Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why THE WIRE should be required watching


It's official, I've (once again) made it through all 5 harrowing seasons of THE WIRE, David Simon's masterpiece, and maybe the best television HBO or any other network has ever produced. If you haven't heard of it, I'm sorry. It was sadly overlooked by the Emmys, only being awarded 2 nominations, both in the writing category, and not taking home either prize. Consider it another travesty of our award-obsessed culture. However, as so often happens with fantastic "underground" art, being almost completely ignored by the "mainstream" may have helped it achieve a cult-like following of fans who are devoted to it, and probably always will be. Count me among them.
It's difficult to say why I love this show so much. To the outside looking in, it is just a television show, right? But I can't really subscribe to that reasoning in this case. To me, THE WIRE is the greatest microcosm of the world I've ever seen put to the screen. Maybe it's fascinating to me because, I'm a suburban white, college-educated female, and it's a world I've never really experienced; I mean, I'll admit, Wallingford, CT is a lifetime away from West Baltimore. Or perhaps it's because I'm a suburban white college-educated female and it shows to me the world exactly as I see it: flawed, and requiring that I work sometimes within, and sometimes against a system that is, at best damaged and at worst, rigged. At the heart of it all, it's about that unpredictable beast that is human nature.
This is a show that somehow manages to both embrace a stereotype while at the same time defying it. It's not politically correct and it's graphic and violent and well, it gets it's hands dirty without ever feeling false. It's grit, but it's not the hyper-stylized "gritty" that has become the obsession of so many shows. It doesn't coddle the audience, and it doesn't really care if you like it, and while the fourth season borders on manipulative, it's also brilliant and heart-breaking; in other words, at that point, I didn't mind being manipulated a little because, like the last girl in a bar with a boozed out McNulty, I had already decided that I was going to go all the way with this show.
There are no heroes, no villains, just people who want different things. The cops want to solve their murders, no matter what the cost; the dealers want to keep their money and their corners, the politicians want to have their cake and steal some money too, and in a world where nothing can be relied upon, in this series, the most reliable character is a man named Omar, a shotgun-toting, bulletproof vest and trenchcoat-wearing thief, who just wants people to live up to his street code.
So if I've, in any way convinced you to take up this series, I hope one day I'll be thanked and not dragged through the streets. You should watch the series from start to finish, as it was meant to be seen, and to follow the characters on their own unique journeys. And while I don't believe it would do any good to randomly pick up one episode, I am going to list my 10 favorite episodes (in season order, personal order would be too difficult) so that when you've finished the entire series, these are the episodes you may want to watch again (and again) to remember that sometimes television can be good, even great, at pointing out both our flaws and the ways to redeem ourselves.

Season 1:

The Cost (episode 10): While you should already be into the series by episode 10, this, to me, is your barometer episode. If you still find yourself on the fence after this episode, you might just want to throw in the towel. If, however, you are as shocked as I was the first time by the end of this episode, then you'll definitely want to stick around for more.

Cleaning Up (episode 12): Call it the awakening of Jimmy McNulty, as well as an act that will have you questioning everything you thought you knew about the boys from "The Pit"

Season 2:

All Prologue (episode 6): While some people may hate season 2, because it switches focus a bit, I liked it, at least I liked it enough to see it through. The struggle of the American worker is something that might actually have been a bit ahead of it's time, and could be more appreciated in these economically-challenging times, but the warnings were all there and can be seen in Season 2. The annoyance of characters like Major Valchek and Ziggy can almost be forgiven for introducing the fantastic Amy Ryan as Beadie Russell. This episode, however, strays closer to Season 1 territory and features a great scene with Omar as a witness against Barksdale crew member.

Storm Warnings (episode 10): One of the flashier episodes of the season, it throws everything at you; also it's essential to know some of the main players in the game of high stakes dealing in Baltimore. This is the episode where things go from "oh man" to "how did we end up here?" quickly.

Season 3:

Hamsterdam (episode 4): In a season of really fantastic episodes, it's difficult to choose, but this one pretty much sets up the season for you. I'll hint at what it's about. Hamsterdam is West Baltimore's very own Amsterdam, in an experiment with the best of intentions.

Middle Ground (episode 11): Everything you've been waiting to happen happens, and then some

Bonus Episode: Homecoming (episode 6) In a show with as many great scenes as THE WIRE has, the scene between Omar and Bunk Mooreland, 2 boys from the same neighborhood who followed very different paths, is a standout.

Season 4: While I'd love to say the entire season, I'll narrow it down as much as I can

Boys of Summer (episode 1): This is a must see because there are lots of new faces on the street and you'll probably want to know every single one of them. You'll also want to look back on this episode with fondness by the time you reach the end of the season, remembering that this is the closest this series got to the phrase "innocence".

Final Grades (episode 13) I know it seems pretty lame to pick the season opener and the season finale, and while there is so much great stuff packed in between these two episodes, this might be one of the most satisfying hours on television. There are times that I wish this had actually been the series finale, but then I would be missing out Season 5. In equal measure tragic and celebratory, there is little that can rival this episode, and while the final montage is enough of a synopsis on the state of things in Baltimore to keep you coming back for more, the two standout scenes for me are Bodie and McNulty talking on a park bench and Carver and Randy's parting.


Bonus Episode: That's Got His Own (episode 12) In case you couldn't tell, this season really did save the best for last (the last 2 episodes at least). While the rise of Marlo Stanfield would be enough to keep THE WIRE interesting, the introduction of the 4 young corner boys is the heart of this season, which focused on the decline of the public school system. In a world where everyone has been de-sensitized and jaded and cynical are the emotions of the day, there was, for a moment, hope. All of that is dashed in this episode and listening to Randy ask Carver "You gonna help huh? You gonna look out for me?" in a mixture of anger and fear, louder and louder, is something that makes ME feel ashamed.

Season 5

Not for Attribution(epsisode 3): If this were a party game, you might be asking just how low can Jimmy McNulty go? This episode answers that question in a frightening, and yet, not entirely surprising way.

-30- (episode 10): See how it all turns out. For better and for worse, missing this episode is unforgivable.

Bonus episode: Clarifications (episode 8) Mainly because, if you're invested in the characters, this episode might spin you a bit. Be prepared to say goodbye to someone, that's really all I can say without a full on spoiler alert.

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