Show Me A Hero (2015)

One of the legacies of The Wire has been that every subsequent David Simon series is now destined to be scrutinised to determine how successfully it lives up to that monumental achievement. In fact, so expansive and all-encompassing was The Wire’s vision that it’s tended to make Simon’s following projects seem self-consciously minor, or at least provided him with a space to produce minor television of a kind that would be difficult for a showrunner who hadn’t make his or her mark in such an emphatic way. Of course, that’s not to say that Simon’s themes or preoccupations are minor in any way, but that, having mastered the longform television serial, he’s created a situation where the only way to progress or develop as a writer is to explore options and possibilities that lie outside the current longform paradigm. At the moment, in television, those possibilities are increasingly constellating around two modes, the anthology series and the miniseries, and while The Wire is arguably something of a forerunner of the anthology craze in its association of each season with a distinct Baltimore space – and in the stand-alone feeling of the second season in particular – it’s the miniseries to which Simon has increasingly turned in order to find some way out from under his own eminent shadow.

In part, that’s because the miniseries is a somewhat familiar form for Simon. After the massive success of Homicide: Life on the Street – even more sprawling, in some ways, than The Wire – he contracted his focus to that most mercurial and essential of inner city spaces, The Corner, with a six-episode study of the West Baltimore drug trade that introduced many of the actors and character types that would come to populate The Wire. At the same time, it’s no accident that Simon turned to the miniseries as a counterpoint either, since his a great deal of his naturalistic genius lies in his capacity for stitching together macrocosmic and microcosmic visions of power. If the peculiar ingenuity of his longform series resides in the way in which he manages to ground his sprawling, panoramic and multi-generational narratives within the most minute particularities of place, neighborhood and community, then the miniseries offered him an opportunity to effect the same process from the opposite direction – namely, to focus on a specific space, incident or personality in ways that generated a similarly sprawling critique.

Following The Wire, however, Simon has taken a while to come out with a miniseries that functioned as a counterpoint as effectively as The Corner did to Homicide: Life on the Street. On the one hand, Treme was too indecisive about whether to operate according to longform or shortform rhythms – although that very indecision and even incoherence was perhaps what made it Simon’s most systemic critique to date, as well as a sequel of sorts to the final season of The Wire. On the other hand, Generation Kill was a little too left-field in its subject matter – the 2003 Iraq War – to fit neatly into the lineage of Simon’s urban-oriented, Baltimore-centric slices of social realism. In retrospect, those two forays into relatively remote outposts of Simon’s Northeast Corridor – New Orleans and Iraq – feel like a way of biding time and regrouping before the release of his most recent miniseries, Show Me A Hero, which is quite emphatically and ingeniously post-Wire in ways that weren’t always present within its two predecessors.

At the same time, Show Me A Hero also marks a distinct shift in David Simon’s body of work in that this is the first series he has created that can genuinely be described as historical. In fact, it may be the beginning of a new stage of historical social realism in his career, with his next project slated to star James Franco at the centrepiece of a story set in the adult entertainment industry in 1970s New York. Of course, some of Simon’s other works are technically historical – Generation Kill and Treme both came out a full five years after the events they describe. Whether because those events – the Iraq War and Katrina -  were so catastrophic or because our sense of historical time has declined, both series felt as if they were dealing with a past that was almost as remote as that of Show Me A Hero, which is set in the late 1980s/early 1990s. At the same time, Simon’s project has always felt akin to a history of the present, a time capsule for posterity – that’s pretty much his definition of investigative journalism – just as the generational rhythms of both Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire gave both series a historical ambience, even if they were set in an urgent, intensified iteration of the present tense that left nowhere to hide.

