What You Should Think About The Wire

November 9, 2007

“. . . until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence in the news, there is no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.”

–Alicia Silverstone in Clueless

I remember being disappointed with NBC when they pulled the plug on Homicide: Life on the Street. Whether I was a college student or a yuppie working 60+ hour weeks or a hippie hardly working at all, it was the one series I always made time to follow. It took television to a place the medium hadn’t really been in the past, and it continued to generate top quality dramatic entertainment right up to the very end.

Frontline did a nice piece on the struggle to keep the show going even though Homicide was neck in neck in the ratings with Nash Bridges. In a less consequential but similarly gloomy way, I felt this made the kind of negative statement about our culture the world saw more clearly in the 2004 Presidential election. Still, right up to the end, Homicide managed to keep its integrity and turn out television that was rich with dramatic intensity and technical artistry.

Nowadays when people think of those virtues in television content, the tendency is to look at premium channels, with HBO leading the charge. The Sopranos was a cultural phenomenon that rightly deserved nearly unversal praise of the highest order. Yet HBO has proven in the past decade that it is capable of supporting many bold efforts to produce television content that realizes the potential for artistry in the medium. Lurking in obscurity relative to its cousin from New Jersey, The Wire capitalizes on the creative freedom premium channels encourage while carrying on with some of the best traditions established with Homicide.

In fact, both programs are centered on law enforcement operations in Baltimore. However, with The Wire we see even more of an effort to remove the filters between harsh realities of life in an urban environment plagued by crime and the experience of viewing the program. Tremendous effort has been made to give each character an authentic voice. It may be that most of the gangsters in the show are portrayed by educated professional actors, but it is easy to forget that fact as they set aside the lessons of voice coaches and stage experiences in favor of a profoundly natural mode of human interaction.

Likewise, law enforcement characters are portrayed with their own occupational quirks and colorful language. In the fourth episode of the first season, there is an amazing scene in which two homicide detectives do a significant amount of investigative work while engaging in richly detailed dialog that is confined to a single word. Variations in tone and context make it possible for both characters to express a wealth of information without venturing beyond the vocabulary of that particular expletive. Gems like that provide a generous payout of entertainment value for viewers willing to stare directly into the show’s stark depictions of drug addiction and street violence.

Perhaps a fair touchstone for the whole thing would be the teaser at the start of it all. The first episode begins with a detective questioning a minor gang associate about a dead body on the street. As the reluctant witness is coaxed into providing some background on the decedent, it turns out the man had a habit of robbing back-alley dice games. He would show up and make small wagers of his own, but as soon as a large amount of cash was put into play, he would swipe it and run from the group. When asked why the thief was allowed into the games again and again in spite of his conduct, the uneducated gangster displayed his understanding of Constitutional law by replying, “you got to let the man play — it’s America!”

The series rarely becomes so bogged down as to lack a mix of intrigue and action. Yet even in its slowest moments a mix of wit and philosophy is there to keep viewers engaged. Both levity and profundity tend to emerge naturally from the story as it unfolds. The biggest laughs and the deepest thoughts come to viewers from unexpected angles, rather than being presented as heavy-handed contrivances.

Each season offers up a relatively self-contained story arc, though it all begins as a detective sits in court watching yet another murder acquittal resulting from a street gang’s capacity to neutralize witnesses. With rampant apathy in a criminal justice system overmatched by the resources of drug-funded criminal organizations, a policeman intent on observing a trial for a case that was not even his own work draws attention. A judge also more motivated than most public servants in the show solicits the detective’s advice on how to deal with these seemingly indomitable gangs. The end result is a police task force that gradually manages to collect insight into the inner workings of a substantial criminal empire.

The show is fraught with events that repudiate the notion of karma. Then again, life itself has been known to exhibit just the same sort of injustice. For example, the apparent protagonist of the series, having created extra work for his associates by conversing with that judge and pushing for a thorough investigation from the task force, finds himself starting the second season with a new assignment specifically selected to make him miserable.

