The Wire (2002-2008)

The Wire (2002-2008) – Okay, so I’ve tried to do this TV Blog a couple times… When I started up the blog I was writing about every episode of most shows I watched. It was a pain in the ass and was sapping the enjoyment I get out of television. I decided to abandon it and maybe write about some of my favorite shows from years past. I always figured I would start with my favorite show of all time: The Wire. The original plan was to write about every episode. After re-watching the pilot I started to write an article but then… I really fucking wanted to watch the second episode. So I did. And in a couple days I was done with Season 1. I figured “Okay, I’ll just write about it by season.” And I did… for that one season. As I got through season 2… I wanted to start season 3. In a little over a month I had re-watched all 60 episodes of this, my favorite show of all time. So I guess I’m writing about the show as a whole now. This might be tricky… and long-winded… Turns out a novelistic show about the decaying institutions and systemic failures of Baltimore, Maryland is difficult to dissect into segments… who knew?

Poot, Bodie, D’Angelo, and Wallace

In its first season (this might seems redundant to anyone who read my earlier article) The Wire is a show about police and criminals and those caught between them in the ever-failing “War on Drugs.” In the pilot Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) even says “You can’t call this a war; wars end.” One cop, Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room (and often is, though his other failing sure as shit counterbalance it) and is sick of fighting this losing war so he bitches to a judge (Peter Gerety) about how the police department wastes its time and resources chasing statistics and not making quality cases and arrests. They lock up low-level crooks so the numbers look good, but crime isn’t especially hindered. This results  in the formation of a detail to investigate drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), a man who has proven thus far to be both clever and untouchable. The show also explores the situation from the criminal side of the case, mostly by focusing on lower-level dealers like Avon’s nephew D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.) and Bodie (J.D. Williams). Some of the most compelling characters were third parties involved in the drug game: charming crack addict Bubbles (Andre Royo) and legendary stick-up man Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams), who was the breakout character of the series.

Nick and Frank

If The Wire had ended after one season it would go down as one of the greatest cop shows ever. I believe that. What it did instead was continue on in the second season to expand its scope and take on another intangible crisis facing Baltimore, and the country at large: the long slow death of the working class. It was a ballsy move taking a show that had built a loyal audience and throw them into a whole new environment (the docks at the Port of Baltimore) and introduce them to a whole new set of a characters like Stevedores Union Treasurer Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer, so much better than he’s ever been on True Blood), his ambitious nephew Nick (Pablo Schreiber), and fuck-up son Ziggy (James Randone). The deterioration of organized labor and the death of the American Dream are a heady topic, and maybe a bit out of left field for a show that had focused on gangsters in its first season. In addition to the new characters, though, The Wire stuck with the old ones two diving deeper into the drug game and the ideological differences between gangster Avon and his more business-minded associate Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). It also dived even further into the petty grudges and politics that drive the priorities of the Baltimore Police Department.

Stringer and Avon

Season 3 abandoned the boys at the docks (though their story had been pretty much told, though a couple characters would cameo in the fifth and final season) and explored yet more sides of the drug game. Avon and Stringer’s differences intensify as a vicious newcomer named Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) makes his presence on the streets known. It also gets into new areas such as the issues facing parolees as exemplified by Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad Coleman), a Barksdale soldier who emerges from a long prison sentence unsure if he’s still cut out for the Game. It also introduces police Major Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom), who takes an unorthodox (and highly unrealistic) approach to drug enforcement. While it does involve a major suspension of disbelief, the strategy is treated seriously and used to examine several sides of an issue that gets more and more complex with each passing season. Finally, the third season introduces a game even more vicious than the drug game: politics. Idealist City Councilman Thomas Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) sees the problems Baltimore faces and thinks he could do more good as mayor…

