Monday, August 23, 2010

Wire You Not Watching This Show?

I just finished the first season of The Wire.

Yes, I'm still new, but I can already see that devotees of The Wire are part of an intimate club.  The Wire is a uniquely special show, so deliberate and intelligent that it's almost a literary experience.  It starts slow, true.  But as you keep watching, The Wire stops being a series of Law-and-Order story lines (notice it almost never ends in a "cliffhanger") and becomes a real, cold world populated with real, identifiable, troubled, layered people.

All great TV shows unite their viewers in a shared vocabulary -- "Let's hug it out, bitch" and "That's what she said" have become universal social signals.  But The Wire created more than just catchphrases and character names; it established an entire language, a world that was complete and complex and fragile.  The Wire is what J.R.R. Tolkien would've designed if he'd tackled the underworld of Baltimore instead of Middle Earth, if he'd replaced elves and dwarfs with the similarly foreign, mythologized creatures of drug dealers and cops and inner-city criminals.

 And I'm only on the second season.

Speaking about The Wire to someone who hasn't seen The Wire is kind of like talking about your 21st birthday party with someone you who wasn't there -- you can tell an outsider how fun it was, but they'll never totally get how hilarious it was when you funneled moonshine on a trampoline.  It's easy to gush about, but hard to explain.

Fortunately, a lot of talented people are trying: I found this great blog called "What's Alan Watching" that gives the first two seasons (so far) of The Wire an interesting treatment.  The blogger writes a "Wire for Newbies" and a "Wire for Veterans" post about each episode -- the former without spoilers, the latter including broader character arcs and tie-ins to later seasons.  Take away: it's such a good show this guy is watching it through TWICE.

I'll admit, The Wire didn't immediately enchant me.  At first, it played slowly and I was bored with what I thought was a traditional cop show format.  But I'll show you the scene that got me hooked.  There is a much-lauded moment in the fourth episode of the first season where two police detectives silently solve a murder - or almost silently.  I'll let Alan explain:
"'The Wire' had its own moments of gorgeous, precise employment of nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the justly-celebrated scene where McNulty and Bunk go over the Diedre Kresson crime scene, uttering nothing but variations on the F-word.

"It's a goddamn symphony of profanity, is what that scene is, at once shockingly funny (as you realize just how many times the F-word is being uttered, to the exclusion of all else) and unexpectedly brilliant (as you realize that the two cops are quickly getting to the bottom of what happened here). It's almost a parody of the idea of doing a cop show on HBO, and yet it conveys so much about how smart Jimmy and The Bunk are -- and how well they work together -- that they can figure out so much about Kresson's murder and communicate it to each other using only that word."
Don't believe me?  You can watch the scene below.  But be warned, the scene is great within the context of an even greater show. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bringin' Preppy Back

Ah, WASPs.  Apparently there was this guide to being "preppy" called The Official Preppy Handbook back in the heyday of preppy-dom, the Reagan years.  Now there's a 2010 update, True Prep, a tongue-in-cheek but loving compendium of what it takes to be a Wasp.  I read Vanity Fair's substantial excerpt, and it's less of an instruction manual than a checklist; no one is reading this book to become preppy, but plenty of preppies are reading it and laughing their Bluchers off. (Note: practitioners of prep are "preppies" not "preps.")

I have enough social graces (or at least enough liberal friends) to know that I'm supposed to be embarrassed for epitomizing so very much of their WASP rubric, but I also realize there's no sense denying where you come from (not with a last name like "Lee" anyhow).  And the book counts the Obamas as a "preppy," so don't dismiss me yet.

