Wednesday, December 15, 2010

3. The Wire (A Tale Of One City)

“We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch, and all the pieces matter.”
-Lester Freamon schooling two-fold by
1) explaining to Roland Pryzbylewski why a wiretapped call should be logged pertinent, 
while also 2) surmising the nature of the show itself;
“The Wire” (Season 1, Episode 6)

Run time: June 2, 2002 – March 9, 2008
Created by: David Simon
Broadcast via: HBO

The Wire has kind of become the Radiohead of TV serials. When I say that, I mean that The Wire is one of the most over-praised shows that still somehow remains under-appreciated as a whole (just like Radiohead remains one of the best-loved/oft-spited bands in modern music, but few give them credit for creating three of the most important rock records in recent history – all in a row). It’s a dauntingly complex show about all of the variables in the big equation. It’s a show about cops and criminals being two sides of the same coin (or being coins themselves, flipping between their own contradictory natures). It’s as detailed and poetic as the best literature, and as affecting and engaging as the most masterful movies, except it was a gritty TV series, one that could not possibly contain itself before nearly spiraling into entropy. And while it lasted, it was one of the smartest reasons to own a so-called idiot box and subscribe to HBO.

It’s been exhaustively discussed by people who love serious stuff (or at least serious cinema) and marginally ignored by most of mainstream television viewers. But give it time. Word of mouth is still keeping this series going strong. Owning up to its comparison as a “visual novel,” The Wire has something that all classic literature does: extraordinary staying power. Whatever your views on it, The Wire is a solidly built story with some of the most fascinating characters and sharpest glimpses of post-9/11 urban life in all of fiction. Fiction is the key word here, viewers, though The Wire will try at every chance to convince you of its authenticity. Written largely by a former Baltimore journalist who covered the homicide unit of his city’s police department (and wrote the book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets in the process, inspiring the NBC series Homicide: Life On The Streets) and a former detective-turned-teacher Baltimore city guru, The Wire drips with realistically eloquent dialogue in every scene, and exudes a naturalistic and non-flashy style and verisimilitude that makes it rival Shakespeare and Dickens for cultural relevance and societal commentary. And each real Baltimore location is littered with dozens of spectacular actors delivering some of the finest work of their careers. Though many are getting work since The Wire's ending, my hunch is that most will be remembered by their contribution to this show. And yet despite all the fiercely detailed performances in this vivid ensemble cast, the true star of the series is always the city itself: Baltimore, Maryland.

A place like a city is only as important as its people. As much as New Jersey was essential to The Sopranos, or that mansion was a key character in The Shining, the city also known as “Bodymore, Murdaland” is an all-too-important element of The Wire. In it, the citizens of Baltimore, whether native or not, all embody what is still left of a once proud industrial city (in what was at that time believed to be the greatest country on Earth). And they all represent a certain facet of the city that David Simon (the journalist) and Ed Burns (the cop) got to know so very well in their more than 20 years (each) of experience before they turned to TV. The Wire is not their first project together – that would be their gripping book-turned-mini-series The Corner – but it is the crowning achievement of what happens when you put a well-seasoned hack and a veteran dick in the same room room and make them write. It starts with a loose cannon detective named McNulty, notorious amongst his unit for "giving a fuck when it's not [his] turn" (amongst other things), mouthing off to a judge about who’s running the drug trade in the streets of the city (and getting away with murder in the courts) of Baltimore – a smooth and smart gangster named Avon Barksdale. Outrage roars through the halls of the homicide unit as McNulty continues to stir up trouble for the more politically minded, getting himself and other detectives (some skilled, some humps) detailed to a special investigative unit that uses surveillance methods (amongst them wiretapping) to try and prove that Barksdale and his crew are not only selling drugs but also producing corpses, all to control the corners of the streets. This is all just the beginning, though, and what seems like a more-detailed-but-still-standard cops-and-criminal drama turns into something almost mythic in proportions by the end of the first season finale. The characters and their fates are hardly as controllable as they may hope, as the writers themselves have insisted that they treat the institutions each character serves as a sort of Olympian force that can knock them down seemingly from out of nowhere. Which makes it feel so lifelike when things don’t work like we think they will (yet can still carry tremendously far-reaching consequences). 

