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May 13, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Guides | May 13, 2008 |

Imagine if you will the following: A critically acclaimed author and screenwriter successfully launches the inaugural season of a hyper-realistic television series about a Baltimore police unit hunting a gang of drug dealers. Premiering as one of HBO’s line of prestige dramas, the series has the luxury of eschewing “ripped-from-the-headlines” sensationalism and clichĂ©d shoot-‘em-ups. Instead, this is a new kind of program, focusing on deep character development for its large, incredibly talented ensemble cast and exploring sobering themes about the abject failure of the so-called War on Drugs, the complicated urban rot plaguing American cities, and the delicate internal politics of both the coyotes and the sheepdogs in the justice system. Juxtaposing the complex social and political interactions of cops and drug dealers, both between them and internally among themselves, the show carefully and fairly examines the trials and tribulations of both sides and the foundations and contexts of their motivations and actions, while also sympathetically yet unflinchingly analyzing their failures. This first season hangs a constellation of richly drawn characters in an inky black universe of inevitable doom for those inhabiting it.

Now. Throw all that out the window. In wrapping up the first season, the show’s creator breaks up the two sides, with the police unit scattered to the four winds by department politics and the drug crew ravaged by jail sentences. Upon returning for a second season, the program’s creator leaves the safe haven of these beloved characters and their meticulously crafted world, introducing a narrative apparently unrelated to Season One, along with a dozen new characters in the first episode alone. Season Two drops the viewer smack on the Baltimore docks, where the leader of a creaky, failing longshoremen’s union has descended into dealings with organized crime to keep his workers afloat. A discomfited but loyal viewer buckles his safety belt and patiently waits to understand.

Thus began the sophomore season of “The Wire,” quite simply the best television program ever aired. While any one of the first four seasons merits inclusion in this Pajiba Guide, Season Two stands out as the best of the finest because of the naked, audacious self-assurance required to abruptly change course following an outstanding freshman campaign. Season Two took the program to a new thematic level, exponentially expanding on the initial cross-section view of Baltimore’s thriving heroin trade, climbing 10,000 feet to reveal the powerful connections among economic dysfunction, political corruption, and the creeping chaos of the drug plague. Season Two marked the moment in television history when an accomplished artist became a master, leaving behind safe routine and episodic convention to craft a fully-realized world, not just a milieu.

Critics and viewers have justifiably devoted reams of analysis and review to “The Wire,” particularly in the wake of its recent fifth and final season, and another detailed recap is neither needed nor worthwhile. To sum up, in Season Two series creator David Simon provided the encore to a first season in which he brought together a disparate group of Baltimore detectives to form the Major Crimes Unit, a task force charged with direct surveillance and wiretap monitoring of druglord Avon Barksdale’s sophisticated drug-dealing gang. At the end of Season One, Barksdale was doing a short stint in jail on minor charge, leaving behind a capable lieutenant to oversee the operation. Although scoring a minor blow against Barksdale, the Major Crimes Unit was broken up prior to its larger surveillance operations coming to fruition, stymied by Baltimore politics in response to the Unit’s sniffing around dirty campaign contributions.

As Season Two opens, the action has shifted to Baltimore’s decrepit industrial waterfront, where the struggling longshoremen’s union has dedicated its last financial gasp to lobbying Maryland politicians for revitalization projects at the piers. As part of the effort, the union’s checkers, who monitor the comings and goings of ships’ cargo, have begun cooperating with a crime syndicate importing contraband. The operation draws the attention of the Baltimore Police Department only when a cargo container shows up on the docks with 13 dead women, would-be prostitutes who suffocated during their journey.

While establishing swiftly and surely that Season Two would cover new ground, Simon wasted no time extending tendrils to link this new plotline to some old characters — not only servicing larger plot concerns but also undoubtedly assuaging worried viewers tuning in for their cops and dealers fix. The union’s boss, Sobotka, manages to irritate an influential police official in an unrelated matter, leading to the informal re-constitution of the Major Crimes Unit to look into Sobotka’s activities. Inevitably, the detail investigating Sobotka becomes immersed in solving the murders as well. Not so inevitably — except in the series’ trademark sense of futile destiny — they are soon nose-to-nose with their old enemies in Barksdale’s crew, using the union investigation to re-initiate their wiretap and surveillance efforts on the drug dealers as well.