True Prep outlines fundamental tenants of achievable class and style in a world gone (largely) anti-prep.  Among the most relatable (to me):

Appropriate shipboard wear of a blazer
Fashion Rules:
  • Your underwear must not show. Wear a nude-colored strapless bra.  Pull up your pants...
  • Every single one of us no matter the age or gender or sexual preference owns a blue blazer...
  • We do not display our wit through T-shirt slogans... 
  • Clothes can cost any amount, but they must fit. Many a preppy has an item from a vintage shop or a lost-and-found bin....
  • Men, if you made the mistake of buying Tevas or leather sandals, please give them to Goodwill... 
  • You can never go wrong with a trench coat
Logos (as distinct from Fashion):
    Travel in a trench.
  • We believe that the Juicy Couture track suit phenomenon signals the end of civilization as we know it.  Nothing less.
Travel:
  • Thou shalt not fly first-class...  
  • Thou must take loads of photographs...  
  • During holiday, we always drink at lunch, and of course, we 'walk it off.'  Lunchtime drinking is not an obligation, but, well, yes it is.
Careers:
  • Preppies realize society's need for enterprise. They go to college with the idea of a career or, should we say, their parents' idea of a career planted firmly in their minds. This is why so many of them go to law school.
      The truth is, today's "preppies" are a far-cry from the Muffys and Bunnies of Connecticut past.  Being preppy in our generation isn't about being rich and racist it's about being well-groomed, well-read, and, well, drunk.  (Just kidding...kind of.)  But the point is, being "preppy" is no longer tied to excluding people.  It's just a style a little bigger than personal fashion choices, a little smaller than a way of life.  As the book explains, it's not about logos or clothes or even boats; you don't have to own a yacht to dress like you're going sailing later.

      It comes so naturally to me.

      For those of you who are still skeptics, I have two words: Kentucky Derby.  The Derby is a fabulous example of a totally preppy party: linen, seersucker, ladies' hats, mens' loafers (no socks), and bourbon, bourbon, bourbon.  For the last four years, my boyfriend (whom I wouldn't necessarily call preppy) has hosted a hugely successful Derby weekend.  His friends come from all over, not just for the bourbon (mostly for the bourbon) but also for the fun of dressing-up (they wouldn't call it that, they're manly men). Why? Because there's something attractive and fun about wearing stylish clothes, losing money on horse races, and paying homage to the genteel Southern side of preppy.

      Well-Prepped Gentlemen: Kentucky Derby 2010
      Co-Ed Preppies: Kentucky Derby 2009

      Thursday, August 12, 2010

      419 Eater

      As a new class of unemployed, debt-ridden students with little-to-no real world skills descend upon the dismal job market, employment of any type looks attractive. In fact, income of any type looks attractive, even if it's not at a desk, in an office, or legal.

      In times like these, African scammers pounce on the poor and gullible  with hilariously mistranslated emails.  I was going to write a fake, hyperbolic email to be funny, but the actual emails are even funnier and more preposterous than anything I could invent. A classic example:
      From: ooo ooo
      Subject: cry for help

      DEAR SIR/MADAM:
      PERMIT ME TO INFORM YOU OF MY DESIRE OF GOING INTO BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP WITH YOU. I GOT YOUR NAME AND CONTACT FROM THE TOGOLESE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY. I PRAYED OVER IT AND SELECTED YOUR NAME AMONG OTHER NAMES DUE TO IT'S ESTEEMING NATURE AND THE RECOMMENDATIONS GIVEN TO ME AS A REPUTABLE AND TRUST WORTHY PERSON I CAN DO BUSINESS WITH AND BY THEIR RECOMMENDATIONS I MUST NOT HESITATE TO CONFIDE IN YOU FOR THIS SIMPLE AND SINCERE BUSINESS.
      Like anyone, at first I innocently thought, "oh, a new email from my old from "ooo ooo!"  Wonder what ooo ooo's been up to lately? How are the little ooo ooos?  Then I opened the email, and to my surprise, ooo ooo was pretty upset with me, because he was caps-lock yelling through the entire exchange.

