Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"No one wins. One side just loses more slowly..."

The Wire (Season Four): It starts with an industrial strength nail gun and ends with a harmless carjacking ("harmless" being an altogether relative thing in the Wireverse). In between, there's just a shade under twelve hours of absolutely riveting television; flat-out outstanding stuff that I'm kicking myself for not watching from the get-go.

With an eye towards spoiling as little as possible (not to be confused with, you'll note, no spoilers at all) and a realization that the show has been given a more thorough treatment elsewhere (Alan Sepinwall's Season Four recaps--and the comments that emanate from them--are a vital resource for any viewer, neophyte or otherwise), I intend to steer clear of any semblance of a plot summary. Instead, I've opted for--surprise, surprise--a list, humbly labelled:

Four Reasons You Should Be Watching The Wire (Because You're Probably Not):

1. No weak links. Here's a glimpse of what's going on this season: the four eighth graders (Dukie, Michael, Randy, and Namond); a former cop (Prez) turned teacher's first year on the job; Bunny and the University of Maryland Psych prof's study on corner kids; Herc getting (then pissing away) his sergeant's stripes; Carcetti running for Mayor; Royce scrambling like mad to win re-election for the same position; Omar robbing people blind; Marlo solidifying his power base; Chris and Snoop assisting same with help from the aforementioned nail gun; Michael becoming a soldier; Major Crimes being shut down; McNulty working the beat; Bunk and Lester looking for missing bodies; the travails of Bubbs and Sherrod; Cutty's gym; Kima moved to Homicide; Burrell, Rawls, and Daniels jockeying for position within the upper echelon of the police ranks; and Carver trying to keep the really young kids from being led astray. By my count, that's eighteen plots (and I've even left a few things out), and, in what has to be a TV first, there isn't a weak one in the bunch.* That's no small feat, as, if you think about, virtually every great ensemble cast has someone who, for whatever reason, gets demonstrably less interesting material (more succinctly: a character where plots go to die), cf.: a lot of Claire's stuff on Six Feet Under, a lot of Ted's non-Robyn related stories on How I Met Your Mother (yes, Ryan, I re-watched the "the tricycle" abomination tonight and I've finally come around on this one), Kate on Lost, much of what AJ did on The Sopranos always struck me as extraneous (this excludes the stuff from "The Second Coming," of course), anything to do with Andrea (and her tedious husband, Jesse) on 90210, etc. Off the top of my head, Angel and The West Wing are the only exceptions I can think of. Until now.

* - Plus McNulty (as played by Dominic West, who was burnt out after an emotionally demanding third season), arguably the show's main character, is barely present in season four, which is akin to Tony Soprano (and comparisons are inevitable between the two programs--this won't be the last one is this review) getting less screen time in a season than, say, Furio.

(Incidentally, I seem to recall someone on Tony Kornheiser's radio show--possibly TK himself--hoping that, in the final season of The Sopranos, Tony would get whacked with roughly five episodes to go, with the remaining eps focusing on the--rather substantial--ensuing power vacuum. In retrospect, that would have been fantastic--certainly, I think it goes without saying, superior to the actual ending to the series. Along the same lines, there was a persistent rumor as Seinfeld was winding down that they were going to do an entire episode without the four leads. This, too, never came to fruition, much to my disappointment...)

2. It will always keep you guessing. Partly this is so because any character is liable to be gunned down in any given episode (only Bubs, McNulty, Bunk, Freamon, Carcetti, and possibly Omar are all but assured of surviving the fifth and final season), but it's also because the situation in creator David Simon's Baltimore is so fluid. There's an old saying that momentum in baseball is tomorrow's starting pitcher, which seems particularly apt in the context of the Wireverse, where job security is always threatened by what is lurking around the corner, be it personal or political.

This tension is heightened by Simon often providing the viewer with more knowledge than the characters on the show (and, if you have to ape someone, technique-wise, surely you can do a lot worse that Shakespeare...). While Lester may be suspicious about the lack of bodies in West Baltimore, we know that Chris and Snoop are hiding them in boarded up homes (leading me to blurt out on more than one occasion: "would you ever just fucking check inside the vacant homes, Lester???"). So, too, may Randy sense that snitching to the VP was probably ill-advised, but we know that Herc has thoughtlessly set the boy up for a fall.

I'll add that, since I'm watching the show out of order (S4 and S5 concurrently; both before S1-3) as season four wound down, I was filled with dread, as I knew that three characters--Randy, Prez, and Namond--weren't participants (or, indeed, even mentioned) in the early stages of season five. So, of course, I feared the worse (except for Prez), which...didn't quite come to pass. But the more I think about, it kind of did. SPOILERS AHEAD--DON'T HIGHLIGHT UNLESS YOU'VE SEEN THE END OF SEASON FOUR.
Randy, of course, survives, but--despite Carver's best efforts--is now forced to eke out an existence in a group foster home where he's known as an informant. I won't go so far as to say it's a fate worse than death, but my heart definitely sank when he was beaten down in the closing montage (though the fact that he threw the first punch was strangely encouraging).
Prez, too, goes on, though the scene where his suspicions about Duquan--my personal favorite--turning to corner life were confirmed (mere minutes after he was strangely cold to Dukie after being given the pen set--perhaps heeding the VPs advice to move on?) knocked the wind right out of me. Just a gutting sequence. Though not at all his fault--and the fact that the season didn't end with Prez's soul being crushed was one of the season's better surprises--he'll have to live with the knowledge that, in the Maryland public school system, seemingly no good deed goes unpunished. (I'm holding out hope that he and Randy will make appearances in S5.)
Only Namond (Namond? Fucking Namond??) emerges unscathed (or, at least, emerges as unscathed as a 13-year old boy can when living with a borderline sociopathic mother), thanks only to Bunny's intervention and Wee-Bey realizing that his son wasn't cut for life on the corner. Frankly, I'm still trying process how Namond feels about being out of the game. On the one hand, he has to be relieved, since even he must of realized that he was all talk. On the other, that final shot--of his buddy joyriding in what has to be a jacked car--seems to suggest that Namond might have already sentimentalized his time on the street, and will always wonder if, by being on the stoop, he's missing out on the action. I'm not sure.

