More Wacky, Less Egghead!
If I had to pick just one film in recent memory to still be viewed and treasured by people a hundred or a thousand years from now, I would choose Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) without hesitation. I think there's something about this adventure story in which a shiftless young girl is forced to draw on tremendous reserves of character to rescue her parents that leaves not only Chihiro changed by the experience, but that changes us as well, and that, it seems to me, is the greatest thing a story can do.
Fairy tales and fantasies like Spirited Away are often considered children's stories, and to an extent I suppose that's true. I believe children need fantasy. I believe that, as argued in the controversial book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, fantasy helps give children, who in actuality have very little control over their lives, a sense of control, a sense that they are capable of dealing with all the monsters and demons that life will throw at them, and that this helps to make them stronger adults. Accompanying Hansel & Gretel, for instance, as they face the terrors of the forest and ultimately escape from the gingerbread house and return to their loving father, can help children feel more capable of facing the terrors of real life.
Of course, perhaps I'm partial to this way of thinking, seeing as how I spent a good deal of time escaping into fantasy myself as a child. For me, the means of escape took many forms. I spent plenty of time with my nose buried in Tolkien, marching with Frodo and Sam on their quest to destroy the Ring. I also immersed myself in the shadowy soundscapes of Peter Gabriel's 1980 album and emerged feeling a little less afraid. And, of course, I played video games, and I truly believe that being spirited away into another realm in which I could rescue Princess Toadstool from the clutches of Bowser, or destroy the evil Mother Brain, or knock out Mike Tyson, a place where I could be a hero and overcome tremendous challenges, was good for me then.
I came across a recent Yahoo! news article that supports this notion of mine. The article concerns a study that tries to look at what positive psychological effects video games can offer. Dr. David Rigby, who spearheaded the study, argues that overcoming challenges in video games can help people feel independent when opportunities for feeling independent in the real world are scarce, and opportunities to feel independent are, of course, especially scarce for children and young people.
What's got me thinking about all this lately is the movie Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro's unforgettable new cinematic fantasy, which I think would make a terrific double feature with Spirited Away. Both films are about young girls who find themselves drawn into magical worlds and faced with tremendous challenges that require them to grow as people. While Spirited Away takes place almost entirely in the spirit realm, though, in Pans Labyrinth, the fantastical adventures of young Ofelia are set against the often harrowing backdrop of fascist Spain, and the evil stepmother of so many fairy tales is replaced by an evil stepfather, a despicable captain in Franco's army. The interplay of terror and morality between the real events happening around Ofelia and those events her imagination carries her off to makes the film resonate all the more with its statement about the importance of fantasy. (For instance, from the context of Ofelia's imaginings, it's easy to see the small band of rebels engaging in seemingly hopeless attacks against the military camp from the nearby woods as dreamers, too.) And while I don't want to give away too much of the story, I have to say there were many times during the film when the challenges Ofelia had to face and the puzzles she had to solve made me think, "Hey, that's just like something out of a video game!" And that's not to say that I think that the film relies on video game logic, but rather that I think games have often relied on fairy tale logic.
But if I had to say that one film was better than the other, I'd go with Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, because while Ofelia, in a sense, gets to escape into her fantasy, Chihiro, like most of us who spirit ourselves away into books, movies, music, video games or just our own imaginings, has to take what she learned there, in the end, and come back to reality.
One of the things I sometimes enjoy about my job is the chance to talk to people about the nuances of different coffees, and today I had just such an opportunity. A potential customer called to get some recommendations, and in the course of the discussion, I mentioned our Arabian Mocha-Java. After I finished talking about it, the woman responded, "Okay, I'll try a pound of it. I'll try to forget that it's from Arabia, though."
Sure, you do that. Arabian Mocha-Java is probably the most famous coffee blend in the world. There's no question that some of the finest and most prized coffees come from that region. But hey, go on and forget about where the stuff comes from. Pay no mind to the people who work their butts off cultivating it and certainly don't give any thought as to what their lives are really like. Ignore the fact that there are decent, hard-working people just trying to put food on the table for their families, and generalize all of them as terrorists or whatever you think they are while you live here in relative luxury and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Meanwhile I'll try to forget that when people in other parts of the world think of America, they have all too many reasons to think of people like you.
