the Loose Wolf/Lone Cannon detective who plays by his own rules but gets results, damn it. The interesting parts were that his actions actually had some real consequences, both for him and for other people, and that he never fucking learned. I think Carver ends up being one of the most interesting characters on the show, because over five seasons he’s one of only a few people who turn out to be capable of learning from the things that happen to them and then changing the way they live their lives and do their jobs in response to that.

          • burritoboy

            You’re not really supposed to warm to McNulty. In fact, it would undermine the premise of the show – that the problems are systemic and can’t be fixed by one heroic or intrepid individual. If you were to warm too much to McNulty, the audience would become frustrated that the show didn’t simply make him the Police Chief or mayor or something.

            If you warmed to McNulty, the audience would be perceiving him as having high abilities to work within large organizations (i.e. that McNulty was a friendly or good or ultimately sympathetic person), which would make the solution to Baltimore’s problems simple – just promote McNulty. The Wire would turn into Blue Bloods. That McNulty does only a narrow range of things well but most other parts of his job and life extraordinarily poorly is telling us something important.

            • wjts

              In fact, when McNulty is put in charge of the “serial killer” investigation in Season 5, we see that promoting him would probably just make things worse.

            • Halloween Jack

              This. McNulty was in no small way an aversion of the Bad Boy/Cop on the Edge stereotype. Even the fifth season, which a lot of fans hated, went a long way (maybe too long) toward making that point.

      • Hogan

        Yeah, that scene is where they had me too.

        • wjts

          The first scene that I remember really grabbing me was the debate in the Pit over whether or not Alexander Hamilton had ever been president.

          • Greg

            For me it was when D’Angelo taught them how to play chess.

            • Craigo

              I generally hate chess metaphors with a passion; ninety-nine percent of the time they’re a way for lazy writers to imply intellectual depth without actually displaying any.

              “The king stay the king” is the only time I can recall this trope being done right.

      • trollhattan

        Yep, I dug in from Ep 1, as I’d been a huge “Homicide: Life on the Street” fan previously and “The Wire” was in some fashion, a repackaged version for cable–free from choppy production to accommodate commercials and the one-main-case-per-hour limitation.

        Which the reviewer likewise did not evidently ever watch.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Homicide: Life on the Street. A show that made me a permanent fan of Andre Braugher. A very different premise than The Wire but equally enthralling.

          • trollhattan

            Pembleton in the box!

    • brad

      Well, yeah, but season 4 was quite possibly television’s finest moment, and season 5 was very flawed both in its relative brevity and the single sided presentation of the newsroom. Rawls was a gaping asshole, but he was also a character with depth. Closeted gay, hated McNulty passionately but after Kima was shot took him aside to talk him down from blaming himself. The newsroom bosses barely even speak.

      • Craigo

        A criminal waste of David Costabile, too.

    • Halloween Jack

      It’s like arguing which of the peaks of an 8000+ meter mountain is the true summit.

  • medrawt

    Also, Season One by itself, with no knowledge of the rest of the series, is something like a superlative execution of the crime drama, at an extremely high level of artistry. The show’s larger ambitions and scope really only started becoming clear with the second season – which alienated at least some folks – so it’s really not until Season 3 and Hamsterdam that the show’s ultimate nature was probably clear to many viewers. (I happened to catch most of Season One playing in repeats on HBO shortly after it aired, and enjoyed it a lot but was surprised to notice a couple of years later that it had become a Celebrated Prestige Drama, though my subsequent catch up won me over very quickly.)

    • Greg

      Most of its fans never saw it as it aired. It was like Star Trek or Arrested Development in that regard. So most people who’ve seen it came in knowing it was Officially the Greatest TV Show Ever and saw everything through that lens.

      • brad

        Well, some of us were singing its praises from the very beginning. I saw that first ep broadcast, and every single one after (except for later seasons which leaked online first).

        The Wire and Deadwood were a combo which, sorry AMC, no channel will probably ever match.

        • Greg

          Remember that time when The Sopranos was only the third best show on HBO made by a man named David?

  • wjts

    Third, it does take a few episodes to really get into The Wire…

    I watched the first two or three episodes while I was visiting a friend back around 2004/2005. I liked them well enough, but I wasn’t exactly blown away. It wasn’t until I sat down and watched the whole first season three or four years later that I really got into it.

