Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Good Chief

The Good Wife is a TV show on CBS I always heard about but never watched because it seemed too taken with itself in ads and in what little bit and pieces I heard and read about it.  It came off smug and self-satisfied, a complete one-note concept (a lady whose politician husband cheats on her so she goes all independent on him and gets a job at a great big law firm) that didn't even seem worth a Lifetime movie.  But it turns out I was wrong.  Totally wrong.  I started watching the fifth season of The Good Wife on a whim, out of boredom really, and every episode I've seen On Demand is so polished and revved-up and smart I couldn't stop from bingeing big-time.  The show has a Shakespearean pulse to it vibrating beneath the lawyer-mahogany veneers of office furniture and desperate, processional middle-aged faces.  At this juncture of the show, Juliana Margulies' Alicia Florrick, the good wife, has decided to jump ship from the big firm that allowed her to go all independent on her no-good politician husband's ass.  She is in cahoots with the "four years" at the firm, all hyper-ambition attorneys with a penchant for lattes and stealing clients.  The atmosphere of the whole she-bang is what is thrilling.  The music has a Philip-Glass pretentiousness that never lets up and every scene never swerves from its purpose until it lands right into your brain with a perfect little finish.  The writing is exquisite, and even though I truly fucking hate the word "exquisite," that's the only descriptor.  The acting, as well, is exquisite.  Margulies is cryptic, beautiful, conniving, bitchy, and nurturing all at the same time; a sphinx-like graveness emanates from her like a halo, but she's no angel and no sphinx.  She truly exists in a real world with real problems, but her ambition and desire for making her work great gives her a power and presence you just want to succumb to.  The same can be said for Christine Banaski's Diane, a co-founder of the firm Alicia leaves, whose spot-on professional-lady drag is both poignant and ferociously there.  Baranski gives Diane a strangely touching vulnerability.  You can see her second-guessing all the crap she has to do to stay in the game while also experiencing the overwrought joy of having something powerful and sketchy to do as well.  All of that empathy and snideness gets synergized in Baranski's gaze, a glass-doll permanence that melts when no one is looking.  Or when someone is looking and she wants to trick them into thinking she thinks no one is looking.  The third lady in The Good Wife's Holy Trinity of Ambitiousness, possibly the Holy Ghost, is Kalinda Sharma, played by Archie Panjabi, the law-firm's in-house private investigator, who silky/steely countenance and reserve somehow give her the grandeur of a Christopher Nolan superhero.  She carries with her at all time a little private notebook she uses as a sort of force-field and a symbol of her dedication to remembering everything people do to hide what they do.  The Good Wife is about truly about work, and how work can both give you a reason to live, as well as a reason to want to kill yourself, and in that odd mix of desire for greatness and the desperation of knowing you're not really that great the characters and plots in the show work themselves into a frenzy that is so glossed and preened you can almost miss how dangerous it all is.  That's a good thing.  The drama is a radioactive afterthought. 
Treme is a TV show on HBO I also always heard about but never watched because it also seemed too taken with itself in ads and in what little bit and pieces I heard and read about it.  Created and produced by David Simon, the guy who did The Wire (one of those other TV shows I have hear a lot about but never watched because...), Treme seemed a little to precious and earnest.  But since we had a magnificent stay in New Orleans last month, and since I stumbled across HBO on Demand and saw the word "Treme," I went ahead and partook.  Unlike The Good Wife, Treme's pace is slow and dedicated to its own slowness.  The Good Wife has a zippy, nervous elegance; Treme has a Dickensian stubbornness that somehow works itself out in the way the actors create tension and momentum among themselves.  Clarke Peters as Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux is one of the main reasons Treme is magical.  He plays Big Chief with a sort of offhand yet tremendously magnetic gravity.  The whole thing is about is about New Orleans recovering after Katrina.  It starts three months after the devastation, and Season One, which I just finished, shows us folks like Big Chief returning to mud-covered front-porches, mold-covered walls, and a city without a basic infrastructure to live in.  And yet Big Chief gets right back to it:  creating the costumes that he and his tribe will be wearing in Mardi Gras.  Mardi Gras "Indians," it turns out, are a true cultural configuration, groups of African Americans creating Native-American-esque costumes and then parading around in contests and sometimes combats concerning who is the "prettiest."  These costumes are supernaturally gorgeous, all Technicolor ostrich feathers, hand-sewn bead-work, etc.  Watching Big Chief and his friends and family creating those costumes in a half-destroyed tavern is like stumbling across a fever-dream fairy-tale that's never been told before, and yet unlike a fairy-tale there's a political urgency and rage being played out.  The music, as well, plays a huge role in the show, and one of the other main reasons to catch Treme is Wendell Pierce as  Antoine Batiste, a trombonist constantly on the search for gigs whose face and eyes carry so much inwardly acquired super-power from all the shit he has had to go through it's almost comical and yet not funny at all.  Pierce is brilliantly at home in the role.  He feels so right I almost burst into tears when I watch him play or just even speak.  The same goes for Khandi Alexander as Ladonna, Antoine's ex, who is now married to a dentist in Baton Rouge but who keeps her family's bar open in Treme because she has to in order to remain sane.  Alexander gives Ladonna a grace and fierceness almost akin to the queens in Paris Is Burning, a meanness and dedication that keeps herself and others alive.  There are so many other reasons to watch Treme that I really can't go into them without having to write a novel.  John Goodman's enraged, hurt, dumbfounded professor, Melissa Leo's brilliant, befuddled, joyful civil rights lawyer (and Goodman's professor's wife), Steve Zahn as an impassioned hipster, Kim Dickens as a chef trying to maintain whatever semblance of order is left to be had...  Everyone in the show is brilliant and yet what you get out of it is a spirit of a city trying to feel its way out of doom.
The Good Wife and Treme both celebrate without sentimentality or irony what it means to work.  "Working" in both contexts is a way people survive in all sort of ways, not just economic.  These two hour-long dramas locate reasons for existence in what we do everyday, trying to make a living without losing the reason we want to be alive.  Both The Good Wife and The Big Chief have piercing, enigmatic stares, as if they are scanning for traitors while also looking for their next redemption.