Got home this morning with my shiny new Wii and a copy of WarioWare, and I've been having a blast. However, my attempts to get my Wii online have resulted in failure and frustration. After spending a considerable amount of time messing with router settings, consulting people who are smarter than me, and browsing Nintendo's customer support website, I finally came across this page, with this announcement:
The routers listed below are provided to consumers by Comcast. Currently, the Wii console is not able to connect online when connecting with these routers. We are currently working with Comcast to determine what can be done to get the Wii console working with these routers. Until a resolution is found, you may want to consider other alternatives to connecting online with your console.
Yep, I've been Comcasted.
Apparently Gamestop will be offering $50 off the cost of a Wii to customers who trade in a Gamecube. I have every intention of trying to score a Wii this weekend and may well go to my local Gamestop to do it. And I have a Gamecube that has sat here, empty and unused, for ages! I should jump at this opportunity, right?
But then I look at the 'cube, easily the most aesthetically pleasing of the last-gen consoles in my opinion, and I hesitate. I think back to all the fun my 'cube and I had together years ago, with games like Skies of Arcadia Legends, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Sega Soccer Slam, and, of course, Eternal Darkness, and I find that packing this old thing up to trade it in isn't as easy as it oughta be. I know I can still revisit those games any time I want to on the Wii, along with the games I haven't gotten around to playing yet, like Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. And I know that if I were to keep it, it would just gather dust in my closet for years to come, and that this pointless sentimental attachment to an indigo box would only make me fifty bucks poorer. So I'm gonna let go of it. I think it'll be good for me.
But it's not easy.
With Starbucks eliminating them from their offerings and New York City banning them from restaurants, trans fats are the food buzzword of the moment. I share my thoughts on these developments and then tackle some trans fats head on.
Last night, anxious to hear the jokes of the Draenei, see their dances, and most of all, to find out what broad cultural stereotype they draw on, I created one of World of Warcraft's new resident spacemen. Well, they're Russian, complete with Yakov Smirnoff-esque "This planet has everything!" humor.
I haven't had a chance to create a Blood Elf yet, but I hope they're Swedish and that all of their jokes are just variations on "Bork bork bork!"
I don't know if this is real or fake, and I can't even watch the videos on these computers here at the office, but I haven't been this excited about a hypothetical game in ages.
Let's show this prehistoric @#$%* how we do things downtown!
Postureduck's favorite movie is The Wicker Man. Not the 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage but the 1973 original. I watched it recently and it's definitely a beautiful, strange and haunting film, but unfortunately it was completely devoid of women getting punched. I had no desire to see the remake, but I'm glad someone out there cut it down to its best moments and posted them on Youtube for all to see. (Warning: there's a touch of language in there that might be offensive to some, and there's also a whole lot of punching.)
There's so much awesome in there it's hard to decide which single moment is best. The terrific amount of sucker-punching he does of women is great, as is his karate kick to Leelee Sobieski. My personal favorite, though, has to be
How'd it get burned? How'd it get burned?! HOWDITGETBURNEDHOWDITGETBURNED!
Truly one of the most powerful acting moments in Nicolas Cage's career, and one I just can't stop quoting.
A free 24 theme and set of gamer pictures went up on the Xbox Live Marketplace to promote the four Jack Bauer Pauer Hauers that are kicking off season 6 on Sunday and Monday. Unfortunately, they're all incredibly lame.
Man, I would pay like 10000 points for a Chloe gamer picture, too.
Everything dies, baby that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
--Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"
Naturally all this Viva Pinata I've been playing lately has me thinking quite a bit about death. When I started playing the game, the first pinatas to arrive in my garden were whirlms, and I decided to make a home in my garden for the Whirlmwright family. The first to come along, I named Loudon. The next was Kate. When these two romanced, along came little Rufus. Ah, those were happy days.
Then, something terrible happened. Along came the sparrowmints, who wanted to eat some of my whirlms. The first whirlm to go was Loudon, which not only made me sad, but also faced me with the rather horrifying realization that if I wanted to make more whirlms right away, I'd need to romance Kate and Rufus. Not wanting to get attached to pinatas who might get eaten, or to face such Oedipal dilemmas in the future, I immediately stopped naming my pinatas. Now my garden is full of the likes of Taffly 3 and Mousemallow 5.
I was quite surprised by the complexity of Viva Pinata, and by the fact that death is an integral part of the game's pinata ecosystem. To take the edge off of this, the game applies the concept of reincarnation to its world, and the spirit of any pinata that dies in your garden is returned to the wilderness of Pinata Island. Of course, let's not forget that these are creatures who live in the hopes of one day being smashed to bits by children.
