“Give it at least four”. That’s been my mantra when it comes to HBO hourlong dramas. From ‘The Sopranos’ to ‘Deadwood’, ‘Rome’ and ‘Boardwalk Empire’, a four episode minimum will help the viewer make the transition from the typical ‘done in one’ format of network television to the more fleshed out style of premium cable channel dramas.
With premium cable has come creative liberation for writers of narrative television series. No longer required to make story beats fit in between the commercial breaks (which are the main reason these shows are on networks), premium cable isn’t reliant on advertisers to make or break their series, hence there is an opportunity for more expansive, thoughtful dramas. Programs that take their time to unfold multi-layered stories and intricately complicated characters. If network and most of basic cable is the equivalent of a weekly magazine, consider the dramatic programming on premium cable to be television’s version of a novel, and in rare cases, an epic novel.
Nowhere is this description more apt than in a discussion of HBO’s ‘The Wire’, which ran for five seasons from 2002-2008. It has been called, more than once, ‘the greatest television series in history’. I came to the party late, aware of the show in its third season, but quickly realized that it wasn’t a show that I could pick up in the middle of the run and fully appreciate all of the nuances embodied in the work. So when the entire series was released on DVD, I bought it, planning to watch it someday. As many things do, it gathered dust on my shelf for awhile. But it soon would be activated.
Television critical writing has been really rewarding over the past ten years. Exciting, innovative shows like the ones previously mentioned and others that weren’t like ‘The Shield’, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Lost’ inspired a new crop of writers who treat serialized television with the seriousness and thoughtfulness that movie critics have offered for years. One of the best writers in the field is Alan Sepinwall, lead television writer for pop cultuer website Hitfix.com as well as co-host of the entertaining and informative podcast ‘Firewall and Iceberg’.
I picked up Sepinwall’s first book, ‘The Revolution Was Televised’ , an examination of twelve television series that the author feels changed the face of television as we know it. When I got to his chapter on ‘The Wire’, where he makes a case for it being the best show ever, I felt the holiday break would be a good time to dig in and see what the deal really is.
I was unaware that I’d be up until late every night digesting every episode like many of the dope fiends depicted in the series, until I had gone through all five seasons.
‘The Wire’ is first and foremost an urban tragedy, set in Baltimore, Maryland. It examines the corruption and decay of a city from a variety of perspectives. Each season reports on a different aspect of the dying city. Season one: the infiltration of drugs in the inner city; season two: the importing of corruption through the city’s docks; season three: the deal making political labyrinth of state and local government; season four: the failure of the educational system and season five: the media’s role in it all.
Creator David Simon said that the star of ‘The Wire’ is the city itself, not the actors. I think he’s right, but fortunately he assembled an impressive cast of performers who have gone on to have successful careers beyond the show. Simon and his fine collection of writers weaved a story of haves and have nots that possessed drama, tension, horror and hilarity while almost always staying true to the heart of the show. But in a show overflowing with talent, there have been two breakout performances, one as a star and the other a character who is by far the most popular from the show, and one of the most unlikely mythic heroes in any medium anywhere.
When British actor Idris Elba stepped into the role of second in command crime lord Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell, he brought an intelligence and threat of violence that tempered his matinee idol good looks. Bell was the aspiring criminal, who was trying to expand the vision of both his boss and henchmen, looking past street level crime to a larger play as a legitmate businessman. It’s difficult to say much more about Bell without spoiling his story, but Elba showed that he was meant to be on the grand stage and has since carved out a successful film career, as well as starring in another popular television series, ‘Luther’, now filming its third season for the BBC. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s well worth checking out.
‘Luther’ series 3 announcement
As popular as Stringer Bell and several other characters were on ‘The Wire’, no one comes close to generating the near hysterical fan love for that gangster who robs drug dealers, the infamous Omar Little.
During an interview with Grantland.com, President Obama said that ‘The Wire’ was one of the greatest shows of all time. When asked who his favorite character was, he replied, ” it’s got to be Omar, right? I mean that guy is unbelievable, right? He’s got to be the number one seed. What a combination”.
That combination that the President was speaking of consisted of a hard core killer who was unabashedly gay, toted a shotgun, had a personal code that prevented him from killing any ‘civilians’, frowned on profanity, loved his Honey Nut Cheerios and always took his grandmother to church on Sunday. Michael K. Williams brought steel and sensitivity in such a complete package that audiences couldn’t help but cheer Omar on. His testimony on the witness stand provides a good look at Williams’ skill, and a look at the finely tuned screenplay’s ability to shed light on Omar’s mindset. Omar is one for the ages.
While there is plenty of sadness to be found, there are also a lot of laughs, many of which are provided by the detective duo of Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce). In an example of the innovative nature of the show, below is an example of the two detectives investigating a crime scene, using the repetition of one word to convey a variety of meanings. It’s as compelling as it is humorous, but if you have sensitive ears, this clip (and this show) probably isn’t for you.
Just as ‘The Wire’ could bring the funny, it also breaks it down with heavy weight drama. This is Bunk having a dramatic confrontation with the feared Robin Hood of the Ghetto, ‘Omar Little’, belittling him for inspiring admiration from young kids.
I can’t say without hesitation that ‘The Wire’ is the best television show ever, but it’s got to be in the conversation. It’s a great series, and the fourth season, focusing on the failure of the school system is heartbreaking. Below is a recap of Season 4.
Many essays have been written on ‘The Wire’, here’s a link to several of the best:
‘The Wire’ is available on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon. But be warned, if you can last through the first four episodes, you may find yourself addicted.
Welcome to the New Year and have an outstanding week!