In the third season, a supervisory officer on the brink of retirement displays an uncommon level of thoughtfulness about the relationship between narcotics commerce and violence. While concealing his activities from other police commanders, he orchestrates a “no enforcement zone” where drug peddlers have been assured they can ply their trade without being arrested for it.

Though the project is slow to get traction, when gangsters in the area start to trust that the whole proposal is not a setup, it produces impressive results. Social services are more easily administered with drug commerce openly occurring in a small area rather than taking place covertly on street corners all around the district. The opportunity for easy money provides a strong incentive for the gangs to avoid violence. In the end, the project known on the street as “Amsterdam” unravels because of its own success — other police commanders become curious as to why crime has fallen so remarkably in that area, and the end of the secret becomes inevitable.

Now the days of The Wire are also numbered. The fifth and final season has already been completely filmed. Presently HBO on Demand is rolling through the previous seasons to give newcomers a chance to dial in to the story so far. Also, DVD collections of the first four seasons are widely available. Even if television writers had not decided to strike for a better share of the proceeds from direct media sales of content, this series would be an excellent way for anyone who enjoys good crime drama to spend some time. With the rest of the medium facing a form of artistic paralysis, all the more reason exists to take a look at this amazing confluence of Homicide‘s tradition of grit with HBO’s capacity for supporting artistic freedom.

What You Should Think About Civilization IV

October 13, 2007

“When I was a kid, I went to the store and asked the guy, ‘do you have any toy train schedules?‘”

–Steven Wright

Since it took me all of one week to break the “tradition” of being lighthearted on Friday, I will atone with a game review. Yet this is no wild departure from my usual fare. Civilization IV is the current generation in a line of computer games that have been decidedly cerebral from the beginning. In fact, the roots of the franchise are in a tabletop gaming line developed by Avalon Hill. That enterprise blended traditional military wargaming concepts with a sort of creativity many would associate with today’s shareware and open source gaming communities.

However, the original Civilization PC game was a commercial product. It also may earn a place of note even in distant historical reviews of electronic entertainment. Just as 8-bit graphics were becoming the new standard and digital audio cards were symbols of gamer status, Microprose released a turn-based game with simple tiled graphics. Still, it was colorful, and at the time the MIDI musical score seemed impressive.

Much more impressive, even today, was the gameplay. While the precursor board games involved playing various types of cards and moving tokens about to claim territories in a particular region, computerized Civilization was much more ambitious. Starting with a small wandering tribe, a player was charged with raising up a great civilization. “Greatness” could be defined as governing an overwhelming majority of the world’s population, using military might to eliminate or subdue all rivals, or even being the first to launch a viable colony ship toward Alpha Centauri.

Obviously there is complexity in simulating all those sorts of competitions ongoing at the same time. Interrelated models of agriculture, industry, and commerce cover the basics of human endeavor. Once your tribe has settled down to found a city, the population can be assigned to work the land. Excess food eventually produces population growth. Industrial efforts may raise armies, buildings, or local civic institutions. Commercial output can be apportioned between taxes to maintain the fruits of industry, luxuries to keep large populations content, and research to develop new technologies.

Perhaps none of this is all that impressive to people who play computer games in 2007. In 1991 it was the stuff of hardcore academic simulations. To see it all so colorfully presented, in various contexts all strong on the fun factor — it was a marvel to experience. Building on geographical approximations of Earth (or particular regions) or even from a randomly generated habitable planet, all manner of strategies were viable. A creative pacifist might trade generously and focus on science while maintaining a token army of border city garrisons. An aggressive militant might tax heavily and emphasize conquest, staying competitive technologically by seizing spoils from rival nations. The game was pure realpolitik — it only made judgments as to what was effective or ineffective, never what was morally right or wrong.