It’s easy to get deep about The Wire for all its literary ambitions, but that’s not to suggest that it isn’t also plain entertaining. Any viewer could grow fond of the players on either side of “the game,” and there are dozens (if not hundreds) of colorful characters inhabiting the cold, hard street of Baltimore. The writers and cast have done an admirable job of making a world full of fictional people seem fully realized, full of both frailty and fury (depending on which way the wind is blowing). Some people have sneered and called the lot of them stereotypes, but I'm the kind of guy who thinks that maybe stereotype exist for a reason and that some very real people sometimes do seem a bit like caricatures. Whether you think they're "real" or not (and they are not, for the record), every character is imbued with style, the kind that stands for substance - they all are different pieces of the puzzle called existence, an often dark and harrowing one. But for all the heartbreak that viewers are in store for with The Wire, there are also moments of incredible levity. Sometimes it’s just great lines, sometimes it’s a twist or turn of events that you never see coming. But every episode of The Wire features this dichotomy of fierce and funny, wrapped in a strange form of optimistic cynicism (or is it cynical optimism? I really can't tell here) that makes it richly engaging, despite sometimes seeming impenetrable.

The structure of The Wire embraces the idea (like The Sopranos before it and Lost after) that each episode is a chapter, it’s own singular unit of storytelling tied to a larger whole. But more than any other show, each season of The Wire is its own story (each season also has its own variation of the same theme song, Tom Waits’ haunting “Way Down In The Hole”). Yes, every story ties together, because it is all connected, but each season also exists as its own independent entity. Focusing on separate institutions that collectively force the city’s inhabitants to make their choices every day, The Wire deeply explores the schemes and setups of the key fields that collide and intersect daily in all of the major cities of the world. In the first season, it’s the war on drugs played out in the precincts and streets that sets up the lay of the land (and an interesting parallel to the War On Terror). In the second season, we encounter the port system through the stevedores union and a smuggling operation lead by a mysterious man known only as "The Greek" to see how the drugs end up throughout the city in the first place. By season three, we are immersed in the city’s bureaucracy and government, just in time for The Wire’s greatest political statements to be made in the form of a metaphor called Hamsterdam. The forth season is Ed Burns’ most personal, as the school system is introduced to explain how the “same as it ever was” mentality comes to be so clearly established with the youth in many inner city environments. And the fifth and final season focuses on the print news media, and the way that lies are used as much as truth to get to where we feel we need to go (not to mention how our modern "journalism" is actually quite complicit in the degradation of the inner city). Some people come, some go, but what’s important to all of this is that players may change, but until we do something to recognize the problems of our society's ills and honestly attempt to fix them, the game stays the same. 

Many critics, haters and complainers have their reasons to find The Wire less than epic, and I will remind every one of them that The Wire is a) fiction (not documentary or even docudrama, despite the vast amount of research that went into its subjects), and b) not exactly realistic (though it feels very legit 85% of the time), but still thematically true. Though many claim art is most important when viewed from a socially conscious standpoint, I dare say that sometimes what's vital is simply how well a piece of art is made, no matter how bleak or dreary it may get to make a point. The cast and the crew of The Wire deliver during each and every moment, even if the writing does not always. Just about every scene is a hard hit to the head, and amazingly, after a while, it starts to feel real good. If you crave well-made drama, the kind that feels real and deals in low down raw-and-rugged storytelling, you really couldn’t take a better trip than with The Wire. Start with season one, and if it tickles your fancy, then keep on diving, and enjoy watching people try to keep the devil way down in the hole.

