Pick of the Week: Good People Doing Bad Things, and Vice Versa

I'll admit it--I love TV. Not reality TV, or any show that involves a judge of any kind, and don't get me started on the inanity of most newscasts. But we live in an area of exceptional scripted drama if you know where to look. Three shows in particular, I believe, rise to the level of great art and great art tells us as much about the human condition as the insights of the best psychologists and philosophers.

The first show is "The Wire," a sprawling look at the cops, criminals, and politicians populating Baltimore's underbelly that aired for five seasons on HBO and is available on DVD or through HBO's HBOGo service. The dialog is pitch perfect and subtle wit pervades the writing. What makes "The Wire" so special, however, is its "there but for the grace of God" quality; watching it you realize how much environment, circumstance, and family and friends shape the person we become and the choices we make. The show avoids drug-dealer-with-a-heart-of-gold cliches while still making people that we should find despicable compelling, interesting, sympathetic. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to call "The Wire" a masterpiece of storytelling, Tolstoy-esque in scope, about flawed (and thus real) humans trying to make the best of the cards they were dealt.

If "The Wire" evokes Tolstoy, then "The Sons of Anarchy" evokes Shakespeare. I did not have high hopes for this show about the trials and tribulations of a
northern California motorcycle club, and of course comparing anything to Shakespeare goes too far, but the show has a cast of characters as compelling as any I've ever seen. Matriarch Gemma evokes Lady Macbeth in her deviousness and ability to manipulate and her drive to be a source of strength to the men around her who she sees as sometimes too weak to save themselves and "the family." Gemma's son and club vice-president, Jax Teller, evokes Hamlet, searching for guidance on how to be a man and future king from a murdered father. Club president Clay Morrow, Gemma's husband, evokes Lear as he wrestles with the trials of being an aging ruler with an no obvious successor to carry out his vision for his kingdom. The beauty of "SoA" is that it makes us care deeply for people who under any normal circumstances we might fear and loathe; criminals and outlaws who can display profound humanity moments before they commit inhuman acts.

I have no literary analogy for "Breaking Bad," but it is an arresting drama about what happens to an everyman faced with circumstances that are extraordinary, but still circumstances we can easily see ourselves facing some day. High school chemistry teacher Walter White finds out that he has cancer and decides to manufacture methamphetamine as a way to get enough money for his family to live on after he is gone. Walt is a brilliant person who carries the weight of his own and his wife's diminished expectations, but he comes alive once that he has a mission and a way to apply his knowledge and training in a practical (if illegal and anti-social) activity. The care and craftsmanship that he applies to producing meth almost makes you forget that he is engaging in the production of something that may benefit his family but will bring calamity on those who use it. More so than the other two shows, "Breaking Bad" asks what happens when a fundamentally decent person does something bad for ostensibly good reasons, and how far will he go once he has crossed the lines of where he thought his boundaries were?

All three shows demonstrate the importance of place--inner-city
Baltimore, rural California, the Arizona suburbs--as a contributor to who we are, and they show that being human means making choices in difficult circumstances and then having to live with the consequences of those choices and an altered sense of who we are.

Great art teaches us about our world, and about ourselves; you can learn a lot from watching these shows.