Wired Up!

For the past several months my wife and I have been devouring HBO’s popular, though still under-the-radar, series The Wire, with an appetite we have never before had for an American television show.  I have been hesitant to attempt writing a post for this series, fearing that, among other things, I would simply be unable to synthesize anything coherent out of my many and sundry thoughts other than rambling and unsubtle praise.  Having just finished season four, and before starting the fifth and final season, I thought I’d give it a try.  Before proceeding, let me state that this is quite simply the finest American television I have ever seen.  I qualify, “American,” because The Wire does not trump some of my favorite British whoppers, namely Sandbaggers and Prime Suspect (both will be given their own treatment in future posts, don’t worry!), but it stands alongside them bravely and proudly, something I thought I’d never see from our side of the pond!  Ironically, two of the stars of the series are British; go figure.

Each season of The Wire deals with a season-long story arc, and characters and plots are continued throughout subsequent seasons as well, so it really pays to watch this show from the very beginning.  As the name implies, each season has something to do with the Baltimore Police Department and a wiretap, whether or not the tap is really the main concern of the season’s story.  The seasons’ subjects are, in order: drug trafficking in the inner city, corruption in and on the docks, politics and the mayor’s office, the public school system in the inner city, and the press.  The Wire delves deep into these institutions, examining, without hesitation, their corruption and poverty, offering us a grim picture of a contemporary city in decay, rotting from within, and everywhere, it seems, on the verge of collapse.  Hmm, perfect pick-me-up fodder for a Friday night, Walter…. I just want to watch a spot of tele.  Fret not, gentle viewer, The Wire, while bringing itself to the proverbial Brink, manages not to throw itself, and You, over the edge.  It does teeter there perilously….

One message is consistent and clear throughout each season of The Wire: the war on drugs, as it is being fought in Baltimore, specifically, but presumably throughout the nation, is no longer relevant and effective, if indeed it ever was.  It is a battle lost, and it is time for a new strategy.  The Wire does not presume to offer any rosy plans for reconstruction and renewal, however, and we thank it for that– this is no fantasy, after all.  There are no easy answers to any of these questions.  When we are given something radical or ambitious, its faults and inadequacies are quickly pointed out.  In the third season, a police lieutenant nearing retirement decides that the way to meet the unrealistic statistical demands of his superiors regarding lower violent crime is to legalize drugs by establishing a blind-eye zone within his district, affectionately dubbed “Amsterdam” by the police and referred to by the corner kids, who have no idea what, much less where, in the world Amsterdam is, as “Hamsterdam.”  The plan goes swimmingly at first—beefing crews no longer beef, junkies can get their fixes in peace, and everyday Baltimore citizens can step out on their stoops to get their morning papers without wading through throngs of, well, not-so-everyday Baltimore citizens.  It takes a very short time, however, for the dream of Hamsterdam to become a nightmare, situated somewhere along the 13th or 15th levels of the firey bowels.  Throughout The Wire we are often witnessing the deleterious ends of quick fixes, if not more so the results of inaction in the lives of, to steal a phrase from some people who have probably never seen the show, those left behind. 

Bleak, depressing, outraged, desperate—The Wire is all of these, but its ability to confront and acknowledge these existing situations in Baltimore (read: Inner City, USA) in a way that is all at once dramatic and plot-driven without being overly dogmatic is really astonishing.  The result is downright entertaining.  It’s even truly funny at times, lots of times!  The show’s stark sociology is ultimately humbled by incredibly good writing, and this, after several long introductory paragraphs, sorry, is really what I’d like to say about The Wire:  Politics and agendas aside (the slightest research into the show’s creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, will reveal said politics and agendas), these people can spin some quality yarn!  Wonderful genre elements of Greek tragedy, the Western, the Police Procedural, Film Noir, Naturalism and Realism, good old fashioned Postmodern fiction-chasin’, among many others, are at play in these stories.  David Simon was a journalist for the Baltimore Sun for a number of years, so it’s no surprise he can write, but it is a surprise to me that the journalist can work so well in the dramatic arts.  It probably helps that many episodes are written or co-written by fiction writers, chiefly among them crime novelist George Pelecanos, also a producer for the series, but including others such as Denis Lehane and Richard Price.

