30 Day Television Challenge: Day Four

Your favorite show ever: The Wire

It took me awhile to get around to The Wire. A few years ago, I started watching The Sopranos and raved about it any chance I got. A friend of mine insisted that I try The Wire, as it is similar and arguably even better. Firstly, I wouldn’t hear of anything supplanting The Sopranos at top of the TV heap. Secondly, the show’s premise didn’t inspire much excitement. A cops-and-robbers show based in Baltimore of all places? To me, it sounded like a tired genre set in an obscure location. I passed.

A few years later, looking for a new series to get into after LOST had run its course, I finally came to my senses and gave The Wire a shot. My friend explained to me that the show was a slow burn and that it would take a few episodes before the big picture started coming into focus. Accordingly, about halfway through the first season, I knew this was a brilliant show. By the end of the first season, I knew this was one of the best thing I’d ever seen. After the fourth season, I finally relented that The Wire was indeed the best series I’d ever seen.

I would argue that the first season of The Sopranos is the single greatest achievement of television as an artistic medium. While The Wire never quite reaches these lofty heights, what it lacks in dizzying peaks, it makes up for in consistency. Whereas The Sopranos – and many other brilliant shows – has its peaks and valleys, The Wire maintains a steady level of quality, slowly building towards a carefully developed denouement.

As I wrote earlier, The Wire, in its simplest terms, is a cops-and-robbers show set in Baltimore, Maryland. However, it’s that and so much more. In its entirety it is a depiction of the modern American city.

The main cast of characters are homicide detectives working for the Baltimore city police. For the most part, they are tracking down drug traffickers, who tend to leave a trail of bodies in the wake of their dealings. The detectives attempt to gather evidence by strategically applying wiretaps to the dealers’ means of communication – hence the show’s title.

The show’s commitment to verisimilitude wonderfully illustrates the time and effort it requires to build a case against a major player in the drug trade. While the detectives are, for the most part, honest, hard working cops, and will eventually crack just about any case, there are oftentimes too many barriers in their way. Unfortunately, not only do the detectives have to fight crime, they also have to fight the various institutions that are supposedly put in place to uphold laws. The police brass are impatient and cash-strapped, emphasizing quick fixes and photo opportunities. This translates into lower level busts while the real drug lords, who are higher up the chain and increasingly insulated, walk.

In addition to the cops, the show explores the robbers, too. David Simon and Ed Burns, the show’s creators, seek to depict the socioeconomic conditions that would drive individuals into a life of crime. This is where the show excels. The villains of The Wire aren’t evil boogeymen; they’re human beings that have been driven to extreme measures. Born into poverty, they’ve been excluded from capitalist America’s game and can no longer play by the rules.

In order to truly explore these socioeconomic conditions, The Wire examines a different part of the American city’s anatomy each season, constantly expanding the show’s universe.

The first season is about the gangs that sling crack in the city’s inner-city projects and ghettos. Here, we are introduced to the Barksdale crew, the city’s biggest gang. Jimmy McNulty, the closest thing the show can call a protagonist, ruffles some feathers and gets a detail together to put a dent in Barksdale’s burgeoning empire. This season focuses on the police dept and the conditions of the city’s projects.

The second season is a pretty sharp transition. A new detail is set up to investigate some longshoremen who are suspected of dealing in the black market. Here, the show examines the decline of America’s labor force. As labor continues to be outsourced, America’s blue collar workers are increasingly disenfranchised. Trying to keep his union from going under, Frank Sobotka smuggles in black market goods so he can accumulate enough capital to bribe the appropriate congress members, lobbyists, etc.

A lot of people aren’t fussy about the second season. At first, I was also put off by the new cast of characters. However, upon a second viewing, I could better appreciate the bigger picture and came to appreciate why Simon decided to include this element in the show. Sobotka’s rant about the fall of America’s industrial sector is one of my favorite moments in television.

The third season is somewhat of a return the first, but this time with a subplot about the city’s politics. Notably, the third season brings in “Hamsterdam”, an exasperated lieutenant’s experiment to curb city violence by isolating drug trade to a secluded section of town where it is “legalized”. I like this idea because it challenges the idea that the war on drugs is couched in ethics, and suggesting that it is perhaps an aesthetic one; we simply don’t like the sight of poverty and are happy so long as it’s out of sight and out of mind. The season looks also looks at the election race for the city’s mayoral position.

The fourth season is my favorite and is the closest thing I’ve seen that may challenge the stature of the first season of The Sopranos. Here, the show focuses on the school system and the kids that are victimized by the drug trade and the failures of the various political institutions that are supposed to be looking out for them. The show follows a group of friends, some of whom are orphans, sons of drug dealers, or neglected by their families. At the end, each kid is in some way affected by the drug trade. The conclusion of the season is absolutely heartbreaking and one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

The fifth season is my least favorite. On the one hand, I like Simon’s take on journalism and how corporate interests have undermined journalism’s goals (much like what I discussed in my previous entry on The Newsroom). In fact, in many ways, the fifth season is personally the most influential because it inspired me to become more involved in news/current events and was probably the biggest catalyst for me starting this blog. What I didn’t like about the season is the show’s departure from its commitment to verisimilitude. Frustrated by the lack of focus on the drug trade, McNulty manufactures a serial killer to create a media hype. The headlines force the police force to pour money into a phoney investigation, which McNulty funnels into a wire tap on a new crew.

I like how the final season satirizes the public obsession with sexy headlines instead of the chronic ills of poverty, drug addiction, political corruption, etc. but I think the premise is just too far fetched for the show’s prerogative.

Looking at some of the subsequent days’ challenges, it seems like I’ll get a few more opportunities to discuss The Wire in depth, so I’ll just leave it at that. Right now, I’ll leave you to the first season’s intro, which really summarizes everything the series is about.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on September 10, 2012.

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