Monday, January 7, 2013

The Wire, Seasons 1 & 2

Speaking of depressing HBO shows...

In the last decade or so television has evolved in a way where it's now able to tell stories in a way that simply wasn't possible beforehand. Yeah we have our Honey Boo Boos and our Real Housewives churning out trash TV, but we also have shows that are reaching levels of ambition that match some of the best films out there, both from a thematic and a production standpoint. Off the top of my head, you have;
  • Breaking Bad
  • Mad Men
  • Game of Thrones
  • Deadwood
  • The Sopranos
  • Community
  • Louie
I could go on but then we'd be here all day. You get the point though, TV has grown up almost across the board. But as great as all those shows are, and believe me they are great, none even come CLOSE to being as ambitious as The Wire.

(Be forewarned,  it's pretty hard to talk about this show without going into spoilery territory. I personally don't think being spoiled will really effect your enjoyment of the show, but if you haven't seen it and are planning on doing so in the near future you've been warned)

To explain The Wire to somebody who hasn't seen it before is pretty tough. It's a cop show, but not really. It's about the drug trade and gangs and corruption, but not really. It's equal amounts intimate as any character drama and huge in scope, a portrait of a city in decay. In fact I'd say that the most important character in the show is, in fact, the city of Baltimore herself. It's nifty.

Created by David Simon, a former journalist for the Baltimore Sun, and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop, The Wire is essentially a Greek tragedy set in the real world. Everything is preordained to fail because we've been trained to fail by the systems we have set up. Season one centers on a detail in the Baltimore police department. It's mission is to take down Avon Barksdale, a drug kingpin who's control of the projects' heroin trade has made him one of the most powerful men in Baltimore. From there the show takes a layered view of these two organizations, showing the parallels in their structure and all the different cogs within it.

Now this show has a lot of characters. If you've seen Game of Thrones, it's way bigger then that. There's Detective McNulty, a member of the homicide unit who starts the ball rolling against Barksdale. He's sort of the protagonist for season one, along with D'Angelo Barksdale, a small time drug dealer who happens to be Avon's nephew. Around D'Angelo are Bodie, Poot and Wallace, three kids who work for him slinging dope. Upwards in the organization there's Stringer Bell, Avon's second in command and his enforcer. Then there are the soldier like Wee-Bay, Stinkum, and Bird who run day to day operations. There's also Bubbles, a heroin addict who acts as an informant for the detail, which consists of McNulty, Kima Gregs (a lesbian cop), Herc, Ellis, Prez, Lester Freeman, and is headed by Lieutenant Daniels. He has to answer to Major Rawls and Commissioner Burrell who in turn...okay I'm going to stop right there because there are still a lot more people to talk about. Here's the full character list for the show. It's a lot to take in.

Right away this show refuses to hold your hand. I had to watch the first episode twice because throughout most of it I didn't have one fucking clue about what was going on. Like Deadwood, it's written in a very specific technical language that you have to learn before you can be immersed in it. Actually, it's written in two languages, the police's and the street's. In a way, season one of The Wire is about systems, and how they are broken. The characters in both organizations parallel each other, stuck in the same loops, doomed to repeat their failures over and over because that's how it's always been. I wouldn't call it a cynical show, it certainly isn't as cynical about the human condition then The Sopranos. However the show does have a similar view on how people won't change because it's not as easy as just keeping the status quo. In The Wire, there are characters on both sides who want things to change. D'Angelo doesn't see why the drug trade needs to be so violent. He has a line where, and I'm paraphrasing here, he says that every other type of trade in the world doesn't have murder attached to it, so why must the dealers need to act like they're being super hard and kill people just to show people what's what? On the other hand, you have McNulty who wants to take down this huge criminal organization right under their noses, but all that the people higher up the totem pole want is good numbers on their records. Both refuse to budge because if they do then they look weak. Never mind that they don't accomplish anything, but as long as it appears that things are running in tip top shape, everything's good.

And then there's Omar.

In a show filled with great characters, Omar is without a doubt the best one. Another thing I forgot to mention about this show is it's very real look at how the world is made up. As a result the show is very diverse, with a large span of different lifestyles over different races. It doesn't feel like any "affirmative action" type of casting, but instead they are just people. Omar is a champion of this. Played by Michael K. Williams, Omar is a gay black man who robs drug dealers. He is one of the few people in the show that threatens Barksdale and gets away with it. He's an anomaly, a force of nature, and unlike anybody else in the show, he's not part of a system. He's on his own, and because of this he has a freedom that nobody else on the show does. As he says, he's part of the game, just not a player in it.

If you haven't seen the show most of this probably doesn't make much sense. And all that I've said here is just season one. Season two overhauls a lot of these characters and adds a bunch of new ones and focuses on a whole other kind of drug trade, specifically smuggling through Baltimore's ports. Its a completely different experience. Seriously, my babbling here isn't doing the show justice. If you like television, hell if you like good stories, The Wire is not optional! It hits the top of the Wicker Scale, it's one of the best shows I've ever seen, and if you see it too you will probably agree. I'm so excited to watch season three.

P.S. If you do end up watching the show and want a nice companion piece to go along with it, Alan Sepinwall's reviews are not only informative but incredibly helpful for first time viewers trying to make heads and tails of what's going on. Here's season 1 for newbies.

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