Saturday, December 15, 2007
The Wire: An American Tragedy
Seen the new teasers for The Wire? Marlo being a dick? Omar out for blood? Bubs, clean? Carcetti, making promises? McNutty drinking and being a dog again, the way it's supposed to be?
How about the prequels? A neophyte Omar, with little experience but the same code? A young Prop Joe, showing how he got his nickname? McNutty and Bunk, meeting (and getting plastered together) for the very first time?
Boy, does HBO know promotion. Of course, most of you don't even know what I'm talking about. Many subscribe to Home Box Office, but according to the Nielsen Ratings, very few of them watch The Wire, barely enough to get the show re-upped after each season expires. The newest season of perhaps the finest program in the history of American television debuts January 6. There will be 10 more episodes, and then no more. In it's wake, TV will never be the same.
It's hard to pigeonhole The Wire. It is many things. It's a cop show, a drug dealer show, a politics show, a school show. Overall, though, it's a society show, and a very realistically bleak one. It's urban decay and it's causes seen through the teary eyes of Baltimore, MD, and it is classic. What makes it so great, in particular? For time's sake, let's narrow it down to three factors:
1. The characters. Ah, the characters. There's Jimmy McNulty (played by Dominic West) the obsessive detective with the good intentions, even if they're driven by his own considerable ego. McNulty posseses a burning desire to outsmart the people he's chasing, and he will attempt to satisfy his vanity at any cost - even if it means going over his superiors and alienating himself in the long run. In his spare time - and sometimes even on the job - he's a borderline alcoholic and hedonist with a fucked up relationship with the mother of his kids. In season four, things were looking up - he was sober and in a stable relationship. As the promos show, however, he's fallen off the wagon. Good to have him back.
Bubbles (Andre Royo) is the homeless heroine addict/police informer/mentor. In the first three seasons, he worked as a snitch to earn money to feed his addiction. By the end of season 4, he was no longer using, but his life was still in shambles. After a misintended vial of cyanide killed his protege, Sherrod, Bubs failed at a suicide attempt and was last seen in a psych ward, distraught with guilt over what he had done. Hey, at least he didn't get charged.
Friends since childhood, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) ran the West Baltimore drug scene in the beginning of the series, and they shared a bond as close as brothers. But they were two very different men, and they disagreed on the methods by which they would run their operation. Stringer, intelligent, cunning, stoic, and deceitful, was an aspiring real estate developer that wanted to rectify the drug trade by transforming it into a legitimate industry. Avon, on the other hand, was pure, unadulterated gangster - he wanted his corners and treasured his reputation. While Stringer looked to resolve issues by talking things out in a civil manner that benefited everyone, like businessmen, Avon preferred to head to the mattresses and shoot it out like the thug that he was. Their clashes in philosophy would lead to a double betrayal - one that left Avon behind bars and Stringer dead in one of his development sites.
Only for a new power to emerge, led by the heartless sociopath Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), who rules his territory with an iron fist. Marlo is the very personification of evil, and he has surrounded himself with people of the same ilk - like coldblooded killers Chris (Gbenga Akkinagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson), who are down to take out anyone - even a sweet delivery store lady and a hardworking security guard - without the slightest hint of conscience. Very unsettling.
And then, of course, we have Omar (Michael K. Williams), the legendary stickup man. Omar is The Antithesis: He doesn't harm civilians, he admonishes the use of curse words, he whistles the melody to "The Farmer In The Dell" to announce his presence, and, as if that weren't contrary enough, guess what? He's gay! All while being 100% lethal. You can't make this stuff up. He's a wild-card, in every sense of the word. With his distinguishable shotgun and long trenchcoat, his uncanny ability to avoid death despite a seemingly constant bounty on his head, and his undeniable skill and intelligence, Omar is a ghetto action hero.
And he's one of the shows most popular characters. Others are quite loathsome. But none of them are boring. You feel some way about them, and all of them bring something to the table.
Of course, it helps to have great actors. You can't write the charm and charisma Williams has created in Omar, or the soulessness seen in Marlo's eyes through Hector, or the realness Harris brought to Avon. A flawless piece of casting.
2. The realism. The first time I watched The Wire, on BET, the most enduring memory I took away from the experience was how true it seemed. How gritty. From the scenes of D'Angelo, Bodie, and Co. chilling on the couch in the low-rises, to the get-together at the strip club, to the beatdown of Johnny Weeks, everything that happened seemed so... authentic. I've never been to West Baltimore before, but I imagine that it's just like that. And it almost certainly is - the show's creator/exec producer/lead writer, David Simon, is a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and his co-founder, Ed Burns, is an erstwhile Baltimore city detective and school teacher.
