January 25, 2009

Wired on House

Filed under: asia,culture,east-west — Kim @ 4:09 pm

My name is Kim and I am an addict.

Over the last 2 months I have been working fairly hard….lots of essays to mark and no days off! Diddums. But I have also become an addict. After a hard day’s work followed by a couple of hours playing with baby, tickling the missus, etc etc, I somehow found the time to work my way through all 5 seasons of The Wire and the first 3 seasons of House.

All of which led to lack of sleep, irritability, dyskinesia, loss of concentration, pulmonary edemas and vasculitis…no it can’t be vasculitis, there’s no temperature.

DVD box sets can be the saviour of some expats. We need a prolonged dose of fantasy/western culture delivered in English to get us through the “bad China days” and keep our mental health.

Movies are OK and have their time and place, but they don’t really do it for the authentic addict. I need to spend long long hours with these people to get to feel at home with them. I need to watch them talking about lots of different topics, fighting their case over more than a few issues, eating various types of food, interacting with multiple people, and tested by a myriad circumstances before I can know them well. I need to make friends with my box set characters and making friends takes time.

It’s also nice to get to know a new city. David Simon, the brains behind The Wire once said in an interview about the show that “My favorite character would be the city of Baltimore, god bless her.” Now, I have never been (and seriously doubt I will ever go) to Baltimore but The Wire has helped me see the place’s soul a little. The camera went all around the city and into people’s homes and hearts and minds. Baltimore is a beautiful fucked-up place and The Wire is a wonderful show.

But it’s not all about the soulful stuff. I get kicks out of simply watching somewhere which is not China and seeing westerners doing familiar things. It must be something about having lived in Asia for a long time that makes it so deeply satisfying just to watch Doctor House eating a Reuben sandwich. I am not American and have never even had a Reuben sandwich….but still, it feels comfy.

And I need the English too. Living in China, I occasionally crave an infusion of English the way I used to crave crack cocaine back in the bad old days. Dr House and his medical pals give me a huge hit of medical jargon, and The Wire had me saying “alright” in Ballmer-ese (aaah eye-t) and learning sum street slang like hoppers and shorties and re-ups.

Getting hooked to a TV series is like gorging on a long novel. Part of it is the power of the art to pull you into the story and make you care about the characters, and part of it is about escapism, and some of it is because you feel you are learning something as you watch. House is obviously appealing to the amateur Doctor inside all of us, but The Wire can make you feel like you know a bit about the druggy subculture of the Baltimore streets and the life of a Police in a big bad American city.

For an English expat in China, getting lost in an American TV series makes the escapism part kind of sweet and sour. I am “escaping” from China into a “home culture” that is not my home and is not somewhere I particularly want to live. Actually, I have never been to America but in many ways I know that life there would feel familiar. Asia does not do cynicism, irony, individualism and immorality (immorality on TV that is) to the extent that the west does.

And now I’ve finished my feasting, what is there to say? Well, there are a couple of coincidences that recently occurred to me and the first of these is that in both The Wire and House the central character is an intelligent, unconventional, and stubborn American male; acted by an Englishman. I think it’s fairly well known that Greg House is the well known English actor Hugh Laurie, but it’s also true that Detective Jimmy McNulty is a rather less well known Englishman called Dominic West. Both do a nice job with their accents.

I hereby resist the urge to indulge in snarky comments about how Americans need to hire Brits in order to come across as intelligent.

The other rather more meaty thing the two shows have in common is that they both have drugs at their core. This is not a weak pun on medicinal drugs vs recreational drugs but what I mean is that Dr House is by far the most important character in the show and he is hooked on Vicodin, and the whole of The Wire revolves around the Baltimore drug trade.

Americans, it seems, cannot bear too much reality. What I mean is that Americans don’t like being straight and sober very much, and so be it booze or coke or Vicodin they want to use and abuse some substances to soften the blow of life in modern America. The question is: why? And the answer is because they aren’t high on nationalism like the Chinese or high on religion like the Iranians. Drugs and drink are filling the meaning-shaped hole in the post-modern western soul. Discuss.

So this is my America of the last two months: fiercely competitive, drug-riddled, gun-ridden, crime-ravaged, riven by race and poverty…and completely absorbing.

Thank God for Obama! He’ll make it all better. Oh no, wait! He’s a smoker, so we can’t trust him either. Damn.

Next box set please! (Any recommendations?)

PS. Happy Chinese New Year. MOOOO!