The Wire, Skins, Africa

Without much further ado, again, a list of things which really have nothing to do with each other

1. The Wire

It is impossible to say much about The Wire series that hasn´t already been said better before. Excellent reviews of it can be found at “What´s Alan Watching?“. Another site that cannot be praised enough is “TV tropes” (a catalog of the tricks of the trades of t.v. fiction). You can find their analysis on The Wire here.

The Wire gives, in five seasons, a cross-section of Baltimore: the streets, the police, the working class in the city port, the politicians, the schools and the newspapers. Ever present in all of these environments, is the depressing world of drugdealing gangs and the depressingly mistaken war on drugs, doomed to fail even before it starts.

It can be seen on many levels. And it will take at least three viewings of the entire series to grasp the complex myriad of political games, traps, misunderstandings and conflicting motives of the various persons. Even the number of interesting, full-drawn, three dimensional characters in the series, is too many to count. (Very unlike the Tourist, if I have to believe Ricky Gervais.). All of these characters are much bigger and more complicated than just the standard archetypes. It is tempting to write more about them, but where would I start and where to stop? Insubordinate McNulty? Elegantly efficient Bunk? Taciturn Kima? Sarcastic Rawls? Desperate Bodie? Frightening Marlo? Sad Wallace, D´Angelo, Randy, Dukie (oh, those kids!), … whose story isn´t sad in one way or the other?

There is not a single weak point in The Wire. It is ironic justice (entirely following the Wire´s twisted philosophy) that this series never won any awards in the US. Of course it didn´t. What society would give awards for such a unflattering look in the mirror? Did Solzhenitsyn win awards in the USSR?

If you watch this series for the first time (lucky you!), try to stay alert to all the parallelisms, how on each level of Baltimore society, situations, frustrations and power games are mirrored: within the gangs, within the police departments, within the political campaigns, within schools and newspapers and within the workers unions.

As the great psychopath philosopher Omar Little would say: “It´s all in the game.”

2. Skins

After mentioning The Wire, it is of course a complete chutzpah to mention Skins. Skins is everything that The Wire is not, and vice versa. None of its storylines have been thought through, for instance. Nor have the characters, for that matter.

The humour sometimes works and sometimes fails. The absolute lowpoint is a headmaster farting through a megaphone. On the other hand is the hilariously over-the-top gangster (played by Mackenzie Crook who played Gareth Keenan from The Office) who announces the marriage of his daughter with a criminal from another gang by saying that from now on both gangs “will be joined by the marital bed. Still fucking each other, but in a good way”.

My girlfriend said after one particular chaotic episode, that it seemed as if it was written by a group of people who were continuously thinking: “what is the next crazy thing we can come up with?”. She was probably very near the truth behind the series. Later, though, she fell for the series as much as I did.

The reason for watching it, enjoying it and being moved and occasionally enthralled by it can be summarised in one word. Adolescence.

The series (the fifth season has just started) follows a group of students in the last two years of college (just before going to university, if any). As a consequence, after every two seasons, there is a change-over of (almost) the entire cast: a whole new generation of young kids going to pieces. Each episode centers around one of the main characters in particular and whereas the first few episodes of a new generation mainly serve as an introduction, in the following episodes the characters get more complicated and more real than the caricatures they seem to be at first.

I don´t know whether adolescents watch this series. For adults, to appreciate this series, some kind of Peter Pan complex might be in order. Or at least a lingering nostalgia for that particular phase of life and its rollercoaster of exaggerated emotions: love, lust, anger, angst, confusion, despair and loneliness.

Adolescents are still questioning the things we already know there are no answers for. Who am I? Why are we here? What does it mean? Where is the next party? Adults have learnt to laugh these questions away. We shrug our shoulders and try to be mature about it. Adolescents don´t. They are still hopelessly and often stupidly serious in their efforts to get some answers, to define themselves and even try to be true to themselves, whatever that means. Of course, they look for answers in sex, alcohol, drugs, irresponsible behaviour and – always – the next party. If they are lucky, they might find some answers elsewhere.

In transmitting the anxieties of adolescence, Skins is doing a terrific job. Once you realise this is all from the viewpoint of an adolescent, it starts to make sense. Often scenes do not show the objective truth but what their protagonists see or think they see. It relies a lot on visual techniques, illustrative pop-songs and confrontational dialogues to create its athmosphere. It has one thing (and little else) in common with Twin Peaks: it´s a series of intense, gripping scenes with many inconsistent scenes jumbling in between, like a road going from an intense point A to a endearing point B with not much to look at on your way. Very “un-Zen”. But, isn´t that exactly what being an adolescent is all about?