    • MAJeff

      I ended up watching all five seasons in the space of about a month. Did the same thing with Breaking Bad. Not sure why, but the former left me despairing for humanity less.

      • Robert M.

        The problem I had with Breaking Bad is its overwhelming nihilism: Walter White is existentially evil, and he hurts everyone around him even as he recreates them in his own image. Nothing in the show escapes.

        (Note that I’m not saying the show is less than brilliant; just that it’s hard to watch because its fundamental message is that evil is inexorable.)

        Whereas The Wire, by design, refuses to paint its characters in black-and-white terms: the criminals are acting from discernible, rational motives even when their actions are reprehensible, and the cops aren’t always nice or kind even when they’re acting ostensibly in the public interest.

        • Craigo

          “Walter White is existentially evil…”

          If that were true, he would have murdered Hank at the first sign of suspicion (and Jesse, for that matter).

          • Nobdy

            He also would not be obssessed with leaving money for his family (which he genuinely cares about and wants to see flourish).

            Walter White is ruled by arrogance and hubris. All his actions are driven by this. He’s not a sadist, he gets no pleasure from hurting people who do not threaten him or his self-regard, and he is not driven by some evil ideology. When he hurts others (which is often) it is because they got in the way of what he wants, or as part of what he sees as some extremely clever plan that will vindicate his genius.

  • matt w

    Eh, the last two paragraphs don’t seem inaccurate to me* as a purely descriptive thing; saying that The Wire doesn’t have the addictive urgency of 24 seems as true as saying that Proust isn’t as much of a page-turner as Harry Potter. It doesn’t mean Harry Potter is better.

    The real problem with the review seems like the next paragraph where he says “the human side of these characters may be of minimal interest; we’ve seen it before.” Which I think wasn’t true of the dealers at least. Also I thought Homicide was a Barry Levinson thing.

    *Going purely on the ambient impression I have of the shows — I’ve never seen any 24 and only one episode of the Wire (“The Code” from the first season) due to not having cable except in job interview motels. I know, I’m a bad person. Seems like, unlike everyone else, I was blown away by that one first-season episode.

    • timb

      Amazon Prime exists for a reason

      • NonyNony

        Free shipping?

        • Free shipping and free online access to HBO series of this vintage. I do not presume to address other issues that might affect your decision to do business or not with Amazon.

          • sharculese

            Plus FX/Comedy Central shows seem to show up free to stream relatively soon after they air.

          • timb

            that last part’s a conundrum

      • matt w

        Yes, yes, that’s why I said I was a bad person. (But right now I’m also not watching the Wire, or huge amounts of any other show, because reasons. I’ve only managed to watch one old X-file, for crying out loud.)

  • sharculese

    Third, it does take a few episodes to really get into The Wire, although Genzlinger seems to have watched most of the first season here.

    Without going back and checking, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that around five episodes in is about when Simon and Burns are done putting pieces in place (remember, critical stuff like Lester’s backstory doesn’t even show up til a couple of episodes in.)

    Given that, I don’t think it’s a particularly unreasonable article. That’s sort of the peril of episodic reviews. A lot of shows really don’t start to click until they’ve had time to establish things, and others take a minute just to find their tone.

    • sharculese

      See also: The Strain (which, full disclosure I haven’t watched yet.) Initial reviews were pretty underwhelming, but the past couple weeks critics have seemed more enthusiastic about. If that trend holds, how many people will remember that the initial episodes were seen as weak.

      Also, Hannibal, which spent the first five episodes shaking off the traces of it’s initial inception as a case-of-the-week show and only really started to click around episode 5 or 6.

      • wjts

        The first season of Parks and Recreation was pretty dire. 30 Rock didn’t start to hit its stride until the “Tracy Does Conan” episode.

        • MPAVictoria

          “The first season of Parks and Recreation was pretty dire.”

          Oh agreed. I always tell people to watch the pilot and then skip the rest until the start of Season two.

          Cougar Town is another one that started off pretty poorly but got much stronger by the end of the first season.

        • sharculese

          True. I wouldn’t have given Parks and Rec another chance had my mom not insisted I needed to. (And my mom has always had exemplary taste in sitcoms, so I don’t take her recommendations lightly.)

        • My wife had me watch the first couple episodes of 30 Rock but I thought it was kind of lame. Haven’t been back.

