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It's Either Play or Get Played

"The Wire" - Season Five / The TV Whore
Jan. 3, 2008

TV Reviews | January 3, 2008 | Comments ()


“The Wire” is unquestionably the best show on television. I have no problem making this statement. I could also make a very strong case that’s it’s the best show ever — no other show I can think of has ever tackled such real and important issues with the breadth and pathos and humor that “The Wire” hits us with in any given episode, let alone over the course of the past four seasons. Creator David Simon has said that the underpinning of the show is Greek tragedy, complete with tragic heroic destinies, non-black-hat anti-heroes, and gods in the forms of the well-rooted institutions (the police system, City Hall, the ranks of the drug trade, education — whoever you work for, Simon says, “you’re going to be betrayed”).

Of course, what Simon and co-creator Ed Burns have put together far surpasses the best and most intricate of the Greek tragedies — “The Wire” is really the Great American Novel for the 21st Century. It is so much more than simply another procedural and, in truth, “The Wire” is not really a cop show at all. Sure, the cops are some of the dominant characters, but it’s not about them. It’s about economics and politics and sociology — it’s about the modern American inner-city. That’s why the show made the brilliant and surprising decision, after Season One, to turn away from just focusing on the failed drug war, giving us a new and mostly (but not entirely) unrelated storyline about the Baltimore docks. That Season Two storyline showed how the white working class faces many of the same societal issues as poor minorities, and that we’re really talking about class here, rather than race. I was recently talking to a friend who said that this second season was, by far, her least favorite season. And I can understand that. But I think it was a brave and necessary season to sculpt the version of Baltimore being presented to us, because Baltimore is really the show’s central character, a character far more important than McNulty or Stringer or Omar. Of course, Season Three turned back to the drug trade and the police focus on the Banskdale crew, while also exploring some of the failures and trappings of the political system and how the whole game is rigged to stifle reform. And then came Season Four and its exploration of the broken education system and how kids slip the cracks and find their home on the corners. And fucking hell, while every season has had its moments of heartbreak, no season was more tortured and painful than Season Four. Just fucking killed me, it did. Which is probably why it was also the funniest season to date. It had to be.

“The Wire,” as brilliant as it is with its drama, is also a wickedly funny show, with some of the blackest humor you can find. “We couldn’t show the real, because the real is too powerful,” says Burns. “We soften it with humor — you either laugh or you cry.” And as I say, last season desperately needed the humor to keep you from hanging your head in eternal depression. For those who need a refresher before jumping into the fifth and final season, let’s do a little recap of Season Four. (Obviously, don’t keep reading if you’re not caught up with Season Four yet — instead, go rent yourself some DVDs and get caught the fuck up!) Coming off of the Hamsterdam drug legalization experiment, we found ourself focusing on quite a few plot threads in Season Four. Marlo Stanfield managed to take over most the Western Baltimore drug trade in the wake of most of Barksdale’s crew being taken down. And when the Major Crimes Unit was actually up and running, it was focusing its efforts on Marlo and trying to figure out how he was keeping control without dropping bodies. Of course, Major Crimes was shut down for much of the season, as it wasn’t reinstated until newly elected Mayor Tommy Carcetti started his “it’s a new day” initiative. Speaking of which, you’ll recall that much of last season also involved watching Carcetti pull off his from-behind campaign, taking over the mayoral chair and quickly learning that his reform promises may have been a little lofty given the state of the city’s financial affairs, particularly the whopping deficit in the education system.

