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Vol. LXIV, No. 35
 
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
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DVD Review

Television’s Finest Hour? Thoughts After a Marathon Viewing of “The Wire”

Stuart Mitchner

I started realizing that this is something happening here. This is not just another television show. This is doing something to the community and for the community. People are responding in a way that I’ve never really seen people respond to other television shows.

Michael K. Williams (Omar)

If I’d written about David Simon’s wildly acclaimed but curiously unrewarded (no Emmys) HBO series The Wire (2002-2008) at the end of the fourth season, I’d have added my voice to the “greatest-television-show-ever” chorus. And even though I feel somewhat less enthused after watching the inevitably protracted, scattered denouement played out in the last two episodes of the fifth and final season, I have no doubt that this epic portrait of Baltimore from the mean streets to the halls of power ranks among television’s most lasting achievements.

As more than one reviewer has noted, The Wire aspires not to John Grisham but Dostoevsky. Simon himself said as much (“Our models are the big Russian novels”) during an interview in London’s Daily Telegraph in which he went on to say, “We’re trying to do with modern-day Baltimore what Balzac did with Paris, or Dickens with London.” No Balzacs or Dickenses being available, Simon and Ed Burns, his primary collaborator, enlisted novelists “who understand the complexity of theme,” meaning Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price.

City Life

Simon’s unsparing vision of Baltimore’s lower depths is rendered through superlative camerawork that has you wondering at times if some of the primary colors on building fronts and otherwise sordid backdrops have been freshly painted. A block of row houses of terminal shabbiness comes at you with the clarity of an Edward Hopper streetscape. At night West Baltimore fumes with a chilling menace. You seem to hear sirens even when none are sounding. It’s the poetry of disorder, a phantasmagoria that conjures up thoughts of the city’s most famous resident, Edgar Allan Poe, who was found wandering the streets in a delirium on election day 1849, was taken to the 4th Ward polls at Ryan’s tavern, and from there to the hospital, where he died. One of the real-life public housing projects in The Wire bears Poe’s name and in Season Two a white tourist asking directions to the Poe House is told “Look around you — all the houses ‘round here are po’ [poor] houses.”

Perhaps the single most astonishing visual passage in the whole series (Episode 7 of the third season) is a four-minute night walk from the point of view of a dazed addict hawking drugs as he pushes a cart through a smoky, chaotic miasma of dealers and buyers in the zone called Hamsterdam, where drugs are dealt openly and without interference at the controversial behest of an imaginative police captain. It’s like a walk through Dante’s inferno, or Milton’s “Palpable Obscure” as painted by Gustav Doré and Gustav Moreau. Poe would love it. Like the grafitti on the wall in the credits says, we’re in “Bodymore Murdaland.”

Omar

One major component The Wire lacks is a central figure as magnetic as Tony Soprano or Deadwood’s Al Swearengen. In fact, the major character is a primarily African American immensity called Baltimore.

And then there’s Omar Little, the gay, shambling, shotgun-wielding stick-up man who preys on drug dealers like a psychopathic Robin Hood. As played by Michael Kenneth Williams, Omar is a fascinating anti-hero of murderous charm and wit, the only figure in The Wire with anything like the charismatic ambiguity of a Tony Soprano. The percentage of actual screen time Omar occupies may be marginal compared to that of other major characters on either side of the law, but if anyone or anything has the power to keep people watching this difficult, disturbing, incomparable series, it’s Omar. He’s the hook.

Although the Omar character is apparently based on several different legendary Baltimore stick-up artists, he feels like an inspiration come to life, a brilliant human idea so compelling that his creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, found it hard not to let the rogue warrior set his own course rather than forcing him into a labyrinthine plotline that, like the wire of the title, is unwinding in another direction. In any case, it’s clear that the show’s writers love Omar, and so do most of the show’s fans. As Williams himself says in an online A.V. Club interview, “Omar’s very popular with the youth. It’s cool to love Omar. I love Omar, nobody loves Omar more than me, but make no mistake: I pray to God nobody wants to be this dude, because I had to get inside of his mind, and it’s a dark, dark vortex.”

