Sunday, December 25, 2011

Lost 1-17: ...In Translation

This was totally not planned, but somehow the gods of have assigned me to cover specifically the Korean episodes of Lost as I go through it in my attempts to cover the gaping holes in my TV-viewing experience.  I'm a little worried about avoiding redundancy here, which shows you just how poor I'd be at covering anything week-to-week.  But I think it's also interesting because "...In Translation" acts as a counterpart to "House of the Rising Sun" in more intereting ways than being a direct sequel.  The two episodes are interlocking pieces of a small puzzle within the larger puzzle of the series.

Usually the flashback plotlines in Lost involve discovering new information about a character's backstory, information which (ideally) helps the viewer make sense of the choices the character makes in that episode.  This formula is more than a little contrived, but it basically reflects the inherent difficulties and contrivances of ensemble television -- characters have to fade in and out of importance, with a secondary character getting a "showcase episode" where they're really important and then being back in the background next week [1].  But "...In Translation" breaks the mold just a bit.  Essentially we don't learn anything new about Sun and Jin.  We see Jin's criminal activities in new detail, but everything we really needed to know was implied in "House of the Rising Sun".  Instead the flashbacks show a shift in perspective, looking at the events of the couple's past through Jin's perspective.

There's a bold element to this in that it demands memory from the audience, something television shows are famously loathe to do.  To fully appreciate this episode you need to remember the details of a B-plot from 11 episodes ago (four months during the original airing[2]), being able to recognize where the two perspectives interlock and where they differ.  But what's really interesting is how different a change of perspective makes the story become.  This isn't a Rashomon episode where the basic facts of what happened are in dispute -- Sun and Jin's flashbacks mesh completely.  Instead, it's what we take away from the stories that changes.

In "House of the Rising Sun", Jin is an initially romantic husband who becomes distant and cold.  Sun's desire to leave him seems reasonable -- this is essentially a story of a disillusioned woman in danger.  In "...In Translation", Sun is an ignorant wife whose innocence has to be maintained, and is ungrateful for this.  She's basically the Lois Lane character.  From both characters' perspectives they're the victims and their spouse is, if not a villain, at least a burden.  This is actually a quite clever use of a flashback structure that is usually sadly conventional.

Jin's story is a quintessentially noir-ish one, concerning his attempt to maintain his morals (e.g. not killing the safety inspector) in the face of a corrupt world, and inevitably becoming half-corrupt himself in the process.  Lost returns again and again to the world of crime fiction, a genre it weaves into its tapestry of science fiction, survival narrative, and human drama.  The backstories of characters like Kate, Sawyer, and to a lesser extent Shannon and Boone all seem to be lifted out of pulp crime novels.  This is why the "outside world" that exists only in flashbacks usually seems less real than the world of the island.  The direction of "...In Translation" cements this tone, with most scenes taking place in almost unreasonable amounts of shadow.

(This government bureaucrat doesn't keep his house very well lit.  Maybe he's conserving energy?)

Jin's flashback then traces his evolution (or devolution) from the doe-eyed suitor we see at the start of "House of the Rising Sun" to the violent, stand-offish man we see on the island.  The flashback is more interesting than his plot on the island this week, which rests on the same problematic aspects that I've previously mentioned about the Koreans as characters.  Jin's patriarchy remains essentially racialized, with all of the white characters trying to protect Sun and her right to speech (essentially identified here with her right to speak English).  At the same time there's a tolerance plot where Jin is unfairly suspected for sabotaging Michael's raft.  The result is a kind of contradiction: Lost condemns prejudice while engaging in it itself.

All of this speaks to the vulnerability of the liberal humanist ideology that Lost bases itself upon.  In its most positive aspects, liberal humanism is anti-discriminatory, viewing all human beings as deserving equal rights.  However, issues arise when oppressions intersect, and at this point liberalism can become an ideological justification for the very discrimination it situates itself against.  This is how well-meaning left-of-centre types end up signing on to imperial adventures in the Middle East to protect the rights of women in burqas.