          • MPAVictoria

            Worth going back. A couple of their episodes are true classics and the relationship that develops between the two main characters is extremely interesting.

          • sharculese

            You really do have to at least give it until “Tracy Does Conan.” Or skip right to the episode. It’s not like it’s the most plot heavy show.

            You have to remember that, when it premiered, nobody was doing the kind of manic vaudeville pacing/humor 30 Rock attempted, and it took a little while to figure out how to make that work on a 21st century sitcom. The DNA of the show is there from the start, but it needs a little ironing out.

            • Gabriel Ratchet

              Hey, remember when people said Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was going to go down in history as one of the great shows of all time, while 30 Rock was just a cheap little knockoff that would be lucky to last a season?

              I still get a chuckle thinking of that.

          • medrawt

            I suggest “Jack-tor”, which was the 5th episode, and a high point of the early first season. If you don’t like it, the show probably isn’t for you. If you do, proceed accordingly.

            (And, as mentioned above, “Tracy does Conan,” which was the 7th episode; but “Jack-tor” has one of my personal favorite gags the show ever did.)

            • Hogan

              I can’t read! I sign my name with an X! I once tried to make mashed potatoes with laundry detergent! I think I voted for Nader! NADER!

              • medrawt

                “Man, George Will just keeps getting more and more conservative.”

          • matt w

            Another vote for skipping the first few episodes of 30 Rock.

      • wjts

        As for Hannibal: one of my roommates and I watched the first episode, expecting it to be sort of entertainingly awful in the same way Criminal Minds is. Our suspicions were confirmed when Jack Crawford mentioned the FBI’s “Evil Minds Research Museum”, something we were certain could only come from the mind of a third-rate television writer. “I hope I can get a post-doc at the ‘Evil Minds Research Museum’,” I remember saying. Turns out, we were wrong (page 14). And Hannibal did indeed get much better, though I don’t think I’d necessarily call it a great show.

      • medrawt

        I think there are two axes of reaction to The Strain (among those who are both watching [as I am] and somewhat negative [as I am]): one is that the first few episodes featured maddening amounts of inaction, establishing boring characters doing boring things, and very slow wheel spinning. The show has begun to ramp up the action, clue all the main characters into what’s going on (i.e., vampire invasion), and get to the fun stuff; in that sense, there’s an improvement, with the promise of a fun future, and a first five episodes that could probably have been much better handled.

        The other axis is that the show is deeply dumb (in my opinion), and I see no reason to think it’ll get any smarter, but that dumbness, if the tone is handled JUST right (in my opinion this has been dodgy so far), does not necessarily derail the Fun Train.

        • Barry Freed

          It’s still fun though and not as deeply dumb as Under the Dome.

          • Under the Dome was okay at first, but it got progressively stupider as it went on. The second season really is pretty terrible. I think I have at least five episodes on the DVR that I haven’t bothered to watch.

            • djw

              Yeah, the second season has progressed from “I’m not sure why I’m watching this” to “What the hell is wrong with me that I’m still watching this”

              • Barry Freed

                Exactly!

                (OMG I can’t stop laughing now).

  • calling all toasters

    it does take a few episodes to really get into The Wire

    By the time Snot Boogie’s friend said “Got to. It’s America, man.” I knew I was in the presence of greatness. That was, what, 4 minutes into the first episode?

    • Linnaeus

      Not even that long, IIRC.

    • Katya

      Came before the opening credits.

  • Tyro

    I want to be fair here. First, there weren’t a lot of shows like The Wire in 2002 and so reviewers weren’t necessarily expecting the sort of long story The Wire was offering. On the other hand, The Sopranos had already pioneered this.

    Kind of. But by 2002, it was fairly clear that any promises of an overarching story arc in the Sopranos were empty. The Wire gave viewers what The Sopranos didn’t deliver.

    • JL

      Also, Babylon 5 pioneered the long overarching story arc back in the early/mid ’90s, well before the Sopranos did it.

      • Barry Freed

        True, Twin Peaks too.

        And Buffy a few years later.

        • burritoboy

          The first American TV show (besides mini-series) to have story arcs over many episodes (more than two or three episodes) was Miami Vice in the mid 1980s. That example was followed by Crime Story and then Wiseguy in the period 1986-1987. Both Crime Story and Wiseguy were composed of a story arc that lasted a season. By 1990, the time of Twin Peaks, most viewers were reasonably comfortable with (or had at least heard of) the concept.

