books, television

An Ode to The Wire

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We started blogging after “The Wire” aired its final episode in March, so I (Ben) never got a chance to praise it in this space. With the complete box set releasing today, I guess now’s the time.

My friend Stephen has his own lawn care business, and he passes the day by listening to NPR on his headphones. This past spring we were discussing the Fresh Air interview with Richard Price, whose book Lush Life had just been published. Terry Gross let Price talk about the book for the first fifteen minutes of the interview, then promptly switched over to “The Wire” and spent the rest of the hour asking Price about being a writer for the series. Stephen couldn’t believe it. “He just wrote a book, and all she wants to talk about is a stupid TV show,” he said. “She’s obsessed with it. I’m sick of hearing about ‘The Wire.'” That interview was just one of several during the show’s final season: Gross also interviewed Michael K. Williams (Omar), Clark Johnson (Gus), and David Simon, the show’s creator. 

Then in September, Stephen finally gave “The Wire” a try. He finished all five seasons in under a month.

Every “Wire” fan I know is like this. I don’t know anyone who has started the show and not finished it. It was the primary reason we joined Netflix, since season one was always checked out at Blockbuster. (We have since dropped both Netflix and Blockbuster. Yes, public library system!)

Even non-fans probably have a rough idea what the show is about. It’s set in Baltimore and started out as a gritty procedural about the war on drugs. The cops weren’t all good and the dealers weren’t all bad. In fact, they were a lot alike. Both existed in worlds of institutional dysfunction. As you get to know the main players on both sides, you realize everyone has ulterior motives. And everyone’s playing the game the best they know how. 

Each of the five seasons focuses on a different aspect of Baltimore. Season two takes place on the docks, and it’s the only one that doesn’t quite fit in the big picture. (Each season builds on the ones before it and folds into a larger story that expands almost exponentially each year. The cops and dealers from season one carry through to the end, but none of the dock characters play a major role later on.) Season three delves into politics and the dealings at city hall, with a return to the streets and a controversial (but police-sanctioned) lawless zone called “Hamsterdam.” Season four, the best and most heartbreaking season, goes into the schools, following four twelve-year-old boys as they figure out what it takes to become men on the streets. Season five finishes on a subject close to Simon’s heart: the media, with a fictional Sun being the backdrop for much of the action.

Probably because the material was so personal, I thought season five was the weakest. Simon’s long-simmering anger has been well-documented, and the chip on his shoulder is one reason the series is so great. But the media subplot in season five — unlike virtually every other character and storyline throughout the series — was riddled with caricature: Enterprising, cynical, street-smart reporters good; soulless corporate editors bad. The heroic crusader Gus was clearly a stand-in for Simon himself, fighting the same wars Simon fought when he worked at the Sun. (Simon even named one of the bureaucratic stooges from season four after his former editor William Marimow.)

This doesn’t diminish the fact that the season delivered a very satisfying conclusion to the series, or that — as numerous commentators have already noted — the show is the closest TV has come to recreating a literary experience. (Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate, “No other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.” See link below.) The word “Dickensian” becomes a sort of in-joke during the final season, but that word does justice to the breadth and scope of “The Wire.” It was the rare television show that could entertain and provoke you at the same time. It made you think about the unsettling realities of our world — city life, politics, media, the war on drugs — in a way that did justice to their complexity. And while it could be exceptionally bleak, the show was laced with dark humor. In season one McNulty and Bunk analyze a crime scene using only the f-word, inflected and emphasized a dozen different ways. Season five begins with several cops pulling a ruse on a dim suspect by taping his hand to a copy machine and making him think it’s a lie detector. (The cops feed YES and NO copies in beforehand and choreograph their questions accordingly.)

If you really, truly consider me as a friend, perhaps you’ll consider splurging on the box set for me this Christmas. Pretty please. I can think of much worse ways to spend 3600 minutes than watching it all over again.

——————–

For further reading, Jacob Weisberg penned this ode to the show on Slate.com; elsewhere, the staff of Slate (but primarily David Plotz and Jeffrey Goldberg) kept a running dialogue of season five (David Simon blusters into the conversation with this post); the site stuffwhitepeoplelike.com turned its satiric eye on Wire fans here; Sudir Venkatesh watched the show with some real street gangs and got their impressions;  Simon and co-creator Ed Burns, along with writers Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, advocate a legal but controversial tactic for fighting the drug war here; and and the official HBO site is here.

“Wire” fans who are also readers of this blog are, of course, encouraged to spread the love by commenting below.

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19 thoughts on “An Ode to The Wire

  1. oh, the vores. is there any room left for on the “wire” bandwagon? very daring of you to come out in defense of one of the most acclaimed shows in tv history. i’m sure “my own worst enemy” is in need of some love these days. spread it around.

    btw, this is another reason you need to listen to the best show on wfmu. tom scharpling talking about the “wire,” or about people who talk about the “wire,” is a treasure.