Of course, I'm not genuinely comparing an episode of Lost to the Iraq war, but the same ideological constructs are at play.  Early on in the episode we see Sun in a bikini, and Jin frantically tries to cover her up, invoking a conflict between Sun, more Westernized and liberated (being able to speak English), and Jin, patriarchal, prudish, and unapologetically foreign.  (Funny, isn't it, how Americans seem to view womens' most important right as the ability to dress scantily.)  This is a conflict within liberal humanism, between respect for other cultures and respect for women, although at the same time it's engaging in the racist depiction of foreign cultures as backwards and less liberated[3].  The way in which Jin is both the perpetrator of and victim of prejudice could show a key example of intersectionality, but in the end the show is unsure of itself and falls back on the same narrative of the foreign brute and the beautiful foreign woman who just wants to be an American -- and who saves the day by speaking English.

What's really required is a more complex model that recognizes intersecting identities and oppressions.  It needs to consider the web of social forces instead of simply condemning individuals.  Lost makes motions towards this, but hesitates, and the Koreans are in a half-world between stereotypes and decent characters.  This kind of uncertainty goes to the roots of Lost: Jin's speech is sometimes subtitled, sometimes not; the characters are placed in a social context through their flashbacks but also ripped from that context by the premise of the show.  Ultimately this splintered, unsure approach fails.  The opening scene is telling: when we see Jin covering up Sun, the camera cuts away numerous times to the various white American characters watching on the beach and looking uncomfortable.  Even on TV, the viewer can only take on the role of a white spectator gazing on at these strange half-people and wishing they would go away.

The other plots in this episode fall more within Lost's ideological wheelhouse.  There's not much of the bizarre mythos and ongoing plots that Lost became famous for, and instead we have the characters facing dilemmas straight out of an ethics textbook.  The primary one is Michael's attempt to build a raft, and the inevitable question of who gets a seat on the raft.  Of course, this is a Gilligan plot[4] in the most literal sense -- as viewers we know (or are at least pretty sure) that Michael's raft is not going to find a nice boat of ordinary people who will rescue everyone and take them back to the States.  The series even acknowledges this.  At the end of the episode we learn that it was in fact Walt who set fire to the raft, and this is not even known, much less addressed, by any of the castaways except Locke.  His rationale is that he finds the island fun and wants to stay there.  This is our rationale as viewers as well: we like the island, we want the Lostaways to stay on the island for our amusement, and we're okay with the show going to extremes to keep it there.  What could be an annoying cop-out is turned into a kind of self-aware contract with the viewer.

The question of who should ride the raft, discarded by the catastrophe, does pose ethical questions that are never fully explored.  It's the old ethical dilemma of who to save, one that hasn't lost its power through repetition.  This is probably not new to philosophy students, but even presenting thought-provoking questions, ones that don't have a right answer that can be arrived at by the end of the episode, in the margins of a hit TV show is a bit of a revolution.  This is true especially considering the serialization-adverse network television scene that Lost hit like a tidal wave in 2004.

So who do you save in a situation like this?  The weakest and neediest?  The most deserving?  Women and children first?  In Lost it mainly goes to the ones who have done the most to contributing to the raft: Michael, Walt, and Sawyer (who provided the materials), with one seat hanging in the air and the subject of debate.  The liberal capitalist order has restored itself on the islands -- the raft becomes the property of Michael because he has put in the work to build it, with Sawyer a sub-contractor.  This may sound fair, but it seems less so when you consider people like Claire who couldn't have contributed much if they wanted to.  This debate isn't really played out in the episode, but it's batted into the laps of the audience, and Lost trusts that its audience is smart enough to consider the possibilities themselves.  The ratings rewarded them for that trust -- the TV audience is smarter than network execs usually aim for, or at least like to feel smarter.

The other plotline in this episode is a fairly trivial one about the budding relationship between Sayid and Shannon.  This one doesn't quite work in the context of the characters -- the super-serious Sayid worrying about a crush in what is still a survival situation, and the general lack of chemistry between the two -- but it's perhaps a better display of liberal non-discrimination than the Korean plotline that dominates the episode.  The show is matter-of-fact about the interracial couple, not speechifying on it but having it still present through Boone's definite but not overpowering animus.