Virtually all of the brilliant ensemble returned from Season One, including series favorites such as boozehound™ Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), tough-but-silky Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), and straight-arrow Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick). On the other side of the ledger, fan darling Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) also came back to provide his brilliant business acumen and slender menace to the operations of the Barksdale crew. And on a personal level, an absence of Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a post-modern Robin Hood if ever there was one, might have been a deal-breaker; what a relief that his legend continued to grow in the second season as well, providing yet another rich contour to a series already bursting with intriguing, rewarding storylines.

To the extent Season One could ever have been denoted an eensy bit derivative, with its familiar scenes of urban blight and weary, overmatched cops, Season Two promptly obliterated any such notions on a going-forward basis. I will have to rely on the TV Whore to correct any over-assumptions, but I certainly have never seen a television series with such a multi-layered tapestry of separate-yet-interlocking plots, each with its own mini-cast of carefully drawn characters, all played by actors leaving the impression, “Why can’t I see him/her in more stuff?” As if stepping back from a myopically focused vision of ants warring over bread crumbs, Simon retreated to gain perspective on the ant farm, implicitly asking what other sectors of the socio-economic structure are implicated by the booming drug economy in the projects.

The answer was an all-too-sad dirge for a large portion of the audience, nearly all of whom probably recognized variations on parents, siblings, or schoolmates in the depiction of the blue collar poor left behind by evolving industries and the new economy. Faced with ever-shrinking work opportunities after decades of soft complacency, white dockworkers and their kids, like their inner-city black counterparts, turn to opportunistic crime and the allure of easy drug money when presented with no ready options. Sobotka and his brethren navigate challenges to their traditional lifestyles, both macroscopic and mundane, with the desperation of a man down to his last match.

In that vein, Season Two also brought a new examination of the impact of this slow-moving economic convulsion on the family. As Sobotka slowly reaps the grim harvest of his association with gangsters, his son and nephew lie down with the same dogs and arise with yet another set of fleas. Among Barksdale’s crew, generations of racial disadvantage visit the ravaging wages of secular sin three decades further along than with Sobotka’s more recently cursed line; genuine family loyalties are lost in the larger scheme of surface gratitude hiding avarice and bone-deep betrayal.

Meanwhile, the routine business of “The Wire” went on, emphasizing the moment-to-moment existence of initiatives actually designed to succeed against the high-level causes of the drug plague, with our hopeless heroes struggling just to be allowed to pursue the kingpin-level thugs fueling the fires of the real drug war — the one raging in the roped-off areas of our cities every day. Cops game the system to put case responsibilities on other cops; civic leaders place the stockpiling of favors above rewarding good police work; drug dealers work their market with all the ruthlessness of an oil baron in a gas shortage. And meanwhile, as soon as some gaggle of overachieving police puts the heat on one criminal power center, it fades into the night without serious damage, only to see another arise in its place.

Season Two also began the remarkable cascade of conceptually distinct yet interrelated storylines in subsequent seasons of “The Wire,” addressing various elements of the downfall of America’s Rust Belt inner cities — from the political gamesmanship, to the unmourned deterioration of a school system hanging on by its fingernails, to the petty-minded complicity of the media in the addled, bovine inertia of the public view of poverty and the drug trade. Not content to sound the alarm bell over the utter failure of traditional policing and incarceration in the face of poverty and the drug trade, “The Wire” undertook an epic exploration of the failures of our society to create a viable environment where people have desirable choices other than crime.

The first step off the easy path, the leap from the well-worn track … that is the hard step. The second and third steps are critical, even admirable, but they cannot exist without the fundamental decision to abandon rutted convenience. For television — for narrative as an art — “The Wire” represents a New Way, a 90-degree change in course that straightened the line.

Ted Boynton would probably go gay for Omar. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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