As video games have evolved, so too has the way they deal with death. Back in the golden age, you popped in your quarter, tried to squeeze as much fun and as much time and as many points out of the experience as possible, maybe hooked up with Ms. Pac-Man if you played well enough, and when it was over, it was over. This is basically what I think of life and death. Give it all you've got, because there are no second chances. As a very smart man once said,
You only get one shot
miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes
once in a lifetime.
Eventually, the concept of the continue came along. Suddenly, no matter how good or bad you were at the game, so long as you kept trying and had enough quarters, you could always win, and the President of the United States would take you out for a cheeseburger. Basically, there was no such thing as death in games anymore, and this is still the predominant approach today. Whether you're trying to rescue Princess Peach or whether you're fighting on the Russian front in World War II, you can't be killed. Sure, you might get wasted, but you'll be right back to give it another go. Time is on your side, yes it is!
Even more frighteningly, in some games, nobody can be killed. Not you, not other players, not even the bad guys. I think of these games as Groundhog Day games, games in which the world seems trapped in the same repeating moment, with no truly significant changes ever taking place. Can you imagine what the real world would be like if there was no such thing as death? Pure chaos, I'm guessing.
Of course, from a design standpoint I totally understand the need for continues, but sometimes I wonder if we'll see new approaches to the concept of death in the future. When it comes to the whole "are games art?" debate, if there's one limitation I think games have at this time, it's that they seem incapable of really being able to deal with finality. There are games that are set in historical contexts, like the Call of Duty series, but without a sense of death as final, can they ever carry the power that something like Band of Brothers carries? Will a game ever be able to produce the same sense of loss and emptiness as films like United 93 or Elephant?
I dunno. But I'm curious to find out.
Netflix let me down. I'd been so good lately about not buying DVDs, because Netflix always had everything I wanted to see. But for some reason they don't have the Unrated Director's Cut of Miami Vice, so I forked over twenty bucks at Target this weekend and made my first DVD purchase in months. And I can't say I'm sorry.
First and foremost, Miami Vice is one terrific piece of eye candy, and I'm not referring to Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx or the outstanding Gong Li. Michael Mann has long been known for his distinctive visual style, and from a visual perspective, Vice is his greatest work. Mann understands far better than most directors how to use light, color and movement to create feeling. The high-definition video he used to shoot this film make everything somehow look simultaneously more and less real, and if anything, taking in the beauty of this film is actually easier on a television screen than it was at the movies. Mann also shoots action better than most directors, and the climactic shootout in this film has a visceral impact that most films of this kind just don't deliver.
But let's not dismiss the other fine work here. Gong Li is sublime, Luis Tosar as a Colombian drug lord named Montoya is memorably chilling, and Barry Shabaka Henley as Lieutenant Castillo exudes precisely the kind of effortless sense of control and authority that I'd want in my boss if I were a cop.
The unrated DVD adds a gorgeous boat race sequence that kicks off the film and provides a bit of context for the theatrical release's opening nightclub scene, and takes considerably more time setting up the climactic encounter, resulting in a much more tense and effective payoff. It also includes a very smart commentary by Mann, who talks in detail about the considerable research that went into making this movie, and also answers the question, "Why make a film of Miami Vice?"
Sure, the story is rather generic, but so much more goes into film than the story. Miami Vice is a visual masterpiece, and it's also probably the best, and certainly the most underrated action film of 2006.
There are many things in this world I don't understand. I don't understand where spaghetti comes from. I don't understand why GameSpot didn't have a Best Table Tennis Game category this year and then nominate Table Tennis and then have Table Tennis win in a landslide. But most of all, I don't understand why so many people hate fish tacos so much. It seems like every time I suggest fish tacos for lunch, people react like I'm suggesting a feast of monkey brains. (Nothing against people who enjoy a good monkey brain every now and then. It's just not my thing.) We really need to change this perception so many people have of fish tacos as some sort of disgusting food. I even came up with a slogan to raise public awareness about the tastiness of fish tacos. It goes, "Fish Tacos: They're Good!" Okay, maybe it needs to be punched up a bit, but you get the basic idea.