Still, Show Me A Hero is the first of Simon’s series that has what might genuinely be described as a historical feel, and in that sense perhaps marks his transition from historical television – television that is both interested in “doing” history – to the kinds of period television, and period register, that have become particularly prominent in depictions of the 1970s and 1980s over the last half-decade. To Simon’s credit, however, while he may tap into this tendency, he doesn’t mine it for nostalgia, an even greater achievement given that the majority of the soundtrack is comprised either of tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, or tracks with the same synthy, wistful, end-of-rock kind of sound, most memorably in a Tunnel of Love outtake previously buried in the back of a late 90s compilation that is set here over an astoundingly beautiful opening montage sequence, where it functions as a testament to some of the most nuanced and gorgeous direction in Paul Haggis’ career, who takes the helm for all six episodes.

For all that lavish atmosphere, though, Show Me A Hero is as procedural and as journalistic – perhaps even more so – than Simon’s previous efforts, honing in on the period from 1987 to 1994, when Yonkers was thrown into the national spotlight as the first American city in which public and private housing were forcibly desegregated and, by extension, the first American city in which affluent white and working-class African-American populations were forcibly desegregated as well. Amidst widespread outrage on the part of Yonkers residents who feared that this move would lead to a drop in property values – and other values – the City Council took the extraordinary step of refusing to pass the legislation, resulting in Yonkers being fined an escalating amount – it quickly reached a million dollars a day – and basic services and amenities being gradually terminated. During that period, some City Councillors explored ways to appeal the legislation, while others resigned themselves to the inevitable, all the while as unrest, discord and the threat of physical violence grew ever more palpable among the citizens of Yonkers themselves, who attended City Council meetings in droves and clamoured for some kind of political figurehead who might provide them with a way out of the planned housing.

In some ways, the series is about the person who promised to be that figurehead, only to realise – or to be made to realise – that he was fighting for the wrong side. Elected to City Mayor on his promise to fight the desegregation, Councillor Nick Wasicsko, played here by Oscar Isaac, only really had one card up his sleeve – recourse to a federal appeals court who flatly rejected the legislation being overturned a mere couple of days after he took up office. From that point on, Wasicsko was forced to support the desegregation to avoid the city being totally decimated by fines, finally managing to convince enough of his fellow Councillors to vote in favour of the public housing being put into effect. At its heart, Show Me A Hero is a character study of Wasicsko, as well as a memorial, since the great tragedy of his career was that he was voted out of office for the very reason that he was voted into it – dissatisfaction over the public housing – while his successor managed to appropriate credit for the desegregation process once it was accepted as a done deal. Left in the unenviable position of being blamed by the more racist memories of the community but disavowed by the more liberal members, and voted out of the City Council in the process, Wasicsko took his own life in 1994, and it’s that event that bookends the series, which opens and closes in the Yonkers cemetery where the tragic event occurred.

If the series is a character study of Wacisko, though, it’s partly as the epicentre of a historical and political moment whose import and significance exceeded the consciousness or agency of any one person. On the one hand, that gives Isaac’s performance an incredible intensity, as he embraces all the contradictions, misgivings and insecurities of his character, in what feels more like a sustained cinematic performance than a televisual role, especially since the series was effectively broadcast as three connected telemovies – two episodes for three successive Sundays – to capture the condensed, claustrophobic timeframe of the City Council’s prevarications and preparations. Adding to the complexity is the fact that Wasicsko seems to have stumbled into his realisation almost by chance, supporting the housing plan out of necessity but only gradually coming to believe in it himself, which creates a lurking, lingering anxiety that this may not have really been his victory to claim, even if history had been more willing to acknowledge his part in the process. Ever since Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has excelled at depicting characters who are somewhat displaced from their own lives and are haunted by that displacement, which is perhaps why his penetrating facial expressions and brooding body language often seem to hark back to an older, slower and more contemplative style of acting promulgated by actors who were aware of their entire story and backstory at every moment of their performance, rather than the post-continuous charisma that’s become more the norm in contemporary cinema. As might be expected, that works wonders in this context, with Isaac’s Wasicsko exuding a fateful awareness that this story will not eventually be his to tell, even as he struggles to claim and inhabit it as his own at every step along the way, skittishly trying to put together the pieces of a massive sociocultural moment that just happens to have taken him as one of its key vehicles, as if the sense of historical determinism pervading The Wire had settled on one man’s shoulders.

