28 December 2004

The Wire, Season Three Sum-Up

Stringer Bell

I came upon The Wire sometime in the middle of summer, browsing bored through the selections in HBO OnDemand. I'd heard about it and read vaguely about the show's merits, but for some reason I still attached to it some sort of mystery- I had some idea it was about crime, but that's pretty general and, as it turns out, hardly the point.

In a terrific piece, Tony Kushner (playwrite, author of Angels in America) writes about how The Wire and the "cop show" paradigm interact. An interesting point- is The Wire even a cop show? Well obviously it is a show about, among many, many other things, cops. But it certainly is NOT a "cop show."

But it really isn't a culture-defining zeitgeist like The Sopranos, either, which of course isn't a "mob show." Instead, The Wire is a story so perfectly and carefully told, it can't adhere to any genre. It is so specific to the people and their relationships and all other such causal concerns that it can't BE a "cop show," it can only be a story about... these people. This teeming mass of internecine sludge that is the Baltimore drug trade- The Street, The Law, The Hall, and for a brief time in Season Two, The Docks.

What is now most rewarding about the show initially turned me off, and almost discouraged me from pursuing it later down the line. On TV in 2005, executives and producers are (understandably) not willing to tell a long, difficult, complicated, linear story in hour-long installments. Instead, every single other show on television is episodic- things, ideas... stories as islands unto themselves, connected only by their involving the same characters. Repertory characters on demand, hashing out new ideas and conflict. It's not bad, it's just what it is- how do you cultivate new viewers without allowing them to connect immediately somewhere in the middle of the "story"? Easy- don't make the story connected.

Omar Little

So The Wire never would have piqued my interest had I not had the luxury of reliving it from Episode One- if you come in from the rain on a season of The Wire, you're the episodic one, you're the island- a boat with no oars. This is a story being told on it's own terms, and just like real life. No stopping it, no trying to reign it in- just a bunch of chaos.

That probably sells it a bit short too, because it is also consistently- always- remarkably well written. No thumb prints anywhere, no dialogue-y dialogue. Just seamless, great writing. It takes you countless episodes before you realize that there are countless African Americans in very, very prominent roles on the show, and that their characters are all thick, complex, weighty people. The most refeshing thing about something that refreshing is that you never really notice it, probably because the characters are as much "black" as they are "cops" or "robbers"- in other words, they're characters first.

Anyway, so Season Three began slow in September. The infamous Towers were coming down, and after the end of the union dockworkers storyline, it seemed like the show was struggling to find it's new path. The first season is the high watermark, and Season Two was phenomenal, bouncing back between the Barksdale crew, the detective work, the union-docks guys, city hall... When the show re-emerged, it seemed to me to be dragging it's feet- something The Sopranos tends to do from time to time (seemingly needless- and sometimes, endless- creation of plot threads). Slowly though, it picked up. Plot creation died down, and slowly the First Act of the season gave way to the meat, and finally, the staggering Third Act.

Bunny Colvin

Idris Elba played Russell "Stringer" Bell, right hand man to Avon Barksdale. Stringer was the one who held down the fort while Avon was in jail in Season Two, and was all the while taking business classes in hopes of slowly but surely washing the grime off his- someday- legitimate enterprises. It wasn't that Stringer wasn't ruthless- he was, as when he ordered an inmate to stage D'Angelo Barksdale's- Avon's nephew- suicide. It's just that his process was evolving, and Avon's wasn't.

Simply put, Stringer was one of the great characters on television, thanks in large part to Elba's portrayal. He played Stringer like royalty- quietly, imposing. Late in Season Three, the conflict between he and his childhood best friend became too much to bare- it wasn't that they didn't love or respect one another any longer- it was simply too difficult for each of them to carry on toward their respective goals with the other one in the business. In the final episodes, they each gave one another up seperately- the tension became who would fall first.

Stringer did, in one of the more surprising death scenes I've ever seen on TV. I have, in most cases, grown immune to outright shock at television plot developments (especially considering how little I consistently watch anymore)- but this was different. Besides being disappointed seeing his character go- it was a great scene.

Soon thereafter, it came knocking for Avon as well, as the tip Bell passed on to police came up, and Barksdale was going back to jail in violation of his parole, this time for a LOT longer.

So much more happened too. So many characters, all having a broad, strong background and their own distinct voice. The Wire is a living, breathing thing, non-fiction fiction, if you will. There isn't a "my favorite episode of The Wire" because there are no episodes- just pieces of a longer string. It can be funny, scary, sad, staggering, menacing, depressing and uplifting, all in one scene- one line of dialogue.

They get guys like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos to write for the show. It's just flat out the best thing on TV. I really, really love it.


So anyway, in the spirt of my past "Year End Sum Ups," I'll do a "favorite TV things" from 2004, as best as I can recall.

  1. The Wire, Season Three

  2. Arrested Development

  3. Boston Red Sox Baseball on NESN- Jerry Remy, Don Orsillo. Best in the business.

  4. Chappelle's Show, Season Two

  5. The Sopranos, "The Test Dream"/ "Long Term Parking"

  6. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season Three

  7. Da Ali G Show (Especially Borat)

  8. The Office, Season Two

  9. That episode of America's Next Top Model where the girl/ contestant calls her longtime, loyal boyfriend and tells him she effed some piece of Eurotrash. The best part is knowing what she's gonna say as he happily answers the phone... "Hey, how are ya sweetie?!"

  10. Conan O'Brien 10th Anniversary Special

  11. Reverse of the Curse of the Bambino, HBO

...off the top of my head, of course...

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