or, Better Know Know Better

This is a newer version of my ‘YouTube montage’ About section. It was first posted on 2/18/09 as “The Big Orange Couch.” The original About, “Know Know Better Better” is a much lighter read from 3/31/08 when the blog was launched and I was living in greater Boston. It is a great post, if I do say so myself, but this one is more up-to-date and pretentious reflective. Enjoy.

“The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” “The Wire,” and the definitive connection between my life lessons and big orange couches.

As a child growing up in the ‘burbs, nothing on television spoke to me in quite the same way as Nickelodeon’s “The Adventures of Pete & Pete.”  I feel confident saying that anything I learned from TV about how to be a better kid I learned from that show.  And I don’t mean ‘be a better kid’ like keeping my room clean or volunteering for chores, because that is how to be a better adult, and that is very very different.  What Pete & Pete gave me was not a loss of innocence, but a greater self-awareness of my own innocence. I better understood the mythic grandiosity of a banal suburban childhood.

The world of Pete & Pete was utterly mundane, and yet everything about it was steeped in magic and mystery.  Petunia, Little Pete’s press-on tattoo that somehow never faded (some believed watching Petunia dance would hypnotize you); the old teacher whose varicose veins matched a map of interstate highways; and of course, Artie the Strongest Man in the World, the harmless weirdo in the blue and red striped pajamas who was Little Pete’s personal superhero and best friend.

In any given episode, the scenes are likely the type that you could go and shoot with a few friends around your hometown and never have to apply a single special effect. But Big Pete, the narrator and contextualizer, always illuminates absurdly epic dimensions that bring a sense of cosmic struggle to the struggling microcosm of Wellsville.  Pete & Pete played in the wading pool of magical realism. Ordinary things didn’t become extraordinary, like in a Rugrats episode where a playpen becomes a spaceship, but rather in Wellsville, the ordinary just is extraordinary, because it’s weird, and bizarre, and abnormal.

Now this gem of a TV show aired in the famous (to my generation) SNICK block of programming, alongside other classics such as Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Clarissa Explains It All.  Other infamous children’s programming blocks of this era include Disney Afternoon and TGIF, which are nostalgia trips for another day. The point is that SNICK wove its shows together with short interstitials in which cast members would hang out on The Big Orange Couch, which was the SNICK mascot. Until my family purchased a purple wraparound leather couch that shall go down in history as THE Couch, I very badly wanted one of the Big Orange variety.  So I was understandably surprised when, years later, I watched the first season of The Wire and discovered that the SNICK mascot had moved to Baltimore and become the hang-out spot of drug dealers in the low-rise projects known as The Pit:

Just comparing the content of those two clips you can see the wide chasm between the life philosophy of these shows.  If Pete & Pete is a great key to kid-dom, then watching The Wire defines the property boundaries and bylaws of adulthood.  Aside from sharing colorful furniture, the two shows occupy very different TV landscapes.  Where Pete & Pete surrealized the ordinary, The Wire keeps its feet planted firmly on the floor and maintains an acute sense of realism.  Pete & Pete found the carnival sideshow inside that ultimate symbol of the 20th century mainstream, cookie-cutter suburbs.  The Wire deals in a smart and emotionally resonant way with all of the sociopolitical realities from which the suburbs were built to hide and escape.

As Wire creator David Simon has said in various interviews over the past few years, The Wire was conceived and written with the traditions of Greek drama in mind, with mortals unknowingly bound to pre-determined outcomes, helpless against the whims of fate. In Simon’s vision of the world, the Olympian gods that once served as the agents of fate have been displaced by modern institutions like Capitalism, Politics, and Bureaucracy. To quote Bill Rawls in Season 3, “This is Baltimore, gentlemen. The gods will not save you.”

The other key to understanding The Wire is understanding The Game.  On a superficial level, “The Game” in The Wire means the inner-city drug trade, but that is as limited as saying The Wire is a cop show.  In fact, the game is everywhere, and it takes many forms.  On the show this often expresses itself as office politics, but as The Wire has such a sociological perspective, you can apply the concept of the game to any set of social behaviors or norms. Think of any time when you have walked into an unfamiliar situation.  There is a game going on among the familiars, and probably nobody is explaining the rules to you, Fight Club style, so you have to figure it out for yourself in order to play, which is the only fair way to earn the respect of the other players anyway.  The Game is just life as it is lived among people in any given moment.  Life has to be lived on its own terms.  The Game is the Game.  To quote Omar, “[It’s] out there, and it’s either play or be played.”