At the same time, the fact that the Yonkers crisis exceeds Wacisko means that this also stops shy of being a biopic as well, with Isaac’s performance subsumed into a remarkably rich historical and political texture for such a short piece of television. While some critics have complained about the supposedly interminable Council scenes, I found these amongst the most touching and visceral in the miniseries, with their barely controlled chaos choreographed into a kind of vision of the bureaucratic inadequacies of The Wire in a single space. More than any other part of the miniseries, they capture the sheer cognitive dissonance rupruting Yonkers at this moment in time, opening up a disjunction between federal legislation and local government that often makes it feel as if the citizens of the city are themselves segregating or seceding from the United States as much as fighting desegregation within their own city. Not only does that beautifully capture the blind spots in bureaucracy that, for Simon, are where history occurs, but it also offers a vision of democracy in inaction, a schism of competing, contradictory and cacaphonous voices that threaten to exceed any kind of institutional regulation that might allow them to find some common ground. As racial tensions have escalated in the United States in the wake of the Ferguson crisis, there’s been an increasing recourse to images of mass black protest, both in the renewal of gangsta culture as a viable – even canonical – language of demonstration, but also in the remediation of Civil Rights protest in the form of films like Selma. For all the power of those gestures, however, there’s something infinitely more galvanising – for me, at least – in Simon’s version of white protest, as the City Council sequences take us, time and again, into the midst of a mass of white middle-class suburbanites who are prepared to do just about anything to prevent African-American people entering their community. At a time when white, right-wing terror against African-Americans is either denied or psychologised away as a mere symptom of one-off mental health problems, there’s something of a tonic in these visions of mass racism that makes the series feel as if it’s unmistakably about the present, for all its lovely period touches.

If this focus on the mass is one of the key ways in which Simon avoids subsuming his story into a mere biopic, there’s also something to be said for the procedural integrity with which he pursues his vision. Whereas you can sometimes sense that Haggis wants to make this a more character-driven drama, the script’s trajectory is firmly tied to that of the housing complex itself, as we trace through the movement from legislation to inception to completion, in the same way that each season of The Wire – with the possible exception of the fifth – traced through a specific piece of legislation or a bureacratic procedure in order to provide an arc to contour and anchor the investigative component in turn. As in The Wire, too, that identification of the miniseries itself with a particular space and process gives the camera an incredible affinity with the textures, tones and ambience of each particular space through which it moves, but especially those procedural, bureaucratic and functional spaces that ground its movement, and which feel like so many synecdoches for the processes that it is trying to convey. Moving far beyond period nostalgia, Simon’s vision makes these period trappings feel like an effort to render bureaucracy visible, as well as the systemic forces that drive bureaucracy in the first place, which gives them an almost revelatory quality at moments, most memorably in a scene in which a coalition of Yonkers residents who have been mobilised to ease the transition make their first visit to an actual housing project, where they’re presented with a panorama of ways in which people can make do with and actually inhabit spaces – stairwells, corridors, elevators – that in their own lives are purely transitory, barely worth a second glance until this moment.

