Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Wire: Money for something

As promised, from way back when I first mentioned getting the new season on DVD, my essay on the genius of the show:
And so it's come to this: David Simon is prepared to bribe people to watch the new season of "The Wire."

Okay, so maybe not a lot of people (mostly TV critics), or a lot of money ($130 per person), but if that's what it takes to keep his baby alive, he's ready.

After being MIA since the third season finished in December of '04, Simon's sweeping saga of drugs, crime and bureaucracy in Baltimore returns with a season three DVD set on Tuesday and the season four premiere on September 10. But after HBO boss Chris Albrecht suggested that renewal for a fifth and final season - which Simon had in mind when he left certain season four story threads unresolved - will depend largely on critical reaction to the new episodes, Simon wanted to go the payola route.

"I wish I'd said 'I'll send you $130 bucks to watch all 13 episodes,'" Simon lamented to me shortly after a "Wire" press conference with the Television Critics Association last month. "It probably would have violated every (newspaper) ethics policy. But I wish I'd said it. You know, 'If you watch all 13 episodes and don't like them, I'll send you $130, which is $10 per episode. I know $10 for an hour of your time isn't a lot, but we're "The Wire" and our resources are limited.'"

Having devoured all 13 hours even before sitting down with Simon, I can say I have no need of a refund. If anything, I feel like I should be paying more than my HBO subscription rate for this show. It is the best drama in HBO history - all due respect to "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood," "The Wire" is deeper, tighter and more ambitious - and one of the finest works ever produced for American television.
Since the full column is no longer up on, click below to read the rest:

Throughout the show's run, many of its central characters have worked for the Major Crimes Unit, a neglected, disrespected branch of the Baltimore Police Department that, in spite of finite resources and a roster of personnel that the rest of the department would be happy to discard, regularly performs investigative miracles. In that way, the MCU is an echo of "The Wire" itself, which is the least-hyped show on HBO's slate, with a cast full of no-names, yet manages to make the impossibilities of the TV business seem routine.

Where most other dramas are content to include one or two minority cast members and puff out their chests about diversity, "The Wire" features literally dozens of interesting, significant roles for actors of color. Simon, ex-cop Ed Burns and their writing staff (which includes acclaimed crime novelists Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos) juggle what can seem like a hundred different subplots and pay them off in satisfying fashion at season's end. They don't tell you what to think of their characters, or even whom to agree with when characters debate morality, public policy and every problem plaguing urban America today. They just want you to think, period.

There's always a danger in describing "The Wire" as I just have — it sounds like your mother telling you how important it is to eat your broccoli. And I won't deny that watching the show can be work; as I said, there are so many characters and story lines to keep track of that you may occasionally feel the need for a spreadsheet.

But the payoffs are more than just enlightenment. As pure entertainment, few shows on television can match "The Wire," packed as each episode is with vivid characters you'll love and hate in equal measure, huge laughs, genuine tragedy, suspense and even, on occasion, wild action sequences. Given all that, is it so bad that if you're not careful, you might learn something before it's done?

In the first two seasons, Simon, Burns and company introduced one great character after another. To name just a few: Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), a charming drunk and professional agitator; The Bunk (Wendell Pierce), McNulty's cigar-chomping, clotheshorse partner in both detecting and skirt-chasing; Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), a brilliant detective rescued from 13 years in department purgatory (the pawn shop detail) to become the heart and mind of the MCU; Bill Rawls (John Doman), the deputy police commissioner as attack dog, whose chief responsibility seems to be punishing cops who've displeased his boss; Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), an educated drug lord trying to run his operation as if he were the CEO of a Fortune 500 company; Bubbles (Andre Royo), an enterprising snitch with a heart as big as his addiction to crack; and Omar (Michael K. Williams), a legendarily theatrical stick-up artist as hated on the street for being gay as for his ability to rob drug crews with impunity.

To them and many more, the third season added three key figures. Two were Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), an up-and-coming drug player without Stringer's pretensions of respectability, and Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), a white Baltimore city councilman trying to be elected mayor in an 80 percent black city. Most notable was Maj. Howard "Bunny" Colvin (Robert Wisdom), a soon-to-retire precinct commander with a radical plan to reduce crime and increase the quality of life and police work in his district: He literally legalized drugs in his command, telling all the local dealers and junkies they'd be left alone so long as they kept their business to certain abandoned blocks (which quickly became known as "Hamsterdam").

Season four is even more ambitious, though partly by accident rather than design. Simon had hoped to follow Carcetti's run for mayor in a stand-alone miniseries to bridge seasons three and four, but HBO wouldn't commit to it. So the election gets folded back into the series proper, along with the rise of the increasingly ruthless Marlo, and, as the season's centerpiece, a look at the troubled inner-city school system and how it serves as the last, rapidly crumbling barrier between the kids and the drug corners, as seen through the eyes of four junior high boys who become the show's de facto new central characters. (For more on the new season, see accompanying story.)

Not many shows would hang a make-or-break season on four teenage unknowns (albeit gifted unknowns), while reducing the most recognizable actor to a few glorified walk-ons. "The Wire" pulls it off because the show long ago abandoned the fiction that Dominic West (who appears in about half the episodes, and, aside from the season finale, always briefly), or any of the actors, is the star, when the city itself owns that distinction. Simon, who before this show wrote the book that inspired "Homicide," as well as the Emmy-winning miniseries "The Corner," has made Baltimore as vibrant and indelible as Dickens' London or Roth's Newark.