Of course, it was not perfect. Given the high standards countless excellent products have created in the intervening years, the original Civilization may seem quaint today. Yet its successors would keep apace with the industry and break new ground along the way. Civilization II offered a much increased scope, and it followed the mid-90s trend of incorporating live action video sequences into game play. Civilization III took a step back in terms of breadth in order to reduce the extremes of persistence and coordination required to run sprawling empires in its predecessor. Relatively recently, Civilization IV emerged to offer even keener focus on strategic elements while at last taking the franchise into the realm of 3D graphics.

There are historical simulations with more detail and accuracy than Civilization permits. There are also computerized wargames that offer more adrenaline and spectacle than Civilization. Yet I believe for personal computers there are no truly intellectual games that can rival its fun factor, nor any outright thrilling simulated conquests that can rival its depth. The latest version expands greatly on the development of world religions while also adding significant detail in several other areas. This is to say nothing of the expansion packs* with their innovative features like spreading culture through multinational corporations or their exotic scenarios like Zombie Apocalypse.

I believe Civilization can rightly be described as intellectual because it combines the best of abstract thought experiments with many of the better features of a macroeconomic simulator. Of course it is not a perfect representation of any point in real history. However, it does make possible learning by trial and error — all too often the same process real heads of state use to work toward proficiency in their jobs. Every strategy can be answered with a variety of strong responses. Even in single player games, foreign leaders have distinct personalities, thus posing distinct challenges as rivals or allies.

Among other things, it teaches the staggering interdependence of factors in any society. Few people are surprised to find that slight disruptions can have far-reaching consequences in a modern industrialized nation. Yet even in ancient times, a regional food shortage or an untimely budget crunch could trigger a much bigger crisis. Sometimes a faction simply fails to get traction, or becomes marginalized by crippling defeat. Even so it is not uncommon to see 2-4 superpowers vying for victory. Each rival must be monitored carefully to avoid being blindsided by a sudden Space Race victory . . . or a surprise attack.

Even nuclear weapons have been a part of Civilization from its first computerized incarnation. A major industrial push can produce a great project. In some cases these may be Wonders of the World, like the Colossus of old or the Three Gorges Dam of today. Others will simply imbue a civilization with a new capability. For example, building the Internet accelerates scientific research throughout your entire civilization. Each faction may pursue the Manhattan Project, though it is also possible after someone has constructed the United Nations to take action to prevent nuclear proliferation.

It may sound complex, but the wonder of Civilization rests on a something near to paradox. The above paragraph just glosses over a few details — a molehill of complexity visible on the mountain of it offered up in a standard game. Yet it is not an activity that demands advanced education or exhausting concentration. It surely provokes thoughts, including a deep one from time to time. All the while it still manages to be a game that actively celebrates the joy of gaming.

Perhaps the best way to sum it all up is to describe one significant symptom of becoming a Civilization enthusiast. Known to some as “one-more-turn-itis,” it is the inability to step away from a viable game even when real life beckons an individual not otherwise entangled in gaming addiction. Each turn brings with it new information to assess and new decisions to make about the fate of a hypothetical people placed in your hands.

Be it in the Bronze Age or Space Age, be it about civics or religion, be it about colonization or militarization, be it about making new friends or dispensing with old enemies; Civilization transcends ordinary gaming with an experience that will draw you in and keep you there. Best of all, it does this chiefly through a rich buffet of food for thought. Much like chess, it is a game that is easily learned yet difficult to master. If you want a break from the real world, but you don’t want to take a break from stimulating your mind, it is hard to recommend anything above Civilization IV.

*I haven’t actually installed the expansion packs, as I’ve made a promise to myself to save them as a treat for when I’ve achieved an American win under specific conditions (actually, default everything but for raising the difficulty level.) I have done this leading several other peoples, but for some reason I have yet to orchestrate a proper victory with Industrious and Organized Americans. Only then will I let myself see precisely how cool Civilization: Warlords and Civilization: Beyond the Sword happen to be.