At the same time, this effort to craft a kind of architectonics of bureaucratic ineptitude doesn’t ever get too lofty in its panoramic detachment, even or especially in the midst of the sweeping aerial shots of Yonkers that open the series and, in their sense of a collective ongoing mourning, often recall the sprawl of Greenmount Cemetery that forms a continual, aerial point of reference in The Wire. Certainly, as in The Wire, there is a fascination with urban spatiality that by definition transcends any individual character, with a great deal of the negotiations being driven by discussions of recent criminological theories regarding the relationship between public housing architecture and criminal behaviour. Most of these are driven by Peter Riegert’s wonderful portrayal of Oscar Newman, architect for the Yonkers houses but perhaps more importantly the prime advocate of what came to be known as defensible space theory, which held that higher density public housing corresponded to higher crimes rates because the inhabitants were unable to feel any sense of ownership, pride or connection to their properties. If the minieries has anything approaching a sage – if a somewhat crotchety and fallible sage – then it’s Newman, which is perhaps why it also feels like an elaboration of the defensible space theory itself, a way of doing urban theory on television that may have been more elaborate and reticulated on The Wire but is pithy in a different kind of way here, creating the impression of an illustration or a demonstration as much as a recreation, which again contributes to the sense that the affinity between Haggis’ camera and the spaces it traverses is very much documentarian in nature.

Of course, a key part of that demonstration lies in exploring the relationship between the housing project and its residents – both the residents of housing projects elsewhere who would eventually end up in Yonkers and the residents of Yonkers who lived in closest proximity to the housing project, and so found themselves enmeshed in the project somewhat inadvertently. To that end, Simon introduces a series of what might be called subplots were they more about plot and less about character, social position and spatiality, outlining both a cross-section of people who would turn out to be the first generation of public housing residents in Yonkers, but also a cross-section of spaces from which they came, most of which tend to be high-rise projects in New York City and Westchester County. When I saw the first installment of the series – the first two episodes – I felt somewhat ambivalent about these subplots (for want of a better word), not merely because they seemed to dilute the visceral intensity of the procedural Council sequences, but also because they seemed more attuned to a series than a miniseries. Without a good ten or twelve episodes to expand and develop, they ran the risk – I felt – of seeming a little token, or, worse, trivialising the inhabitants of the public housing project by reducing them to the very “types” that the miniseries seemed so keen to combat. On the one hand, it helped that they tended to be textural, impressionistic and somewhat elliptical in nature, but, on the other hand, that just made me wish that, once again, there was an entire season to luxuriate in and commune with that texture, in the same way that it could sometimes take half a season – or even two-thirds of a season – to really “feel” the way everything came together in The Wire.

But that all changed for me in the third installment of the series, as well as in parts of the second installment, and I’m not sure exactly how or why it happened, except that it’s a testament to Simon’s deftness as a writer that all these characters started to suddenly feel more and more fully-formed and embodied as their movement into the Yonkers residences started to become imminent. If the process of watching The Wire often involved witnessing relatively familiar types gradually – and uncannily – reveal a new kind of three-dimensionality, then that process was compressed and intensified here, which might sound somewhat hurried on paper, but actually worked beautifully within the context of this specific narrative, where it forced the audience into the perspective of the white, middle-class Yonkers residents. Like them, we spent much of the first installment perceiving public housing inhabitants as so many types, and feeling a certain token sympathy, but when those inhabitants actually arrived within the ambit of the action, they suddenly functioned as a kind of reproach for the paucity with which we had previously charactersised them – or been induced to characterise them – in what often felt like a story about the politics of working-class, public-housing visibility as much as a case study of this particular moment in Yonkers’ history or in the history of racial desegregation and vilification. In a kind of underhand move, it felt as if Simon had forced a somewhat kitsch lens in the first installment only to replace it with a more characteristic naturalism in the second and third, which is perhaps why the series felt like a demonstration of a realisation as much as a process, an examination of the messy process of coming-to-consciousness about systemic exploitation.