Speaking of things that are good, I saw Children of Men today. Alfonso Cuaron was already one of my favorite contemporary directors, and his brilliant Y Tu Mama Tambien certainly demonstrated his ability to capture the rhythms of speech and the vibrancy of life, but he pulls off things in Children of Men that still left me surprised.
In Clive Owen, the film has a perfect star. As the bedraggled, emotionally numb Theo Faron, Owen embodies the crisis that mankind is suffering in the film, and takes us on Theo's transformative journey, sometimes communicating volumes with just a look in the eyes. But this is ultimately Cuaron's film. Children of Men creates a vivid near-future in which humankind is no longer able to reproduce, and Cuaron demonstrates a supreme degree of technical virtuosity throughout, most noticeably in a few stunning shots that go on for minutes--one a jovial car ride that is suddenly shattered by deeply unsettling violence and another a precarious trek through war-torn streets and bullet-riddled buildings. What's most remarkable about this film, though, is that Cuaron is able to balance all the elements of this film--part suspense movie, part war movie--without ever losing focus of the intimate human drama and the political fury at its center.
Yes, there are echoes of Iraq and the atrocities of Abu Ghraib in this world where people have lost any sense of the value of human life or of a reason to carry on. But despite all these heavy themes, I truly believe that Children of Men is one of the most uplifting films of the year. It's that rare film that's uplifting simply because it is so well-made, so compelling and thought-provoking, so layered and meaningful, that you can't help but walk out feeling just a little more hopeful about humankind in general, seeing the intelligence and skill and passion that was poured into the making of this fine work.
My biggest complaint with the film is that, at an hour and forty minutes, it's just too short. The ways in which the film reflects some of the worst things in our world back at us may make its world a pretty unpleasant place, but I still wanted to spend a little more time there. Some things felt rushed. Some relationships felt underdeveloped. I suspect the DVD may have all kinds of deleted scenes that were taken out to keep the story moving at a steady clip, but this is a film that deserved to take its time.
And finally, speaking of things I don't understand, they say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but thanks to VH1 and the internet, that's unfortunately not always true. Check this out if you dare, but be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.
The other day, I had a call at work that started like this.
"Hi, thanks for calling. How may I help you?"
"WHAT ABOUT MERRY CHRISTMAS?!?!?!"
"A very Merry Christmas to you, sir! What can I do for you?"
"And don't use none of this "happy holidays" nonsense neither, that's too non-specific!"
I love Christmas. I really do. I think of it as a time of friendship and togetherness and a generosity of spirit. As Scrooge's nephew tells him in A Christmas Carol,
"I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"
I couldn't agree more. And few things seem as contrary to what I've always felt was the Christmas spirit than angrily insisting on being wished a Merry Christmas.
And so I gladly wish you all a most Merry Christmas, a safe and joyous new year, and very, very happy holidays!
John Hodgman is an expert on a great many things, including matters historical, matters literary, matters cryptozoological, hobo matters, food, drink & cheese (a kind of food), squirrels & lobsters & eels, haircuts, utopia, what will happen in the future, and most other subjects. He also represents the PC in those Mac vs. PC ads and is so charming that those ads have the effect of reinforcing my preference for PCs, even though Apple creates them in the hope of selling Macs.
By far the funniest book I read this year was his compendium of his own vast knowledge, The Areas of My Expertise. It has more laughs on the book jacket than most "funny" books have throughout. If you have not read it, I encourage you to make your way forthwith to iTunes, where the audiobook can now, at least for the moment, be downloaded free of charge. You don't get the awesome tables, charts and figures included in the text version (such as Figure 4: Typical Cyborg Mischief, or Figure 22: "Let's Use My Ferret to Steal That Diamond...") but on the other hand you get a few songs.
Intellivision ad with expert George Plimpton
Areas of My Expertise ad with expert Steven Hodgman
BillFisto threw together footage of a certain minigame in Pimp My Ride with a certain song. The results have to be seen to be believed. Look closely. I think you can spot the Lollipop Guild in the background.
(And incidentally, if anyone knows how I could embed the darn thing here in my blog, I'd be much obliged. I tried numerous approaches but to no avail.)
From the same person who brought you such ridiculed opinions as "Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino's best movie!" and "U2 is still a legitimately great band!" comes "Table Tennis is one of the best games of 2006!"