"...In Translation" is then an episode that shows Lost's ruling political ideology more than most.  Like a lot of American TV, it takes a noisy stance against explicit discrimination, but this is less ideal than it appears beneath the surface.  But Lost presents all of this more explicitly than most, even going so far as to name characters after key liberal thinkers like Rousseau and Locke, and embodies the desert-island man-in-nature thought experiment that these thinkers were so fond of.  This is what I think makes it worth studying, besides its considerable merits as a television show: it's a banner of the ruling ideology of our age, with all that ideology's benefits, flaws, and contradictions clear to see.

Next week: Bob Newhart gets all mad and shit.

[1]Primetime Adventures, a quite witty (and fun) roleplaying game based around TV storytelling tropes, actually has a mechanic for "screentime this episode" that codifies this unwritten rule.  The Koreans don't have a lot of 3s.

[2]Of course, it's less time if you're watching it through after the fact, even on my slow schedule.  This may be why so many people like watching serial dramas on DVD better than following them week-to-week.  But I'm always trying to consider how these shows would have appeared in their original presentation first and foremost, as that's still the primary method of television consumption.

[3]Korean culture may or may not be more patriarchal than American culture -- I'm not really qualified to make a distinction either way.  Most likely it is in some ways and isn't in others.  I'm more interested in the implications of this portrayal than its accuracy.

[4]A term I may have just invented, in which characters try to challenge the premise of the show and obviously fail, because if they succeed there wouldn't be a show.  Think Gilligan trying to get off the island, or the Losties doing the same.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia 7-13: "The High School Reunion Part 2: The Gang's Revenge"

No screencaps this week due to technical difficulties.  Your tables shall remain sadly unbroken.  Triple ho.

It's Always Sunny has done a lot of shocking things over the years, but perhaps the most shocking part of this episode is that it opens with a "Previously On" segment.  I mean, there's a standard opening: we see the time and place (almost always Paddy's Pub) flash up on a black screen while hearing the audio of an inane, bizarre conversation, then cutting into that conversation, which continues until one of the cast members barges in with the plot of the week.  I mean, it's the formula for a reason.  Come on, people!

All joking aside, the unprecedented "previously on" segment reflect a remarkable turn to continuity in a normally episodic show.  These are episodes aimed squarely at people who have been following the series since episode one, and know who all of the recurring characters (some of whom have only been alluded to before now) are, know why Dee is wearing a weird metal contraption, and the ongoing downward spirals of the waitress and Rickety Cricket.  None of this is covered in the "previously on", of course: it's almost a futile gesture in an episode as geared as this one is to long-term fans.

There are some who might criticize an episode like this for being lazy, relying on the show's established history to recycle past gags with the joke being nothing more than "Hey, remember this?"  And there's some merit to that.  But to some extent this is the nature of episodic television.  Even shows without ongoing storylines build a world and a shared past for the characters and the viewers, and that past is always an unstated presence.  It would in fact be stranger for a show to never refer to past episodes, as though the characters were constantly being mind-wiped, although this was the standard on TV for many years.

The call-back is then cheap in some ways, but in other ways neccessary.  It's Always Sunny falls into the category of comedies that rely on a cult audience, from their courting of politically volatile subject matter to the clearly personal nature of the audience.  This is a show that started without any kind of introduction to the characters or the setting, as though it had been going on for years and we just got the chance to see it.  I've discussed this kind of bond with the audience before, and call-backs are a big part of establishing that "I'm one of the people who get it" dynamic.  But if they're done well the new audience isn't completely left out in the cold.  When Charlie describes himself as an expert in bird law, that's funny in itself, not just because it refers to a previous episode.

"The Gang's Revenge" even offers a call-back in microcosm.  At one point the gang references Schmitty (himself a character from an older episode), who should be at the reunion, but eventually decides that he'll most likely "swoop in at the end and pick up the drunkest chick here".  Later he does exactly that -- far enough away that we've almost forgotten the original comment, and placed in a context we didn't quite expect (e.g. said drunkest chick being the waitress). And of course, the entire episode "calls back" to the one before it.  The entire thing is structured as a Russian nesting doll of callbacks.