And if Isaac’s performance was one pole of that realisation, then the other pole was Catherine Keener’s performance as Mary Dorman, an East Yonkers housewife who was originally part of the Save Yonkers Foundation but gradually found herself advocating for communication and understanding between the newer and older residents of her neighborhood. Keener has always excelled at playing characters who cloak their innate sympathy behind a prickly wall of reserve and hesitation, which makes her perfect for the role of Dorman, whose decision to leave behind some of her racist preconceptions is as much a matter of necessity as Wasicsko’s, but no less rousing in the way that a genuine openness to her new African-American neighbours arises from that necessity at the same time, even if she is unable to ever fully relinquish her sense of discomfort and disorientation at finding herself in the midst of this new community. In its vision of a woman struggling to come to terms with generational assumptions – the hardest to overcome – it manages to pay tribute to the difficulty of ingrained beliefs without making an apology for ingrained racism either. Critics of Simon’s work have often discerned a fatalism, or capitalist realism, that militates against individual agency, and while that may often be true of The Wire, Wasicsko and Dorman’s respective changes of mindset perhaps pave the way for a new kind of optimism in his outlook, since in both cases there’s a genuine sense that people can change and contribute to change once they acknowledge that change is hard work, requires conscious thought and often involves seizing upon and wrestling with contingencies as well.

That said, it would be a mistake to suggest that the series involves some kind of agon whereby two white people come to terms with their own racist preconceptions, since that would be to ignore the host of other voices that make up Simon’s rich texture and tapestry, the warp and weave that makes this so distinctively a part of his body of work. On the public housing side, there are incredible performances from LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Norma O’Neal, a healthcare worker who lives in the projects and is gradually losing her sight, Ilfenesh Hadera as Carmen Feebles, a single mother struggling to raise her son while also considering whether it might be best to send him back to his father in the Dominican Republic, as well as Dominque Fishback as Billie Rowan, a troubled teen who gets offered a place in one of the Yonkers housing estates only to see things go downhill very quickly. Some of Simon’s greatest characters – and character actors - are children and Billie is up there with Snoop, Body and Dukkie as some of the best he Simon has created. As with all his works, though, “created” is something of a loose term, since once again these figures are based on real inhabitants of the housing projects, many of whom are referenced in the book by William F. Zorzi – Simon’s co-writer – upon which the series is based. At the same time, Alfred Molina, Bob Balaban and Jim Belushi flesh out the cast on the City Council side, although it’s perhaps Winona Ryder as Councillor Vincenza Restiano who puts in the most mercurial performance. Barely appearing in the first few episodes, she nevertheless commands the screen from her appearance in the opening scene, and, like Wasicsko and Dorman, really comes into her own in the last installment of the miniseries. Since she hadn’t been publicised as a major member of the cast, I had no idea she was going to be in it until she suddenly appeared, in the midst of the first scene, in a totally unremarkable but also somewhat magical away, suddenly emerging from a fractious Council sequence that was just about the last place I would have expected her to be. In a series about the fragility of reforming your expectations and attitudes, it was a truly serendipitous, even cinephilic moment, and - for me - set the tone for the masterpiece that was about to unfold. 


Mr. and Mrs. Murder: Season 1 (2013)