          • Warren Terra

            Are you giving credit to soap operas? Because prime-time soap operas (eg Dynasty) definitely had season-long plot arcs early in the 80s, and possibly before.

            • Barry Freed

              You know if we keep this up we’ll just wind up with Doctor Who.

              I know, “American” but work with me here folks. Did Dark Shadows do long plot arcs?

              • burritoboy

                Prime time soap operas had long arcs starting in the end of the 1970s and the 1980s, admittedly. I think we do have to give pride of place to Miami Vice, which showed that long arcs could work well outside of the soap opera genre. It’s pretty clear that the example of Miami Vice directly inspired the experimentation with long arcs evident from 1986 on (all of the shows utilizing long arcs in the mid and late 1980s borrowed from Miami Vice’s concept of a police investigation into a single crime or a single criminal extended over the length of a season.)

                British shows often had season long arcs from the early 1950s onwards. Dr. Who was not innovative in this respect within British TV history. The Quatermass Experiment (which has a single plot over all 6 of its episodes) predates Dr. Who by ten years.

                • I think we do have to give pride of place to Miami Vice

                  “It’s snowing on the beach.”

              • burritoboy

                Dark Shadows was a daytime soap.

          • altofront

            The first American TV show (besides mini-series) to have story arcs over many episodes (more than two or three episodes) was Miami Vice in the mid 1980s.

            My memory is a little shaky, but what about Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere?

      • Manny Kant

        I mean, yeah, Babylon 5 had a long overarching story arc. It unfortunately didn’t have much else going for it, besides great performances from Jurasik and Katsulas.

        ETA: That’s unfair. I greatly enjoyed Babylon 5, both on originally watching much of it first run, and rewatching it when I first got Netflix in 2005 or so.

        But it’s obviously not at the same level as Sopranos, much less The Wire.

        • liberalrob

          No, of course not. It couldn’t be. But for what it could be, it was one of the best.

          I think Star Trek: The Next Generation had experimented with longer arcs prior to B5 (mostly related to the Klingon Empire at first, with Worf’s backstory and the succession crisis). Miami Vice was seminal more for its aesthetics than as a police procedural: the bright colors of Miami Beach; the great electronic score by Jan Hammer, mixing in work from popular contemporary artists like Phil Collins, Glenn Frey, Sheena Easton (who even appeared as a recurring character), they even worked in James Brown. That hadn’t been done before.

  • brad

    Reminds me of Hornby’s review of Kid A for the New Yorker, in which he advised Radiohead to try to be more like Britney Spears.
    Tho at least he got canned for it.

    • sharculese

      Still not the worst review of Kid A.

      I had never even seen a shooting star before. 25 years of rotations, passes through comets’ paths, and travel, and to my memory I had never witnessed burning debris scratch across the night sky. Radiohead were hunched over their instruments. Thom Yorke slowly beat on a grand piano, singing, eyes closed, into his microphone like he was trying to kiss around a big nose. Colin Greenwood tapped patiently on a double bass, waiting for his cue. White pearls of arena light swam over their faces. A lazy disco light spilled artificial constellations inside the aluminum cove of the makeshift stage. The metal skeleton of the stage ate one end of Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce, on the steps of the Santa Croce Cathedral. Michelangelo’s bones and cobblestone laid beneath. I stared entranced, soaking in Radiohead’s new material, chiseling each sound into the best functioning parts of my brain which would be the only sound system for the material for months.

      http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/6656-kid-a/

      • wjts

        You are a horrible human being and I hate you for showing that to me.

        • mark f

          That’s not even the worst Pitchfork review of all time:

          John Coltrane
          Live at the Village Vanguard: The Master Takes
          [Impulse!]
          Rating: 8.5

          The Village Vanguard. New York City. 1961.

          We was sittin’ there watchin’ the stage. Waitin’ for the man they called Coltrane to come out and do his thing. It was me and my four droogs. Them bein’ Peter, Georgio and Dim; Dim being really Dim.

          ‘Round an hour’d passed and the place was packed straight through to the back. I’d just dropped some dollars for ‘Trane’s Giant Steps six months back. Now was the time, this was the place. The Village Vanguard. New York City. 1961.

