Johnson & Johnson

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing sporadically which try to raise the profile of some of American TV’s most unfairly neglected artistic talent. We begin this week with actor-director Clark Johnson.

Clark Johnson as Gus in 'The Wire'

'People can't be evacuated...well they can. But that's not what you mean'

The unsung heroes of American television are the directors. While journalists, scholars and fans (not to mention the artists themselves) rhapsodise about US TV writers and producers like Steven Bochco and Joss Whedon, they are perfectly content to ignore, marginalise or deride the directors who carve out the visual and dramatic life of programmes. Direction seems only to be valued when it is either combined with writing and production to construct the myth of the omnipotent TV auteur or when it is attached to a big marquee name in the media, most likely from the cinema (e.g. Quentin Tarantino’s episodes of ER and CSI). Some in the academic community, like Tise Vahimagi and John Caldwell, have tried to bring the work of TV directors to light but even then directors of Pilots get all the credit while directors of random episodes are seen as artless journeymen anonymously re-hashing someone else’s vision.

ER, 'Motherhood'

'ER' directed by Quentin Tarantino

Another production ritual in American TV that slips by most commentators and audiences is actors going behind the camera. Look at the later episodes of virtually any of your favourite US shows and you’ll invariably see its stars and supporting actors taking up the directorial reins for a week or two. As US TV shows have a very limited shelf life thanks to the spectre of cancellation which hangs over even the most popular and acclaimed series, a direction job can give actors more options and opportunities for work in the industry, especially for the less well-known ensemble players.

The subject of this blog is an actor from a renowned ‘90s cop drama, who went behind the camera only to create the enduring stylistic template and dramatic conventions for two of the most significant, innovative and exceptional police programmes of the last twenty years, perhaps ever. And what’s more, he went back on screen at the end of both of them to claim his deserved dues. Clark Johnson rose to public prominence playing the cool yet intemperate, honourable yet eminently fallible Baltimore police detective Meldrick Lewis in Paul Attanasio’s Homicide: Life on the Street based on David Simon’s book. Johnson’s performance helped to forge a distinct identity for the programme as a cop show that didn’t feel the need to romanticise or kowtow to the powers of its protagonists, particularly when bringing out Lewis’ reckless and impetuous side when crashing a police car into an ambulance in an early episode.

'Homicide: Life on the Street'

Clark Johnson as Detective Meldrick Lewis in 'Homicide: Life on the Street'

With a handful of behind-the-camera credits on Homicide, Johnson began to build up a portfolio of directing jobs on US TV in many of the most acclaimed dramas of the time e.g. NYPD Blue, The West Wing. Johnson seemed able to adjust to the distinct visual and dramatic styles of these shows effortlessly while successfully steering some conceptually tricky episodes and giving viewers some of these series’ most memorable moments, like Alison Janney’s hilarious and sexy mime to Ronny Jordan’s spoken word acid jazz piece ‘The Jackal’ in The West Wing.

In 2002, Johnson pulled off a remarkable and practically unparalleled feat as he directed the Pilot and initial episodes of two crime dramas that would blow the lid off the American police procedural, but for very different reasons. In Shawn Ryan’s L.A. police corruption drama The Shield Johnson invented the kinetic and jolting camera style that made the programme so arresting and exhilarating and helped craft the visceral energy and sly humour that made Michael Chiklis’ Detective Vic Mackey America’s most feared and entertaining bent copper. Conversely, in Baltimore-set drugs investigation drama The Wire, Johnson set in motion a near-invisible and highly methodical visual approach that avoided aggrandising or distorting the show’s complex portrayal of American institutions while laying the foundations for some of the most compelling, attractive and finely-tuned character performances ever seen on TV. These directorial styles were poles apart and demonstrated Johnson’s brilliance at finding the aesthetic most suited to the concept and ambitions of a programme.

'The Shield' and 'The Wire'

Johnson's two triumphs

As these series drew to a close, Johnson not only presided over the direction of the finales but also returned to the screen in befitting tributes to his instrumental role in their success. In Season Five of The Wire, he plays Gus, the City Editor for The Baltimore Sun, a highly meta-textual role in which he is bestowed the honour of voicing the ethos of the series to represent society in all its collective complexity. In the finale of The Shield he plays the federal agent who takes Mackey’s wife and kids away from his Beelzebub-like hold, inadvertently becoming the hero of the piece. On the credits Johnson is listed as ‘Handsome Marshall’. He’s earned that adjective.

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One Response to “Johnson & Johnson”

  1. Well said.

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