Saturday, August 30, 2008

Curtain Call For Baltimore: The Wire

With David Simon's series "The Wire" coming to a close on HBO earlier this year, thus ends one of television's most intriguing and sweeping examinations of an urban American city ever put on the screen (big or small). The verisimilitude it captured- from street level dealers to the corridors of city hall and back- was risky yet it paid huge dividends to its audience, refusing to give any establishment the short end of the stick and remaining intelligent throughout. At times iconic towards its city and many other times embarrassing, "The Wire" was certainly not condescending and I imagine any city in America would've been proud to hold the framework for this fine series. It landed its share of black eyes, but also commended the unique, hard working and diligent individuals within its concrete jungle whether they were crooks, cops, politicians, teachers, dock workers, news writers or bartenders. And above all, "The Wire" understood that these individuals create and give life to the city that it celebrates. You could find wisdom, honor and intelligence in the lowliest of the low and the highest of the high. It had a story to tell each season, of course, but the truth was always in the details and I'm glad that creator Simon was able to allow some people to make it out alive as the curtain fell on Baltimore.

My own personal introduction to "The Wire" came later than some. During the initial airing of Season 3 on HBO, I decided to rent the first disc of Season One and give it a chance. From that first viewing, I was hooked. I think the hook came in a relatively early scene when a drug addicted homeless man named Bubbles (Andre Royo, who would eventually become the graceful figure of redemption in the series and discussed later) was giving undercover police a lesson in how to infiltrate the drug-ridden ghettos of Baltimore's western side. As an undercover cop was gloating on how prepared he was for his deceptive mission on the street, Bubbles quickly pointed out that he was still wearing his wedding ring. A junkie would've already sold the ring for cash. Then Bubbles looked at the cop's sneakers and chided them for not being beaten up enough. A real homeless man would have glass shards and broken vile glass all over his shoes from walking in the streets everyday. A simple observation yes.... but one that echoes the resilient truth in every episode of "The Wire" and one that most cop shows ignore or gloss over. There was always plenty of time for these natural observations in "The Wire" and it made me feel vindicated that I was watching something very close to the truth.

Season One concentrated on the Baltimore drug trade, building an intricate network of dealers, pushers, young kids and devoted cops on Baltimore's western side. The long streets with dilapidated brownstones and short steps out front became the central locale. I have to admit... these images of the brownstones throughout all five seasons of "The Wire" remains the most prescient image in my mind... so much so that when I recently visited Baltimore and we took a wrong turn outside of downtown Baltimore and ended up on one of these identical streets, my heart jumped a little at seeing something in person that had been manufactured continually on-screen. Season Two alternated its locale, jumping from the urban environment to the Baltimore port where a canister of dead Eastern European women turns up on their dock. It may've seemed like a bold move since Season One concluded with a host of loose ends, but it was yet another example of "The Wire" jettisoning the normal expectations of serial television and re-iterating that not everything ends in justifiable measures. Like life, things are messy and unfulfilled. Season Three strayed back to the unfinished business of Season One as the cops re-open their investigation on street level drug pushing. Then, Season Four pulled what could be called the series most effective coup. The cops and drug dealers were pushed to the background and the city's school system and political machine were thrust to the fore front. With the introduction of councilman Carcetti (Aidan Gillan) "The Wire" traded in its brilliant observations of police procedure and morphed into one of the most telling depictions of political campaigning I've ever witnessed. If you get your jones watching obscure documentary features on the political process ("Our Brand Is Crisis", "The War Room" or Downey Jr's "The Last Party"), then Season Four definitely should hold rank in your viewing queue. Besides the political arena, Season Four spotlighted a group of young boys growing up in the ghetto and faced with a collapsing economic school system. Perhaps the smartest aspect of Season Four is showing exactly how urban environments gravitate certain individuals into a culture or lifestyle. These are all intelligent boys, but their options are limited. Season Four slowly exemplifies how even the brightest can turn towards bad choices. And it's in this season that "The Wire" explodes into something greater than serial television. It becomes social realism.

So where to go with Season Five? Back to the streets naturally. Integrated into yet another drug investigation (since the "crown" of the drug dealers is continually passed from weakest to strongest) is the inner-workings of the Baltimore Sun press. With a firm grasp of Baltimore politics in tow from the previous season, Mayor Carcetti faces a whole slew of corruption and back-stabbings within city halls. And then there's lead detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) chasing a serial killer AND a drug kingpin. While Season Five is responsible for juggling three distinct story lines now, it also has the added pressure of satisfying its loyal fan base as the series comes to a close. With the onslaught of criticism and controversy about HBO's other David series (need I mention it?) "The Wire" faced a dicey path. And given the messiness of the series previous history, nothing was certain. Yet Season Five managed to etch out moments of grace and tenderness as each character (close to 50) slowly faded into the background of Baltimore's facade. Some will carry on duties as Baltimore's finest. Some will seek other opportunities and some will rise up to fill the bloody shoes of those lost in the concrete battleground of the brownstones. But, the lingering promise that the city is a little better now than when we found it is hard to shake. If nothing else, "The Wire's" heart and redemptive soul can be found in the lowly character of Bubbles. Situated on the precipice of drug addiction oblivion throughout most of the first three seasons, the last few episodes reveal him as a recovering addict slowly acclimating back into society. The final image of Bubbles, as he sits down to dinner with his sister and her little girl, instills an awesome feeling of complexity and finality to the series. Cases are opened and closed. Political favors are dispensed. Careers are bolstered and finished. But the ultimate experience of "The Wire" is soundly represented in the quiet character arch of this once homeless drug addict who has found a peaceful agreement with his life. Like the looming city of Baltimore- which receives a meditative succession of images from country to city in the closing moments- maybe the bad times are gone. Whatever happens, I'm extremely glad I was able to share in these experiences for over five years.

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