For a show so writer-driven, "The Wire" has become more visually ambitious with each season as directors build on the template established by the late Robert Colesberry. In season three, Omar and his band of merry men and women get into a shootout with Stringer's people that wouldn't look out of place on a movie screen. In the upcoming season, there's a haunting sequence in which Sgt. Carver (Seth Gilliam), having badly let down one of the middle schoolers, walks down a seemingly endless white hospital corridor as the boy taunts him with cries of, "Are you gonna help me, Sgt. Carver?" And there's a wonderful silent sequence in an abandoned lot in which Lester Freamon finally answers a nagging question, which evokes the memorable season one scene where McNulty and Bunk dissected a crime scene uttering nothing but variations of the F-word.

Despite (or perhaps because of) Simon's unrelentingly cynical world view, the show becomes funnier with each passing year. As he put it to me, "You can't do a show this dark and not make it bearable (without) the humor." Season three brought the spectacle of Stringer trying to implement Robert's Rules of Order in a meeting with his dealers ("In fairness," an aide says when Stringer threatens an underling, "Poot did have the floor"); Carver and Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) staging an elaborate chase with multiple cars, dogs, helicopters — and the theme from "Shaft" — in pursuit of a kid who's obviously a decoy; and a junkie's amazement when a cop introduces him to Hamsterdam, sounding like a wine steward as he recommends one type of crack as "the bomb."

Season four keeps up the laughter quotient, including expanded roles for great comic figures like cheerfully corrupt State Sen. Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who has a gift for making a certain four-letter word sound like it has 14 syllables, and Prop Joe (Robert F. Chew), a drug lord who works out of an electronics repair shop and actually fixes the clocks and VCRs himself as a stress release.

There are also moments of jaw-dropping tragedy, most of them caused by carelessness or red tape rather than any intentional evil. Herc ruins at least four people's lives without even realizing what he's done, and cop-turned-teacher Prez (Jim True-Frost) gets an education in how the school system is run in a way that makes any learning almost accidental. Virtually every element of the show is taken from reality, either people Simon met as a Baltimore Sun crime reporter or incidents Burns lived through as a homicide detective and later a middle school teacher.

"God is not a second-rate novelist," Simon says. "God knows what he's doing, and if you just take what actually happened and marry it to where you want to go, it's better than if you thought of it yourself."

That reality brings with it the show's moral complexity, a refusal to condemn even the worst people like Stringer — "He's just trying to do business in a culture that demands violence," according to Simon — or paint other people as two-dimensional heroes. McNulty is slowly revealed to be as big a jerk as Rawls. Carcetti means well, but he also cheats on his wife and has moments in which doing what's right falls second to doing what's right for Tommy Carcetti. (Lester remains the only completely pure character.)

Simon and Burns are both believers that the War on Drugs has now become more harmful than the drugs themselves, but their agenda transcends any one political ideology. What "The Wire" says, repeatedly, is that The System — government, business, law enforcement, everything that runs this country — is broken and that the guardians of The System are too committed to defending the status quo to even try fixing it. It's not a case of corrupt or evil people choosing to ruin things for the rest of us; it's people of all moral calibers making decisions within the established context of their own institutions (the police force, City Hall, drug corners) without regard to how they affect the world at large.

That mix of pessimism and moral ambiguity, as much as the show's demanding narrative, or the predominantly African-American cast, has no doubt prevented "The Wire" from becoming a mass-appeal hit like "The Sopranos" or "Six Feet Under," but Simon isn't about to change.

"I'd rather go off the air and do something else," he says.

He likes to tell an anecdote about a speech he gave on the drug problem for a Washington-based public policy group. At the end, the moderator asked, "What's the solution? Give it to me in a sentence." Simon elaborately responded about all the things he feels the government can and should do, and the moderator again asked, "Well, what's the solution?"

"He wanted it short," says a laughing Burns, who practically had to restrain his partner from attacking the man.

As you can tell by the length of this column, the greatness of "The Wire" can't be summed up in a sentence, but if I only had one to say to Chris Albrecht, it would be this:

If you really care about HBO's reputation as the place for quality, you'd be a fool not to let Simon and Burns finish what they started and bring proper closure to their masterwork.

Short enough?


Anonymous said...

Do they actually wiretap anything this season? Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it'll be a great season of television either way.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Wiretapping is among the many kinds of policework done this season, yes.

Anonymous said...

who does the cover of "Way Down in the Hole" this year?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Dunno; the discs don't have full credits on them, and the voices didn't sound familiar.

Anonymous said...

does george pelecanos make a cameo appearance this year (after richard price and dennis lehane, i'm pulling for george)? plus, any mention or appearance of Avon? Bea Russell? Nadine Moreland?

Anonymous said...

I popped in one of the DVDs last night intending to watch maybe one or two episodes before finishing them off this week. I ended up watching six hours straight.

Fine column, too, by the way. And if there's a better piece of TV that's been done in the past 20 years, I haven't seen it.

Anonymous said...

what i like about this show is all the boys michael namon and the other cute ones and i cant wait to see next season the wire.

Anonymous said...

ya'll all know that namon and micheal are mine and the other cute ones with the braids the one that steals cars and the one that got place in a foster home because his mom died