          I was only there for the first night, see, but them cats at Impulse! just made my life complete. They put out four CDs of all that sound ‘Trane put out those nights. But you know my type, man. Can’t afford to eat, let alone spend some heavy cash on music. So I only got the essential. Live at the Village Vanguard: The Master Takes is one disc, makin’ it one-fourth the cost of the box set. And you only get the best stuff.

          Man, the opening beauty of “Spiritual…” It’s like a dream I had: I floated on the River Nile, smokin’ some fresh weed, relaxin’. But I ain’t ever gonna see the Nile anyhow. This track’s as close as I come, and it’s close enough. Best of the best, though, has gotta be “India.” It’s only when you listen to a perfect old jazz tune like this that you realize how much drum-n-bass is derived from this music. ‘Trane takes it to heaven and back with some style, man. Some richness, daddy. It’s a sad thing his life was cut short by them jaws o’ death.

          Shit, cat. It don’t make a difference. The man produced enough good music to last me a lifetime. This Village Vanguard thing’s just another example of the genius of Coltrane.

          -Ryan Schreiber

          • What the hell?

            • mark f

              Shit, cat, this blog be written by droogs.

              • Barry Freed

                That’s some gloopy chepooka there. I had to wipe me glazzies, thought I’d been tolchocked in me gulliver. He should slooshy some Ludwig Van.

            • HA, I saw you tweet that link before I saw it here, and that’s the exact same reply I gave you about it.

              • Barry Freed

                Speaking of Twitter, I love your handle.

          • brad

            And that’s pitchfork’s founder, everyone, just in case you ever wondered if you were imagining the latent racism.

            • He might as well have written it in early 20th century style dialect.

            • Warren Terra

              What I noticed is that he couldn’t count to four:

              me and my four droogs. Them bein’ Peter, Georgio and Dim

              • Barry Freed

                I blame the moloko vellocet.

          • wjts

            Fuck this planet.

          • sharculese

            I always assumed the worst Pitchfork review was the Slanted & Enchanted reissue where the reviewer decided it would be cute to do the whole thing in illegible scrawl on yellow legal paper.

            I wish I still thought that.

  • Nobdy

    The review as a whole comes off as mixed (not terribly negative) and seems aimed at the average viewer (discussed several times) rather than those who are specifically interested in ‘highbrow’ TV (such as it is.)

    While I love The Wire, it was never a huge hit, and 24 was a massive blockbuster hit, and quite a good show for at least a little while, until the politics of the time and the pressure of its premise caused it to collapse in on itself. The average viewer probably would prefer early 24 to early the Wire.

    A critic’s job isn’t always to encourage the audience to cultivate finer tastes. Sometimes its to tell them what the critic thinks it will like.

  • MPAVictoria

    Follow up question, which tv show had the best first season?

    So many great possible responses to this question…

    The first season of Rome is pretty amazing. So was the first season of Lost….

    Thoughts?

    • brad

      Deadwood, Deadwood, and Deadwood.
      I’m of a minority who thinks the show was never as good as that first season.
      Rome was compromised in its second season by wanting to finish the story. There are single eps in the second half of the second season which could have been entire seasons.

      If we’re getting semi-obscure Superjail has never matched the gonzo alt comix vibe of its first year.

      • Greg

        If Deadwood had been cancelled after its first season, I might agree, and even still hold it up as one of the greatest shows of all time. But seeing what it blossomed into in its second season, it’s hard to really see the first season as anything but a lead-in to the good stuff.

      • MPAVictoria

        “Rome was compromised in its second season by wanting to finish the story.”

        Man you ain’t kidding, the last 2 or 3 episodes are basically a sprint to finish the story. Real shame as the first season had almost perfect pacing.

      • Johnnie

        Superjail works way better in shorter doses.

      • Barry Freed

        Deadwood is awesome the whole way through.

        • brad

          Agreed, but I liked Swearingen more as a genuinely mixed character rather than the thief with a heart of gold he turned into.
          And I realize that’s overly simplistic phrasing which is unfair to the actual depth of the character across the series. But in the first season he could be downright evil.

          • Barry Freed

            I read Deadwood as a depiction of the formation of the state. In the wild and wooly beginning it’s all catch as catch can and everyone for himself but as things develop and settle down ongoing concerns develop real interests in more stable forms of governance in order to insure their good things keep going and Hearst threatens that to the core. So it’s less that Swearingen becomes a “thief with a heart of gold” to me than he is forced to take on a more respectable and stable role as one of the town’s leading authorities simply in order to protect his own interests.

