Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Wire

Watching all five seasons in just a few weeks leaves you amazed. The time available to a series has rarely been used for long stories that have a definite shape and resolution. The continuing storyline has become a commercial necessity, it seems, with television shows determined to make viewers come back for the ending that never quite comes, or comes long past any satisfying meaning. The Wire in the first season is the story of a single investigation, of a drug ring in Baltimore. The twelve hours are wisely used to simulate the passage of months.

This is unusual enough. But The Wire takes the time to show the lives of both the dealers and the cops. The backgrounds of the dealers show some of the pressures and temptations that lead them where they are. The institutional background, the internal politics of the police as the higher ups respond to political pressures and jockey for promotion, are extremely well done. Various incidents in the lives have the indisputable ring of truth. Partly this is because the main writers, David Simon and Ed Burns, were a newspaperman and a policeman. Partly it is because the show, unusually for any television, recruited mystery writers. The usual notion that television writing is the important skill was completely disrespected. The Wire boasts screenplays by George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. The first season ends with the arrest of the ring head, Avon Barksdale, but the escape of his chief lieutenant, Stringer Bell. And, for their temerity in trying to pursue the drug money into its political connections, the lead investigators are demoted or forced out.

The second season pulls an amazing switch, to a different locale, the ports. The longshoremen's local head is taking money from the Greek, a wholesale drug importer and all around gangster who we learn has FBI connections, selling information on "terrorism" for protection. The longshoreman is using the money for political influence buying, trying to win government renovations of the port. When a number of women are smothered to death in a shipping container, a chain of events unfolds which leads to his death at the hands of the gangsters. The cop heroes of the first season manage to win their way back into the fold.

In the third season, the investigation of Stringer Bell, the efforts by Avon Barksdale to get out of prison early, the scheme of a retiring division commander to effectively legalize drugs and the election campaign of a reforming mayor all intersect. Barksdale ends up back in prison, Bell is slain, the cop heroes, with the conspicuous exception of the legalizer, are heading for the top of the police force, as the crusading crime buster new mayor promises a new day.

The fourth season changes the scene yet again. One of the cop heroes, Prez, had in the third season accidentally shot a plainclothes cop in a dark alley. Cashiered, he becomes a teacher. Four of his students become entangled in various ways with the new drug ring led by Marlo Stanfield and ex-con Cutty. This season starts with the new mayor entangled in a financial crisis putting everything he promised on hold. It ends, not with a natural ending point, but the discovery of twenty or more bodies entombed in vacant housing.

The final season expands to the Baltimore Sun newspaper. One of the heroes, McNulty manufactures a serial killer scare to get a budget. An editor at the Sun discovers one of his reporters is fraudulent. Marlo Stanfield is forced into retirement while his hit men are killed or convicted. The hero cops are also forced into retirement. Once again, the money trail is not followed, while the mayor neglects business for his gubernatorial run. The return to the end of the first season is not accidental: It is a statement of futility.

The whole thing is remarkably tightly written, with the Cutty character and his subplot perhaps the biggest dead end. The testosteronal highs are written like David Mamet arias. This does get tiresome, eventually, but it is also quite impressive even when it's old. It distinctly drops in the fifth season, when the semisociopathic aggressiveness becomes painfully obvious in the newsroom. The use of "nigger" is constant, and offensive, because whatever black people tell themselves about how they can use it, it fosters racism amongst the whites who are looking for racist validation. That is a difficult point to accept and it's hard to blame the show for not getting it.

Nonetheless, presumptuous as it may seems to criticize a genuine work of art, I will. There is a distinct softening of the portrayal of cops, though it is far, far superior to the NYPD Blue level of dreck.

There is only one brutal cop.

Police racism is minimized greatly.

The only crooked cop main characters both reform, one before the series' time frame. The systemic racism of neglect of black neighborhoods isn't well drawn, though they do attempt to do it.

The lesbian cop is romanticized and supposedly well admired. The male homosexual cop is a repulsive bureaucrat.

The labor union has no trace of left wing politics, nor any notion that labor criminality and right wing politics are commonly associated.

The division commander who attempts to legalize drugs does so in a preposterous childish way guaranteed to fail. The show is committed to the futility of political action and the inevitability of corruption.

The mayor, faced with the fiscal crisis, is tagged a sellout for not accepting an aid package from the Republican governor that would permit termination for cause for teachers. Since there is no contract in this country that does not permit termination for cause, this is completely stupid. Since the fiscal crisis drives the action, it is not a minor point either. Even worse, his insistence on truckling to the teachers for his political benefit is supposed to be his great sell out! After this, he is a moral failure.

There are some totally lame plot developments. McNulty faking serial killings being an enormous one. Entertaining but an ill fit is the amazing Omar, a black gay man who specializes in robbing drug dealers. The actor sells it, even doing full frontal, but the character comes from some sort of would be adult comic book, maybe one written by Alan Moore in a fit of comprehensibility.

Highly recommended nonetheless.

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