  2. Highly acclaimed, yes. But still criminally underwatched. I will not sleep until the “Wire” gospel has been spread to the ends of the earth.

    Christian Slater vs. Stringer Bell — who wins in a fight to the death? They can only use their bare hands.

  3. you know white people also love?

    justice.

    cs v. sb…if a bare hand brawl, it probably wouldn’t be a contest. isn’t slater like 4’2″?…but then, he’s also not a fictional character.

    if we’re talking real estate and contracting negotiaions, stringer’s got some demonstrated weaknesses.

  4. What if they had swords? It doesn’t matter how short you are when you’ve got a sword.

    I’d give Slater the edge on voice work for “Robot Chicken.”

    I’d give Bell the edge on running meetings (he’s a Robert’s Rules of Order kind of guy).

  5. During a breakroom conversation just now, Erik Brueggemann made a compelling case for season three being the show’s finest hour. After fifteen minutes discussing this along with fellow “Wire” aficionado David Powell, I will acknowledge there’s a strong case to be made. Almost everything big-picture wise shifts that season. It’s the fulcrum.

  6. The bigger question is: Will anyone in that breakroom please let me borrow season 1? For the love of Yahweh, please.

  7. I am pretty sure Erik ‘The Compleatist’ Brueggemann is angling to purchase the new 5 season Wire box set, even though he already owns all 5 individually and spread them around the store like Prop Joe, looking to hook all the staff on his product. (Just between you, me and the internet, he also recently purchased the 3 vol. paper version of Bolano’s 2666 to go with his hardback copy of same said novel. Must be the opulent lifestyle of the JBB Ops Manager.) So maybe Erik might have a copy to lend out to former JBBers, perhaps without even having to take the Lord’s name in vain.

    I have to admit I really like season 2, and that is the one that really hooked me on the show. I liked the long look at a specific industry in the dying infrastructure of an old city. (I agree with others; the best thing about the show is its amazing ability to capture an entire city ) 2 and 4 are my favorites. 3 seemed a little less focused to me. Although I will acknowledge the Stringer Bell story arc is about the most compelling, and he is one of the most charismatic and, in that weird topsy-turvy-morality-of-the-Wire odd way, likable characters on the show.

  8. i heard that in season 6 they were going to go after urban sanitation. and then the dry cleaner that messed up david simon’s sweater one time.

    i guess we wait for the movie. christian slater has been cast as mcnulty.

  9. Slander! Leathers – I told you months ago you could borrow the first season only if you take the lord’s name in vain – consistently. The hardback 2666 kept putting my lower extremities to sleep – it was a health purchase. Something goofy just happened with voreblog – it gave me a snap son. Sorry if this is duplicated.

  10. Ben — you “birthday present” is now in the mail. You know, the one that sat on my desk for three months, then sat in my car for two weeks … that one. I regret to inform you, however, that is not the boxed set of “The Wire,” a show completely unfamiliar to me.

  11. Who do you think hooked up with more undisconcerning, slightly chubby white girls – McNulty or my roommate Biko? It’s close but I have the line at McNulty +2.5.

    How come they always made fun of Poot catching all sorts of ailments from his dalliances and no one ever said nothing about McNulty? Racists I tell you.

    Sorry – I don’t know why I am fascinated by the sexual proclivities of these fictional characters.

    If there’s anything this show has taught me it’s that education destroys our communities – Jimmy would have never found Stringer if he Stringer never took classes at the local CC.

    My favorite character was Michael – I have followed the young actor’s character as I religiously DVRed the new edition of 90210.

    Ben – I want you to know I am here if you need anything from me – I will be Wee-Bey to your Avon, Snoop to your Marlo*, Bunk to your McNulty, or Dukie to your Michael.

    * Actually given my prodigious height, maybe LB should be your Snoop.

  12. Jenny — If said present is not in fact the “Wire” box set, please alert the post office to simply return to sender.

    Denys — I am touched by your loyalty. Would you be Spiros to my Greek? And LB has already offered to be my Snoop. (Though since I can actually understand LB when he talks, it’s not a perfect comparison.)

    Do you seriously DVR the new 90210? I remain deeply disturbed by your TV viewing habits.

  13. Snoop sort of mumbles as well though.

    Please give me some credit. It’s not like I caught every episode twice.* The real problem is Monday night when my desire to maintain a facade of manliness and my compulsive gambling habit forces me to catch MNF but Gossip Girl is on at the same time as Big Bang Theory.

    You probably don’t want to ask if I have read/seen/devoured/loved the Twilight series.

    * The power went out once and it reset my DVR.

  14. I probably don’t want to ask if you got Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 when it came out on DVD Tuesday either, do I?

    (Or did you get it on Blu-Ray?)

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