Vices and Virtues

The five seasons of The Wire feature a remarkably vivid and varied cast of characters. As reviewers have noted, there are no simplistically noble or ignoble types, unless you count the ones based on Simon’s old enemies from his years as a reporter on the Baltimore Sun. All the vices and virtues are in play, and the figure who comes closest to being a viable protagonist embodies the mix (with vice about 70/30 predominant). Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) enters as a drunken, philandering, distinctly unappealing Irish-American wiseass. A divorced father of two boys he shows only random flashes of parental concern for (once putting them both at risk when stalking a suspect), his most appealing trait is his sneering disrespect of protocol, which is also emblematic of his obnoxiousness and the audacity that ultimately makes him a first-rate detective. You can like McNulty mainly through the camaraderie he enjoys with his sometime partner on the force, Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) and his relations with characters such as the wily genius of the wire-tap Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), gay detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and prosecuting attorney Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy), with her wonderfully expressive Hogarth face, and the smart, sensible, pretty policewoman who redeems and reforms him (up to a point), Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan).

Bubbles

One of the most telling and touching images in this five-part “visual novel” (Simon’s phrase) is that of a shabby, downtrodden figure pushing a shopping cart of goods through dangerous, desolate streets. The weary pilgrim’s pushcart progress of the embattled addict so memorably played by Andre Royo evokes a graphic out of the London of Mayhew and Dickens. Bubbles, who reverts to his real name Reginald Cousins in the final season, is The Wire’s most human, most benighted, most movingly enduring character. He’s the one we follow through that infernal night scene, the haunted figure whose face reflects the eerie unreality of it. Introduced as a paid informant for the narcotics division, he’s most frequently employed by Kima Greggs, who finds him sympathetic as well as useful. When he briefly shakes the habit, he looks to her for help.

Of all the stellar performances in this superbly acted show, Royo’s stands apart. The way he walks, shuffling, listing from side to side, at once steadfast, shaky, and vulnerable, has an almost Chaplinesque quality, if you can imagine the Tramp in hell. By the fourth season, you begin to fear that he’s a damned soul. The pathos becomes painful, almost unbearable, as he’s set upon, beaten, and robbed again and again by another addict. For all the violence and suffering and death surrounding him, he seems to carry some special signature burden of misery and misfortune. Shut out by his sister, who sometimes allows him to live in her basement, he sustains a semblance of family with two friends and loses them both. The passion of guilt and grief he suffers on the second death, caused by a brutal trick of fate, may be the most emotional moment in The Wire. And though Simon might deny it, this character’s eventual redemption and “happy ending” is pure Dickens but without the sentimental overkill.

The Big Question

So how is it that a series hailed by critics here and abroad as the greatest program in television history receives only two Emmy nominations during its five-season run? You could blame this oversight on the fact that The Wire was launched by HBO in 2002 when the media phenomenon known as The Sopranos was in its prime. A more likely answer is that Emmy-winning dramas do not concern themselves with the unthinkable dilemma of inner-city blacks. The visceral essence of The Wire is poor and black. No Cosby family here. Aside from that, the program is demanding and complex, a melange of drug dealers. cops, detectives, judges, politicians, and feral journalists. Season Two is about corruption on the docks and shows you the drug kingpins whose product plagues the streets. Season Four focuses on the plight of an African American middle school. Season Five takes on the decline of the press. Evil goes unpunished. The good are destroyed or corrupted with a few exceptions like Bubbles. You get the idea.

The Wire should be seen. If you try once and give up, as we did because we were missing half the dialogue, click for English subtitles on the DVD set-up. It makes all the difference. And then give it at least five episodes. It probably is, after all, the greatest television series you’ll ever see.

DVD sets of The Wire are available at the Princeton Public Library and Premier Video.

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