Monday, March 05, 2007

"Sometime it is what it is."

“How you expect to run with the wolves at night when you spend all day sporting with puppies?” – Omar Little

I know that this is ostensibly a music blog, but regular readers will know that I occasionally write about other things. Other pop culture things that is, nothing highbrow or anything. It’s with this in mind that I’d like to take one of my infrequent dips into the world of television.


I’ve just watched last night’s The 50 Greatest Television Dramas on Channel 4 and while it was a refreshingly insightful list programme, free of input from the usual cavalcade of misinformed z-listers, choosing instead to coax talking heads from the people involved in the making of the shows and other such peripheral players like critics, it struck me that something was missing. The list was an undeniably classy one featuring such telly classics as Cracker, Boys From The Blackstuff, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, State Of Play and such, with the unarguably great The Sopranos sitting pretty at the top. However, considering it was voted for by the same people who the programme-makers were talking to, they missed out the one truly peerless television drama there is. They forgot about The Wire.

The Wire has recently returned to British screens (Tuesday 10pm, FX, Sky Channel 179) for its fourth season which aired to uniformly praising reviews in the States last year and the makers don’t look in danger of losing the plot at any time soon. A dense, morally blurred patchwork of American life dressed up as a cop show, The Wire is the most consistently rewarding, engaging television show of all time that, to its devotees, stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pantheon of modern American dramas such as Six Feet Under, Huff, The West Wing and The Sopranos itself. In fact, the only problem with The Wire is that not enough people watch it.

If it had been picked up by a brave terrestrial channel before now there’s no question that The Wire would have figured in this list, if not topped it. Actually, before watching The 50 Greatest Television Dramas, I thought to myself that The Wire was either going to be number one or it won’t be in the list at all. The fact that it fell into the latter camp is purely down to its limited viewership. In The Wire, creator David Simon has crafted a monumental piece of television that transcends its medium. The Wire is such a brilliant work of art that it feels denigrating to measure it up against other television programmes. It should be viewed as art in the same sense as you would a classic book, beautiful painting or particularly affecting poem. It really is that good.

Maybe I’m laying it on a little thick, but superlatives seem a little superfluous when conveying just how staggering I think The Wire is. Watching television is, largely, a passive activity, unless you’re one of these sociopaths who like to try to second-guess the writers by theorising about where the plot is going to go next (I hate these people. Why can’t they just give themselves up to the mercy of the writers? What kind of enjoyment do they get from finding out that they were right other than being able to say “I told you that was going to happen” and then feeling a little let down by the fact that the writers are no smarter than they are?) or you get particularly involved with quiz shows, so the engrossing, involving nature of The Wire is to be applauded. What other show would make a seasoned junkie and habitual thief (Bubbles, played beautifully by Andre Royo) the only real good guy? Where else would you find yourself sympathising with the plight of a ruinous fuck-up of a detective (Jimmy McNulty, inhabited by Sheffield-born actor, Dominic West) who manages to be both utterly charming and completely self-destructive? NYPD Blue may have had one at the heart of the show for years but how can you be expected to give a shit about Sipowicz when the character is so detestable. Despite the fact that the makers of The Wire ask you to side with people that you would cross the street to avoid in real life, they never rely on the audience having to make any leaps of faith. They just set about making their characters as real and believable as they possibly can and place trust in their cast to help flesh them out.

So does season four so far live up to the three untouchable seasons that preceded it? Of course it does. Once again the makers have broadened the programme’s rich palette of characters by adding four teenage friends to the cast in Randy, Namond, Dukie and Michael. Each of the friends seem to represent different points of view on the young black experience in America. Randy (Maestro Harrell) is the bootstrap capitalist, always out to make a buck by selling stolen sweets and drinks in school. Namond (Julito McCullum) is the spoilt, comparatively rich kid, helped along by his imprisoned father, Wee-Bey Brice’s former position as head soldier in the Avon Barksdale street army. Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) is representative of the abject poverty and broken homes some black American children are subjected to with his crackhead family seeing to it that he is destined to grow up without a strong role model. Michael (Tristan Wilds), however, is the most intriguing of the new characters. Michael is at that crossroads in his life where his future could go either way; a strong-minded, intelligent young man with a fearless heart and a belligerent streak a mile wide, it appears that the choice of whether to be a good citizen and a pillar of the community or be swayed by newly-appointed King of Baltimore, Marlo Stanfield’s imminent grooming will form the crux of the viewer’s emotional investment in the character.

