Monday, December 11, 2006

THE WIRE: The Smartest Show on Television
The Wire was one of the shows that my husband and I decided to PVR for its entirety and then watch when everything went on hiatus. If you’ve ever watched this series, you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s MUCH easier to watch the episodes back to back then to let ANY time pass between then. If you watch Lost and think it’s confusing, try The Wire. You’ll be backtracking and scratching your head and taking notes just to get through one episode. And it’s SO worth it.

The Wire is, hands down, the smartest show on television, possibly ever. I’ve never experienced anything like it on my TV. I’m going to devote this post to writing about The Wire for those who have never seen it, telling you why you MUST BE WATCHING THIS SHOW. (Every month EW has at least one column where they ask the simple question, “Why aren’t you watching this show yet?!”) Later this week, I’ll post a second one full of season 4 spoilers, discussing what happened in this mindblowing season.

The show grew out of a miniseries, which grew out of a book, called The Corner. The book was written by David Simon and Edward Burns, and was a difficult, heartbreaking, and fascinating look at what happened to one real-life family in Baltimore. Edward Burns is a former Baltimore cop, and David Simon is the writer and creator of Homicide: Life on the Streets. In the book and miniseries, we follow one family who should have had it all… until the mother became a crack addict, followed by the father, and the son was thrown in the middle of the devastation. We meet the other drug addicts living on the streets, the dealers slinging on the corner, the cops who know what’s going on but don’t handle it well. Simon and Burns spent years working on it, and interviewing the actual family who features in it, and what happens to them is shocking.

The six-episode miniseries of the same name, put out by HBO, was amazing. I’d urge you to watch it if you’re a fan of The Wire and haven’t yet seen it (or if you’ve never watched The Wire, this is a great way to enter it). When the series received critical accolades, winning the Emmy for best miniseries, among other awards, HBO realized they could take this premise and expand it. And thank god they did, because for as jaw-droppingly good as The Corner is, The Wire is that much better.

Don’t come to The Wire looking for laid-back, happy entertainment. This is a searing look at the real drug battle being waged in the U.S. right now, showing the consequences. After watching a couple of episodes of this show, you’ll realize just how fruitless – and patronizing – the Just Say No campaign really is.

Season 1 of the series focused on a group of detectives in the major crimes unit who were wire-tapping “The Towers,” a collection of low-rent high-rises where a group of drug dealers were slinging for Avon Barksdale, the young drug lord of the area. They tapped the pay phones in the area, and when Barksdale’s people got wise, had to move on to trying to get the signals of the cellphones. But, as every season does, season 1 showed how it wasn’t as easy as getting proof over the phone that Avon was indeed dealing drugs. In order to get The Big Bust, you needed major proof, and lots of it. Months and months of it. And while the major crimes unit was closing in on getting all the proof they’d need to take down the entire operation, the mayor of the city needed to show his constituents that he was making drug busts, and waiting on wire taps to come through wasn’t showing anyone anything. The media was getting antsy, the governor was demanding results. Meanwhile, other politicos were getting kickbacks from the drug trade, and didn’t necessarily want it to stop. And the cops were getting pressure from all sides. We were introduced to McNulty, a brilliant detective who was a drunk; Avon Barksdale, the ruthless but not-brilliant drug lord; Bodie, his loyal and also not-brilliant soldier; Bubbles, the drug addict who wanted to be clean and escape his horrible existence, but felt trapped. It was a GREAT season, and showed just how complicated this process really is.