Starting with The Blind Boys Of Alabama's bouncy gospel-blues cover of "Way Down In The Hole," each season's opening credit sequence begins with a different take, symbolizing the different focus and themes with each new season. Tom Waits' own version takes over on season two, followed by The Neville Brothers, DoMaJe (a group of kids for a season about kids) and recurring guest star Steve Earle, respectively. Each rendition fits the feel of the season pretty well, and the sequence of images (nothing more than quick shots of various, seemingly unconnected events, all presented out of context and often in close-up) come to make sense as the season progresses and we are given context. For five excellent renditions of a song into a show's theme, I give The Wire five points, but the short season count does leave something to be desired sometimes. While everyone who misses The Wire wonders what the themes of future season would be, I will always wonder who the future theme song could have been covered (hopefully to equal perfection) by. (The closing theme "The Fall," by music supervisor Blake Leyh isn't half bad either.)

BEST CHARACTER: OMAR LITTLE (played by Michael Kenneth Williams)
Nowadays you may recognize him as Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, but Mr. Williams first came to prominence as perhaps the least realistic character of The Wire (even though he was based on several real criminals people, he came to embody an almost noble sense of place in the show), a smooth talking guy who robs drug dealers while whistling "The Farmer In The Dell" (usually causing the denizens of the street to flee yelling, "Omar comin'!"). Really, so many characters are stellar, and perhaps someone else should be here. Stringer Bell (Avon Barksdale's righthand man, ambitious as Icarus and smooth as silk, eager to get out of the ghetto he controls) was one crafty cat whose dual arc with Avon is one of great tragedy, and Howard "Bunny" Colvin (the commanding Major who creates drug safe zones in order to clean up the rest of the city neighborhoods) is the moral scope with which The Wire views itself: a tired seen-it-all who realizes that things are only getting worse and decides to try something different. Snoop is a gangster so vicious that Stephen King himself called her the scariest female villain in all of fictional history (and he wrote Misery). Deputy campaign manager/mayoral advisor/journalistic inside man Norman Wilson is a verbal riot in a tie. And of course there's The Bunk, one of the most suave and straightforward detectives (and characters) in cinematic history who also ratchets up the hilarity with just about every scene he's in (just so that I don't undersell his dramatic capabilities, actor Wendall Pierce does also deliver perhaps the show's finest monologue, a searing criticism of "how far we done fell"). But the superheroic Omar Little still wins as the best character because, for a show that constructs its characters as abstractions (thus making them differently likable upon subsequent viewings), Omar remains the hardest to pin down, but perhaps the easiest to root for. A gay stickup artist, Omar robs the most dangerous players in B-more and lives by a strange but valid moral code that involves making a point of not cursing and never pulling his gun toward anyone who isn't a part of the game. His moral ambiguity makes him immune to the institutions that normally crush the other characters of this story, and even though he is a coldblooded killer who takes what he wants, he is still a very hard character to not find appealing. Telling you that his ending is one of the more tragic ones on this show is not a spoiler; it's fair warning.

BEST SEASON: 4 (of 5 total)
Honestly, I think there is no best season of The Wire. That even goes for the much-maligned season five. Each one is essential, and it is the type of show where you really should know everything that has happened before whatever episode you're watching. The first season so succinctly sets up the streets and the players of Baltimore's drug game, and then the second season shakes it all up by tying the majority black streets to the mostly white docks and the investigation of the deaths of fourteen immigrant girls being brought overseas as sex slaves (it also takes great pains to remind the viewer that this will not be an easy or typical show). Season 3 takes it back to the streets but introduces the bureaucratic dynamic to the city's politcal spectrum, colliding these two worlds into the city's biggest philosophical conundrum (and some of the most satisfying story arcs of the entire show). All of these seasons are smashing, a tour de force piece of storytelling worthy of sitting on the shelves of the greatest works of fiction. But season four sends it all home in such an emotionally arresting way by reminding us about the growing kids of the world, the ones who will be replacing us to do the job (badly if that is how we teach them). There are so many immensely interesting characters sprawling across the Maryland metropolis, but the newest additions - primarily four middle schoolers named Michael, Namond, Randy and Duquan - are incredibly detailed and well-rounded in the their own right, and give the audience an arc that can't be easily forgotten. Not only that, but it shuffles former lead McNulty into the background, finally giving room to all the supporting (hell, equally lead) characters that have made The Wire such a great platform for actors - many stretch their wings for their finest flight in this run. And it does all of this while still feeling like good ol' Wire; the kind of season that understandably had some people calling The Wire the best show ever made.