            Part of what makes him so interesting in later seasons is his own budding and at times grudging realization that this is so.

            • mark f

              That’s exactly what it is. Milch originally pitched it as early Rome, but Rome was already in development.

              Also latter Al is less “thief with a heart of gold” than “aspiring rentier with a survival instinct.”

              • Barry Freed

                I wished he’d been able to make another season or two of Luck, that show was just getting really interesting when all those dead horses* shut down production.

                *Insert Erik Loomis joke here

              • MPAVictoria

                wow. Now that is interesting.

            • brad

              I still agree with more or less all of that. Maybe it’s just a personal bent. I tend, in most narratives, to be more interested in how the stage is set than seeing the game played out. But I do realize the entire series is, essentially, ongoing set building. I love all of it, I just find the first season the most compelling and involving.

        • Warren Terra

          I liked season one immensely, found season two to be a slog, and haven’t watched season three.

          More than anything else, what irritated me about season two is that none of the characters changed except to become less distinct and cuddlier. If they’d been willing to make one of them unsympathetic or to kill a main character, it’d have helped. I think the bit where Timothy Olyphant’s plastic saint character’s adopted kid dies for no better reasons than melodramatic pathos and plot convenience did it for me.

          • Scott Lemieux

            The Olyphant character was the primary reason I scoffed at people who thought that Deadwood was superior to the Sopranos.

            • To the show’s credit, by season 3, Bullock was an increasingly minor character.

              • sharculese

                Right, yeah. I like what Olyphant did with the character but if you’re watching Deadwood for Bullock you’re doing it wrong.

                Also, as someone who is watching The Sopranos at this second (“Amour Fou”) I would just like to say it is not a show that is always consistent in its characterizations.

          • Barry Freed

            They done killed Ellsworth!

    • Greg

      I’ve been rewatching Lost recently, and I’m noticing that the first season is kind of boring. Maybe it’s because they’re spending so much time on characters I know aren’t going to be that relevant and the characters I like won’t be introduced for another few seasons.

      But to answer your original question, I’d say 24, the Original Star Trek, ER, Heroes, The Americans, Orphan Black, Friday Night Lights, and The West Wing all had strong first seasons. Some would get better from there and some would get worse, but compared to most other shows they came out of the gate pretty much fully formed. Interestingly, the only comedy I can think of that found its creative footing in its first season is Friends.

      • MPAVictoria

        How did I forget the West Wing! Great suggestion.

        As for comedies, what about Fraser?

        • Greg

          I was only 11 when Frasier first aired so I couldn’t say. Needless to say I was nowhere close to the target demographic for that show.

          • MPAVictoria

            ha! Fair enough. Last time I checked it was all up on you tube if you want to give it a watch. I ended up watching the entire series at over lunch break at work.

        • royko

          West Wing season 1 is good, but I liked season 2 better.

      • sharculese

        Orphan Black had a lot of great things going on in season 1, but it’s really held back by the lack of a coherent opposition for Clone Club (no, Olivier was absolutely never that). It maybe looks better now that we know more about Dyad, but even when Leekie first appeared back in “Variations Under Domestication” there was kind of a ‘where are you going with this’ vibe about things which was absolutely compounded by the parts of that episode that had nothing to do with him being so awesome.

        • Greg

          I miss Sarah playing Beth trying to stay ahead of the rest of the cops. That’s why I prefer season one to season two. She’s not boxed in enough these days.

          • Barry Freed

            Yes this. And I’ve never particularly cared about where it was going, that’s not the point.

            • sharculese

              I dunno, I think that kind of is the point. I always expected the show to be a high octane sci-fi thriller (there are clones! and bad guys! and looming death!), it just felt like season 1 didn’t always knew how to do that and fell back on the character work.

              But it’s still true that the awesome character work is mixed with uneven attempts to move the plot along, and that holds the show back.

      • Barry Freed

        Heroes definitely. And Heroes definitely should have ended with the first season.

        And while I have great hopes for Peter Capaldi I have to say the first season reboot of Doctor Who with Christopher Eccleston belongs there too, David Tennant notwithstanding.