I've never seen a more genuine-feeling show in my life.
3. Complexity/Social relevance. The Sopranos, for the most part, was a show about a man and his struggles with his two families. What made it so special was that this man, Anthony John Soprano Sr., was the greatest single character in the history of televsion, aided by an extraordinary supporting cast. Plus, the writing and directing was transcendent. The Sopranos is the reason a show like The Wire even exists.
But The Wire goes much deeper. It touches on an entire American city. In the words of Simon, it's a show that denounces the thought of good and evil, and instead focuses on institutions, and how we are compromised by them. It's about contending. Nowhere is that more evident than in Season Four, which focuses on four eighth-grade friends trapped by their circumstances and environment.
There's Namond, son of a trifling mother that wants him to follow in the footsteps of his father, a respected former Barksdale hitter now serving a life sentence for multiple murders. Namond's not built for the game, but he feels constant pressure from his mother not to disappoint, so he tries.
Michael is the leader, and he's got potential as a boxer, but he's saddled with a drug addict mother, and thus is responsible with raising both himself and his younger brother, Bug. It is also strongly suggested that he was once the victim of child molestation - and when the perceived perpetrator, Bug's father, returns from a stint in prison, Michael has no other choice: He arranges for the murder of the man by striking a deal with Marlo, in which he agrees to become a dealer and soldier for Stanfield.
Randy lives in foster care. One day he takes $5 to be the lookout during a sexual tryst in a school bathroom, but when the girl lies rape, he's pinned as an accomplice by his jackass principal. In order to avoid suspension and possible expulsion, he offers to give up everything he's got - including a murder. When word gets out that he's a snitch - the ultimate stigma in the streets - he becomes a piranha. (Post-post correction: I was just watching American Gangster and noticed Frank Lucas' partner saying the word "pariah" when it hit me: "Wait a minute, did I call Randy a piranha in that Wire piece I did a while back?" And sure enough, I am an idiot. I deserve some credit though: I could've just snuck in and changed it, and anybody reading it for the first time would've had no idea. Which probably makes me even more of an idiot. Hey, if you guys - I say "you guys" like I have a readership - see a mistake like that in something I write, drop me a note in the comments section. Point it out. Make fun of me. I gotta learn, man. I gotta learn.) Trust me, it's no way to live; my sophomore year in high school, I told my blind religion teacher that the answers were on the tests, and I became public enemy No. 1. Of course, the most they did was call me names; Randy's gets his house set on fire, causing his foster mother to be severely burned. And so he gets lost in the system again - last we saw of him, he was getting pummeled by three boys in a group home, the words "SNITCH BITCH" spraypainted on the side of his bunkbed.
Duquan is arguably the smartest of the bunch, but he comes from a hopeless family of fiends, and eventually, he's out on the corner, too. Only Namond is saved. One out of four ain't good enough.
The first season tells the story of the police unit's efforts to bring down the Barksdale crew, from both points-of-view. The second season looks at the unfortunate situation of the blue collar worker, through the longshoreman of the city docks. Season Three dealt with the aspects of reform, and Season Four tackled education. The final season focuses on the media. If I were to predict an ending, I would guess that it won't be a particularly good one; but rather, one that reflects the lack of positive change in the inner city. In other words, The Wire will be just as messed up in the end as it was in the beginning. We remain stagnant.
Why won't many people watch it, despite the widespread critical acclaim? Simon has ascribed the low viewership to several factors, including the complicated plot line, the heavy use of slang a largely black cast, and an unfavorable time slot. In my view, it's the fact that most of the people that can afford to pay for premium channel's like HBO just can't connect to The Wire, because they don't understand it. It's nowhere near them, it doesn't reach them, it doesn't affect them. And even some of those that are impacted by it don't want to watch it on TV. My grandmother, who's black, refuses to watch The Wire. I got her to watch The Sopranos, and she makes an effort to catch the late airing of Curb our Enthusiasm every night. But she will never watch The Wire. To her, it's just another means of exploiting African Americans. She believes young black men are more likely to become engaged by the attractive aspects of the corner life portrayed on the show (the money) than discouraged by it's peril's (it can ruin your life). Thus, in her opinion, a show like The Wire only serves to further keep the black race down.
Obviously, I think she's got it all wrong. I don't see the show as helping or hurting anybody, just reflecting the world through my TV screen.
The Wire is one of the saddest stories ever told, but it's also one of the most well-done, and I'm officially counting down the days until the final chapter begins. If only more people found it as interesting.