The Wire’s way of introducing new characters with each season and weaving them into the show’s tapestry with consummate ease is what keeps fans coming back. That and the fact that it’s the most smartly-written, multi-faceted drama around anyway. Also, with each season more and more light is shed on the lives and actions of the already-established characters. Superficially the star of the show, although the rich ensemble makes the notion of there being a lead seem ridiculous, West’s Jimmy McNulty is back on the beat and shacked up with season two hangover, Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan). Domesticated to the point of boring, McNulty has finally found happiness. Therefore, it should only be a matter of time before the peace is shattered by his own penchant for kyboshing each and every good thing that ever happens to him. While it’s strange to see him emasculated and house-trained, thus losing the edge that made him so compelling in the first place, it’s also heart-warmingly comforting to see him finally settle down.

The Major Crimes Unit is in the process of being gutted from the inside out by Deputy Commissioner Rawls’ (John Doman) “very own Trojan horse”, Lieutenant Marimow (Boris McGiver), with Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) and Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) defecting to Homicide after having their probing assets investigation subpoenas swept under the carpet due to their targeting of major political figures in the run-up to an election. Oh yes, there’s an election going on, meaning that we are treated to more screen time for incumbent Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman. He was nearly Lando Calrissian, you know!) and opponent, Councilman Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen, of Queer As Folk fame). The transformation of Carcetti from oily, super-ambitious, self-serving prick to genuine likeable good guy is one that the writers really haven’t had to strain for. Last season, Carcetti was the first character that you felt wasn’t easy to root for. That was until his post-Hamsterdam soliloquy where he indicted the Mayor for his neglectful attitude towards the Baltimore locals. Since then, you really believe that his actions are of an altruistic nature rather than being egotistical. Gillen plays his dead-eyed conviction perfectly too which makes you wonder why he’s not a star by now.

On the other side of the law, Marlo (Jamie Hector) has ascended to the height of ruler of the streets. A ruthless, cold-hearted gangster whose intelligence just makes him all the more frightening, the monosyllabic Marlo lets his actions do the talking. In the first episode of the new season, we see Marlo doling out money to the local kids for new school uniforms, the hidden agenda being that he’s trying to get the next generation in his pocket at an early stage. As a contrast, former police major, Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) is trying to pick his life back up following his dismissal at the end of last season in the wake of the noble, yet doomed legalised drug-dealing fiasco that was the Hamsterdam project, by teaming up with a social worker to try to get youths on the straight and narrow. This, along with Michael’s story arc, throws into stark relief that the running theme this season is to be the choices that young people make and the lack of any kind of infrastructure that’s more likely to push them onto the wrong path than see them right. The people of Baltimore in The Wire are creatures trapped by a harsh environment and it’s the schools, the police and the governors who are to be blamed for their pursuit of a criminal way of life because they’ve been let down time and time again by a system that doesn’t work. Even Carcetti feels the futility of trying to do the right thing when he says about his upcoming televised debate with Mayor Royce, “I’ll kick his ass but tomorrow, I’ll still wake up white in a city that ain’t”, the colours signifying both the racial differences and the conflict between right and wrong, good and evil, straight and crooked.

Dark clouds are also hovering over another series stalwart. After the ritual dissembling of the Barksdale organisation at the end of the last season, Bodie (JD Williams) is now dealing semi-independently, getting his product from Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), by way of Slim Charles (Anwan Glover). The first few episodes of season four have seen Bodie turn a dead corner into a thriving spot, leading to a conflict over ‘real estate’ with Marlo. While he acknowledges that this is a fight he can’t possibly win (“I’m stood here like an asshole, holding my Charles Dickens”), his headstrong attitude is leading him to fight anyway. While I stated earlier that I hate when people try to guess what’s coming, you just know that this war will end badly. As in life, there’s nary a happy ending in The Wire. The loss of right-hand man, Lex, due to a “nigger moment” (fans of The Boondocks will get the reference) with one of Marlo’s guys, Fruit (Brandon Fobbs, last seen feuding over money with Cutty last season) and his vain attempts to recruit Michael further add to the sense of dread hanging over Bodie.