The episode employs continuity in other ways too.  For example, we've been getting hints all season that Dennis has turned into a full-blown sexual predator, a natural extension of his existing personality, through the discovery of weird crawlspaces in the bar and tapes of underage girls and so on and so forth[1].  In this episode we see him produce a "kit" from the back of the van in a fit of rage, made up of what are, for all intents and purposes, rape supplies.  The kit, and his frantic explanations for it, are darkly funny, but even more so if you've been watching this side of his   character be slowly exposed over the course of the season.

This isn't really a character arc  -- the characters of It's Always Sunny are too permanently wretched to really have such things.  Instead of growing or gaining a kind of redemption, they only have new facets of their awful personalities revealed.  Still, it's worth noting how even a mostly episodic show has started to incorporate season-long storylines -- Dennis's emergence as a predator and Mac's fatness this season, and Dee's pregnancy in season six.  In times where serialization is so popular, diluted versions of it pop up everywhere.
Which isn't to say that this episode is only watchable if you're a religious viewer of the show.  If this was the first episode you tuned into, you'd probably feel dropped in the middle of something you didn't quite understand, but as I mentioned above that's the same feeling you get if you start with season 1, episode 1.  It's Always Sunny grounds its inner mythology in the universal, the pop cultural, and the relevant.  This episode may not be a ripped-from-the-headlines story like the ones more popular in the early seasons, but it still takes as its basis a well-known phenomenon both on TV and in real life: the high school reunion, which is basically a recreation of high school starring adults who have supposedly matured since then.

Obviously not everyone has been to a reunion, but everyone is familiar with high school and its resultant drama and emotions -- which is probably why American TV keeps returning to it, to the point of obsession.  The gang shares this obsession, particularly Dennis, who has over the course of the show built up quite a mythology surrounding his prowress and popularity in high school.  Other characters' teenage lives have also been established over the course of the season, such as Dee's "aluminum monster" persona.  Of course, Dennis's delusions of being a "golden god" are shattered when in this episode the popular kids (still acting as the dickish popular kids from high school but also inhabiting the "harried normal person" role that pops up all the time on It's Always Sunny) reveal what seems only reasonable in retrospect: nobody really liked Dennis to begin with, and he was always an outsider like the rest of the gang.

These are outsiders of a different type than the glorified losers you usually see on TV, though.  As arrogant as the popular kids in this episode may be, it's hard to blame them for rejecting the gang.  Who would want to spend their high school years hanging out with a filthy paint-huffing guy, a narc who kept trying to imitate kung fu movies, and a sociopathic prick?  Dee may have been unpopular because of her back brace, but she had an awful personality to go with it.  As much as it celebrates the margins and fringes of society, It's Always Sunny suggests that its characters may be on the fringe for a valid reason.  When the gang decides that their bar is the home they belong in, it's less of a warm-hearted moment than it would be in a show like Community -- it's just another failure to deal with the world of well-adjusted people.

This all culminates in a climactic dance number (no, really) which continues to play with the narrative of the outsider.  It's more subtle than the recent episode of Community, but it's an equally savage take on the kind of mythology that underlies tripe like Glee: there are outsiders (clean-cut, attractive and morally flawless outsiders) but they can win acceptance from those cruel bullies by putting on a big performance.  This narrative is presented in an extended fantasy sequence, rare for the show, and then undercut by the reality.

Interestingly enough, the show lets the viewer determine that the fantasy is just that before the big reveal.  At first it looks like It's Always Sunny may actually be playing this trope straight, but by the time Mac throws off his shirt to reveal a six-pack we know this is firmly a fantasy... and yet the sequence continues for a little bit.  By allowing the viewer to make the connections themselves, it makes said connections all the stronger.

In its form "The Gang's Revenge" triumphs the insider, the superfan who can get all these references and is stoked to see characters that have only been referenced before appear in the flesh.  But its content is a different matter, inverting the outsider narrative and focusing on how sometimes the rejected turn into loathsome people, or were rejected precisely because of this loathsomeness.  It's a contrast between form and function that I don't think It's Always Sunny has fully worked out.  But in a way this contradiction -- along with its nonstop humour -- is what makes it such a viscerally entertaining, violently unstable show.  A show in its seven season should feel like a staid institution by now, but It's Always Sunny still manages to feel perennially on the verge of collapse.

