Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Wire: Season One and The Start of Two

Earlier today, I finished the first season of The Wire, and have since watched the first two episodes of the second season. It’s been a lot of Wire this weekend, viewing that was encouraged by the serial nature of the plotlines. I’ve frequently heard the show referred to as novelistic, and the ending of season one certainly confirms that, wrapping everything up in a pretty satisfying way. At that point, there’s not necessarily a need for more, contrary to what a lot of Sopranos viewers will tell you, life goes on is a perfect acceptable ending.

I absolutely loved season one. The show’s greatest achievement was its blurring of emotional lines due to the multiple perspectives of the narrative. I wanted the police to make their case, to get people to flip and testify, but at the same time, any time people even went near them, I was worried, knowing that it couldn’t end well. Wallace is a perfect example of someone who is struggling with things, goes to the cops, and winds up getting killed when they forget about him.

Of course, Wallace is a prime example of one of the show’s central themes, that systems exist to trap people in specific roles and never enable to change. The end of the season sees new people rising to fill the roles vacated by our main characters, with Herc and Poot repeating the speeches given to them by their mentors earlier in the season. The ‘kids’ have grown up and enthusiastically started running things while the older characters are all disillusioned, paying for what they’ve done over the course of the season.

McNulty is sent out to the marine patrol unit, while D’Angelo is sent to prison. The D’Angelo scenes in the final episode are great because they show how hard it is to get out of the system. He wants to leave, but everything he knows is pushing him towards drug trafficking. His family is drugs, he can’t get out of the game without leaving everything he’s known.

This is the same sort of thing that was central to final seasons of The Sopranos. I would argue that The Sopranos represents a more evolved form of gang life, one where your life isn’t in jeopardy every day. There, Tony can sit down and have a meal with the feds, you wouldn’t get that with the crew on the streets. The reason for that is Tony comes from a fundamentally different social world. He has a choice about the life he’s leading, the people on the streets don’t. Tony has psychological conflict precisely because he has everything he could want and still isn’t happy. People like Bodie or Wallace are just struggling to survive, they’re worlds away from him.

Where the shows are similar is in the depiction of criminal life as an all consuming force. Without the belief in and total devotion to a cause, the entire thing would fall apart. In working on the other side of the law, people are drawn together and they’re all willing to adhere to a code that can mean taking jail time. Unlike the characters on The Sopranos, these guys are all willing to take the years. It’s a big difference leaving the projects for jail instead of leaving a comfortable middle class existence for jail. Part of the resentment Phil has for Tony in the final season is precisely that Tony never had to deal with real hardship. The next generation of Barksdales will be more like Tony, growing up with everything they could want, but still trapped in the life.

Over with the police, the dramatic high point of the season is Kima’s shooting and the subsequent reaction. The series spends most of its time on the mechanics of investigating, there’s a lot of drama and conflict, but very rarely do things escalate to that level. Watching all the police around the crime scene, the scope just shoots up. The genius of the show is that even as I want the police to go get revenge on the people who shot her, I’m hoping that Stringer can get his crew together and avoid getting charged for it.

Stringer is one of the most interesting characters, fleshed out in small, but telling details. The scene where McNulty follows him to community college tells us so much about him. He sees this as a business, and wants to make as much money off the copy store as he does off the drugs. Avon has an attraction to the drug game, but I could see Stringer pushing to move the family out of drugs and towards more legitimate operations. Looking at the end of the season, it seems like Stringer used Avon as a front, taking the heat of the investigation while he walks away.

The show sometimes hits that same us against the world vibe that I loved on The X-Files. McNulty is like Mulder, the spark that sets off a far reaching investigation that throws everyone into question. He comes up against the same kind of conspiracy that controls everything, only this one’s out in the open. The show is a startling indictment of government bureaucracy, from the internal push for something to show off at the expense of real results, to the way that our electoral system inevitably ties the government to special interests, in this case, criminal interests. As we see with Daniels, it’s near impossible to break these cases because the people involved are going to do anything they can to maintain their position.

Watching the start of season two was a bit tough. After getting used to the crew and all the characters, we’re dropped into the world of the ports. While our regulars are still around, it’s frustrating to spend time with these new characters and not catch up with the others for a while. It reminds me a bit of Buffy’s “Anne,” which left me just wanting to get her back with the crew. It’s hard because even as I rag on shows that limp back to the status quo whenever possible, I kind of want the team back together.

But, after watching two episodes, I’m getting more used to the new status quo. Ziggy is really annoying, but other than that, the new people look like they should be interesting enough. And, with Carver and Prez’s involvement in that storyline, it’s becoming clearer how everything could eventually piece together. My guess is Stringer will eventually have to run drugs through the ports, connecting the two stories a bit. But, there’s not a need for that connection. The show is a portrait of a city, and it is possible to just have a bunch of stories happening without any direct connection. It would get a bit overwhelming if a whole new crew is added each season, but for now, it could work.

Ultimately, I have to give a lot of respect to the show. Season one was a virtually flawless piece of television. It was so far removed from convention and the easy narrative shortcuts most shows use that the few moments that felt like normal TV really jumped out. It’s ridiculous that a good, but not great, movie like The Departed wins best picture, but The Wire can’t even cop an Emmy nomination. The show is just so far beyond virtually everything else out there, there’s no way a two hour movie can compete with this.

There are things you can do in a two hour movie that a show like this can’t do, mainly stylistic things. Malick or Wong Kar-Wai are doing work that is tailored for the feature, but if you’re just telling a story, it’s hard to go on when a work like this, or The Sopranos or Mad Men, is out there. The Wire is just another example of what TV has done recently, give us windows into worlds, not just tell stories. It’s something totally new and exciting, and it’s made it hard for me to enjoy even good movies.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I watch more, at this rate, I’ll catch up to season four before it even comes out on DVD.


matt said...

Hello there. Just stumbled upon your blog after searching for "New Lovage Album" and was brought to an entry you made a year ago about some news about a new album. But upon further reading I found that you and I had a great deal of overlap. You had a Six Feet Under Banner, I went through a huge six feet under phase and tore through it over the summer. And then I went to your newer entriess and found you talking about interesting recent comic book happening. The most eerie part is when I read about your new love for the wire, which I just started two weeks ago. Its funny because I just finished season 2 a week ago so I am a little ahead but not by much.

But keep up the good work, I like your insight.


Patrick said...

Thanks man, I too went through a big Six Feet Under phase, as you could probably tell by the huge amount of blog posts on it. Alas, that new Lovage album has vanished from the radar, but at least there's more Wire coming up.