Wednesday, January 9, 2008
My Favorite Things: The Wire
The Wire is not just my current favorite TV show, it is my favorite TV show of all time.
Normally, I reserve my designation of "all-time favorite" for something that has stood the test of time, but The Wire, which has just begun its fifth and final season on HBO, has earned that position for a variety of reasons.
For a long time, my all-time favorite TV show was St. Elsewhere, a series that shares a lot with The Wire, including a sort of genealogical relationship. The quality I liked the most about St. Elsewhere, which is also reflected in The Wire, was the emotional and intellectual maturity with which the series treated its characters and, by extension, its audience. In short, characters you like very much could die or have something otherwise horrible happen to them, and the emotional impact on the audience would be genuine and visceral. I remember, for example, Mark Harmon's character, Dr. Bobby Caldwell, getting his face horribly cut by an anonymous one-night-stand who had a razor blade hidden in her mouth. This was especially surprising considering that Harmon had, that year, been named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, but it was also entirely consistent for a character who engaged in increasingly risky sexual behavior (culminating in Caldwell contracting AIDS in a pretty groundbreaking storyline). That single scene left me visibly shaken, and I may have even yelled at the TV at that point.
In contrast, a show like E.R. hypes every episode as the most shocking one yet, only to serve up more of the same without real genuine thrills, and the hype will often telegraph any major developments, especially cast changes.
St. Elsewhere also rewarded long-term viewers by referencing past plot and character developments without a lot of exposition. Much of St. Elsewhere's first season was taken up with a plot involving a mysterious rapist who was terrorising women in the hospital. Though the rapist, Dr. Peter White, was killed, the impact of that traumatic experience on surviving characters resonated throughout the rest of the series.
One of the writers on St. Elsewhere was Tom Fontana, who would adopt a similar approach to creating TV series with large ensemble casts in Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz. Fontana's co-creator on Homicide was David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and author of "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," which became the basis for that series as well as The Wire.
Bad shit happened to characters on Homicide all the time. In the final episode, Lt. Giardello, in a coma, sees all the regular characters who died on the show, and the number is considerable for a series that lasted 6 years.
Though Fontana is not involved in the creation of The Wire, his impact is still clear. The Wire balances a large cast, runs a complex narrative each season (one could also see all 5 seasons combining to form one long narrative), features little exposition, treats its characters with a kind of honest realism, and rewards its audience's intelligence and dedication.
Geoff Klock has a nice analysis of how The Wire rewards intelligent viewers, so rather than repeat his insights, I'll just link to them here. I especially like the point that one commentor makes about how The Wire is not a show during which one can multi-task.
One of the more frustrating things about The Wire, though, is that I don't know anyone else (besides the Other Dr. K, of course) who is currently up to date on the series. A requirement of this series is that one has to watch it from the very beginning--I can't imagine the reaction of someone, having heard the praise of this series, starting with the current season. This is good in the sense that the series is clearly building fans, and it should have a long life on DVD. However, it makes it difficult to talk about the series with others, as they all seem to be at different points in the series. So, that being said, if you aren't currently up to date with the series, I would advise you to tread lightly through the next few paragraphs, as their may be spoilers.
From the beginning of the series, the ostensible main character, if this series can be said to have one at all, is Detective Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West. McNulty is a compelling character because he can either be a good detective or a good human being, but he can't be both at the same time. When he's working on a case, he's passionate about finding the truth and seeking justice, and his detective skills are unparalleled. However, his personal relationships are a mess, and he descends into alcoholism and serial infidelity. His most destructive addiction, it seems, is detective work, and these other addictions are just symptomatic of that larger one. At the end of season 3, when he's demoted to beat cop in the wake of the Amsterdam scandal and starting a relationship with another former cop, Beadie, he is genuinely happy. It's to the show's credit and the strength of its cast that McNulty could virtually drop out of the show for season 4 without a decline in quality. For most of that season, we only get glimpses of McNulty's new happy life. But McNulty's passion for justice often places him at odds with the political and law enforcement bureaucracies that control his job, and he often takes dangerous risks to circumvent those systems. This especially seems to be the path he's following in the current season.
While McNulty left the spotlight in season 4, a relatively minor character from previous seasons moved to the center. Detective Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski was a relatively minor character in earlier seasons, whose primary job was manning electronic surveillance on the drug dealers. He did, however, have one shining moment in the first season that cemented my love for the series. The surveillance detail is listening to phone conversations between drug dealers, and only Prez can understand what they are saying. When McNulty asks Prez how he can make heads or tails out of these recordings, Prez responds, "Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in the market down in New Orleans," quoting the opening lines of "Brown Sugar." Prez then explains that he developed his sensitive hearing by decifering Rolling Stones lyrics. That was just flat-out great.
Prez, however, is terrible police, to use the parlance of the series, and after tragic events in season 3, he ends up taking a job as a public school math teacher in season 4, which moves him to the center of the series as it explores the Baltimore education bureaucracy. If The Wire is my all-time favorite series, season 4 is my all-time favorite season of a TV series, and I would argue that this is the best season of any television series ever. This season showed us how the educational system "leaves behind" countless young people who are eagerly picked up by another system in the city: the drug dealers and gangs. The season follows four of Prez's students, and we get to see just how the system makes drug dealers and how difficult it is to succeed and ultimately escape. Specifically, the season is a direct indictment of the No Child Left Behind program, which encourages diminished expectations, cooking the books, and teaching to the test in lieu of real educational innovations. When Prez sees the book cooking and ass covering that occurs at his new job, a look of recognition comes over his face as he realizes that this system is no different than the one he just left.
Over on Amazon's pages for The Wire, you can get a series of new short films that look back on key moments in some characters' lives. These are also available On Demand and elsewhere. I especially like the one about young Omar, who is another favorite character of mine to whom I could devote much more time here.
In the end, The Wire transcends the traditional moral binary of crime drama and instead presents an analysis of the failures of bureaucracy in various forms, whether it be police, politicians, drug dealers, educators, or journalists (the focus of the current season). I especially love it how the drug dealers mirror or emulate the structure, behaviors, and rules of the other systems, as the gang leaders meet in hotel conference rooms and Stringer Bell attempts to enforce Robert's Rules of Order in meetings with his corner dealers (I am praying for the day when I will be able to announce at a faculty meeting, "The chair does not recognize your ass!"). Another outcome of the series for me is a personal awareness of what I describe as "Wire moments"--times when I'm acutely aware of the problems within the academic bureaucracy in which I work. I see people whose ambition trumps their optimism and promise, like Carcetti; or ones who do an outstanding job (with little reward) despite the system rather than because of it, like Lester Freamon; or ones who take considerable pleasure in just being dicks, like DC Rawls; or incidences where pettiness, jealously, ass-covering, and ambition hinder good decisions and positive change.
Though I should be disappointed that season 5 is The Wire's last, I'm not, really. All indications in the first two episodes point to a continuation of the series's quality, and I admire Simon for ending on a high note, rather than running the risk of shark jumping, a fate that has befallen nearly all of my favorite TV shows that were not ended prematurely. It will end its five years as a groundbreaking, emotionally and intellectually satisfying series that demonstrates the full potential of serial television.