Of course I don't have nearly enough time or money to play all the terrific games that come out in a given year, so there are a huge number of noteworthy games that were released this year that I haven't played. (I haven't yet touched Company of Heroes, Final Fantasy XII, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess or Viva Pinata, just to name a few.) Of the games I did play, though, these were the ones that were original enough, engaging enough and just plain fun enough to impress me the most. Here are my picks for the six best games of oh-six.
6. Dead Rising
A totally fresh take on the whole games-about-zombies thing. You, in a mall, with thousands and thousands and THOUSANDS of zombies. The mall is one of the most wonderfully-designed locations ever in a game, and the sheer amount of zombies is nothing short of staggering, but what I love most about this game is the balance it maintains between freedom and limitation, forcing you to make some tough decisions. Will you spend valuable time and risk your life to rescue survivors trapped in the sprawling shopping center? Or will you screw the survivors, hop behind the wheel of a car and enjoy hour after hour of mowing zombies down? The choice is yours!
Thanks largely to its extremely intuitive, simple-yet-deep control scheme, I think Table Tennis succeeds more than any other game this year at accomplishing what it sets out to do. In terms of trying to translate ping-pong into a video game, I'd say Table Tennis is just about flawless. It's also gorgeous, with visuals that capture the grace and beauty of the sport. The action can get extremely incredibly intense and, when you're playing against an evenly matched opponent on Xbox Live, well, for my money online competition just doesn't get any better or more fun than that. This is one of those timeless games I see myself still playing years from now, long after these other titles are just fond memories.
Everyone knows what makes Oblivion so amazing. You're probably wondering why I ranked it at "only" number 4 on my list of the year's best games. Well, I think this game sort of fell into the Uncanny Valley for me. I really wanted to be totally absorbed into the richly detailed fantasy world of the game, and sometimes I was. But the characters who populate the world, well, they look real, and yet they don't, and it's a bit disquieting. What's even more troubling is that despite looking and sounding quite real, they don't act real at all. They have the dumbest, most absurd, unnatural conversations with each other, and they typically don't react to things in ways that people really would. When game characters don't look real, I don't expect them to act real, but when they look as real as these do, and yet act so unreal, it's pretty jarring and can throw me out of the experience. Having said that, Oblivion is an absolute triumph in every other way, a terrific combination of action and role-playing in a massive, gorgeous world that offers an almost limitless supply of things to do.
Bully is short and easy, but it more than makes up for that by being long on charm and having the most terrific original concept of any game this year and executing it brilliantly. It's an all-around outstanding production, boasting some of the best writing, voice acting and original music in any game this year. (Gears of War and Oblivion each have some memorable voice work but I think this should have been nominated in the Best Voice Acting category ahead of either of those.) Most importantly, it's just a really fun game.
Okami is certainly the most purely beautiful game this year. It's simply a joy to behold. It's also a terrific and genuinely innovative adventure game, epic in scope, filled with memorable characters, and with a focus on rejuvenating life instead of obliterating it. Oh, and you play as a wolf. Wolves are cool.
1. Gears of War
You know what game Gears of War reminds me of most? Burnout 3. Burnout 3 was, at heart, an arcade-style racing game, but the implementation of a few twists on the formula--the focus on taking down your opponents and the addition of aftertouch--made the game an unforgettable step forward in the genre. Gears of War is, at heart, a third-person shooter, but the cover system and the active reload mechanic are such key parts of the game and are designed so well that they fundamentally make Gears of War different from any third-person shooter before. With its incredibly tight gameplay, online cooperative and competitive modes, and jaw-dropping graphics, Gears of War is the best game of the year. Whoo!
As we close out 2006, let me also take this moment to congratulate you for being chosen as Time's Person of the Year this year. Yes, you are Time's Person of the Year, and the good people at Time took some awesome pictures for their story to communicate this. Whether you're an earnest, befuddled med student...
an aspiring American Idol...
a self-obsessed woman with a digital camera...
a dude with crazy dreads...
or, um, this guy...
enjoy this moment. You've earned it.
I came across this article today about the Israel Defense Forces taking a negative stance towards new recruits who admit they play Dungeons & Dragons.
(T)he IDF does not approve of this unusual hobby and prevents D&D players from being considered for sensitive army positions by labeling them with low security clearance.
"We have discovered that some of them are simply detached from reality," a security source told Ynet.
Game enthusiasts are aware of their problematic image in the army and prefer to maintain their anonymity.