Season 2 moved the action to the docks, while still maintaining its sharp dialogue and defiant message. We saw how the stevedores were losing money despite their unions, and how they were getting pulled into the drug trade (admittedly, I didn’t like the dock storyline that much, but luckily it wasn’t all about that.). Away from the docks it showed what happened when the drug slingers moved away from the towers to lower suspicion, and onto the neighbourhood corners. The politics heated up, and with one of the key players from season 1 out of the game, two faces we’d seen in the previous season moved up to become major characters. One of them was Omar, who is BRILLIANT, one of my all-time fave characters. This guy has a scar that literally splits his face in two, and is played by Michael K. Williams with aplomb. He’s dangerous, he’s gay, and if you touch anyone he loves or cares about, he will eat you for dinner. He walks around in a long brown trenchcoat with a flap on the back (think Holtz in season 3 of Angel), usually with a giant gun under one arm, and hangs around in dark alleyways. He’s not a drug dealer… he ROBS the drug dealers. Some of season 2’s best moments took place in the middle of the night, with some tough standing on the street corner, thinking he’s invincible, when suddenly, out of the darkness, you’d hear someone whistling Pop Goes the Weasel. The guy would look up, confused, his head darting around, as the sound got louder and louder, and just as Omar would get to the “Pop” part of the song… the guy on the corner would be no more. Do NOT mess with Omar. Simon created this dangerous and terrible character who is menacing and terrifying, yet made us actually root for him, despite knowing everything he’s about. The thing about Omar is (and he’ll often explain this, speaking of himself in the third person) he lives by a code, and if you understand that code and live within it, you’ll be fine. He has his own ethics, and doesn’t screw with them, and the cops actually come to trust this guy, despite him moving in on Barksdale’s territory and becoming a force to be reckoned with himself. He’s the best part of season 2.

Season 3 illustrated the mandate that the only thing more dangerous than a drug dealer with weaponry and people to back him, was a drug dealer who is educated and intelligent. Stringer Bell moved in as the head of Barksdale’s gang, running the drug trade as if he were running a business (he’d already been running it from behind the scenes, but now took the public reins). He took economics in school, and when he got the corner kids together to discuss who would be selling what product that week, he made them sit in an orderly fashion and forced them to follow Robert’s Rules of Order. Omar returned, and things heated up within the Barksdale gang to a boiling point, with other factions entering. Some tried to work together, with Proposition Joe playing all sides (as he always does), but for the most part, they were just stabbing each other in the backs. A new kid appeared on the scene – Marlo Stanfield – and he stirred the pot even further. The wire tap from season 1 had been disbanded, and now the cops were on their own, as one after the other they kept screwing up. The sergeant came up with the idea to just legalize the drugs, and turned the corners into free-for-alls, setting up a zone where you could sling all you wanted and you wouldn’t be touched by the cops, thinking that if he could just push all the madness to one section of Baltimore, the rest of it would be safe. It seemed like a good idea… at the time.

And then along came Season 4, where people who were in high positions in earlier seasons were now in lower ones, or fired altogether; where the politics established in the first 3 seasons came crashing down and a new day arrived; where the drug dealers had all changed, and the drug lords had turned over to a new regime run by Marlo Stanfield; and where the writers figured they’d explained all of the levels to a point where we didn’t need them to do it anymore. So they moved the plot to a new focus: the kids. What happens to the children who live in West Baltimore, in abandoned buildings, with crackheads for parents, with corner kids slinging all night long right under their windows? This season moved into Tilghman Middle School, where we not only watch the teachers having to deal with these unruly kids on a daily basis, but as the season went on, hope begins to dissipate that it will ever end, and we realize that even if a child WANTS to leave this life behind, everything will conspire to make sure that won’t happen. It was the best season by far, just when I thought this show couldn’t get any better. After every episode my husband and I would discuss it for ages, talking about the possibilities, even pausing an episode in the middle to look at each other and just say, “Wow.”

Watch this show. If you haven’t seen it, start with season 1, and watch straight through. DO NOT start anywhere after the very first episode. Lost will drop in a clue about something in episode 3 of season 1 and expect you to remember it in episode 5 of season 2. But The Wire? They expect you to remember EVERYTHING. Every conversation, every character, every nuance. It’s a downward spiral, and you must start at the top to understand what life is really like at the bottom.

Next up: I’ll run down season 4 and why I loved it so much. I’ll warn you of spoilers in that one.

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