Namond, Randy, Michael, and Duquan

Some people had problems with Season 3 (not me), but it’s generally agreed that Season 4 is The Wire’s undisputed best. The Major Crimes unit keeps trying to shut down major drug operations in Baltimore but Marlo might just be too elusive for them and his ruthless enforcers Chris (Gbenga Akinagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson) aren’t leaving any evidence behind to implicate him. It doesn’t matter either because it’s an election year and the race between Carcetti and incumbent Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman) is affecting every corner of Baltimore politics, especially in the police department. What really elevates this season above the rest is its exploration of where the dealers come from: the kids born into the streets being failed by the school system. Four young teenagers are introduced: Michael (Tristan Wilds), Duquan (Jermaine Crawford), Randy (Maestro Harrell), and Namond (Julito McCullum), the former two fo whom are the children of drug addicts and the latter two of whom are the sons of previously introduced drugs dealer characters Wee-Bey (Hassan Johnson) and Cheese (Method Man), respectively. (Cheese has absolutely no scenes with Randy nor any onscreen acknowledgement of his paternity. They just have the same last name and the writers confirmed that he’s supposed to be Randy’s deadbeat dad.) At the start of the season they’re ordinary kids, maybe not as carefree as most due to their environment but by the end of the season they’ve all been through their own heartbreaking ordeals. The school system is not spared the harsh light that the show shines on the other crumbling foundations that Baltimore is built on.

Gus, Fletcher, Alma, and Scott

Season 5 was the final season and could have just wrapped up storylines started in previous seasons, but like its predecessors decided to introduce a new facet of Baltimore’s rich and fucked-up tapestry. This time it was one close to the heart of the show’s creator, former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon: the newspaper. At the polar opposite of the “idealized journalism” spectrum from HBO’s The Newsroom, The Wire’s fifth season deals with the decline of the print industry and the lengths it goes to to stay relevant. City desk editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson, a frequent director of the show) has more old school journalistic ethics. Up-and-coming reporter Scott Templeton (Academy Award nominated screenwriter and director Tom McCarthy) is more interested in self-preservation. The theme of the season is bullshit and just how far you can get on that. Jimmy and Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) get fed up with just how broken the Baltimore Police Department is and go to… some rather extreme lengths (again, stretching realism) to try to fix it. Season 5 also checks in (via cameos) on characters who left the show (the ones who left under non-fatal circumstances anyway) to see where they landed. Sometimes it’s encouraging. Sometimes it’s anything but.

Omar Little

So those five massive paragraphs were just summary and trust me, I skipped a lot. Plus I didn’t even get to half of the characters. Character is all-important on The Wire. Some change, some stay the same, some get killed, others get even worse. Every character is believable and with enough investment of time you CARE about all of them. The Wire is more-or-less one of those “anyone can die” shows (on the drug dealer side anyway), but it’s more than cheap shock value to raise the stakes. When a character on The Wire gets killed it’s visious, even if the scene is over quickly. It’s like a punch in the gut because of how you’ve gotten to know this character. This starts in the first season, but maybe if you’re a savvy TV viewer you could see those deaths coming. In the second season, though, a major character gets offed and he is far from the last. It’s gut-wrenching every time… okay except the last time. The very last character who gets killed off on the series… well, he’s such an asshole it’s actually kind of a cathartic relief… But besides that asshole, the violence is not fun. It is brutal.

Ziggy and his duck

The character growth over the course of the series is great. Jimmy starts out arrogant and gets relatively beaten down after a while and then settles into a sort of happiness and then goes right back to arrogance. It all follows believably. Carver and his partner Herc (Dominick Lombardozzi) are another example. They start with one idea of how police work should be done and their perspectives change over the course of the show. Another character, Det. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), starts the show as a total fuck-up and discovers hidden talents as the show goes on. On the other side of the law you have characters like D’Angelo, Bodie, and Poot (Tray Chaney) who start the series just being all about being gangsters, but reach varying levels of disillusionment with the lifestyle. Then there’s the odyssey of Stringer Bell, the man who always insists “it’s just business” discovering how much of the Game is business and how much is reputation, not to mention his discovery of a whole bigger world of crooks out there. Within the second season you have Ziggy, who goes from being the loudmouth fuck-up who enjoys being the center of attention even if he’s the butt of everyone’s jokes to… well it goes bad places. The most intense journey probably belongs to Bubbles. As you might expect with him being an addict, his story is a hard one to watch sometimes.