One of the saddest scenes in the first season is when Cassie, who suffers from anorexia, shows a confused friend how she fools people in thinking that she eats. It is disturbing because there is no judgement, neither in that scene nor after. The lack of any moral paternalism in Skins avoids that issues like anorexia, divorcing parents, homosexuality or unrequited love are presented as predictable clichés. Check out the “tv tropes site” again for a great line-up of all themes and motives.

My favourite seasons are the third and the fourth, or, in other words, “the second generation”. It´s much bleaker than the previous seasons, despite containing one of the most moving lovestories in fiction which typically, at the start it was only meant to be something on the side and not the main story of the season. I am referring of course to the whole Naomi/Emily (/Katie) affair (dubbed “Naomily” by the fans) which has been discussed thoroughly at various places on the internet. More than a love affair passing through various stages of despair and heaven, it´s also a reference point, mirroring what happens with the rest of the characters. One of the most brilliant reviews of this storyline is by Heather Hogan on the AfterEllen site.

Interestingly enough, I found that the Naomily storyline had a lot in common with that of the Swedish movie “Fucking Åmål (a.k.a. “Show Me Love”) by Lukas Moodysson, with Naomi’s doubt similar to Elin’s, the homophobia of Emily’s mother more subtly reflected in Agnes’ political correct mother, the clumsy affection of fathers Fitch and Ahlberg, the fights between sisters, and even the happy ending by means of a public declaration of love (in the Skins version, twice, both in the season 3 and 4 finals). Most importantly, both stories are not so much homosexual coming-out stories, as rather genuine love stories in their own right. I think with this storyline Skins hit gold because the writing was never more subtle, more respectful, more truthful and, at the same time, the acting was superb both in the moments of agony as in the moment of true chemistry between two complicated all-round characters.

Less celebrated on the internet is another character of the second generation: the enfant terrible James Cook (and that was an understatement). He is the total auto-destructive, aggresive, selfish asshole, destroying as much as he can around him while he´s at it. And why? Maybe just for a bit of “lov”, as he would say. But even with the “lov”, he is pretty much the same asshole (to paraphrase a description about McNulty from the Wire, a completely different type of auto-destructive, selfish asshole). There is something oddly attractive about characters like these, also in real life.

There is no character less like me in the entire series, especially at that age. But I have known guys like that. Never the real bullies. Never really popular. Holding on to some weird loyalty of their own. And how they love to fuck things up, especially for themselves. There is a lot of sadness at their core. I always felt for them, even though I made sure never to come too close (nobody does). They are acutely clever and can show moments of endearing sensitivity, especially when you are alone with them. In between riots, that is. More than anyone else, Cook accepts other people just as they are. People like Cook never judge because, well, judgement is the last thing they can afford.

And yes, his parents are by far the worst of the entire impressive lot of Skins´s incompetent parents – as they would be -, but the series fortunately does not fall in the “bad childhood”/”depraved on the account of being deprived” trap, either. There is only Cook. It shows in that crazy laugh of his whenever things really go wrong. And it shows in his violence, when he comes face to face with things too big for him. And it shows when he hugs the only two friends he has and tells them he loves them. In the end, Cook is bigger than his demonious father and desastrous mother. And let´s just hope that for his little brother things will work out differently.

One of Cook´s most telling moment is just before he has to face the rest of the group and prepares himself for his “I don´t give a fuck” act once again. Cook´s tragedy is that he does give a fuck and the only way he has to show it is to fuck things up. If he would stop (as many times his friends ask him to), he would loose everything he has: nothing.

At its worst, Skins is an embarrassing, inconsistent mess. At its best, it is a dareful visual experiment with great music and brilliant dialogues and more often than not amazingly well acted by actors of very much the same age as the roles they are playing.

And, in the words of another favorite character of mine: “I am all for experiments, me”.

3. Axe Afrika  Shower Gel

We have to go some 12 years back. I was new to the concept of shower gels. Then I discovered Axe Afrika. It smelled very good. Girls looked at me on the streets (in a good way). Then they took it off the market. I wrote the Axe company a letter. They replied that according to their studies, it wasn´t popular enough. Life is very unfair.

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