Saturday, January 3, 2009
God I wish I had HBO for the last few years. The Sopranos, Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under; the network has delivered a number of the most acclaimed programs of the decade. However, a less-seen (though certainly no less-praised) program threatens to rise above them all. The Wire, David Simon's crime drama set in his home town of Baltimore, blew me away from the start. It's realistic dialogue, complex characters, and entrancing story arc has pushed the program high onto my list of favorite TV shows, and I've only watched the first season.
It all starts with Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) sitting in a courtroom watching the murder trial of D'Angelo "Dee" Barksdale (Larry Gillard, Jr.). While there, he sees a witness change her story to get Barksdale off, and suddenly McNulty is on a mission. He assembles a detail of officers to take down the local drug ring, run by Dee's uncle Avon Barksdale.
It is in these early moments that The Wire establishes itself as something different. McNulty's superior, Major Rawls, gives him some of the worst cops he has to offer. Other programs would wasted no time ramming the message home, but Simon and his writers let the horrible truth sink in ever so slowly: these cops don't care about the drug trade because it affects almost exclusively the poor black population. If black dealers kill each other, who cares? And it's not just the white cops gently showing their prejudices; even the black Deputy Commissioner, Burrell, doesn't care. Perhaps the black officers see the dealers as making it even harder for them to be taken seriously. Also, the higher-ranking cops (like the Deputy Commissioner) know that some of that drug money makes its way into the hands of politicians, and they're wary of following the paper trail.
The fact that this delicate subject matter is handled delicately over the course of the entire 13 episodes is amazing enough, but the portrayal of the characters sends The Wire into the stratosphere. The cops, mostly uncaring and some flat out inept, at first seem dangerously close to the stereotype of the clueless, incompetent police officer. But McNulty twist their hobbies, their drives and even their prejudices to motivate them, and soon the team defies expectations, playing to their strengths while never settling into one-note archetypes. Sure, there's the alcoholic, the kid assigned solely on nepotism, the muscle; but none of these characters simply perform the rote exercises and leave.
Consider Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, the officer assigned to the detail because his father-in-law is a bigshot officer. When he arrives he starts playing with his gun, accidentally discharging it into the wall because he did not bother to make sure the chamber was clear. "This guy is going to be cheap comic relief, and nothing else," I thought to myself. How cynical and immediately distrusting I am. Instead, Prez proves vital to the detail, using his affinity for word and number puzzles to break phone codes used by the Barksdales.
When you get down to it these are good cops, motivated perhaps by bad things, but good cops nonetheless. Simon paints the police department as a place paralyzed by politics; in the drug rings, you move up the ranks by bringing in a profit and keeping your mouth shut when you inevitably get arrested. But getting a promotion in the police department depends more on who you know. Even within the detail, there are informants; not to the street, but to the higher-ups in the department. Even when one or two of them take a bit of confiscated money, you never get the feeling that the whole place is corrupt.
Likewise, the view from the street is startlingly realistic. Sympathetic criminals are nothing new, but Simon creates dense characters that can stand alongside any of the famous TV and cinematic mobsters. But these are not the children of Sicilians who came to America, inherited "the family business" and live in the lap of luxury; these dealers, even the leaders of the operation, have the money but do not flaunt it.
They live in the projects they were born in, sell in the projects they were born in, and often die in the projects they were born in. It's a fascinating look at how race can shape lives; at any moment they could leave these rundown areas and buy mansions, but a lifetime being harassed (whether justified or not) by police has left them too cautious to flaunt. Why then do they keep the trade? What good is all that money if you just sit on it? I'd venture to guess that it's because social mobility is a myth for a great deal of Americans, and the best these kids can hope for is a bit more scratch than the tenant next door. Loyalty is much looser than we see in the mafia; pinched soldiers are as likely to turn informant as keep their mouths shut. It's all about survival on these streets.
As with every show, little things set the show apart. The McNugget debate. Dee's couch. The way McNulty's kids are so used to him putting them to work that they can independently tail Stringer Bell and get his tag numbers. Stringer going to business school at night to be a better drug lieutenant. Dee teaching Bodie and Wallace to play chess, using the drug ring's organization as metaphors for each piece. Using chess as a metaphor is hardly new (the game itself is a metaphor for battle), but the conversation that results makes this stand out.
I can't pick out too many flaws in these 13 episodes. Despite its subtlety, a few lines are repeated almost verbatim amongst different characters, which is a bit annoying. Daniels tells his wife the dangers of following the drug money, only for Freamon to say almost the exact same thing to the detail to ram it home, something that the show typically didn't do. Also, it can be very confusing at the start; as a result of its realistic dialogue, people don't always refer to each other by their full names. As a result I couldn't match all the names with the faces for about five episodes.
But therein lay the charm of the show. It expects you to do the work and therefore never condescends to you. McNulty is an unlikely hero: the typical cop with a terrible home life who puts all of himself into his work. Yet for once we believe that such a man would be so driven; he' a man who's just fed up with it and keeps going because the criminals are always one step ahead. However, the standout star here would have to be D'Angelo. He's street-smart, clever, and tough, but he has a certain naïvete. He believes that if drug dealers would stop resorting to violence, the cops would leave them alone. Funny thing is, he seems naïve but he's absolutely right; the detail is comprised mostly of Homicide detectives, and more than once they maintain the drugs come second to the killing.
The show is not quite perfect, but I couldn't really point out anything glaringly wrong. The only remotely noticeable thing is that Levy, the lawyer, comes off a little too pleased when he constantly get his clients off the hook, but then I guess that means it's payday so maybe I shouldn't complain. The casting is perfect and the scripts bleed realism and never call attention to themselves. It's a snapshot of the American life we see exploited on the news but never truly analyzed by the anchors. The deaths are always shocking, even when you know someone has it coming. I won't spoil them, but the demises of even the most minor of recurring character made me sit bolt upright in my chair. All the praise is true, The Wire is one of the best shows of recent years, and I can't wait to see where it goes from here.