BEST EPISODE: "Old Cases" (Season 1, Episode 4)
It's almost hard to believe that one of the earliest episodes set The Wire bar at that oh-so-high level, but it truly was that fast. If you're really paying attention your first time through, "Old Cases" is where you first see just how truly great The Wire gets. There's the cop talk "exhaustion" explanation, Bodie escaping from a juvenile ward, the loquacious Sergeant Landsman complaining to captain Rawls that McNulty is ruining his alone time, the beginnings of the detectives' encounters with Omar, Lester Freamon emerging from the shadows to reveal himself as true POlice (as they pronounce it in Bodymore), and of course, the classic scene of McNulty and his partner Bunk Moreland figuring out how a woman was shot in her apartment while uttering nothing more than the word "fuck" (or some of it's craftier variants) throughout the entire investigation - and still so much more. This episodes sets a damn good example of what the show is capable of when it flourishes. (Having said that, each season's penultimate episode is quite a kick in the pants as well).

BEST MOMENT: Tied between the cold opening and the brothel scene ("Stray Rounds," Season 2, Episode 9)
The Wire excels at moments that are either devastatingly depressing or shockingly funny. A shining example of each of these kinds of moments can be found in the same second season episode, "Stray Rounds," which features a horrific cold opening featuring a young child's tragedy because of a turf battle between rival drug crews, as well as the dastardly McNulty going undercover in a brothel and later having to type up a report about how he was unable to help himself from mixing pleasure with business during the bust.

BEST EXAMPLE OF McNULTY GIVING A FUCK WHEN IT'S NOT HIS TURN: Sticking it to Rawls by making fourteen dead girls fall under Baltimore City Police Department's jurisdiction - twice ("Ebb Tide" and "Collateral Damage," Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2)
Season two unfolds with a dead girl found floating in the water and thirteen more found dead in a cargo container on the docks. Though at first deemed unrelated and non-homicides (the floater apparently jumped off the bridge and it appears that the can's air pipe was damaged when containers shifted en route), no-longer-murder-police McNulty, drunk and scorned bastard that he is (after being kicked out of the homicide department and booted to the marine unit at the end of season one), decides to get revenge on his former commander Rawls by first proving that the floater was within city limits when she died, then doing the same for the other girls that are proven to be murdered in the can they were found in (and allowing the commander of every other unit to insist it falls on Rawls alone). To commemorate the monumental screwing of his old boss, The Bunk and Cool Lester Smooth take "McNutty" out for a taste - and make him take one shot for every girl he dumped on their department. 

-Freakonomics ran a brilliant nine-part series of articles titled "What Do Real Thugs Think Of The Wire," which gives a good counter perspective to all the praise and putdowns that get hurled by largely white-collared types.
-Slate was arguably the first majorly read publisher to hark the herald of The Wire to the masses by calling it the best show on television ever. It's TV Club (a series of articles written as emails) ran some pretty good stuff during the show's final two runs. Season four featured non-Slate guests documentarian Steve James (who first receive widespread acclaim with Hoop Dreams) and writer Alex Kotlowitz (best known for his book There Are No Children Here) breaking down The WireDuring the fifth season, Jeffrey Goldberg and David Plotz led the staffers in providing a pretty entertaining viewpoint from within an institution that The Wire was critiquing in its final run. 
-Only with a show like The Wire can you call re-watching it a "re-up." The Guardian thusly called their review of the series "The Re-Up;" it contained some pretty intriguing insights and provoked a lot of discussions (far beyond meager "I'm-right-your-wrong" polemics that plague many internet comment sections).

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