Wired and Inspired

By Rob Patterson

Yeah, I can’t shut up about The Wire. Nor should I, as I am finally ready to concede, as some people I know insist, that it’s the best show on television ever. And in its fifth and last season — at the point where many shows jump the shark — the HBO series is better than ever.

It has some serious competition for that title: “The Sopranos” is certainly its most formidable competitor for the honor, as is Showtime’s Providence, R.I., Irish cousin, Brotherhood. Other series that are right up there in the running are also HBO’s Six Feet Under and Big Love. And even on network TV there’s Friday Night Lights, which may occasionally hop if not jump the shark in its second season, yet is still a masterful show that pushes the network fare envelope in many notable ways.

But there is no series that I’ve ever seen that has such superior writing, fully-fleshed out characters and a mise en scène, plotlines and sense of people and their mini-communities within a larger community that is so true to real life. (Of course, as I’ve said here before, one of the wonders of the finest dramatic shows on TV these days is that they are the true “reality television” while so-called reality shows are so far from what’s real that it’s downright absurd.) The Wire is America today in all our ragged glory.

And in season five, it soars to new dramatic heights even if the situation in Baltimore, the city where it is set, has descended into chaotic darkness soon after newly-elected Mayor Tommy Carcetti declared it a new morning in Baltimore in season four. A school budget deficit of some $50 million has forced Carcetti to strip city services, especially police, to the bone, including the “wire” — from which the show takes its name — listening in on rising drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield, who is making moves that upset the fragile peace of the New Day Co-op among the city’s drug dealers by canny businessman Proposition Joe. Stanfield is also at war with Omar Little, the gay black stick-up man who robs drug dealers. The Baltimore Sun newspaper that’s a central theme of this new season has an ambitious fabulist on its reporting team as it suffers its own budget crunch. And lovable rogue cop Jimmy McNulty is going off the rails in his work and personal life.

It’s a bleak outlook for sure, and the way this season intertwines the machinations of most all its main players and groups is sheer genius. Yet the beauty of The Wire is the way in which the show conveys the humanity of just about every one of its characters, especially the bad guys (with the exception of the psychopathically cold and murderous Stanfield … but the season isn’t done yet). Yes, The Wire is about urban life, politics, policing and drugs, but ultimately the show is about people, and that’s what finally makes it as compelling drama as anything ever produced in popular entertainment.

I’ve become — as should be obvious here — a fervent booster of the series to anyone who will listen. Some people tell me that they’ve given it a try and it hasn’t yet captured them. That’s what first happened with me, and it’s because The Wire may be entertainment, but is also a show that requires if not even demands engagement if not commitment. But the payoff is well worth it.

Others I know demur from watching because of the violence on the series, they say. Yet it’s a violence that isn’t gratuitous but, again, true to real life.

Once I finally started catching up with the show via HBO On Demand and DVD, I was hooked. I did another pass through all four seasons just before season five, and now as season five unfolds — and HBO has cannily bowed to us Wire addicts by offering each episode a week early via On Demand — I am also watching its antecedent Homicide: Life on the Streets (inspired by the book of the same name by Wire creator David Simon). I may live in Austin, Texas, but I’m spending almost as much time in Baltimore.

Ultimately, The Wire is important TV — even if it has been all but ignored by the Emmy Awards, winning only one for dramatic series writing (duh!) — and an essential primer for understanding America today. It is as pivotal to our times as Barak Obama’s electoral successes (and it has won 11 NAACP Image Awards) and John Edwards’ message about two Americas. Abandon any excuses and justifications and watch it, either now or in the future (and by that I mean soon), because it as essential to our life and times as the literature and drama of Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain — you name it — was to their times and then all time. Yes, The Wire is that good.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2008

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