Carcetti and Daniels

I have never been to Baltimore. I can’t say with any certainty that The Wire is an accurate depiction of that city, though I have heard of reasonably good authority that it is. Regardless, the issues that it addresses are really issue, not just in Baltimore. The systems that people rely on fail them with horrifying regularity and any attempt to buck the system seems to only destroy the people who try to make the changes. Carcetti starts the show as an idealist. He is the reformer, he is the one who is looking to make substantive change. When (spoiler alert I guess, even though it’s an easy one to see coming) he is elected mayor his idealism lasts not long before he is crushed by the system and forced into the same kind of politics he just spent a season and a half trying to reform. Before long he is more focused on a higher office (Governor of Maryland) than in the reform he was looking to enact. Lt. Daniels (Lance Reddick, and that rank changes several times through the course of the show) likewise wants to fix the police department. Unlike Carcetti, he does actually have the force of will to do it… but the system is just too strong.

Cutty

HBO has pretty much built itself up as a fearless home for quality programing with shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire (also featuring Michael Kenneth Williams), and Game of Thrones (also featuring Aiden Gillen). The Wire never really caught on with an audience as big as any of those shows (though the ratings were good enough to keep it on the air five years). It also received near universal critical acclaim (I am far from the only person to call it the best television series ever), but never received ANY recognition from the Emmys. Multiple reasons have been proposed for this. Creator David Simon had often talked about his desire to make a “novel on television” (uh… in a very different sense from the literal Spanish translation of that phrase). That long-form storytelling and intricate detail discourages new viewers from picking a show up. (The whole thing’s on DVD now so you don’t have that excuse!) Others more cynically said that the show didn’t catch on because it had a predominantly black cast and therefore was less commercially viable to “mainstream” [white] audiences. Others said that cynicism was itself the problem and that The Wire’s bleak portrait of this country’s failings was not what people wanted to tune in to watch Sunday nights. Either way a lot of people found it on DVD (yours truly included).

Bubbles

There was originally going to be a sixth season focusing on the massive influx of Hispanic into Baltimore but, as none of the writers were Hispanic or even spoke Spanish, Simon and company opted to wrap things up in season 5. Why they didn’t just HIRE SOME HISPANIC WRITERS is beyond me and a source of vexation me as a) an Hispanic aspiring writer and b) a fan of the show. As is though, they produced five years that were as damn close to perfect as anything I’ve seen before or since. Check it out. Give it a few episodes to find the show’s rhythms. It’s rewarding to stick with this one. Simon said his highest hope was that people would see the show’s depiction of systemic dysfunction and be motivated to go out and help change the systems (not that the show ever showed particularly happy results for anyone who tried that). Maybe that’s plausible. President Barack Obama has said The Wire is one of his favorite shows and Omar Little is one of the most fascinating characters to ever appear on television (as if anyone needed a presidential decree to tell them Omar was awesome). Then again, it’s a show where a reforming politician is handicapped by the innate corruption of the system itself, so maybe I’m not sure I WANT my president sympathizing too much with that…

Monk, Chris, Marlo, Snoop, O-Dog (I think?), and Cheese

I sort of stumbled onto The Wire. I was reading a lot at the time (2008) and started reading Richard Price’s excellent novel Clockers after hearing an interview with Price on NPR’s Fresh Air. After watching the Spike Lee film adaptation (also featuring Hassan Johnson), I decided to check out The Wire since Price was a writer for it (and even recycled a few scenes from Clockers in the episodes he wrote). Also on the writing staff were Mystic River and Shutter Island author Dennis Lehane and mystery writer George Pelacanos. The idea of a “visual novel” as Simon called it appealed to me so I checked it out, even when I had some difficulty understanding the “Bawlmore” accents in the first couple episodes. Plus a Tom Waits song was the theme! (“Way Down in the Hole,” sung by a different artist every season: The Blind Boys of Alabama in 1, Waits himself in 2, The Neville Brothers in 3, a group of Balitmore youth calling themselves DoMaJe in 4, and recurring cast member Steve Earle in 5.) I thought it might be cool, but I didn’t think I would be calling it my favorite show of all time in less than a year. But I did. I know no one who’s watched it that hasn’t thought it was great (though I do have a couple friends who haven’t gotten past the first couple episodes). So watch it already. I’ve since started watching David Simon’s new series Treme, also on HBO and featuring several The Wire cast members (Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce as regulars, many more as guest stars). It applies the same keen sociological insight to post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s a damn good show, but it still doesn’t touch The Wire. I also think I’ll go back and check out Simon’s earlier series Homicide: Life on the Streets… who knows? Maybe I’ll write an insanely long article about it too…

“It’s all in the game, yo…”

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