Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Wire (complete series)

Last night we completed my (mostly) re-watching of The Wire, the acclaimed crime series out of the shared world that is Homicide: Life of the Street, the Law & Orders and any of the other series that Detective Munch crossed over onto.  This one brings us to Baltimore with a view from many sides: the drug dealers & criminals, the police fighting "the war", the schools trying to educate, the families living in "the projects", the addicts suffering from the product and the politicians mixed up in it. It was not a procedural with weekly or even seasonal crimes but followed all of the above through 5 or so years of their lives.  And at the end, we see Baltimore and its people irrevocably changed... but not so much.

The Wire tries to be about just that... the wiretap. It wants to show a police department just going through the motions, barely fighting crime and just putting out the stats.  But then someone stirs up shit and they have to pay more attention.  So, here you have a bunch of under-motivated cops, homicide detectives and drug squads, forced to build a case bigger than their apathy.  From fighting with type-writers (even I had a PC word processor before 2002) and archaic surveillance equipment, they have to learn how to build a case listening into phone calls.  It's depressing seeing how backwards these cops are after watching years of magic & scifi in shows like Law & Order and CSI.  But it's also heartening to see how some characters can do so much with what little they have on pure wit of mind.

But really, its not about the wiretap so much that this is the torch they carry through all seasons, increasing technology entering their lives and criminals catching on and foiling those techniques. It becomes more about how the squads of police have to become creative to survive the dysfunction of the system they work within and the ever changing technology they have never heard of. From payphones abandoned for disposable cell phones (burners) vs film cameras & phone company based wiretaps abandoned for digital surveillance equipment and computer software.  These are the trappings of the plots given to us each season, and while not being the succinct focus of the show, their presence are almost metaphors for the increasing passion key characters have for changing the system.

It really is more about the social commentary. This show tackles a whole lot of issues that would often be the single focus of many shows. Season one gives us the institutional dysfunction of the police departments vs the masquerading glamour of the drug crime life.  Season two gives us the death of the working man culture and the ingrained corruption of big business. Season three attempts to tackle the futility of the "war on drugs" and how much the war itself is as damaging as what they are fighting. Season four shows how everything is politics as well as the effect all of this has on the kids growing up, and trying to be educated within it.  And season five shows us that even the most nobles acts can be dragged back down into the morass of corruption & futility that the rest of the series has shown us.

Characters. The Wire is ever about it's characters. These are the kinds of characters that people sit around in bars and relate stories about. There is McNulty, the bitter angry drunken Irish (really, but is he any more Irish than his love of Jameson and The Pogues?) cop with a definite skill at solving murders and stirring up shit. Bunk Moreland is a smart-suited completely aware but often drunk detective who gets the idea of working within the system. Carver & Herc, the thick-headed street police who you just want to yell at.  Daniels, the politically minded officer who cares more than he wants to. Lester Freamon, the seasoned, brilliant detective working on dollhouse furniture. Jay Landsman, the fat fuck of a squad commander who occasionally lets his true nature shine through the greasy politico he is. Stringer Bell, the business minded gangster who wants more than making drug money in his life. Proposition Joe, the last of the old school drug kingpins. Bubbles, the drug addict on a roller coaster ride to redemption. Omar, the robin-hooded stickup man.  I could go on and on.  They each have a place in the show, criss-crossing from story to story, in and out, till their end or the end of the series.

And the language! Oh I do like me some fine dialogue. You really do have to pay attention to the conversation in this show. This is where your partner, only half paying attention on the sofa, needs the annotated read-along book. Yes, look away for five minutes and you are that person. This show often requires subtitles-for-the-stupid as well as straight-up subtitles for the thick accents. From the dialects of the "corner kids" to the systemized terms used by the "real Poe-leese" to the Bah'more slang, language just drips from this show. Try relating a conversation between two drug dealers to your co-workers the next day when you are as white-guilt as me and it will so fall flat. And what the fuck is Snoop saying when she shouts out that bird call like greeting of hers?!?!  The political talk often had my eyes glazing over but simultaneously fascinated with the knowledge they must carry in their head. Though not as dense as Deadwood,  the skill it took some actors to carry this off is impressive.

The best & worst part about The Wire is that it had to end. It had to end. Reality shows us that the more  things change, the more they stay the same. If the show continued, it would have had to depress us about how little things change or start creeping away from the realism we were presented with. The final montage of the last ten minutes of the shows gives us all we need in laying our favourite characters to rest after five seasons, some redeemed, some laid in the earth and some just pulled away from it all and on to new lives.