Next week: More about those damn Koreans

[1]This is a lot funnier than it sounds.  Or at least I thought so -- someone who's actually suffered sexual abuse may have a different reaction.  The politics of "offensive humour" are probably worth discussing in relation to It's Always Sunny, which travels in a kind of "political incorrectness" I usually find really aggravating, but for some reason works in this series.  Maybe it's just because the characters are portrayed as terrible people instead of honest men telling it like it is.  Or maybe it's just my priveledge kicking into high gear.  But it deserves a deeper discussion than I'm giving it here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Amazing Race 19-11: We Are Charlie Chaplin

By the time any given TV show reaches its nineteenth season, it's either gone beyond stale or become an institution -- usually both at once, and one could say that the two are simply different ways to describe the same state.  Indeed, it's slightly startling to be typing "19-11" in to the episode box.  To be fair, the count is a bit deceptive -- The Amazing Race has only been on TV for about a decade now ("only"), airing two shorter seasons each year.  A low-rated critical darling for the first few years of its run, it's become a stable presence that nobody bothers to cancel, one of the sedate elder statesmen of the reality TV world along with Survivor.

But is it still worth watching?  It's hard to think of a show whose quality persisted this late into its run -- the decline of The Simpsons is probably the most famous example.  It may be better (or at least more flattering) to view these competition reality shows less in the vein of fictional TV and more in that of competitions like sports.  After all, nobody wonders when they're going to get around to wrapping up that whole NFL thing.  But it's hard to deny that there's a sense of malaise setting in.  It's not so much that the recent seasons are that much worse than the initial ones -- you'll find people who say this, but it's mainly nostalgia -- but just that the formula has lost its power to surprise.  It's a comfortable show to watch, for me a bit of a family tradition, but the other side of comfort is complacency.

This episode is the penultimate one of the season, in which the final four is whittled down to the final three who will compete for the million bucks before taxes in the finale.  Geographically, it takes the teams from Belgium to Panama, as part of the continual quest for new destinations.  But it's most notable for the surprise elimination of perennial leg-winners and snowboarding stereotypes Andy and Tommy.  It's one of the few moments of genuine surprise this season has produced.

It also involves the perennial draw of competition reality shows: the joy of watching someone else fail.  I wish there was a more convenient word for that.  This is really what competition shows promise us: sure, every week someone will win, but more important than that someone will fail and be eliminated because of some monumental error that we're all sure we would never make.  With the exception of the finale, every episode is situated around the question of who will lose.  (Except for those non-elimination legs that everyone hates).  And this is very rarely presented as simply being the least good of a good group: it's always some kind of character or skill failing.

In a way this is a simple exhibition of cruelty, allowing the viewer to triumph in another's suffering in the way they are rarely invited to in fictional television.  Of course, this may just be my own individual reaction -- perhaps there are viewers out there who bite their nails hoping that everything works out for the best.  But in order to maintain the justice of the competition, the editing has to suggest that everything a team suffers is what they deserve -- effectively giving us permission to laugh.  And it's worth noting how comedic this show, and reality TV in general, is.  The Amazing Race occasionally highlights its contestants' stumblings with jokey music, but even when it doesn't it's easy to laugh at the pratfalls and slip-ups of the team.

Of course, as the omniscient viewers we're able to see the right path beforehand, and as such it seems obvious to us.  The best example is a tricky-to-find clue (printed on a dancing girl's skirt) at the end of this leg.  We receive narration of where it is, and the camera repeatedly flashes to it, but the teams are stumped.  What's obvious to us is not obvious to the contestants, making them seem dumber and weaker than ourselves.  Once again, a good deal of the pleasure lies in mockery -- seeing Andy and Tommy nosing around the docks of Panama in search of a nonexistant clue and laughing and saying "What the hell are they doing?"

On the other hand, "cruelty" is probably overstating things a bit.  After all, we're only watching people lose a game show, not be tortured.  In its genial family-friendly way, The Amazing Race doesn't even involve much humiliation, aside from the occasional eating challenge.  Still, it's important to keep in mind the pleasures these shows offer and to consider what it means that they're offering them.