3. It resists providing pat answers. It's probably best, on a general level, to think of The Wire as The Sopranos if the The Sopranos spent an equal amount of time on the feds working to bring the Family down...and the feds were as fucked up as Tony and Company. More specifically, S4 is probably best understood as a tug of war for the souls of the new generation in Baltimore, with the temptations of (seemingly) easy money on the corner on one side and the police, school administrators and teachers, junkie parents (serving as a cautionary tale), and (sometimes) politicians pushing the kids towards a purer path. Of course, in a surprising turn, the sins of the latter can, at times, outweigh the transgressions of the former.

Witness Royce shutting down the Major Crimes Division in the run-up to the election, or Commissioner Burrell juking the crime stats, or instructors at Tilghman Middle School being forced to teach to the test, sacrificing many of the gains made to that point, or Bunny's pleas to maintain the successful-but-hard-to-quantify troubled teens pilot program falling on deaf ears on statistic-driven City Hall officials. Or...ok, ok.

Hell, the season's biggest villain isn't--arguably--Marlo (yes, he's a ruthless killer, but his actions have an internal--admittedly cold and calculating--logic to them), but rather Royce (who, one gets the sense, would be perfectly happy to watch his city burn to the ground, so long as he gets to watch it from the Mayor's desk) or Sgt. Herc, the proverbial bull in the china shop, who needlessly and carelessly jeopardizes the lives of innocents in his relentless efforts to cover up his own mistakes. To provide but one example of the show's complexity, take a look at Sepinwall's description of Randy's season-long trajectory (AGAIN, HIGHLIGHT ONLY IF YOU'VE SEEN THE WHOLE SEASON): To repeat a point I made in my review of "Unto Others," it's just staggering the number of inadvertent things that had to happen to put Randy in his current predicament: He had to be out in the hallway when the two boys needed a lookout for their blow job party. The boys had to be so cold to the girl the next day that she called the cops. Prez had to take Randy's problem to Daniels instead of Lester. Carver had to feel guilty for having outgrown Herc, instead of just calling Bunk directly. Omar had to call in his chit with Bunk and Bunk had to piss Crutchfield off enough that Crutch threw out Carver's eventual phone message. Prop Joe had to tell Marlo to steal Herc's camera. Herc had to frustrate Sydnor so much that Sydnor walked out of the Little Kevin interrogation before Herc gave away Randy's identity. Bodie had to convince Little Kevin to come clean to Marlo. And Snoop had to speak up to convince Marlo to reverse his decision about letting Randy off clean. And, on the bitter irony scale, Randy had to be so terrified of losing Miss Anna that he turned snitch, which set off this whole Woody Woodpecker chain of events that led to him losing Miss Anna.

Simon's Baltimore is dying...and absolutely everyone knows it. It's also a zero-sum city, where any improvement in one area (say, crime) inexorably leads to sacrifices in other departments (namely: education), and vice versa. Lest you think the show may stray into SimCity territory (the Transit Authority says: "YOU CAN'T CUT BACK ON FUNDING! YOU WILL REGRET THIS!"), it's important to note that Carcetti's decisions are also coloured by matters of race, favors owed and promises made, and an eye towards a gubernatorial run in two years. While they're is a tendency to moralize at times--in fairness, this seems practically unavoidable when dealing with the profoundly fucked up public school system--this show is about as nuanced as they come.

4. The ending music. Now...before you say "hey! He really only has three reasons and has pathetically tacked on a trivial fourth one"--hear me out. It's called "The Fall" and was composed by a guy named Blake Leyh, who also did some work on the (in my view) extremely underwhelming Across the Universe, which I saw on the weekend. You can hear "The Fall" here. (Go on. It may or may not be my ring tone.) I will go as far to say that it's the best end credits theme I've ever heard. What I love most about it is that it kicks in two or three beats before the episode fades to black, which never ceases to be awesome.

That's all I have for now. Stay tuned for a blown out Wire vs. Sopranos comparison as soon as I finish all Wire eps.


The R.O.B. said...

I can't believe you haven't seen S1-3?!?!, which I think, make season 4 what it is.

Frankly, I think one of the most interesting characters is Bodi - following his path from the beginning of season 1 - which makes what happens to him so tragic.

I'm not sure if you've seen it, but they've been doing an interesting back and forth on S5 of the Wire in Slate that Rosie forwarded to me.

RT Murphy said...

Do what I want 'cause I can and if I don't because I wanna .
Be ignored by the stiff and the bored because I'm gonna.

Spit and retrieve 'cause I give and receive because I wanna.
Gonna get through your head what the mystery man said because I'm gonna.

Hate to say I told you so.
Come on.

Do believe I told you so.
Now it's all out and you knew,
'Cause I wanted to.

Kyle Wasko said...

Dammit, Ryan, I said no poems! (Or song lyrics masked as poetry.)

RT Murphy said...

Oh, and nice ref to the Simcity transit guy. If you so much as looked at his funding, he was ready to jam you up so bad. He was so angry... angry about cities.