I find this a little scary. I mean, hey, sure, we've all met those awkward, Comic Book Guy-like people who are maybe a little too into it all and are sort of "detached from reality." But of course there are plenty of normal, well-adjusted, even intelligent and creative people who have spent their fair share of time rolling dice and killing kobolds.
I've never seriously played D&D or any other tabletop role-playing game, but I've always felt that, at least here in America, a similar social stigma has often surrounded people who play lots of video games. When America's Army first came out, something about that game's very existence sort of rubbed me the wrong way. But this news has me looking at things in a new light. Maybe it's a good thing that the American army recognizes the power of games and uses them to encourage people to sign up. It's a lot better than discriminating against any would-be recruit who admits to playing games and thinking that this somehow makes them less fit for service.
And in the "Dude, I am SO there!" department:
The wiki for the film Spy Hunter will undoubtedly change in the future, so I took a screenshot to immortalize its greatness in the present. Really, the wiki already says it all.
The FX cop drama just might be the best show on television.
I imagine series creator Shawn Ryan's original pitch for The Shield might have started off something like this:
"It's about this cop who doesn't play by the rules, see? He's kind of a loose cannon, but he gets results! And he's always butting heads with his captain, who wants him to do things by the book!"
It doesn't sound like the most original show ever, and when, in the first episode, Vic Mackey tells an interrogation suspect, "Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I'm a different kind of cop," I nearly shouted, "Yeah, right!" But by the end of the episode, I knew it was true. There's never been a cop on TV or in film quite like Vic Mackey, and there's definitely never been a show like The Shield.
One quality that sets The Shield apart from everything else out there is its unwavering sense of realism. The show isn't just set in Los Angeles. In a very real way it's about inner-city Los Angeles, about the particular sorts of gangs and drugs and criminals that inhabit the area, and although it isn't gratuitous in its depictions of violence, it doesn't flinch from the horrible realities either. It also regularly tackles issues of race, religion, and sexuality head on. This realism carries over into the show's visual style as well. Plenty of shows these days go for some sort of self-consciously "real" look with handheld cameras and whatnot, but The Shield gets the look absolutely right, with the most natural lighting and consistently authentic-looking environments I've ever seen in a TV show. In fact, The Shield is so good at pulling this off, it makes everything else out there look worse by comparison. When the pent-up rage between two characters explodes in season two, for instance, the ensuing fight is amazing, not for how stylish and impressive the action is, but for how stylish and impressive it isn't. It's clumsy and ugly and awkward, the way it usually is when men fight in reality, but almost never is portrayed on television.
All this hard work wouldn't do much good if the acting didn't match, but the acting on The Shield is terrifically lifelike. Vic Mackey, expertly portrayed by Michael Chiklis, pulls focus with that bald head and that loud personality of his, but The Shield isn't just about him. It's an ensemble drama filled with memorable characters who, refreshingly, don't seem like they're just characters in a TV show. It would be pointless for me to go down the whole list, and if I did, they'd only sound exactly like "just characters in a TV show" (Here's the gay black Christian cop! Here's the ambitious Latino police captain who wants to be mayor!), but the fact is that each character is written and portrayed with far more complexity than I could possibly suggest here. My favorite character, though, has to be Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach, a detective who, at first glance, appears completely, boringly ordinary, and then, like so many people who appear that way, turns out to be fascinating.
The other thing that sets the show apart is its moral complexity. Vic Mackey is unquestionably corrupt, but he's also fiercely adherent to his own moral standards, however flawed they might sometimes seem to be. And, yes, he does get results, put bad guys away and keep innocent people safer. Is that worth bending the rules from time to time? Issues get so complicated sometimes on The Shield that it often becomes unclear where the line is between right and wrong, and it's not unusual for my moral compass to be yanked back and forth and back again over the course of a single episode. Sometimes I want all the bureaucrats to quit their whining and let Vic and his elite strike team do things their way, and sometimes I want to see Vic Mackey stopped and put away for a long, long time. The fact that all this thought-provoking moral confusion comes bundled up in one of the most consistently thrilling entertainments out there is just icing on the cake.
And make no mistake, The Shield is thrilling. It's packed with murder mysteries, heists, hostage situations, undercover stings, betrayals and villains you really, really love to hate. But even as they're dealing with all this craziness, the cops at the Barn also have to deal with stuff like dating, raising kids, trying to keep their marriages together. It's just another day.