      Soon, I learned that this wasn't my old friend, but I kept reading because the writer recognized my "esteeming nature," which means he's obviously a good judge of character.  He went on to explain about a  sealed envelope containing million of dollars in a Swiss bank, and how only I -- armed with my esteeming nature -- could help him transfer the money -- which of course is rightfully his -- to the United States.  And for my help, I  would be generously rewarded:
      LET ME ASURE YOU THAT THIS TRANSACTION IS 100% HITCH AND FRISK FREE.BASED ON YOUR ACCEPT ING TO HELP ME I WILL BE GIVING YOU A REASONABLE AMOUNT OF PERCENTGEFOR YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN THIS AND THIS WILL BE DISCUS UPON YOUR RESPONCE TO MY MAIL .
      100% Hitch and Frisk free? Where do I sign? Who could pass up this opportunity? We must responce to his mail immediately! After all, he's only asking for an advance of an entirely reasonable sum of $10,000 to pay bank fees and unfreeze the millions of dollars in the account. Oh, and:
      YOU WILL MAKE ARRANGEMENT FOR ME TO COME OVER TO YOUR COUNTRY TO FURTHER MY EDUCATION AND TO SECURE A RESIDENTIAL PERMIT FOR ME IN YOUR COUNTRY. I HAVE DOCUMENTS AS REGARS TO THIS CLAIM.
      That seems reasonable. What could possibly go wrong for a Togolese millionaire and a person of my esteeming nature? I'm on the phone with Delta already!

      While it seems impossible that anyone could actually trust the veracity of these scams, according to one source, a whopping, astonishing 50,000 people fall victim to this type of fraud every year. This includes the loss of an estimated $5 billion (yes, billion) dollars over the last 20 years, not to mention attendant kidnappings and even murders. (Don't believe me? Snopes.com provides numbers of its own.)

      Enter the "scambaiters."  Michael "Shiver Metimbers" Berry runs a website called "The 419 Eater," named after the Nigerian Criminal Code section that addresses this type of fraud. (Though my particular email came from Togo, Nigeria is by far the epicenter of this type of crime.)  Berry pioneered a counter-scam of his own called "scambaiting," which is basically answering these emails with the intent of "wasting [the scammer's] time and resources."  By engaging in drawn-out, unproductive dialogues with scammers, he claims he keeps "scammers away from real potential victims," and, let's face it, embarrasses them for his own amusement.

      His scam-baiting began innocently enough. Berry and friends corresponded with scammers and requested very specific, very ridiculous actions before the transaction continued.  They demanded reenactments of Monty Python sketches, and photographs of the scammers holding humiliating signs in humiliating poses.  The "Trophy Room" page on their website includes such gems as:



      All this seems in good fun.  But then I heard a This American Life story that portrayed the 419 Eaters in a different light. (Listen to the whole episode for free here.)  TAL profiled a particular bait that took 100 days and required a scammer to travel to Chad, a landlocked African country that borders Darfur and is an extremely violent, dangerous, unstable region. With repeated promises of a money-drop, the scambaiters encouraged the scammer to stay there for months. When the scambaiters became "bored" with this particular scam, they told the scammer that his mother died?  Sure, the scammers are bad people, liars, life-ruiners.  But TAL's investigation portrayed the actions of the scambaiters as excessive, calloused, and cruel.

      The way TAL constructed the story, it was disconcerting how much the scambaiters reveled in the increasingly desperate emails of the scammer, and how they dismissed any feelings of guilt or concern for his safety.  When asked how the scambaiters would feel if the scammer were killed in Chad, one responded "it wouldn't really bother me, these guys are pure scum...if they got killed, there's two less scammers in the world."

      So what do you think?  Does sending a scammer to war-torn Chad seem excessive because it doesn't comport with our notions of justice?  After all, U.S. law punishes fraud with fines and jail time, not exile or capital punishment.  Or do you support these vigilante scambaiters who are doing what the U.S. government can't: teaching Nigerian fraudsters a lesson?  The scambaiters argue that the scammer only ended up in Chad because he was greedy; but isn't greed exactly why victims of the scams end up being victims in the first place? 