And it was that financially unequipped education system which really sat at the heart of the season, a world we took a look at via a few different channels. First, we followed former police Bunny Colvin (he of the Hamsterdam experiment), who partnered up with an academic book-type to take yet another innovative approach to reform, this time in the form of a class catered to the trouble makers and potential corner kids. And yet again, Colvin finds the system unwilling and unable to consider and accept true reform. Meanwhile, we also followed Roland Pryzbylewski, more former police, as he began his new career as a teacher, coming in all doe-eyed and full of gusto only to be relatively disillusioned thanks to the abysmal state of affairs in our inner-city public schools. Interwoven into both of these threads, and underlying what made this season the best yet, were the exploits of four of the kids in Prezbo’s class. In a tragic numbers game, three of the four boys landed in bad places by season’s end, despite all of them starting off full of potential. The only one to get out was Namond, the unlikeliest of the four to land someplace good, given his attitude and family roots (you’ll recall that his pops was Wee-Bey, who has been serving a long sentence for being Avon Barksdale’s gunman). Namond managed to escape the corner (for now, at least) thanks to Bunny — while Bunny’s attempt to help the many may have been kiboshed by the powers that be, he was at least able to free Namond from the bond of his family ties and adopt the boy into a stable middle-class suburban life. Namond isn’t slated to be a regular character in this final season of “The Wire,” and he may not even show up at all, so for now we can assume the he’s may actually be one of the few “Wire” folk to wind up with a relatively happy ending. There’s also a good chance we won’t see Randy this season, as he’s also not a regular anymore, but he was left in a much worse place at the end of the last season. While Randy started out as the one “most likely to succeed,” things took a decided turn for the worse as the season progressed. His fall was first precipitated by the fact that he was just a kid who couldn’t help violating the street ban on snitching when the alternative was getting into some trouble of his own, and it was then exacerbated by the unintentional foibles and idiocy of some of the cops (particularly the more-and-more infuriating and slightly despicable Herc). And when Randy looked up at Sgt. Carver in the penultimate episode to mockingly ask, “you gonna look out for me,” well … Jesus Christ. One of the most heart-wrenching television moments ever. And Carver actually tried to look out for Randy after a firebombing put his foster mother in the hospital, but like so many on the show, Carver found himself stymied by the system. Randy was left in yet another group home, getting his poor ass kicked yet again for being a “snitch” (the true irony here being, perhaps, the fact that he didn’t actually rat out the murderers in question and merely told the adults shit which all the corner kids had known for months).

Equally depressing was the path of Duquan, our example of a kid falling right the fuck through the educational cracks. Duquan cam from an absolutely awful home life — his family would actually sell his shit while he was away at school — and had been held back a grade because of his lack of development. But Prez actually managed to connect with Duquan, and he started enjoying life and throwing around a smile that melted this miserable critic’s heart. But then he was socially advanced to his proper grade in high school and while we the viewer understood why the strung out administration was basically forced to make this move, we also knew that it was anything but the right thing for Duquan. And when he bailed on high school before his first day, we were hit with more season ending tragedy, as Duquan started working a drug corner, with the only silver lining being that he managed to get a new home away from his family. That home was a new pad owned by Michael, the fourth of our original quartet, and the boy who ran the corner Duquan wound up working on. Michael’s tough independence caught Marlo’s eye early in the season, but Michael managed to turn down Marlo’s employment opportunities. However, his home life became problematic when his step-brother Bug’s dad returned home from prison, a man who we would learn abused Michael. The great tragedy of Michael’s story is that he was given opportunities to be helped by both Prez and Cutty (the ex-con running a local boxing gym), but he was just unable to open himself up to them. Instead, he sought out Marlo, and in exchange for being trained up to be another corner lieutenant and hitman, Snoop and Chris killed Bug’s dad.

The Fourth Season ended with Lester Freamon finally finding all the bodies dropped by Marlo and his people, bodies which Snoop and Chris had stuffed into a variety of vacant buildings (Bug’s dad was not one of these bodies however, as — in one of the many brilliant scenes where we are given exposition without a single word — Chris beat the living fuck out of him right in the middle of the street, working out rage from his own background of abuse). The finding of these bodies led to McNulty coming back to the Major Crimes Unit, and looked to be the driving force of Season Five.