The fist challenge for this episode involves the contestants dressing up as characters from the comic Tintin and trying to identify who it is they're dressed as.  I liked this challenge for a couple reasons.  It makes the racers actually engage in a limited way with the culture they're in, instead of just going somewhere and going through some motions.  And it also involves funny costumes.

Do you see what I mean about the comedic elements?

Of course, none of the racers have any idea who the Tintin characters are, and so rely on a combination of friendly locals and the Internet to learn the answer.  The co-operation of local passerbies is a big part of just about every episode of The Amazing Race.  Competitive reality shows have been attacked, with some fairness, for being advocates of dog-eat-dog neoliberalism.  But it's also worth noting how co-operation is an essential part of theses hows, especially The Amazing Race and Survivor.  There's a kind of reassuring note to the show, that the streets of every city on Earth are teeming with people who will help you if you get lost or just need assistance in some silly game show[1].

Amusingly, in this episode the cabbies of several of the teams end up working together and sharing direction, much to the chagrin of the racers trying to make it a competition.  Once again, co-operation occurs despite the focus on competition -- and the fate of the whole thing is, as usual, left in the hands of anonymous taxi drivers.

Having completed their comic book-character identification task, the teams can now take a plane to Panama, in order to walk a tightrope between two buildings.  If that sentence sounded like a string of non-sequiters to you, you're not alone.  The Amazing Race and many other reality shows take on a carnivalesque atmosphere, using their loose plot (a race around the world) to string together a series of disparate visual pleasures -- like, say, people dressing up in funny costumes or walking on tightropes.  In this way they're heirs to the legacy of variety shows, providing a little something for everyone, much more so than variety's official heir, late-night tak shows.  While the race provides a diegetic impetus for these performances, it usually doesn't provide a justification for them.  For instance, all four teams get on the same flight to Panama, so there's no

This accounts for the popularity of challenges which are visually striking but not all that, well, challenging or skill-testing.  Heights challenges, which usually occur several times per season, are the key example of this.  The only challenge is whether or not the teams will work up the nerve to jump or rappel or cross or whatever itis, which they pretty much always do -- although a shocking amount of people go on this show while being afraid of heights.  This episode's rendition is at least a little visually scary, although the tension is tempered by the fact that obviously none of these people are going to fall to their deaths in the middle of the episode.

The final challenge on this leg is a more quotidian one, a Detour that requires teams to choose between, to quote erstwhile host and certified choo-choo chrarlie Phil Keoghan, "two of Panama's oldest professions".  Fortunately, no prostitution is involved.  The actual tasks are constructing a sandal out of leather and transporting fish to the right stands in an open-air fish market.  Usually on The Amazing Race you end up with challenges that exoticize the country of the week, but here they just seem content to ignore it.  All I really learned about Panama from this episode was that it had tall buildings, shoes, and fish -- very distinctive traits.

In a way this is an extension of the humiliation factor -- affluent first-worlders forced to do manual labour in a developing country -- although this element isn't focused on in the editing.  But it's also the most competitive section of the leg, pitting the teams against each other in a contest that involves unusual and unexpected skills.  And somehow this shoe-making race is edited to actually create tension and excitement.  The Amazing Race never lingers on a single scene for more than a minute, always switching between teams and between tasks, so there's never really the potential for boredom.  The techniques used here are the conventional shooting methods of action movies (there's a reason Jerry Bruckheimer is a producer), which on their own are quite effective in making a dramatic narrative out of literally anything.

But after a while this narrative and this style grows thin, and nineteen seasons certainly qualifies as "a while".  Unlike most shows, a competitive reality show grows weaker the more you watch of it. The first season of Survivor or The Amazing Race or Top Chef seems amazing, dramatic, and almost iconic -- all of the characters are new to you, the tension seems genuine, and the format is fresh.  This is true even if you start with a comparatively weak season.  But as the format of the show repeats again and again, diminishing returns set in.  The new faces are edited into the same old archetypes, making them seem like nothing more than imitations, and you've already seen the drama a hundred times before.  That doesn't mean that watching more than one season of one of these shows is redundant, or that their current incarnation is neccesarily bad.  I still enjoy the show, albeit to a lesser extent than I did when I first started watching it.  But diminishing returns is endemic to the genre.

