Sunday, September 10, 2006

If you're here 'cause you want to be entertained (by me, not The Wire), just go away.

Yes, this blog is going to be devoted to shameless, rapturous praise for my favorite tv show (often alternating with Deadwood for that title). The best drama series in the history of television, The Wire, returns tonight on HBO and this year it's especially important that every man, woman, child and pet duck that can watch it do so. It's been two years since season 3 and the perpetually low-rated show was only belatedly renewed for a fourth after it started doing well on dvd. Word of mouth has steadily been buzzing ever since and there should be a definite ratings spike this year, but HBO has come out and said the hopes for a fifth and final season rest on the audience response. As the sorry fates of Deadwood and Carnivale attest, HBO - despite their "It's not tv..." motto - is no different from any other network when it comes to watching the bottom line and has no problem leaving fans hanging and storylines unresolved if a show's not making them enough money. So if you've never seen it, now's the time to rent seasons 1-3 on dvd. The Wire has a rep for being slow-going and inaccessible but once you get into it you'll wish you could watch the entire thing in one sitting. More than once. The show's complex, multi-layered storylines never insult the audience, and it's closer overall to a living, "page-turning" novel than any show I've ever seen. Anyone who loves that feeling they get when they're reading a book and some seemingly disparate elements are tied together, or characters who you thought you'd figured out reveal some unexpected depth or take surprising action will love the payoff they get from the Wire's storylines.

Much of the show's uncanny authenticity and integrity stems from the top-notch pedigree of it's writers and producers. The series' creator, David Simon, is an ex-Baltimore Sun journalist who wrote 1992's nonfiction Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which was subsequently adapted into what was formerly my favorite cop show of all time, until this one came along. Writer and co-producer Ed Burns is a retired cop and former teacher whose experiences with Baltimore's broken school system will inform a lot of season 4's classroom scenes. The writing staff includes Richard Price, author of Clockers and Freedomland, as well as DC crime novelist George Pelecanos, among others. Every year the writers seemlessly incorporate upwards of 50 characters into a sweeping narrative with nary a false note to be found. The first season was firmly centered on the street level, as a cast-off police unit - including the show's nominal protagonist, self-destructive, oft-amusing cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West, providing a fresh spin on a cliched character type) - attempted to bring down drug kingpins Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). Season two threw the audience a curveball by focusing on Polish dockworkers (!) caught up in a deadly smuggling ring and illustrating the problems of the city's working class. Best of all for me, however, was season three, which not only brought the Barksdale storyline to it's wholly satisfying conclusion but featured the unlikely but fascinating character arc of Bunny Colvin, a fed-up retiring police major who decides to secretly "legalize" drugs in his district, setting up a "free zone" it's residents nickname "Hamsterdam" where police push all the district's dealers into one spot. Among other ramifications, the good news is that crime on all the rest of his corners comes to a halt. The bad news is that in Hamsterdam he finds himself, as one character puts it, "the Mayor of Hell." Season 4 - which critics who have seen it are proclaiming maybe the best yet - introduces a group of new, young actors and will focus on public schools. The premiere episode has been on HBO On Demand all week and offers another promising start for this year.

Which begs the question of why if The Wire is so good it's remained under the radar for so long. The most obvious reason is that if you don't really sit down and commit to it or get to know the characters, it's hard to get into on a weekly basis (which makes it ideal for dvd). Then there's the fact that because it's made in Baltimore it's all but ignored by the television industry (the same fate that befell Simon's Homicide). Plus, the truth is, tons of white viewers will settle in every Sunday night for the lurid exploits of Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen but they'll look down on a "black show" featuring drug dealers, no matter how insightful it is (and I've seen comments on the HBO message boards that confirm as much).

But since I'm not the most articulate person to be writing on this show, and am more on the George Michael Bluth side of things in terms of street smarts, here's some more people weighing in:

The Baltimore City Paper previews season 4 and delves into the real-life situations and politics that inform the show.
Edward Copeland on the show's vast array of black characters (warning: Contains major, major seasons 1-3 spoilers)
The SF Chronicle on getting into the Wire (more spoil-happy stuff)
Patton Oswalt begs you to watch it

Here's some more critics' praise I copied from the Television Without Pity message board (TWOP apparently doesn't deem it worthy of recaps and seperate forums):

“Brilliant, scathing, sprawling, The Wire has turned our indifference to urban decay into a TV achievement of the highest order.

