I try to watch as many first episodes of new programs as my time allows. I record them, often deploying the “Stop” button to delete after ten minutes. I have no tolerance whatsoever for recycled plots and characters. Even if the crime scene investigators set up shop in a new urban area or the stock uptight cop in the squad room is a woman, I’m just not interested. I seek fresh and original, not tired, old, and stale.
The Wire may have been, at its core, bad guys versus good guys, a TV staple and literary archetype, but just who were the truly bad figures and who the truly good? David Simon pulled complex, dynamic characters from different sides of the law and order paradigm, peeled back their artifice, and revealed their common humanity as well as their common criminality. In doing so, he elevated an old storyline into art.
The Wire’s great success and its staying power prove that viewers have not tired of compromised characters. We still enjoy stories featuring ordinary people beset by extraordinary circumstances, even if those seem far-fetched; we assess their choices as they try to overcome their circumstances. We cheer for those who triumph and wince when some cannot.
My search for another Wire has been in vain, but I’ve found other HBO programs that capture my imagination, and I loyally follow them. I’ve also noticed non-premium cable channels recreating themselves in the image of HBO. In a very unscientific study, I’ve considered the public’s taste, noting blue language and bare bottoms in prime time. This study led me to this summer’s USA series, Satisfaction, the tale of a man in the throes of a mid-life career crisis exacerbated by the sudden gut-punch knowledge that his wife has taken a lover.
Each episode put Neal in conflict with himself as he tried to navigate murky moral waters and rise above the baser instincts that can pull any one of us under. But Neal will, of course, triumph. His name, a Celtic one meaning champion, is our first clue. His desire to find peace through meditation, conversation, and humility is another. He may demean himself when he acts and reacts impulsively, but he self-corrects, changes course, and renews his quest to be a giving man, loving husband and understanding father.
The woman he married, the adulteress herself, in jeopardy as a consequence of feeling inadequate and having lost herself to domesticity and motherhood, is named Grace. How can any viewer doubt that she is the gift, the one who can lead Neal to what he may not deserve?
But Neal and Grace are impure. They’ve taken liberties with their duties. Neal is absent often in the pursuit of career, money, and himself. Grace leaves her teen daughter to fend for herself without a mother’s close supervision or guidance. Both Neal and Grace betray their marital vows. They’ve set in motion events that could have tragic outcomes, and as the series closed its first, and perhaps only season, the consequences of their actions is a man with a gun walking toward Neal and Grace who are standing in their empty swimming pool, a nod, perhaps, to another improvident character from film, Joe Gillis, the deceased narrator for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard or to Fitzgerald’s improvident Gatsby. The twist, if intentional, is that dry pool. It cannot be Neal’s catharsis. His body cannot float as a warning to all men who make love to another man’s wife, a temptation Neal surrendered to and turned from, once more in the direction of Grace standing beside him, resurrected by her husband's forgiveness and love. Their hands are clasped, their backs to the harm coming for them. Will they triumph, or will they pay for their sins with blood? I just hope the network allows me to see the answer that the writers imagine.
“Read” USA’s Satisfaction.
Consider other characters whose names are significant to the nature of that character. Make a list of character names that allude to character traits because of the stories in which they first appear. Here’s a start: Rachel, Ruth, Jezebel, Scarlet.