        • wjts

          I don’t know about the first season of New Who. Russell Davies was incapable of writing an interesting (or even coherent) season finale, and while “Bad Wolf” wasn’t as thoroughly awful as “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords” it was still pretty bad.

          After watching the first Capaldi episode this weekend, I am cautiously optimistic, although I hope that the manic wackiness of the Tennant/Smith years gets toned down even further. And I am less than thrilled that Steven Moffat has provided us with yet another female character whose most obvious traits are: 1.) being flirty 2.) being a little off-kilter and 3.) being in love with the Doctor.

          • Barry Freed

            Oh we’re going to have to disagree about “Bad Wolf” which I found awesome the whole way through to that end when Rose looks into the heart of the TARDIS..” I can see the whole of time and space, every single atom of your existence, and I divide them”… Gives me chills that. The Sound of Drums was meh but Derek Jacobi as The Master was great. Smith was pretty uniformly terrible.

            • wjts

              Derek Jacobi was great as the Master. Derek Jacobi’s weird alien geisha/sex kitten sidekick was creepy and insulting. John Simm as the Master was awful.

            • Manny Kant

              Smith was uniformly terrible? Now I cannot take seriously your views on anything.

              • Barry Freed

                Ha. Okay, he’s had his moments. And it’s not really his fault, I think it mostly comes down to Moffat. As good a writer as he was under RTD (and he was great then) Moffat is just not very good as a showrunner himself. To take the most egregious example, the whole River Song arc which was spread over several seasons fizzled and came to nothing.

                • Manny Kant

                  There’ve definitely been some flaws to Moffat as a showrunner (I tend to be a bit of an apologist, but I definitely understand why so many people are unenthusiastic). But I think Smith was actually a pretty great Doctor.

      • IM

        BSG too.

      • royko

        Season 1 of ER was pretty freaking great. Everything after was sort of a very slow unravelling.

    • CP

      Firefly.

      For a show that only ever got one season, damn if it wasn’t a memorable one.

      • Darn you all to heck.

        • CP

          ::cusses back in Chinese::

        • timb

          Amen. There’s still a hole in my heart for missing Firefly

          • Barry Freed

            *cries softly, sniffles* Now why’d you have to go and remind me of Wash like that?

        • Warren Terra

          I think you mean, darn you all to blister in heck for all ittle while.

    • UncleEbeneezer

      Battlestar Galactica’s first season was pretty epic. I’m watching (first time) now with my wife who is re-watching the series. We are mid-season 3 and I’m way less hooked than I was in 1 & 2.

      I would also nominate Boardwalk Empire but really it’s more of 2-season story arch. First season was fantastic on it’s own but becomes more brilliant as Season 2 resolves alot of the earlier pieces.

      • brad

        Boardwalk Empire really didn’t ever need to make anything past the first ep.
        BG is a good call, especially considering how badly it ended.

        • Warren Terra

          especially considering how badly it ended.

          Indeed; If your wife hasn’t warned you already, Ebeneezer: quit BSG at least before the last half-dozen episodes.

      • Barry Freed

        I’ll need to rewatch it but I thought BSG really hit some high points in the 2nd and 3rd seasons too, especially with the occupation of New Caprica. The last season stunk on ice.

        • Denverite

          I really only thought the last season was awful.

    • First season of Firefly?

      • Greg

        Single season shows shouldn’t count, IMHO. Even if they did, I’d put My So Called Life and Freaks & Geeks higher than Firefly.

        • Your opinion notwithstanding, that was not a limitation in the original question. So, just as Johnny Ramone snuggling a kitten, your argument is invalid.

        • Also, bite me because Firefly.

        • rhino

          You would what????

          Did you vote Nader, by any chance? Believe in intelligent design?

          Just trying to see if there’s a pattern.

    • burritoboy

      Many TV shows only had one season, and in that spirit, I would say the original Edge of Darkness.

      • Barry Freed

        That was great.

        For American science fiction there was Space: Above and Beyond which was very good.

        • And there was Space:1999 which…was not.

          • Barry Freed

            I still have fond memories of it.

          • It wasn’t American, and it wasn’t a single season.

    • calling all toasters

      Jersey Shore.

    • Malaclypse

      Follow up question, which tv show had the best first season?

      Battlestar Gallactica.