Things are going okay for Cutty (Chad L. Coleman) however, with his inner city gym booming and his newfound status as West Baltimore’s most eligible bachelor has put a smile on his face and food in his belly. Cutty, with his puppy-dog eyes and slow, deliberate drawl, has been one of The Wire’s most likeable characters since his introduction last season. His storyline this season should tie in neatly with the new focus on the youth of Baltimore.

As it should with Prez (Jim True-Frost), who has jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire since leaving the force last season due to the accidental murder of another cop, whom he mistook for a suspect. Prez is now a teacher at Tilghman Middle School, which finds him teaching Maths to the four new teenage characters. Possibly the least commanding presence ever to stand in front of a class of children, it’s not long before Prez realises that he’s got a lot of work on his hands if he wants to get his charges to respect him. He spends a whole lesson trying to get his pupils to work out a ‘fun’ maths problem, whilst dealing with a stand-off between two girls (ending in one of The Wire's trademark startling bursts of violence the next school day) and the clowning around of some of the kids. He manages to pose his question just as the bell rings, leaving him to sigh resignedly, “A – Who arrives in Philly first?... And B – By how much time? And C – Who gives a rat’s ass?”.

Another returning character who looks like he’s going to play a big part this season is Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi). His catching of the Mayor in a compromising situation has seen him make Sergeant via the back door and his decision to go to Major Valchek (Al Brown) for advice on what to do with this information could spell huge repercussions down the line for Mayor Royce. Carcetti has the Major’s ear and Valchek’s predisposition for acting in a spiteful manner (He kicked off Frank Sobotka’s downfall in season two, remember) will most likely signal the beginning of the end for the Mayor. Although it’s odd at first to see him separated from his partner, Carver (Seth Gilliam), who’s still a Sergeant in the Western District under Major Daniels (Lance Reddick), it becomes clear that their double-act had run its course and it makes sense to split the two up and let them become compelling creations in their own right.

But what of Omar (Michael K. Williams)? The greatest character in the history of television appears to be losing a little interest in “the game”. After dispatching of his nemesis, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), with the help of Brother Mouzzone last season, he’s left in a bit of a rut. In the marvellous opening scene of the third episode, Omar heads out onto the streets of Baltimore, unarmed and decked out in a blue silk robe and matching pyjama bottoms to buy a box of Cheerios and a carton of menthol cigarettes. Stopping to light one up in front of one of the many boarded-up row houses on the streets of Baltimore, a big bag of gel caps of heroin is thrown down from the upstairs window. Realising that he can now get by on reputation alone with little actual work, a tussle with Marlo is surely on the cards.

Omar has long since been The Wire's trump card (not every TV drama has a homosexual stick-up artist up its sleeve) and the fact that, four seasons in, there’s never been a point where you thought that he was in danger of becoming a little too broadly sketched is a testament to the writing team that features such literary giants as George P. Pelecanos (Fun trivia fact: Omar’s boyfriend, Ronaldo is seen reading Pelecanos’ Drama City at the breakfast table in the aforementioned scene) and Richard Price. The choice of recruiting writers previously more entrenched in writing for the page rather than the screen has proved to be a masterstroke from David Simon. It has given The Wire the rich, multi-textured feel of a great novel and it’s all done with the detail and slow-burn atmosphere of the best crime fiction. A note to those Hollywood producers sitting on development hell-ensnared books by Pelecanos and Price; make sure you get these guys to adapt their own work, get David Simon in as producer and use the same casting director as The Wire. Oh, and if you’re ever developing King Suckerman, get Michael K. Williams to play Wilton Cooper and Seth Gilliam would be perfect as Marcus Clay.

Anyway, the oversight of leaving The Wire off a list of the greatest television dramas of all time may at first seem like a travesty, but when it’s in a field of its own anyway, pitting it against other, admittedly great television shows just seems unfair to all concerned. As far as 21st century drama goes, The Wire is unequalled.


Blogger NOTHING TO SEE HERE :O said...

That guy does not have a hairy chest...

4:21 pm  

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