We’re going to have to figure out a way to handle the Wire discussion threads. HBO is making new episodes available through its On Demand service starting a week before their official air dates. So while the rest of you suckas just watched the premiere, I spent my lunch hour yesterday watching episode 2.
I was one of those who would have been heartbroken if the show had been cancelled after three seasons, but not devastated. Which is to say, I thought the circle had been closed on all the major plotlines, to whatever extent that’s possible. We knew what happened to the Barksdale crew, and who would succeed them as west Baltimore’s drug-dealing Wal-Mart. We knew how Jimmy McNulty would settle his tortured soul. We knew the Major Crimes unit was a done deal. The beat went on. So if HBO had pulled the plug, I’d say, “Very bad decision; this is the best show on television,” but I wouldn’t experience series interruptus, so to speak.
Well. I was wrong.
Every season this show keeps getting richer. Season one: Cops and robbers. Season two: Cops, robbers, working-class heroes. Season three: Cops, robbers, politicians. And now, in season four: Cops, robbers, children. After only two episodes, it is already breaking my heart.
What “The Wire” seeks to do, among many things, is to show urban America to the rest of America. This is no small task. When we first moved here, several mothers confided in me that they never went to Detroit, outside of the safe-for-suburbanites downtown attractions (stadiums, theaters, a few restaurants), for any reason, and that I shouldn’t, either. I told one that I’d recently gone to the Eastern Market (also safe for suburbanites), and she, a lifelong Detroiter, said she’d never been there. In her life.
“It’s really very safe,” I said. “There are thousands of people there on Saturday morning.”
“It’s not the destination,” she said. “It’s what might happen on the way there.”
This is not an irrational fear. Detroit is a big, poor, ravaged city with all of the associated problems. The husband of one of Alan’s coworker’s was carjacked at gunpoint at a gas station in a not-particularly-bad east-side neighborhood recently. City officials are always pointing out that things are looking up, that the city’s not as bad-off as it was, and they’re right — the crack epidemic of the ’80s/’90s was the agreed-upon low point — but, as Ving Rhames says in “Pulp Fiction,” things are still pretty fucking far from OK.
But in the city, life goes on. People live and die and go to church, the mail is delivered, babies are born, leaves that are green turn to brown. “The Wire” seeks to show us how everyone’s doing. Of course the bottom line is: Not good, but it’s not all bad, either. Part of the genius of the show is how its roving spotlight can find little success stories, too, sometimes right alongside the bad, sometimes part of the bad. In the episode I watched yesterday, in the establishing shot at a shabby boxing gym one of the characters is running, we see a poster on the wall under the legend, “Our Platinum Patron.” It is of a young Avon Barksdale, whom we already know as a murderous drug dealer. But he was once a boxer, and he bankrolled the gym when it was getting started, and now his drug money is being used to keep young men away from the corners, away from drug dealing. In the city you can’t get on your high horse about where money comes from; there’s just not enough of it to go around, and so you don’t ask questions.
The show’s writers also like to show us how identical attitudes compare to one another at different levels. In the same episode, a corrupt state senator throws a fit in his friend the mayor’s office. The senator is the mayor’s deputy campaign chairman, and he’s just been subpoenaed; the police are interested in the source of some of his campaign contributions. He feels personally insulted by this attention: “How am I supposed to finance the whole ticket? With contributions from Korean grocers? Am I supposed to ask a man where his money comes from?” And guess where some of his money came from? From Avon Barksdale. It’s all connected.
This season’s main narrative looks at a quartet of four boys at the tipping point, in middle school, when their destinies are still in question. One is the son of an incarcerated-for-life executioner, whose mom is living well on the subsidy paid to good soldiers who take the rap and keep their mouths shut; one has one of those fiercely protective mothers who has a decent job and a keen interest in her son’s future; one is being raised by wolves, so to speak, and the wolves are so impaired and dysfunctional they can’t even feed him; and we don’t know much about the fourth, except that he has his own ideas. More will be revealed.