      • John Protevi

        Veronica Mars deserves mention here too

        • altofront

          Hear, hear. And then what a strange decline. Season 2 was kind of fascinating if you didn’t look at it too closely, but the energy was all off, and Season Three was more or less unwatchable. Interestingly, in light of this thread, it’s clear that the show-runners were told with Season 3 to avoid season-long arcs.

      • wjts

        The surprisingly excellent True Detective, although one could make a pretty good case that that’s more akin to a miniseries.

        • Denverite

          An eight part crime procedural set over two decades on the Louisiana bayou starring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, and Athena’s daughter from the first Percy Jackson movie? With lots of nudity and sex involving at least three of the above actors?

          Why on earth would its excellence be surprising? That sounds like a surefire recipe for awesomeness if you ask me.

          • wjts

            Because Woody Harrelson (who, True Detective aside, hasn’t turned in a performance I enjoyed since Cheers went off the air) and Matthew McConaughey (who, True Detective aside, hasn’t turned in a performance I enjoyed since… never. I have never enjoyed watching Matthew McConaughey in anything other than True Detective) doing chicken-fried pseudo-philosophical noir (which is what I figured the show would be based on watching this clip in isolation) sounded like a surefire recipe for awfulness. It was only after everyone started talking up the Robert Chambers connection that I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did (although I seem to be the only one who didn’t like the episode with the six-minute tracking shot).

            • Manny Kant

              Dazed and Confused?

              • Denverite

                A college girlfriend was suitemates with someone from Austin High who had a bit role (more than extra, but not by much) on the film. She had some crazy stories about filming.

            • Denverite

              Yikes. Totally disagree. Harrelson was affirmatively great in People vs. Larry Flynt, Kingpin and Welcome to Sarajevo. He was good and/or watchable in a ton of other stuff (White Men Can’t Jump, Indecent Proposal, Thin Red Line, etc.).

              McConaughey was great in Lone Star (really underrated film), very good in Dazed and Confused, U-571, EdTV, Magic Mike, and maybe one or two others, and watchable in the romcom dreck he starred in in the 00s.

              • wjts

                I forgot about Lone Star. You win this round.

              • liberalrob

                I really liked McConaughey in Sahara and Reign of Fire. And Contact, for that matter.

            • burritoboy

              To pile on, what about McConaughey in Newton Boys, Mud, Killer Joe or Bernie? That is, in addition to Dazed and Confused and Lone Star.

    • CP

      I forgot –

      Airwolf. The series largely started to suck after the first season, but if you limit yourself to that season, it’s one of my favorite espionage shows.

      • liberalrob

        If Airwolf, then why not Knight Rider…

        • CP

          Cause I never watched Knight Rider.

  • Barry Freed

    Anyone watching Extant? Is it any good? I’ve got some episodes DVR’d but I’m not sure if I’m going to watch them.

    • royko

      I’ve been watching it. There are some good ideas (maybe too many) in there but it’s pretty jumbled. Lost was better about throwing you a curve ball (trombone wail!) every couple episodes, and Extent lacks those dramatic shockers. It’s not bad but it’s slow.

    • Denverite

      boooorrrrrriiiiiing

      The Strain is pretty watchable, though.

  • advocatethis

    Sorry, almost completely off-topic, but whenever I see 24 the first thing that comes to mind is Willie Mays (in fact that was the first thing I thought of when I first saw a billboard for the series, down around 3d Street in San Francisco, in the fall of 2011). I almost always have to pause and recalibrate before I can join whatever discussion is actually taking place.

  • Gwen

    What fans of “The Wire” fail to understand is that it lacks the naturalistic direction and mature dialogue of “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.”

    • IM

      You can’t argue with success.

    • Manny Kant

      Are you making fun of bronies, or are you a brony who actually believes this? Or is there not actually any difference between those two things? I don’t even know anymore.

      • Barry Freed

        If you can’t tell the difference maybe it’s because you are the brony.

        After all, you never know just how you look through other people’s eyes.

        ;-)

        • Manny Kant

          The reference to the Butthole Surfers lyric doesn’t work as well in a conversation not about the Butthole Surfers, but I’ll give this a B+ for effort.

  • Duvall

    The thing you need to understand about New York Times reviews of television is that you should not read them.

  • opinions about TV shows are like opinions about music.

    Fuck you, your favorite band (TV show) sucks.

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