The show’s impact doesn’t always register fully in individual episodes, wonderful as most are. But taken as a whole - not just over this premiering fourth season but over the entire run of the series – The Wire triumphs both as art and indictment.”


“It is the best drama in HBO history – all due respect to ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Deadwood,’ ‘The Wire’ is deeper, tighter and more ambitious - and one of the finest works ever produced for American television.”

-ALAN SEPINWALL, New Jersey Star-Ledger

“… ‘The Wire’ is more than just the best show on television. This sprawling, ferocious drama is one of the richest, most compelling pieces of entertainment created by anyone at any time in pop-culture history. And even that over-the-top endorsement feels like it comes up short somehow.”

-KARLA PETERSON, San Diego Union Tribune

“I am so blown away by this show that I will go out on a limb here to declare that these 13 episodes just might comprise the single finest piece of work ever produced for American TV.”
-ADAM BUCKMAN, New York Post

“This is TV as great modern literature, a shattering and heartbreaking urban epic about a city (Baltimore) rotting from within…. ‘The Wire’ reclaims its place in the top tier of American drama.”

“ ‘The Wire’ keeps getting better, and to my mind it has made the final jump from great TV to classic TV – put it right up there with ‘The Prisoner’ and the first three seasons of ‘The Sopranos’.”

“Second, the argument over whether ‘The Wire’ is the best show on television needs only two other participants -- also from HBO -- in the form of ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Deadwood.’ Rather than split hairs, let's just say that the breadth and ambition of ‘The Wire’ are unrivaled and that taken cumulatively over the course of a season -- any season -- it's an astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and filmmaking in the modern era.”
-TIM GOODMAN, San Francisco Gate

“The best show on TV…This is muckraking TV, in so many ways more powerful than anything a network news division can produce.”
-J. MAX ROBBINS, Broadcasting and Cable

“ ‘The Wire’ is the best thing ever done on dramatic television. Frankly, it makes ‘The Sopranos’ look like a sitcom. It makes ‘Six Feet Under’ look like a sitcom on the WB.”
-JAMES NOLD JR., Louisville Courier-Journal

“They have done what many well-intentioned socially minded writers have tried and failed at: written a story that is about social systems, in all their complexity, yet made it human, funny and most important of all, rivetingly entertaining.”

“ This season of ‘The Wire’ will knock the breath out of you….‘The Wire’ is a beautiful brave series. This is its best season yet.”

”No television show has provided so much insight on politics and all the foibles, frustrations and sick sense of humor that come with it.”
-NEAL JUSTIN, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“ ‘The Wire’ isn’t just impressive TV, its impressive art, and it shows just how far the medium has come – and where, one hopes, it’s going….the best analogy might be the serialized 19th-century novel, the kind of thing that kept Dickens fans lined up at newsstands in anticipation of the next installment.”
-MARY PARK, Seattle Times

“If there ever was a series that makes HBO a necessity, ‘The Wire’ is it.”
-MELANIE McFARLAND, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire – the best series on TV, period – is brutal and brilliant.”
-GILLIAN FLYNN, Entertainment Weekly

When television history is written, little else will rival "The Wire," a series of such extraordinary depth and ambition that it is, perhaps inevitably, savored only by an appreciative few. Layering each season upon the previous ones, creator David Simon conveys the decaying infrastructure of his hometown Baltimore in searing and sobering fashion -- constructing a show that's surely as impenetrable to the uninitiated as it is intoxicating to the faithful. In its fourth year, the program adds the school system to cops, drugs, unions, the ailing middle class, and big-city politics. Prepare to be depressed and dazzled.

“If you have only one hour a week for television, give it to ‘The Wire.’”
-MAUREEN RYAN, Chicago Tribune

“There is absolutely nothing simple about ‘The Wire,’ and that's what makes it the finest show on the current TV landscape.”

“. It's as uncompromising and challenging and troubling -- but ultimately stirring, in its triumph as art -- as anything on TV. “
-DAVE WALKER, New Orleans Times Picayune

Oh, and the show also has this guy; everyone's favorite gay robber of drug dealers ("James Lipton?" "Nooo..."):

1 comment:

litelysalted said...

You seem to be a man of discriminating tastes, so I will plan to Netflix this show. (Since I don't have HBO any involvement on my part as a viewer will have to be through Netflix.) Only you gotta promise to rent Supernatural.*