In the traditional hero’s journey, most frequently referenced as Campbell’s monomyth, an integral part of the tale is the loss of the mentor and the descent into the underworld with no guide except the inner strength and sense of self that the hero has developed so far in the journey. The infamous Led Zeppelin icon, taken from the Major Arcana of the Tarot, of a man with a staff and cloak, standing alone against the night and holding a lantern, represents this moment of enveloping darkness and inner fortitude. Here in the underworld the hero must face the unknown, the shadow side (his own shadow side), if he is to receive wisdom of the kind not comprehensible in sunlight.  Even on Pete & Pete, Artie, the mentor, leaves Wellsville specifically because it is necessary for Little Pete’s further development.

So if Pete & Pete is hobbits getting drunk in Hobbiton, or Luke practicing his aim on womprats on Tatooine, The Wire revisits our universal hero much later, struggling through the volcanic wastelands of Mordor, losing Ben Kenobi on the Death Star, or experiencing visions of Vader in a Dagobah swamp.  It just so happens that The Wire takes place in a world in which all of the magic has been crushed under the heel of modernity.It is our modern world as underworld, in which the gods will not save you and you must reach some understanding or acceptance of The Game or you will perish.

When that Big Orange Couch came wandering back into my life via The Wire, I was still surprisingly naive, especially for a 20-year old living in New York City.  Not naive like “Oh my God, this is how poor black people live?” which is just ignorance, but naive about gameplaying.  Still very much a kid from Pete & Pete’s Wellsville.  I had been sure of my career path as a filmmaker since I was 9 and had never seriously questioned my vocation in the world.  But one of the fundamental lessons of The Wire is that all of us modern persons have declared allegiance to some institution, some industry, some set of rules that gives the life-game structure, and in so doing we have restricted our freedom to operate as individuals.

So by the time I was 22 and graduating, I had picked up a political science minor and was moving to New Hampshire to volunteer with the Obama campaign, a radically different plan from what I had always assumed I would be doing, and one motivated in part by a desire to explore the world beyond the life-game of the entertainment industry that I had adopted as my own so early.  Ironically, this path was almost immediately closed to me when I totaled my car and had to move home to suburban Massachusetts within a week of arriving at Obama HQ.  Never had I felt so much like a mortal succumbing to the whims of fate.

alkali-flatsMy wanderlust continued, and in terms of life experiences if not geography, I did a lot of exploring during my year in Massachusetts, culminating in the cross-country road trip I took by myself this past summer to move to Los Angeles.  By this time I had developed some pride in my ability to make my way in the world comfortably while avoiding any long-term institutional allegiances, but at an auto shop a few miles south of the Grand Canyon, I experienced the climax and denouement of my time as an individualistic nomad. I realized that I was happy to be almost settled somewhere, and I was tired of solitude.

In The Wire, the character of Omar is free of institutional allegiance and lives by his own code, and so his free will is frustrated less often than it is for other characters. But for Omar, the only options are play or be played.  Contrast this to Police Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, who has aspirations to become a leader in his department but isn’t sure if the politicking is worth it. His wife advises him, “You cannot lose if you do not play.”  In his role as an institutionalist, Daniels has willingly sacrificed some of his individual autonomy for material safety and a life with stability, and so the option of keeping his game at a certain level, of not playing past a certain point, is open to him.  Omar’s game is not like that, and indeed individualism can be very exhausting and even lonely, whether you’re a stick-up artist in West Baltimore or Artie, the Strongest Man in the World. What the fates were trying to tell me in the Southwestern desert, it seemed, was that I needed to strike a better balance.

And so we come to the present.  I’ve been in LA six months, getting California plates and signing a 1-year lease on a house.  My jobs for the past year and a half have been of the internet video variety, a satisfying synthesis of my desire to be an innovative individualist and the comforts of being back in the industry where I belong.  I’ve wandered through the underworld, hopefully preserved that little kid who grew up in Wellsville, and returned home, just a home which it turns out was on the opposite side of a continent from where it used to be.  I came here to make my own show, be it a Pete & Pete or be it The Wire. And while the time when such a thing becomes reality is a ways away, I know one thing: there will definitely be a cameo by a big orange couch.


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