As the Australian free-to-air market has contracted, television series have had to either slavishly copy American models or aggressively market themselves as Australian to stay in business. In effect, the Australian audience has become an international audience with an Australian bent, which perhaps explains why there’s so much resistance on the part of media conglomerates to opening up Australia to the full availablity of streaming options available elsewhere. Against that backdrop, a series like Mr. and Mrs Murder is wonderfully refreshing – if doomed to failure – since it’s Australian in the daggiest, silliest, low-key kind of way, suffused with the backwater mentality that characterised Channels 7 and 9 in the 1990s and still characterises their digital offshoots today. If the Australian television market is going to pretend we still live in a pre-digital era, they might as well offer us television that genuinely recalls that era, and Mr. and Mrs. Murder feels historical in the best way, often unfolding against the kinds of heritage houses and refurbished heritage precincts that pose the most logistical problems for integrating the very digital technology that the series itself so studiously avoids - quite a remarkable decision for a contemporary forensic procedural. This is procedural in the old-fashioned, embodied sense, with Sean Micalllef and Kat Stewart playing Charlie and Nicole Buchanan, a husband-wife team of crime scene cleaners who inevitably end up solving the cases they’re call in to mop up. Amongst a cast of characters includes their niece Jess (Lucy Honigman), their friend Peter (Jonny Pavlovsky) and a very cranky Superintendent – played by Roz Hammond in a nice touch for fans of The Micallef Program – Charlie and Nicole’s exploits take us, week by week, through a series of what inceasingly feel like quintessential Melbourne spaces, gritty and glitzy at the same time, and characterised by the drastic juxtapositions of colonial and contemporary architecture so peculiar to Australia’s southern metropolis. Not only does that urban regionalism date this as an older kind of Australian program – remember when shows shot in Sydney felt utterly different from shows shot in Melbourne? – but it also gives the series an incredible cosiness, with Charlie and Nicole usually forced to inhabit the crime scenes they clean in some way, while always kept at a somewhat quizzical distance by their hosts in the process. Checking in each week, then, is a bit like checking into a hotel – and the first episode takes place in a hotel – while the low-level, low-key eccentricity of the series makes it feel like an older kind of holiday television experience, or at least late-week or weekend viewing, distinctions that apply less and less in a deregulated television timescape. On the one hand, that provides Kat Stewart with much more room to manoeuvre than the yummy-mummy Melbourne of Offspring, but it also ends up being the best televehicle for Micallef’s madcap genius since The Micallef Program. Since that watershed moment in Australian television, various shows have tried to tap into the manic fringe of Micallef’s persona, but Mr. and Mrs. Murder is the first to really nail the way his comedy depends on inhabiting normality with an awryness so fleeting that you can’t quite tell if he’s playing it for laughs or not. Just as the best moments on The Micallef Program were when he appeared serious and sarcastic at the same time – and bemused guests in the process – so Mr. and Mrs. Murder recalls his appearance on SeaChange in the utter indiscernibility of how much he actually believes in the role. With another actor or role, that might just feel snarky, but the series paints the playful performativity of Charlie and Nicole’s relationship so well that it ends up just feeling like Micallef playing himself. And more importantly, it feels like Micallef enjoying playing himself – for perhaps the first time in years – lending a wonderful and quite modest joy to this little gem of a series.


Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015)

Although Netflix has a few flagship series under its belt by this point in time, none have nailed the peculiarly flexible serial time that characterises the Netflix experience quite as acutely – or perhaps fluidly – as Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. In some ways, that’s because the original film, released in 2001, was already in Netflix-time before we had Netflix to experience it. Set over a single day towards the end of a Maine summer camp in the early 1980s, it trod a slippery, promiscuous line between narrative, sketch and standup comedy that turns out to have been quite prescient of how all those forms would devolve and develop in the 2010s, as well as preventing a veritable who’s-who of up-and-coming comic stars, many who have become household names in the intervening decade and a half. Critical to that distended, improvisational, inclusive sense of time was the serial comedies of the early 80s, whose raucous, disorganised, chaotic vibe made you feel as if you were participating in their production, experiencing cinema as a live art, if only vicariously – films where the sheer fun of shooting, rehearsing and just goofing around was barely concealed by the fictive surface overlaid at the last minute, or in the editing room. However, whereas Wet Hot American Summer used those films as springboards, jumping-off points, First Day of Camp has moved beyond them – in some ways, it’s what the original film envisaged – meaning that it feels less indebted  to the 80s – there’s a polish and sheen to the cinematography here that’s light years away from the original – but more confident in crafting and luxuriating in its own sense of time as well. And that sense of time is pretty crazy from the outset – although this installment is shot some fifteen years later, it’s actually set a couple of months before, on the first day of camp, with all the same actors, some of whom are quite visibly aged – and some who look the same, which is in some ways uncannier and more traumatic – playing the same roles this time around. Add to that an uncanny taste on the part of series creators David Wain and Michael Showalter for hiring new actors, like Kristen Wiig, who simply feel as if they were part of the original incubation-film, and there’s a totally disoriented sense of time and register that confounds nostalgia with every other experience and affect. That in itself would make for an odd experience, but what’s even stranger is how absolutely the series embraces – or explicates – the purely nominal nature of the Netflix episode as a unit, playing more or less as a series of sketches that depend for their ambience and rhythm on the overarching sense of the series as a whole, but don’t necessarily feel affiliated to the individual episode in the least, which make less of an effort to end on a meaningful episodic note than just about any other series in the Netflix empire. The result is a story that functions as a kind of objective correlative of the Netflix model itself, which is to say a scenario, space or topos more than a story per se – a single day that’s only meaningful if you experience it as a day, but, like all days, is inevitably open to the peculiar pacing, pausing and perusing of each person who occupies it. And that’s the way the cast inhabit the series as well – they inhabit it as viewers as much as actors – which is perhaps why the series doesn’t really subsist on actual jokes – even fewer land this time around – so much as on accidental, incidental and spontaneous reaction shots, the sense of some flexible collective acting, viewing and enjoying both at the same time, comic in the broadest and most profound sense of the word, comic in the same way that a mobile troupe is comic, gathering you up into their rhythm as they escort you along the road a ways. 


