Genius, Heroics and Tragedy

August 23, 2015 — Leave a comment
...I'll write you a tragedy. (Image credit: HBO)

…I’ll write you a tragedy. (Image credit: HBO)

To remark that genius has become an overused and abused term has itself, of course, become a cliche. Small wonder when new – often self-proclaimed – geniuses pop up every day, most commonly from the industries of hip hop music and mass technology. These grasping technocrats may be geniuses, but it is a particularly debased form of genius that has only a talent for making money. The public, however, cannot be fooled: go out into the street and ask people to name a genius and I predict the majority will return one of three names: Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking (honour declined, I believe).

Visionary is a less-commonly used but equally abused term – show me your Mark Zuckerberg and I shall show you William Blake. Three visionaries were the subjects of BBC Four’s series Genius of the Ancient World. The Buddha, Socrates and Confucius, we were told, all revolutionised the thought of their societies through ideas and teachings that still resonate (- a favourite word of such documentaries) today. We need only look to Richard Gere for proof of this; however, without wanting to mock any man’s spirituality, we may also ask is dating a woman half your age following the Middle Way?

Confucius died frustrated, before his ideas became the bedrock of Chinese culture; Socrates, convicted of blasphemy, was sentenced to death by hemlock. Perhaps we know that we have no visionaries because the only danger our social media billionaires face of being poisoned is an overdose of high-quality cocaine (reader, I speculate); or maybe the modern world is more receptive to new ideas? Doubtful. More likely, I suggest, that the new ideas simply aren’t that radical.

All the more reason then to celebrate any documentary about a philosopher. And, beyond a gentle introduction to the lives and ideas of these men, it was a glorious travelogue as bosomy historian Bettany Hughes (again, my usual defence: I only comment on the prominent) hiked around Europe and the East in their footsteps. Lush locales might just be the way to induce people to read The Analects, Plato or – though I do not personally encourage it – the teachings of the Buddha.

David Simon is a genius of the small screen and he has redeemed himself – after Treme, of which we shall not speak – with an out-and-out scintillating mini-series, Show Me a Hero (HBO/Sky Atlantic). Hero is another overused term – I have at least 12 – but beyond the performances, writing and production – which are all first rate – this drama itself is heroic for an attempt to show the reality of politics, something which has not been since The Wire, and wasn’t seen before that since The Candidate (which is also the first stop for anyone with any qualms about the talent of Robert Redford). House of Cards is a portrait of delightful psychopath; The Thick of It and Veep are – despite the desperate hooting of politicians craving to be ‘on trend’ – nothing more than dogfights with great banter.

Show Me a Hero attempts to portray politics as is – away from the White House and the Big Decisions and empty gestures – and the tragedy of politicians: that they are people with broadly good intentions struggling to get anything at all done in a system that operates largely independently of their transient presence in a particular office. Nick Wosicsko (Oscar Isaac) is our hero and he is exactly the sort of politician the media hate: an ordinary chap who finds himself in office more by accident than design. He likes a beer, a whisky, listening to Bruce Springsteen in a dive-bar; he also wants to help his city, Yonkers, New York (indeed Springsteen – the laureate of Long Branch – makes up the majority of the soundtrack – which is enough to make the programme play well with a certain type – me, for instance).

Where The Wire was ostensibly about drugs, Show Me a Hero is ostensibly about resistance to housing projects, but both are appropriate vehicles for Simon’s perennial concerns, race and class, which in America, at least, amount to the same thing. There is well-written ambiguity here: are the white middle-class denizens of Yonkers really angry on point of principal – that government housing will lower the value of their hard-earned properties, Americans’ homes being castles even more than an Englishman’s – or are they bigots? It isn’t easy to say, perhaps a little of both. At one of the votes on the issue, when Alfred Molina’s belligerent Councillor Spallone presents a series of images of the poverty, decay and crime in other government housing projects, he is presenting realities, not just myths designed to further enrage his supporters – though to be sure, there is some of the demagogue in him. (As a fan’s aside, Molina – surely one of the world’s greatest actors.)

The only thing wrong with this series is the word ‘mini’. Six episodes over three weeks? If it must be a mini-series, why not at least make it 12? Slow-pacing is a cornerstone of Simon’s craft – I say ‘his’, but that is not to diminish the host of talent that goes into producing all of these series that keep us so absorbed – and one worries that things will be hurried or go unsaid.

I cannot fault Netflix for trying to drum-up publicity for their new show Bloodline by touting is as ‘the heir to Breaking Bad’ but I can find nothing but faults with this dreadful programme. This is about a family of different stereotypes – the siblings: the reliable one, the female one, the black sheep, etc. – who whine on endlessly and fall into arguments which I am either not American enough or have too few siblings to understand. There are melodramatic flashbacks – or flashforwards, who knows – which one sibling – the reliable brother (the backwater’s sheriff, no less) – narrates with some of the most appalling lines I’ve heard in years: ‘In a way it wasn’t just him I was trying to save [dramatic pause] I was trying to save myself [slightly shorter dramatic pause] I was trying to save all of us.’

Well, I saved myself – I switched off.

A note on Hannibal: As much as I have loved the adventures of quirky odd-couple Will Graham and Dr Lecter, it is no surprised the show has been cancelled. Some of this third series has been enjoyable, but a lot of it has been slow – which, as above, I admire, but this is much too slow – and it has drifted too far from being any sort of a procedural, that is, something its network could understand. Furthermore, I do not care about the Toothfairy and his angst-ridden sessions staring into broken mirrors and it is surprising how much dialogue has been lifted from the original Red Dragon novel (which means, for many people, this will be the fourth time they’ve encountered the same text). Bryan Fuller’s commitment to making not an ordinary TV show but a ‘pretentious art movie’ is admirable, but with increasingly jumpy music and wild camera angles it has come to resemble one made by a first-year film student.

Jacob Knowles-Smith

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