Friday, November 16, 2007

The Wire: 3x01 & 3x02

I’m two episodes into season three of The Wire, a season that clearly marks a return to the conflict and milieu of the first season, which is at once a relief and a slight disappointment. So far, the show is as good as it’s ever been, but there is something of the conservatism inherent to series TV. Still, as things develop, I doubt that’ll matter much, this season is shaping up to be the best yet.

Season two featured a lot of wonderful moments, but was less of a cohesive whole than year one. The major issue was the conflict between the port storyline and the Barksdale storyline. Because we were already familiar with all the Barksdale characters, I was more interested in what was up with them. That meant that even when the port storyline was good, it didn’t grab me in the same way as the Barksdale stuff, and what was supposedly the main focus of the season felt ancillary.

The flaw of the port storyline for me was that it was more predictable than the drug stuff. Frank was not up to outwitting the police, and it was pretty clear the detail would never catch the Greek, so the season becomes a tragedy, as we wait for Frank and Ziggy to screw up and either get busted by the police or killed. Plus, I think The Greek’s indisputable villainy removed a lot of the ambiguity of the first season. He has none of the shading of Avon or Stringer. And Frank was so doomed, there wasn’t that spark of hope, as in the case of D’Angelo or Wallace, which made the ending even more tragic. What really kills someone emotionally is when the character has a moment where they could get out, could succeed, and wind up crashing and burning. I never felt like Frank could succeed.

But, this negativity is only in relation to the astonishing emotional complexity of season one, something that’s back with season three. While it may be a bit of a backslide to not immerse us into another world, the show feels much more unified as a result. We’re seeing the war on crime from the political side, the street policing side and the criminal side. But, our sympathies are perpetually shifting.

The character I consistently find most compelling is Stringer, trying to run his crew like a business, using traditional meeting rules and emphasizing the strength of the product rather than the strength of his crew. For the past two seasons, there’s been a conflict brewing between him and Avon, the businessman and the soldier. Avon explicitly rejects his application of business school principles to the drug game, he’s a soldier and wants to control territory, not just make money.

Our main window to this world is Bodie, who’s been on a steady rise through the ranks. I love the scene where he meets Herc and Carver at the movies and mocks their constant attempts to arrest him. Another great scene is where they bring in Cheese, and tip their hand about the wire, only to find out that he shot an actual dog, not a guy named Dog. This is where the drug dealers top the port storyline, they are smart and disciplined. I believe someone on the show said a police is only as good as the criminal he’s chasing, and Bodie’s going to push you a lot harder than Ziggy. It’s going to be interesting to see how the war on the streets impacts Stringer’s business philosophy.

The new focus for the season is the political side of the city. This is something that’s been developing in the background for a while, and it’s nice to see Burrell get some time in the spotlight. He’s been such a phony so far, I’d like to see more of how he feels about what’s going on. Has he given up hope of actually changing anything, or does he really believe he’s doing his best to reduce crime? One of the things the show has constantly done is turn potentially clich├ęd figures into nuanced people, and I’d like to see the same happen for Burrell.

One of the things that is consistently amazing about the show is just how much they fit in an episode. They fly by, and at this point I’m always disappointed when they end, just because I want more, but there’s an amazing amount of development in each. The cast is huge, but I rarely feel like anyone’s not getting their moments. Part of that is probably watching it on DVD, where a couple of episodes without any major Kima or Bunk can go by with little notice, but each episode is satisfying on its own, not just a teaser for the next week. I don’t think any other show has had a cast this big, and managed them this well. That was particularly remarkable in season two, where we had three distinct storylines moving forward.

The season premiere has McNulty saying something like we’re going back to the Barksdale case, but we’re doing it right this time, right after pulling out a box like Barksdale 2002. We are returning to the place that season one left, and that sort of retreat has bothered me on other shows. Alias died for me when they brought everyone back under Sloane, trying to return to the status quo of year one. In this case, it works better because things have evolved. The Barksdale is at a different place, and is just as likely to implode from within as fall under external forces. The focus in season one was more on the police investigation, here it seems more about the internal mechanisms of Barksdale’s crew. Of course, the police still have a role to play. But, I feel like McNulty planting the notion that D’Angelo’s death wasn’t a suicide is going to do a lot more damage than any arrests they make.

So, I’m loving where the show is at now. I don’t mean to denigrate season two, it was brilliant, but things are tighter now and I feel like all three storylines have a central focus. Ultimately, the best measure of how well the show is working is probably the fact that after an episode finishes, I’m shocked that an hour has already passed, and I want to queue up another one.