      Regardless of the propriety of the Chad excursion, one thing remains unarguable: the Nigerian scammers are ripe for picking-on.  In addition to The 419 Eater's Trophy Room, other sources have made successful mockery of scammers.  My two favorites: 

      Gabriel Delahaye (whom you might remember from "Gabe and Max's Internet Thing" on the blog back in March) posted a particularly amusing exchange on his blog. Read it here.

      And, in a more unusual take, Salon.com deconstructed some Nigerian emails and put them through a full literary analysis. Worth reading here.

      Monday, August 9, 2010

      Bob Loblaw's Law Blog

      Everybody loves Arrested Development.  Lately, I've had a number of conversations about A.D. - how funny it is, how many careers it launched, and what an unbelievable bummer it is that it was canceled after only three seasons.  So I decided to do a little research.


      How did A.D. get canceled in the first place?  Because parent network Fox is apparently run by tasteless idiots.  Fox execs sabotaged A.D. with scheduling.  First, they cut down the second season by four episodes. Why?  To promote their RENEWAL of Family Guy, which Fox had ALSO CANCELLED earlier that year.  (Always self-aware, A.D. writers parodied this cutback in the episode "Sword of Destiny.")

      Fox's behavior was met by a grassroots backlash from protesting fans who feared the cutback meant permanent cancellation.  Fox swore it didn't, but -- much to fans' dismay -- were secretly crossing their fingers behind their back the whole time because they continued to shuffle, subvert, and otherwise undermine A.D.'s chances at gaining a core audience.  According to (the always reliable) Wikipedia:
      "For the third season, Fox positioned the show at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT and 7:00 p.m. CT/MT, directly opposite Monday Night Football in the Mountain and Pacific time zones. . . . Ratings were even worse than previous seasons. On November 9, 2005, Fox announced that the show would not be airing in November sweeps, and that they had cut the episode order for the third season from 22 to 13.  Fox ended up showing the last four episodes in a two-hour timeslot—directly opposite the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics. As a result, the finale received only 3.3 million viewers."
      Of course, Arrested Development remained critically acclaimed and each season took home a slew of Emmys (Emmies?) and underdog praise.  Despite Fox's egregious mishandling of the show, A.D. has garnered a huge, weird, culty, lovably dysfunctional DVD audience.  If you've never seen the show, or it's been a while, the entire series is alternately available on Hulu one season at a time (Season 1 is up now). 

      But, the brilliance of A.D. is how much it rewards repeat viewing: the humor is so layered and subtle that you can miss its best jokes the first time.  A.D. also builds on its own momentum, so it rewards marathon-viewing.  What I'm saying is, take advantage of the bum economy and use your unemployment wisely: boozing on your couch and binging on free A.D. episodes.  Your mom will totally understand. 


      While the death of A.D. is truly meant to be mourned,  I secretly (well, not that secretly...) fear the show might have eventually run aground on its own.  (A hard, planned ending is always better than a fizzle out, right Lost?)  By the third season, the show was so complicated, so riddled with inside jokes and self-references, it was almost impossible to start watching as a new viewer.  While A.D. serves as a testament to how insensitive networks can undermine clever, quirky, intelligent shows, it may indeed have been "born to be a martyr."  I tend to agree with Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe, who memorialized the show like this:

      "There's no point in getting righteously ticked off about the end of ''Arrested Development.' The show was born to be a martyr.  It was built for TV fanatics and Hollywood insiders, and its three-year run has been an unexpected gift. . . . 'Arrested Development' was too densely witty and too elliptically naughty to ever become a Next Big Thing.  From the start, this series had 'legendary ratings flop' written all over it.  Indeed, we're lucky to have gotten 53 rich episodes."
      So what's the opposite of A.D.? The show that's predictable, cliched, laugh-tracked, vapid, comfortably bland and, thus, destined to be renewed season after season?  I'll let Seth McFarlane explain: