Just finished watching the fourth season of "The Wire" today. Most television shows get worse with age. Even "The Sopranos" managed just the three (maybe four) good seasons. "The Wire", however, gets better each time at bat. I've now seen three of the four seasons in their entirety and I can't say I remember another show that was as involving, as entertaining, or as relevant as this show has so consistently been. David Simon, the show's creator, has said he only ever wanted to film five seasons of "The Wire", and now that HBO's just greenlit that final season, not only do we have one last 13-hour batch of "Wire" goodness coming our way, but we'll have a complete and thoughtfully-considered long-form story in the can, just as its creator intended. A rare thing, if not unheard of, in the annals of television. Good news for me. Good news for you.
The first and excellent season was about the formation of a Special Crimes Unit in the Baltimore PD tasked with taking down local druglord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), which they did by tapping his and his minions' cell phones. I haven't seen the second season (though the first disk is sitting in its mailing sleeve on my TV this second), but I do know it's an in-depth look at life on the docks of Baltimore. The third season concerns the rise and fall of Barksdale's right-hand man Stringer Bell (played by the charismatic Idris Elba) as he attempts to reform the drug trade by aping the corporate top-down model; in addition, "Bunny" Colvin, a respected police-captain, attempts to lower the crime rate by legalizing drugs in Baltimore.
The fourth season, which just ended, focuses on four middle-school boys as they try and make it through the broken bureacracy of the city's school system that cannot teach them anything that has currency on the streets, a family structure broken down to nothing by the scourge of crack, and a vampiric drug trade that feeds on young black males for its very existence; their struggle's set against a backdrop of renewed civic hope as the newly-elected mayor and Great White Hope, Tom Carcetti, promises to fix some of the city's most glaring problems, but as David Simon said in a recent Slate interview, much of what the show's about is how people with good intentions try to reform systems that will not bear reform. People who come in to try and change things end up either fired or dead, depending on which system their working within. The way the show depicts the city's various problems, which seem so ingrained and intractable as to be a force of nature, the idea of "fixing" the problem, which a few characters seem compelled to do, seems almost delusional. The amoral, purely political animals, the folks without a scruple in their head who care nothing for their city and only for themselves, however, end up doing very well in the universe of "The Wire".
This point actually brings me to the central contradiction of the show's purpose. Simon intends for the show to shed light on what is an important national problem: dire poverty in American cities, especially among black Americans. He wants viewers to get as mad as he is about the current state of his native Baltimore, and by doing so change minds in the country; get the national will on his side. But because the tone of the show is so bleak, the cumulative effect of all that abjectness creates a feeling of helplessness in the viewer. Yes, it's bad, and Simon wants me to get angry about it, but my first impulse is to throw my hands in the air and say, "You're right! It's hopeless." And then, right after, "What can we do about it?" Through his characters, Simon does offer solutions: Police Captain Colvin's attempt to legalize drugs, the pilot program to socialize disruptive, "at-risk" kids, the reformed gangster's neighborhood boxing gym, are all examples. But, as Simon said, "the system does not bear reform". So which is it? Are the poor, minority-areas of our cities a depressing and inherently solutionless problem, or is it a problem that can be fixed if only our politicians (backed by a newly patient and civic-minded constituency) had the political will to fix them? The show does not make this clear.
Anyway. I'll say again what I said back in my February post about this show: it is truly a novel made for television, in the very best way possible. The show pays off at the end of 13 episodes in the same way a novel pays off in its closing pages; each season and, so far, the entire series has an identifiable arc, and, unlike some other shows I could mention, the writers know where they're going with the story: they know how it ends. "The Wire" is immersive, it's absorbing, and more than just getting the sense you've learned something about Baltimore (which you will), you get the sense you've learned something important about the way the world operates. Yeah, that's pretty grandiose for an hour-long drama on HBO, but the show's pretty persuasive like that. In addition to being entertained, you can't help but feel like you're doing your civic duty by watching the show.
Now, if my prior support for films like "The Relic" or my recent criticism of films like "Cars" and "For Your Consideration" have you doubting my critical opinion, you ought to read Jacob Weisberg's Slate article about why "The Wire" "is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America". He says what I'm trying (and failing) to say far more eloquently. Or read Stephen King's rave about the show. Yes, the fourth season about which they speak is now aired and gone, (until it emerges once again in the form of an $80 DVD box set), but the first, second, and third seasons are available for rent or purchase on DVD. My advice to you, oh loyal readers, is next time you're at Blockbuster, (or updating your Netflix que), pick up the first disk of season one. You will not be sad you did.
Finally, I was sad to hear that Peter Boyle died today. He was 71. His portrayal of "the Monster" in "Young Frankenstein" was genius -- his scene with Gene Wilder doing their demented rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz", is the kind of funny that's timeless, and my guess is it will be remembered (and laughed at) forever. Not a bad way to leave one's mark on the world. He was also great in "Everybody Loves Raymond", and I thought he did some good work as the heavy in the sci-fi "High Noon" remake, "Outland". Anyway, just wanted to say something to mark his passing.