Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Wire

           It’s been thirteen years since The Wire debuted causing the essence of television drama to change significantly. It’s about to be seven years since the show reached its conclusion and with its departure there has been wave of high quality shows with only a few series that approach the greatness and creative brilliance of The Wire. Now that HBO has released the highly praised drama in its beautifully re-mastered HD depiction, my wife and I were compelled to watch the series … again … for a third time. We are both still equally captivated by this groundbreaking series. As a result of watching it for third time my mind has recently been flooded with thoughts about the message(s) it speaks to viewers.

Much like Tom Cruise in Jerry McGuire I found myself unable to sleep one night because I couldn’t turn off my brain about the show. The root of this stems from watching season 4, which focuses on urban middle school kids and their unfortunate relationships to the Hydra-like drug scene in Baltimore. My profession as a history teacher at a jail allows me to witness on a daily basis the parallels between what is depicted in the show concerning the urban youth and my students. From this point of insight, let me tell you that the portrayal could not be more correct. Therefore, as Jerry did, I was compelled to put my thoughts to paper for this one time honorary post about the greatest television show ever. (Before I proceed please understand that over the years The Wire has been labeled the greatest television drama by many critics i.e. 2013 article in Entertainment Weekly, therefore others support my bold assertion.)
           If you haven’t seen The Wire, I strongly recommend that you do. If you’re in the middle of another series that’s not one of the following: Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, The Shield, Mad Men, True Detective, The Americans, Sherlock, and/or Sons of Anarchy stop watching whatever it is and delve into The Wire.  Trust me - you will be doing yourself a favor.  For those of you who know me personally I’m sure you have heard me speak highly about The Wire for years. In those conversations I summarized the structure of the series without providing intimate plot details. Those of you who have taken my advice and watched the show have come back to me, still in the midst of the series, with the highest of praises. For the most part The Wire flew under the radar while on HBO and its viewership is nothing to brag about so it’s understandable as to why one may not be aware of its existence.
First, the genius of the show stems from its creator David Simon. Simon’s ability to take real life events and people and convert them into a semi-fictionalized drama is nothing short of amazing. As a former Baltimore journalist, Simon accurately displays the intricate, gritty, hard, and corrupt life in Baltimore as seen through the eyes of the police, drug dealers, the labor union, politicians, news media and, most poignant of all, the children. This collective group of characters set the tone and theme for each season. The grounding of each season stems from the police setting, or attempting to set, a wiretap on a given drug trafficking target.  As the seasons progress it becomes evident that each case is not independent of each other but instead its part of a spiders web where one case folds into the other. Unlike other televisions series there are no season ending cliffhangers because each season has a clear beginning and ending with the entire series being inter-connected, as I stated. Furthermore, a small and unassuming scene may mean nothing at the time but a season later that moment will come to have greater meaning; proving to be an important piece of the puzzle. And in the words of Detective Lester Freamon, “All the pieces matter.”