In screenwriting class, we were taught that every minute counts — that you can’t waste valuable production time or risk your audience’s attention, so you must move the plot along in every scene — “raise the stakes.” This is one reason your life probably isn’t as exciting as a movie, because life raises the stakes on a much more leisurely timetable. One of the things TV can do, because a season runs 13 hours rather than 90 minutes, is show us some of life’s smaller moments. There’s a lovely one in episode two, where Namond, the kid whose dad is in prison, visits him there, along with his mother. I’d wager very few readers here ever visited their father in prison, and experienced the odd authority of a jailed father. The competing influences of that scene — dad behind bars, but still the source of the family’s money, and hence someone who must be respected; a kid who’s still embarrassed to have a dad in such a place; a mother who must keep the man happy to keep getting her grubstake — were dizzying, and yet they were all there in about two minutes of screen time, including a tender moment between father and son on opposite sides of plexiglas that still felt entirely natural and unforced.
That, my friends, is hard to do. (I should add: And still the plot was moved along, and still the stakes were raised. I’m going to be thinking about how the writers did that all day long.)
One more thing, and then I’ll shut up: One of the perverse rewards of low-budget TV is the chance to see new faces, actors who haven’t made their bones yet and are willing to work in an offshore (from Hollywood and New York, anyway) production. There are hardly any recognizable actors in this show (the corrupt state senator turns up in commercials sometimes), and that helps the audience lose itself in the stories; we really feel we’re eavesdropping on real life. But the child actors, this season, are incredible. These are not Disney Channel faces; the kid in the middle even has a little acne.
Today brought some good news: “The Wire” has been renewed for a fifth season. The show’s creator, David Simon, says next year will “look at the role of mass media in contributing to cities’ dysfunction.”
Season four has barely started, and already I can’t wait for season five. That, folks, is good TV.
Rich B said on September 13, 2006 at 12:31 pm
You could have an accessory “The Wire” blog not just for the timming of the threads, but as a little primer on screenwriting since you write so well about it.
BTW, I don’t know if it’s Intelligent Design or what, but good screenwriting and good acting seem to pop up together more often than not. Are the actors just responding in kind to words that make sense. Is it the director/creator putting it all together. Whatever it is it’s art.
nancy said on September 13, 2006 at 4:06 pm
I don’t write that well about screenwriting, but the fact I mention it at all probably makes me somewhat unusual. I’m always amazed at how we’ve demystified moviemaking to the general public. In a thousand “making of” documentaries, we’ve explained green-screen and CGI and miniaturization and all the rest of the special-effects trick bag, but you never hear anyone explain why a script works and why it doesn’t.
Screenwriting was my favorite class at Michigan, because it was the most disciplined writing I’ve ever tried my hand at; there were so many rules and so much structure, and it was a real challenge to try to tell a story that could take shape on that armature. But once I figured it out (to the extent that I did), it really deepened the experience of watching movies and TV, opening up a whole new level of appreciation.
Scout said on September 13, 2006 at 6:35 pm
What an incredible post. I am not worthy! I’ve never seen the show, but the way you so movingly write about it makes me want to. You’re good.
Danny said on September 13, 2006 at 7:09 pm
It’s odd to read all of this devoted to a show set in my home town. I know, I know, the city name is irrelevant. It’s a drama that could be set in most cities big enough to have a certain amount of poverty and crime. But still. And I’ve never even seen the show.
ashley said on September 14, 2006 at 1:47 am
Hey Nance, I sent a pack of NOLA types to your site to read about The Wire…so my vote is to wait until Mondays to write the post.
Also, damned glad that the 5th (and AFAIK final) season of The Wire is already approved. Guess I can retire Save The Wire. Boo yah.
Danny said on September 14, 2006 at 12:30 pm
Nance, I know you swim. Here you go:
Local Pool-Club Record-Holder Upset To Hear Michael Phelps Just Joined
September 14, 2006 | Onion Sports
ANN ARBOR, MI—Ann Arbor Pool Club member Edwin Peters, 32, a club record-holder in the 200-meter freestyle, the 200-meter individual medley, and the 200-meter butterfly, was disappointed to learn yesterday that Olympic champion Michael Phelps just joined the swimming club. “I understand records are made to be broken, but come on,” said Peters, who is well aware that Phelps owns world records in the events previously mentioned. “I think this is going to make for a pretty lopsided club championship.” Phelps was unavailable for comment, but many have said that his competitive nature will not allow him to take it easy on Peters or any other member of the Ann Arbor Pool Club.