Younger: Season 1 (2015)

Although Darren Star has released a couple of series since Sex and the City,  as well as a couple of remakes of his older 90s output, Younger is perhaps the first series that feels definitively post-SATC, picking up the cusp of New York City’s sexual subculture as a decade later. A lot has changed since then, and the various experiments of the foursome in SATC seem quite quaint when compared to a millenial generation for whom promiscuous and queer modes of attachment are simply the norm, thanks to the omniscience of mobile social digital media devices. At least, that’s what Liza Miller (Sutton Foster) discovers when she decides to pose as 20 instead of 40 to land a job at a major New York publishing house, following a divorce that forces her to dowsize from her family home in New Jersey to downtown Williamsburg, where she moves in with her old friend, Maggie (Debi Mazar). Liza may be straight and Maggie may be gay, but they both quickly find themselves seduced and bemused by an altogether new queer orientation and generation as Liza’s experiment proceeds and she finds herself drawn, on the one hand, into a monogamish relationship with a Williamsbug tattoo artist, played by Nico Tortella, and, on the other hand, into a squad-crew run by her best friend at work, played by Hilary Duff. Both are offered as more or less queer modes of affiliation and collectivity, preventing the series ever descending into anything resembling cynicism or hostility towards the next generation, even or especially when it’s clear that they’ve completely exceeded the lessons and fan base of SATC. Instead, Star addresses one of the most difficult challenges posed to contemporary television – how to incorporate and acknowledge the very promiscuity of the digital platform that delivers it – as an exercise in camp, specifically a form of camp commensurate to a world in which transitioning has replaced sexual orientation as the locus of queer identity. And there really is an increasing sense that Liza isn’t simply passing for young, or dissembling herself to everyone she meets, so much as transitioning into an an emergent mindspace in which one of the queerest things you can do – especially for a woman – is to simply refuse to act your age, in terms of your partners, peers and professional life. In that sense, there’s something quite utopian about the series, especially at a time when the convergence of Hollywood sexism and ageism is visible and vocal as never before, as Foster and Mazar sink into a queer temporality that works perfectly against the backdrop of the publishing world, which turns out to be as enmeshed in queer economies and digital technologies as television itself. In fact, one of the main jokes of the series is that if television has become more novelistic, highbrow and quality-controlled, then it’s also become more deluded as to its splendid aesthetic isolation, a delusion that Star’s exquisite sense of camp cuts against and undermines, if only because one of the main lessons Liza and Maggie learn is that this new queer New York doesn’t regulate highbrow and lowbrow expectations in any traditional or recognisable way. The result is a series that offers every actress the best possible role in its power, regardless of convention or expectation, but especially Mazar and Foster, who have both, in their different ways, subsisted as character actors on exactly these kind of transitional roles over the years – and it’s their romance, self-deprecating yet resilient, sexually confident yet sexually sheepish, that really drives the series' wonderfully poised sense of camp. 