There are three pleasures that The Amazing Race promises its audience, then: schadenfreude, visual splendour akin to Andre Bazin's "cinema of attraction", and novelty.  The first two spring eternal.  The third is something that each episode of the show endlessly grasps for, constantly juggling between strange activities and stranger people, but something that is always fleeting.  If staleness is not inevitable, then I'd love to see a reality show that proves that -- and that show might just be a hit.

Next Week: A cornucopia of callbacks on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

[1]The cameras may induce a lot of this charity, but that's certainly not in the text of the show.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Shield 7-05: Game Face

Despite all the (deserved) focus and praise that gets heaped on the Strike Team and their antics, my favourite character on The Shield is probably Dutch.  He's a character who's obviously flawed -- arrogant but with a fragile ego that needs boosting through intellectual accomplishment and puerile chest-beating -- but also one who's basically a good guy.  It's the same balance the series tries to strike with Vic Mackey, but one that seems to fit together into a more real character, although that may just be because Dutch never falls near as far as Vic does.  Dutch is a "good cop", but in the sense of The Wire, in that he's motivated more by the intellectual rush of outsmarting criminals than material reward.  He's the kind of overcompensating beta male that's difficult to like, but at least manages to avoid the corruption of Vic and the complacency of Billings.

But in another way Dutch is just an alternate universe version of Vic.  It's worth noting that in their police work the two deal with very different criminals: Vic and the strike team deal with gangs, whereas Dutch's plotlines tend to involve serial killers and crimes of passion.  And while the strike team becomes more and more of a criminal gang, Dutch comes to resemble the killers he profiles.  This is an old trope, but it's well-executed here.  There's the scene a few seasons ago where he kills a cat, but more generally he begins to resemble a serial killer in his obsession, his preening and his ability to dehumanize the people around him (his relationship with Corrine a season or two ago being the best example of this).  And yet this is what makes him a good cop.  It's like Dexter, but less ridiculous.

"Game Face" deals with this dynamic a lot, along with the usual strike team maneuvering and flailing.  I want to focus on the serial killers for now.  First there's Kleavon, the killer Dutch and Claudette dealt with two seasons ago, who returns in this episode to confront Claudette with a legal challenge[1].  The second is Lloyd, a teenager Dutch suspects but can't prove is a future serial killer who's just committed his first murder.  Together these two plotlines present not just a before-and-after picture, with Kleavon as the potential future of Lloyd, but also presents a direct challenge to the characters of Dutch and Claudette.

Unlike most of the cast, Claudette doesn't have much in the ways of obvious moral or character flaws -- sure, she can be self-righteous and stubborn sometimes, but that mainly stems from her intense moral compass, one that just about everyone else on the show lacks.  She's the only one who views morality as more than a justifying pretext.  So instead of a moral flaw she's been given a physical one: she's been struggling with a hidden case of lupus.  Her disease has mainly been in the background, exactly how she or Dutch would see it: a looming problem, but one under the surface.  Kleavon, acting as his own attorney, returns to try and dredge this problem up to the light.

There's an interesting parallel with Claudette's actions at the end of season three, in which she revealed a public defender was on drugs, forcing all of her cases to be retried and earning the enmity of the top brass.  Obviously it's not the exact same situation, but Kleavon is making the same case: if the mechanisms of justice are flawed in any way, then they are illegitimate.  Whether or not he has a legal leg to stand on, it momentarily places Claudette in the same position as Vic -- the representative of flawed justice, who raises the question of whether it's better than no justice at all.

(There's an argument that could be made that the stresses of the chief's position have corrupted or at least worn down Claudette -- after all, her reign hasn't exactly been the radical change we'd been led to believe it would be.  I'm not sure whether this is a flaw in the character or a flaw in the show though.)

On the other side of things we have Dutch dealing with the potential future serial killer in Lloyd.  He's butting up against the natural limit of police work -- the police are there ostensibly to maintain order, but they do that by catching and punishing people after they commit crimes.  This may be justice, but the deed is already done.  The serial killer actually presents the clearest case of how arrest can be preventative, as they'll clearly kill again otherwise.  It's more questionable whether locking up a crime-of-passion case actually does much good, aside from deterrence.  Of course, there's no alternative, unless one wants to talk of Minority Report-style future crime.