The Wire is like an onion. It’s multilayered and upon your first viewing of the series, it’s extremely raw, stinging your senses. The realism that is portrayed is shocking and painful to the eyes but you can’t stop watching it. By the second or third time you watch it (yes, that will happen and has happened to many) you will start to notice and fully understand the smaller details of story. As you let everything marinate, you come to realize that this once raw uncooked onion has now been transformed into something sweeter and more flavorful becoming easier to digest. Much like the street junkies in the show, you will become addicted to the story. I know I am.
           The Wire has a multitude of characters who each play significant roles in the story. In the opening scene of the first episode you are introduced to Homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty, played by the ever-talented Dominic West. McNulty is an Irish-American cop who does three things extremely well: investigative police work, especially solving murders; drinking; and picking up women. He’s a brilliant detective who defies his superiors at every turn only because he wholeheartedly knows that he’s right. Willing to burn bridges and prove anyone wrong, McNulty serves to be the shows heart and moral consciousness. However, as brilliant of a man as he is, Jimmy is a flawed protagonist. His addiction to solving cases and his frustration with the police department’s bureaucracy causes him to repeatedly spiral out of control in his personal life. However, this is not to label him as an anti-hero a la Walter White or Tony Soprano.  McNulty’s desire for justice keeps you rooting for him throughout the entire series.
I have always viewed McNulty as the show’s main character and some may agree while others may not. However, after watching the show for a third time the true main character is the city of Baltimore. In this partially God forsaken city, viewers will witness the harsh reality of a divided and nearly broken metropolis. Shot in real abandoned heroin houses, project buildings, the docks, etc. populated with real drug fiends, The Wire provides you with a first hand look of a city on its knees yet pumping with a life all of its own. Moreover, the beauty of The Wire is that it is not a black versus white show.  It is not a world where white cops are chasing black drug dealers or white politicians using their power to their own benefit. Baltimore is actually a city that is dominated by the black community and whites serve to be the minority. While the issue of race is addressed more than a few times it is not heavily embedded in the core of the storyline. Instead of a race war, this is a war of classes, something Karl Marx would have been suffocated by if he lived in 21st century Baltimore. There are white and black people who are good, bad, and evil. For instance, Police Commissioner Burrell, a black man who has served the city and department for three decades, is one of the worst because he does everything not to get the job done. A staunch believer of making arrests for the sake of political statistics and never wanting to stand up for what is morally correct, Burrell excels as a Do-Nothing commissioner causing viewers to hate one of the so called “good guys.”  He proves that even if you are in a position of power and influence it can go to waste.
On the flipside there is Omar Little; one of the greatest characters ever written. He is an anti-hero. One that is so complex that you can’t help but love and root for him regardless of his transgressions. In short, he’s a black man who only robs drug dealers and is openly gay. His moral code and Robin Hood-like behavior provides deeper substance to his character and the show because he lives his life going against the grain. To the credit of actor Michael Kenneth Williams and to the writing of the character it serves as no surprise why Omar is so loved by viewers. Omar’s presence allows for a sense of balance and justice within the harsh Baltimore drug game.
To understand true evil one must look to the anti-thesis of Omar, drug lord Marlo Standfield. The antagonist of seasons four and five, Marlo is young man who is drunk with power and absent of compassion. A sociopath to the fullest extent, his lack of respect for people’s lives and the rules of “the game” allow him to easily manipulate anyone within his sphere of influence whether it be for his own personal gain or pleasure. Since the first time I watched the show, Marlo was the character I hated the most and even to this day I still hate him. However, it is only now that I understand him and his methods. A product of his environment, he puts the old school drug dealers: Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and Proposition Joe to shame. But again, the material is presented to you in such a fashion that you’ll become so fascinated by him and the way he thinks because it is so abnormal.
There are a plethora of other great characters worthy of discussion and analysis and I've barely scratched the surface but I will leave that for you to discover. I can say for certain that The Wire changed my perception of the way things are in this country, especially because for the last five years I’ve seen only a small glimpse of the style of life The Wire presented through my students. For example, the inequality, the injustice, lack of care for education and life, the focus on materialism are all but some of issues and situations that I have witnessed working where I do. This climate is not just where I work but anywhere and everywhere in this country. One does not have to look that hard to find what I’m talking about. There is no single person or institution to blame for the creation of this general imbalance but there are many to blame for it continued existence.
Not only does the story hone in on everyday issues of a local urban community it also focuses on the post 9/11 world under the Bush administration. Watching the series now is perhaps even better for first time viewers because they’ll be able to recognize the many fallacies, which stem from the Bush years. The political undertones of the show run deep throughout the series. The failure of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and focus on standardized tests results are evident in season 4. The federal governments interest in political corruption and terrorist activity instead of assisting local authorities for mass murders runs wild throughout the entire series. Moreover, you’re also witnessing a turning point in history. You’re watching the evolution of technology and decline and fall of the newspaper industry.  The former is a staple in our every day life and the latter is a past time that bit the dust rather hard. When you watch The Wire keep these things in mind and remember that David Simon created a show that came to symbolize the struggles of a city at a unique point in American history…a post 9/11 United States.
By the end of the series you understand the cyclical nature of the beast. Unlike David Chase who created The Sopranos, Simon does not cheat you in the series finale. In my opinion, Chase took his artistic license too far causing a major uproar of discontent from loyal viewers. Conversely, Simon’s The Wire will leave you happily satisfied with the conclusion of the show and with a broader understanding of a life some of us will never know about.