Thursday, September 7

'Battlestar': Hard to watch, in a good way

Source: Chicago Tribune

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrase “difficult to watch” as it relates to television.

It’s been on my mind because two upcoming programs have scenes that are difficult to watch. But I can’t recommend these shows -- “The Wire” and “Battlestar Galactica” -- highly enough.

The Web has made it far more easy to find things that are hard to watch -- witness the gruesome fascination over whether the final moments of Steve Irwin will be made public. I wouldn’t watch that, and I wouldn’t link to it. I figure people who want to deprive another human being of dignity in death will figure out a way to do that on their own, if that footage ever surfaces.

There are also things that are hard to watch because they’re so exploitative and enraging. The worst program in several seasons has to be the procedural “Killer Instinct,” which Fox aired last year. I had to turn that off midway through the second episode because the show didn’t bother to tell us anything about the victims -- young, nubile and scantily clad, of course -- that were routinely brutalized and murdered within the course of the show.

We didn’t get to know them as people, they were just fodder for the scripted television equivalent of snuff films. Some shows just prey upon our basest voyeuristic tendencies, or think that “shocking” equals “complex.” Not true. And it’s a waste of our time when shows that engage in these kinds of cheap stunts don’t bother to try to shed a glimmer of light on the darker aspects of human nature.

Then there are programs that are hard to watch because they do shed light on the worst that humans are capable of. In the gut-wrenching season finale of “The Shield,” for example, it was clear that the show’s creators were not justifying Shane Vendrell’s murder of his best friend Curtis “Lem” Lemansky, a fellow cop.

In fact, the new season hinges on the price Shane will pay for this hideous deed. Yet everything that season led up to that act, and as viewers, we understood why Shane did it, even if the impact of Lem’s death was like a sucker punch to the stomach.

Which leads me to the two-hour Season 3 opener of “Battlestar Galactica” (it debuts Oct. 6 on Sci Fi). It left me feeling physically nauseous. But in a good way.

The makers of “Battlestar Galactica” have never shied away from taking the program into dark terrain, and the first two hours of Season 3 may be the show’s darkest moment yet. As the season begins (and I’ll have a more full review when it debuts Oct. 6 on Sci Fi), residents of New Caprica are being tortured, ripped from their makeshift homes in the middle of the night, held in dire prisons, and resorting to sabotage and other desperate acts of resistance. I won’t say what the final sequence of the first two hours was, but suffice to say, it was nausea inducing.

Why was it so hard to watch, yet so compelling? Two reasons, I think: Over the course of the previous seasons, we’ve come to know the characters that inhabit the “Battlestar” universe. And the more real and identifiable they become as human beings, even flawed human beings, the more affecting it is when they’re terrorized and put through awful situations.

The second reason we can’t look away is because “Battlestar” so honestly depicts real events. Every single thing that we see on “Battlestar’s” Season 3 opener occurs on a daily basis right now, or has occurred within the lifetime of our parents and grandparents. A child screaming as its parent is taken away in the night by the authorities is always going to be heart-wrenching, no matter the setting, no matter the decade. And when the person being taken away seems like your friend or neighbor, you can't not watch.

The images we see as the season begins, and I suspect this is deliberate on the part of the show’s creators, evoke not only a variety of current situations in the Middle East but also occupied France during World War 2. We’re seeing not just the nightly news come to life on New Caprica, but grainy, powerful images from history books. Seeing our past and present depicted so powerfully makes it hard to look away.

“The Wire,” which begins Sunday (the season premiere is available now via HBO On Demand), may be even harder to watch, given that it’s set in the present day, not on another planet. Maybe that’s one reason this fine HBO drama has struggled to find an audience – it’s too real. It’s too painful to see lives and good intentions wasted, as so often happens on “The Wire.”

And this season can be especially difficult, because it’s impossible not to begin to care for the boys at the center of one of the show’s Season 4 story lines, which concerns the street and classroom educations of four eighth graders. Thanks to the skills of the actors and the programs’ writers, these inner-city boys become intensely real. And they are only kids, after all -- tall, gangly adolescents making the transition to adulthood, but still boys.

Yet the creators of “The Wire” pull no punches about the possible futures ahead of these young men, who inhabit a gang-ridden neighborhood in a broken city and attend underfunded schools. You want them to make it out, to get to a better place, but the possibility that they won’t makes the show … yes, difficult to watch.

But that’s one of the reasons we watch television, or read books, or watch films with any depth, or look at art that challenges our world view -- we do all of that to learn something about human nature. To understand the lives of those whom we might otherwise write off or ignore. To me, the fact that television is offering us so many hard but ultimately compelling programs is a sign that the medium has grown up.

Great art, in any medium, is sometimes hard to take.

Photo: Michael Hogan as Col. Saul Tigh and Dean Stockwell as Brother Cavil in Season 3 of "Battlestar Galactica."

On a lighter note, here are two other “Battlestar” bits:

* The first of 10 “Battlestar Galactica” webisodes are up at There’s more on the webisodes in this interview with Bradley Thompson, who wrote and produced them with David Weddle. New episodes in "Battlestar Galactica: The Resistance" go up at the Sci Fi site each Tuesday and Thursday.
* Check out Dwight Schrute’s “Schrute-Space” at “The Office’s” Web site for his musings on what would happen if the “Battlestar Galactica” crew crash-landed on the “Lost” island. An excerpt: "Adama would want to imprison the 'Lost' cast in the old cave with the creek in it, but President Roslin would want to reason with them and have both casts mate in order to create more surviving humans."

Newshound: Reverend J

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