So Dutch decides to go beyond the bounds of his job to deal with Lloyd.  The role he envisions is not criminal like Vic's extracurricular activities, but more of a social worker, trying to save Lloyd (and his future victims).  And yet it involves using the powers of his job for other means, as the strike team does repeatedly, and involves the same "I can't prove it but I know he did it" logic we see routinely on this show.  Problematically, this intuition almost always turns out to be correct, as if evidence is just a burden to confirm a cop's gut feeling.  Everyone Dutch talks to about the case expresses doubt about it.  On the other hand, Kyle Gallner plays Lloyd as a smarmy sociopath so well that it seems believable -- although to an extent he's just drawing out the sociopathy present in all teenagers.

Michael Chiklis wrote this episode, stepping into a star-auteur role a la Louis C.K., Bryan Cranston, and (to a lesser extent) Michael Imperioli.  Despite this, it's not really a showcase episode for Vic, at least not any more than the rest of the show is.  The strike team is mostly involved in an episodic plot involving rescuing the daughter of a Mexican drug kingpin who's about to flip.  There's nothing really wrong with this plot, but it feels like filler.  This is a bit of a reversal -- usually it's Dutch and the other "straight" detectives who get the one-off B-plot, while Vic and the strike team are involved in a serialized storyline.  Of course, all of the running plotlines advance in small increments, both in Vic's "professional" life (his conflicts with Shane and Pezuela) and in his personal one (the rebellion of his daughter Cassidy and Danni's attempt to get him to sign away paternity rights for their child).

In a way, it's remarkable how the show juggles all of these balls without it ever being confusing.  This is probably best seen in the scenes on the floor of the Barn, which switch rapidly between plotlines, managing to hit up nearly everything in five minutes or less, both recapping and advancing plots.  Even the visual aspects of these scenes reflect this through the chaotic jumble of figures in the background.  If you watch closely (which I usually don't) you can even make out tiny stories and actions going on silently behind our main characters.

(Catherine Dent isn't looking so great in this screenshot, but mainly I'm just trying to figure out what the old guy in the background is doing.)

And the sheer multiplicity of these storylines is not just a case of overstuffing -- it's a very conscious effect.  Vic has to juggle all of these dilemmas in the same way that the show (and the audience) does, and as the plots pile up his life spins out of control, with a thousand forces tugging him in different directions.  Even his family, the golden ideal that he says all of his actions are for, is beginning to come apart at the seams.  When Danni wants Vic to sign away his paternity, he reacts badly because she's threatening to take away the only thing he can use to justify his actions.

In large part this is because he chooses to do things for them (or at least things he says are for them) instead of actually being with them.  The Cassidy plotline in this episode is a great example.  Vic discovers that his daughter was at a rowdy, drug-and-sex-fueled teenage party, and instead of talking to her about it decides to deal with it the Vic Mackey way -- i. e. abusing his authority to punish some guy.  The problem arises when the teenage boy he interrogates reveals that Cassidy herself was the organizer of the party.  Vic has by this point lost the ability to deal with problems outside of the cop/criminal paradigm, and as a result he's beginning to lose his family.

This could only happen in the final season of the show -- there's really nowhere to go from here, no way that things could spiral out of control any worse.  That's more obvious by the time we get to the midway point of the season, but even here in the earlier episodes, we have a sense that everyone is on the edge, that the usual tactics aren't working, and that doom is on the horizon.  And, like Dutch with Lloyd, we can't prove it but we know bodies are about to drop.

Next Week: I do my best Phil Keoghan impression.

[1]I've probably mentioned this before, but I really like how The Shield brings back characters from the past just when you'd started to forget about them.  This really ties into the series's main idea of recurrence, how the effects of your actions never really stop, and how there's no such thing as safely in the past.  (For instance, despite being dead for several seasons Ben Gilroy still manages to make trouble for Vic every once in a while).  Deena, a carjacker from an earlier season, shows up in a more damaged and scarred form in this episode as well.