American Crime: Season 1 (2015)

With hindsight, it feels as if the path carved out by The Wire has turned out to be something of a dead end. In part, that’s because it’s impossible to envisage a show as perfect or as poised in its naturalism as The Wire – it effectively precludes any progeny, from David Simon or anyone else – but also because the language of naturalism itself seemed to reach a kind of limit with the series. By the end, the expanse was so epic, and yet the sense of despair was still so palpable, that naturalism itself started to feel like yet another mode of impotence, or even disengagement, which is perhaps why the fifth season started to resort to increasingly absurd and melodramatic devices, as if to undo naturalism from the inside. In that sense, American Crime is perhaps the true successor to The Wire, at least in terms of series that set out to anatomise American race relations, since it starts from the premise that naturalism is no longer an adequate language for a civil unrest that has seemed to grow even more melodramatic and surreal over the decade since David Simon’s masterpiece first screened. Revolving around a home invasion and murder in a small Californian town that galvanises the local Caucasian, African-American and Hispanic community, it’s hysterical, seething and manipulative as the most lurid media outlets – on both sides of the political fence – but that seems to be the point, as if series creator John Ridley had set out to capture and distill the affective intensity of a race crisis that seems to have somehow exceeded fiction in the melodramatic preposterousness with which it unfolds, offering up one utterly – or conventionally - unbelievable instance of subjugation after another. In that sense, it feels right that the series advertises itself as a “quality” experience available on commercial television, since the moment it enacts is one that feels defined, above all, by the sense that media has somehow evolved to the point where it is commensurate, for the first time, with the sheer multifariousness of institutionalised racism, the multiplicitous ways it can be platformed and mediated, along with the various ways it can be captured and exposed, with the present crisis standing in relation to the Rodney King beatings much as the current digiscape stands in relation to the serendipities of the hand-held digicam. As a crux in that transmedia flux– both quality and commercial, televisual and post-televisual – the series often feels as if it’s offering itself as yet another covert recording device, producing a sense of conspiratorial intimacy with its vast cast that supersedes any of their particular backgrounds or biases, in ways that quite powerfully – and surprisingly – reflect Ridley’s background in situation comedy. Whereas The Wire often felt like America from the outside, America seen from outer space, here the focus is not so much on compartmentalising, classifying or distributing spaces, classes and figures, so much as capturing America from the inside, in a convulsive, paranoid flux that signals its departure from quality television by refusing to fetishise the local or regional textures of this small Californian town in any privileged way, just as Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton utterly subsume and anonymise themselves amongst the rest of the cast, as evinced in Ridley’s decision to recast them as different characters in the next season, quite a novel move in recent anthology television. The result is a crime series that eschews any kind of panoramic detachment but is also singularly disinterested in the discrete, the local or the particular – a series that somehow thwarts both serial and anthology attachment – opening up an odd, discomforting, overmediated zone that’s traversed by both systemic and specific energies and injuries, but never quite devotes itself to either. Occupying that zone means throwing any kind of auteurist aspiration to the wind – one of the reasons Treme felt so conflicted, so oddly contrived in its spontaneity and improvisational freedom – as well as any residual humanism, with Hutton’s performance invoking Ordinary People only to calibrate how far we’ve come from that kind of tragic drama. Instead, Ridley presents us with something like a post-humanist take on race relations, a frantic, promiscuous scrambling to occupy the coal face of a vast and messy mediasphere which itself is scrambling to occupy each new site of racial injustice as it emerges, or before it even happens. No less than Simon, the impulse is journalistic, but it feels like it's appealing to viewers raised on digital journalism rather than the analog quaintness of the Baltimore Sun, sacrificing quality television for expediency television in what finally feels like a live offering, shot and watched in real time, rather than consciously cultivated drama.