Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Thoughts on "The Wire"

In watching and surveying the first 2 seasons of David Simon's HBO series "The Wire", I can't relay how in awe I am of the show's continued intelligence, characterizations and attention to procedural details. Though drastically different (with season 2 branching off into more intimate territories of crime and fraud on the Baltimore dock yards), both seasons make a statement that's been echoed here and in media print worldwide- that TV offers, hands down, the best environment to create and evolve a multi-layer narrative that stretches across so many boundaries of human interaction and growth. Characters appear and disapper, just like friends and acquantences in real life. Plot points are carried over several years. Weakness, motivation and all the other usual tropes are much clearer because we live with the characters for so long, eventually identifying pieces of ourselves in them. Modern TV is the visual answer to the novel. I'll never give up reading, but with epic television shows, it makes things a little easier if I don't read every day.

So, back to "The Wire". What strikes me most about seasons 1 and 2 (and I won't go into detailed plot synopsis because, quite simply, I could never do the series justice and half the fun is finding out for yourself) is how sprawling investigations are flamed higher and higher after insignificant incidents. Take these for example: 1) in season 1, a state's witness is murdered after he testifies on the stand against one of the mid-level players in an expansive drug operation run by heavy Avon Barksdale. Now, ordinarily, in the projects of Baltimore where "The Wire" takes place, a murder is something to scoff at. The detective appropriation board is already overflowing with cases that are unsolved. But it's the indefatiguable persistance of Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) that opens the case wider. He goes to his judge friend, makes a few comments, and suddenly the entire Baltimore police force is scurrying to cover their own ass and solve this single murder. Loose lips certainly sink ships. An investigation is begun, and for the next 12 episodes, McNulty and a varied task force of equally dedicated officers ferociously hunt down every lead, exhaust every possibility and unturn every stone until the crime syndicate is toppled over. And while "The Wire" spares no expense in documenting the detailed steps of the investigation, it also brilliantly illuminates the versimilitude that exists in the heirarichal ladder of the Baltimore police force and their political counterparts. The dynamics of big city institutions are portrayed with a sense of truth. I look forward to seasons 3 and 4, in which I understand the Baltimore school system is brought under a jaundiced eye. 2) the second seemingly innocent kindle to a larger fire happens after a local dock worker, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) outbids a local police major (already at each other's throats due to deep-seated nationality differences) and gets the better spot to showcase a stained glass window in their church. The Major puts together a detail to investigate where Sobotka earns that much money. The detail soon becomes entertwined with low-level drug dealers, international smuggling and murder.

Season 1 entranced me from the beginning. Not only does it represent what it surely feels like to pace through a slow-moving investigation, but it takes time to flesh out minute details that often gets lost in the wham-bam shuffle of other crime thrillers. For instance, when an officer decides to accept an undecover job and go inside the low-rise apartments to make a buy, the group's confidential informant makes a few casual remarks- "Is that your wedding ring? Take it off. A real drug fiend would've pawned that months ago. Let me see the bottom of your tennis shoes? Their not dirty enough. If you're a real drug fiend and you live in the low-rise, then the bottom of your shoes are full of broken glass from the drug capsules." That's what great stories do- they take ordinary situations and layer them in knowledge. Season 1 is full of knowledge. And while season 1 spends a majority of its time on the investigation, it also sheds emotional light on the family turmoil that face alot of the crew. McNulty is suffering through a disintegrating marriage and Lt. Daniels (played by the wonderfully stoic Lance Reddick) has to defend his every move when coming late at night for dinner. Likewise, Detective Kima Griggs (Sonja Sohn) has the double whammy of being involved in a same sex relationship, so she's dealing with the pressures of a homophobic environment as well as the stress her job entails. After all, she's a fiend for action, so when there's a door to be broken through, she's usually the first one inside. Season 1 not only speaks the truths of the street, but it reaches some pretty nice emotional highs as well.

In season 2, "The Wire" takes a deep breath and shifts gears from the poverty, drug-stricken Baltimore low-rise apartment housing to the blue collar shores of the dock yards in which international smuggling, low-level drug dealing and labor union corruption are just a few of the easy targets. And even though the thrust of the series lies in a police investigation that surfaces once a shipping canister of dead bodies is found on the dock of Frank Sobotka, the real heart of season 2 rests on the tragic consequences that a blue collar family suffers because of the investigation. Not only does "The Wire" begin to work outward (docks, labor corruption, Eastern European crime lords) but it strikes the most potent notes when it works inward towards the Sobotka clan. And all over a stained glass chruch window. Season 2 reminds me of the way Coppola's "Godafther 2" turned suddenly into an epic family chamber piece. The greatest casualties in Season 2 are the off spring. Confused, despondent and looking for more money than the 20 hours a week that the dock provides, Sobotka's son, Ziggy (James Ransone) and his cousin Nick (Pablo Schreiber) become involved in the low level drug trade and, eventually, topple their father's shaddy dock dealings. And its all the more tragic because Frank Sobotka, at heart, isn't a terribly bad person. He gets involved with bad people (Greek crime lords played menacingly well by Paul Ben Victor and Bill Raymond) and suffers the consequences of organzied crime. And that's the beauty of "The Wire"- every side of the story is beautifully realized. Equal time is given to the strong bond that hovers over the dock workers. More time is probably spent inside the local beer tavern where the dock workers hang out every night than any police office. One gets the sense that in Season 2, creator and writer David Simon is expanding outward and hitting notes of something intimate, something that is more than painting good and bad. And when the last line is spoken in Season 2, one gets the sense that old stomping grounds (i.e. the low level high rise) will again become an active plot point. Like in real life, evil is never destroyed. It only manifests itself in another form. I look forward to where Season 3 takes me.


Anonymous said...

I bet you money that you'll watch the next two seasons within 2 weeks. Season 3 brings you back to the streets. Season 4 is on par with season 1 in terms of excellence. I don't watch many tv shows these days, but The Wire blew me away. It's a good book that pays off at the end. Too bad the dvd for season 4 won't be out for a while. Trust me, when I say I envy you for not yet watching season 4. Enjoy and spread the word around about the best show in tv.

TALKING MOVIEzzz said...

Just this morning, I was thinking I have to add the first disc to my queue. Off to add it now.

Joe Baker said...

Anonymous, any idea why the 4th season is much delayed? Didn't that season end last year?

Moviezzz, you won't regret it. I'll be anticipating your thoughts on the show.

Anonymous said...

Season 4 finished airing late last year. Season 5 (which is slated to explore the role of the media) started shooting in mid-march and won't be done until August. I believe that Season 5 (the final season) will begin airing in January 08.

So, as for the Season 4 DVDs? My guess is they'll be released shortly before the start of Season 5, to build the hype.

as the previous anon has mentioned, I envy you too for having not yet seen seasons 3 and 4. You are in for a treat.