And the first episode of Season Five picks up on that same plot thread, albeit some time later (the exact timing is unclear, but we look to be at least a few months on from last season’s finale, up to a year later). Major Crimes has spent all of its time tracking Marlo and his boys, but it hasn’t manged to make much headway (in fact, the Eastern/Western drug co-op manages to hold a meeting literally right under the cops’ collective noses). The lack of progress is partially due to the fact that the current state of affairs in the police department is grim indeed. Since Carcetti turned down state funding to save the school system last season (a decision rooted in ego and his desire at eventually making a run for Governor), all available funds have since been diverted to address the school deficit. This not only means the Mayor has not been able to live up to his promises, but that he’s had to tighten the police purse strings even further — overtime isn’t getting paid, shit’s being limited everywhere, and it’s been over a month since the cops have received “an honest paycheck.” Unsurprisingly, they’re none too pleased with the situation, and to say that the Western District is falling apart would be putting it mildly. And it should come as no surprise that this decline in the situation has a direct impact on our friends at Major Crimes and, by the end of the first episode, it’s impossible to say how things are going to shake out over the course of the next nine episodes (sadly, this final season will only be 10 episodes, instead of the usual 12 or 13).

Much as the Fourth Season focused on the underlying thread of the education system, and so too will the Fifth Season tackle an institution, this time in the form of the media. This final season is essentially creator David Simon’s own story, based in no small part on his time at the Baltimore Sun, the same newspaper we’re introduced to in the premiere episode. Simon has said that this season is about “how far you can go on a lie,” and that’s flagged early in the first episode when Bunk notes that “the bigger the lie, the more they believe.” This first episode does an excellent job of introducing us to the paper and the characters we’ll apparently be following, without allowing it to overshadow the other things and characters we care about. As I’ve mentioned, we spend time with Carcetti, the Western and Major Crimes. We also spend some time with Michael and Duquan, who are up and running their corner full-steam, and who will apparently be regulars throughout this last season. Another possible storyline is only talked about, so it’s unclear how much play it will get — you may recall that Clay “Sheeeeeee-it” Davis was hit with subpoenas last season by Freamon (in fact, it was these subpoenas which lead to Major Crimes getting shut down early in the Fourth Season). Well he’s now under full investigation, and the city attorney is about to put together a grand jury to hopefully bring charges against Davis. As I say, it was talked about enough in this episode that I suspect it’ll be a significant plot thread, particularly in light of some more politician sketchiness which is unearthed in this episode.

All in all, this first episode was a perfect stepping stone into the Fifth Season. As with seasons past, it was like the first chapter in a book — more about introducing the relevant characters, the state of affairs and the dominant themes than trying to make shit happen just for the sake of making shit happen. For example, we see that Bubbles is as together as he’s ever been, yet we have no idea real hint or indication as to where his story might go this season or how important a part he’s going to play in the final season (although he got enough screen time to suggest that he’ll be with us for the long haul). This first episode was also funny — no funnier than prior episodes which, as I say, are often riddled with the black humor. However, many have said that this season happens to the funniest yet, so one expects more laughs as the episodes march on (and given why they resort to laughs, this likely means more heartbreak as well). As the Fifth Season is going to act as a finale to the fantastic book that has been “The Wire,” a finale reportedly (and unsurprisingly) complete with mostly less-than-happy endings, I suppose we should take as many laughs as we can get while the getting’s good.

Look, there’s really no point to anything I’ve rambled on about in this review, beyond this — “The Wire” is the tits, the bees knees, the best that there ever will be. So far, the Fifth Season looks to take us out on the same high note we far-too-few fans have come to expect. If you’re all caught up with the show and have the luxury of an HBO subscription, you have no business watching anything else. And if you’re not caught up or you don’t have the HBO, that’s what the DVDs are for. Omar ain’t whistling dixie — rent that shit and watch each episode twice. Until you do, you truly don’t understand what television is and what it can be.

(One last Third and Fourth Season spoiler — as much as I miss Stringer Bell, his loss pales in comparison to the loss of Bodie last season. They could kill off everyone else in this final season, even Omar and Bubbles — and I have no doubt we’ll see at least one or two beloved characters kiss the sky — and I’d still miss Bodie the most of all.)

The Fifth Season of “The Wire” has already premiered on HBO OnDemand, and premieres on HBO’s main channel this Sunday, January 6, at 9 p.m.


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Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. He didn’t mention “The Wire” in yesterday’s rundown of television in 2007 because the Fourth Season aired in 2006. So back the fuck off, honkies!



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