Friday, August 8, 2014

Catching up with "The Wire"

"The Wire" premiered on HBO on June 2, 2002. It ran for five seasons, 60 episodes, and ended on March 9, 2008. I never watched it during that time and, in that, I was a member of the majority. The show was never particularly popular and never garnered big audiences.

It also never won any of the major television awards, but it was greatly admired by critics, many of whom considered it one of the best television dramas of all time and it had a devoted hard core following.

In all the years since the show ended, I've read time and again about how good it was and I've heard the same opinion expressed by my husband, who did watch it. All that praise from people whose opinions I respect made me curious and I decided that I needed to watch it at some point. HBO-GO makes it easy enough to do that, so this summer, I've been catching up with that twelve-year-old show. Now I see what all those critics were raving about. "The Wire" is excellent television.

The UK's The Telegraph once wrote that "The Wire" is "arguably the greatest television programme ever made."  I've now watched three seasons of the show - two more to go - and I find myself pretty much in sympathy with that assessment.

The show was very much a product of its time, i.e., just after the attacks of 09/11/01 and at the beginning of the so-called "war on terror." Government resources were being diverted to fight that "war" and local law enforcement was getting short shrift. The needs of large American cities like Baltimore, which is the central character in the series, were being overlooked unless they could be directly related to the government's obsession with terrorism.

Though the stories that "The Wire" tells are now several years old, they still seem fresh and current. We see the city of Baltimore (which could be a stand-in for many American cities) through the eyes of many different characters, mostly police or gangsters, but also ordinary citizens, or "taxpayers" in the patois of the ghetto which is the main language of the show. The stories are very Dickensesque in that they explore Baltimore's social structure from the squats of the homeless junkies to the uptown political fund-raisers in their swank surroundings. But mostly - at least through the third season - they focus on the drug dealers on the streets and those "businessmen" behind them.

It is interesting that the police and the purveyors of the drug trade have worked out their relationship and each group has its code that it (mostly) adheres to, and they sometimes cooperate, even though they are (mostly) adversaries.

For the drug dealers, who are often involved in their own violent conflicts over territories, they don't bat an eye at gunning down a competitor, but part of the code of "the game" is that they never attack "taxpayers." Moreover, they don't go gunning for anybody on Sunday. Sundays are sacrosanct. Thus, one of the drug kingpins, Avon Barksdale, is appalled when some of his "soldiers" attack one of their enemies, Omar, on a Sunday while he is escorting his grandmother to church. The old lady is injured and her hat - her "church crown" - is destroyed. This represents a loss of face for Barksdale and he must make restitution to the grandma.

The creator of "The Wire" was David Simon. Simon had a background, before his television career, as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun. His writing partner was Ed Burns, who was himself a former homicide detective who had worked on investigations of violent drug dealers using surveillance technology and had found himself frequently frustrated by the Baltimore police bureaucracy. Basing the stories on his experiences certainly gave the drama its verisimilitude.

The two writers set out to portray an American city in all phases of its social, political, and economic life and they succeeded beautifully. This is not just a police procedural. It is much richer and more ambitious than that. If it were a novel, it could be categorized as literary fiction for its realistic portrayal of urban life and its unflinching exploration of social and political themes.

Another thing. The characters here are portrayed warts and all. There's hardly a one of them that is entirely likable and yet one finds oneself pulling for some of them. Even though some of them are very bad guys indeed. Like Omar.

Barack Obama has said that he was a fan of the show and that his favorite character was Omar. Of course, being Barack Obama, he hastened to add that he wasn't condoning Omar's actions, merely that he saw him as an interesting character. And he is indeed one of the many interesting characters on the show. But maybe the most interesting character of all is Baltimore.

I'm very glad that I finally caught up with "The Wire" with all of its pathos, heartbreak, and, yes, humor. Sometimes laugh-out-loud humor. Were it not leavened with a few laughs, it would be almost unbearable.

I look forward to finishing seasons four and five before the end of summer. Then I can join the ranks of the few and the proud who have watched one of the best television shows ever produced.

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