A testament to the quality of writing in The Wire is the cast of the most wonderfully drawn characters ever to have graced my television screen.  This is difficult territory here, because I don’t want to spoil anything for potential viewers of the program, but know that you will meet people the likes you haven’t seen since Radar and Hawkeye!  There are good guys and bad guys, but sometimes the bad guys are good and a lot of times the good guys are bad.  There are sinister cops, stupid cops, sinister drug dealers, stupid drug dealers, smart cops, smarter drug dealers, even smarter cops, and a junkie named Bubbles.  Bubbles is The Wire’s Greek chorus.  There is a duster-wearing, sawed-off-toting vigilante named Omar.  Omar robs drug dealers.  Omar is terrifying.  Omar does not use foul language.  Omar lives by a strict moral code.  Omar is awesome.  The Wire is a predominantly black cast, and it is interesting to see the diversity of African Americans represented in such a large and all-encompassing way—it’ll make you think twice about contemporary black roles in mainstream television.  It’s subtle, but it’s yet another institution The Wire levels its eyes on.  I digress.  While each season introduces a new set of characters with its respective storyline, and some characters are short lived, there is a core cast who we get to know very well throughout the run of the show.  Some are likeable, some are despicable, some are despicable for several seasons and then show a slight bit of humanity in the face of their long history of inhumanity (fascinating!), but all are incredibly complex and well-wrought, and, for the most part, very well acted.

This brings up another interesting Wire tidbit.  Many of the actors in the show are non-actors, but more interesting, they are often former employees or practitioners of the very Baltimore institutions the show is representing.  One of the Homicide detectives was the former police commissioner for Baltimore.  A school principal really is a school principal.  A school superintendent in the show was in real life the Baltimore city council president.  A particularly ruthless “muscle” for a drug dealer in the show served real time in prison for drug-related violence in their pre-Wire life in Baltimore.  Perhaps most fascinating is the character of The Deacon, played by real life Baltimore drug lord Little Melvin Williams.  The list goes on.  Why, Walter, your research talents are unparalleled!  Nope, there are some nice special features on a few of the discs, though not nearly enough for my needs, but all of which are worth watching.  The Internet will provide you with a lot of interesting info as well, though I must caution against this:  I ran across a couple spoilers, even whilst diligently watching for them!  I’ve already mentioned the show’s creator, David Simon, worked at the Baltimore Sun for a number of years, but it is interesting to note that the show’s co-creator, Ed Burns, was a Baltimore City Police Homicide detective for ten years or so and also taught middle school in Baltimore City.  What does all this mean, aside from the fact that the former police commissioner can’t act worth a hoot (but he sure seems authentic)?  It makes me think these people know what they’re talking about, for one thing, but knowing this adds yet another human element to an already incredibly human drama and elevates it way above its devices.  A Homicide detective, standing over a body in the street, saying, “God I love this city,” is ironic, bitter, disturbing, morose, etc., a good scene in a hip police story.  Knowing that that man, in real life, was the commissioner of police in that real city, gives the scene a wisp of lingering realism that, however subtle, is unsettling to say the least. 

One bit of criticism I will level at The Wire (say it ain’t so!) is that the arc of each season’s plot is not so much an arc as a rise to a precipice and then a swift and decisive plunge off of that precipice.  So far (I have yet to watch the fifth and final season), each season’s final episode has concluded with a rather to-be-expected montage, set, and gag me here, to music!!  I suppose you have to wrap things up a little in order to have viewers make the leap of faith to return to the show in its next season, especially when watching in real time, I have no problem with that.  It does seem, however, that The Wire takes some particular exception to this notion, and therefore chooses to proceed with business as usual until the last seven minutes of the final episode of season X, whereupon they deliver the goods and it’s curtains until the next season’s slow crawl up the plot hill.  I’m being a bit harsh, but it’s only out of love and respect, and because I’d like for these seasons to go on for, I don’t know, about 52 episodes or so.  One a week, that would do me just fine.

Criticism aside (yep, they get off that easy), let me conclude by saying, as subtly and gently as I can… Watch this show!  It really is as wonderful as I say it is!  Each episode starts with an epigraph.  I leave you with one of my favorites:


“Thin line ‘tween heaven and here.”  –Bubbles

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