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If you haven't seen HBO's crime-drama series The Wire yet,
you probably aren't feeling the exclusionary shame that greets those who
confess they don't watch The Sopranos or Six Feet Under.
Frankly, it just isn't as popular or Zeitgeisty or Emmy-loved. Instead,
when you come across a Wire fan, you're likely to get a sincere,
expansive, even defensive plea to invest your time in the best show on television.
Which it is. There. Now, you've encountered that fan.

So start watching season three this week, but here's the problem: Get
ready to meet at least 20 characters, from junkies to drug bosses to police
officers to council members to the mayor himself. And don't expect creator
David Simon, former crime reporter and author of the acclaimed nonfiction books
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner, and his
writers — which this season includes A-list crime novelists George Pelecanos
(Hard Revolution), Richard Price (Clockers) and Dennis Lehane
(Mystic River) — to rehash what's gone on before. The cops,
criminals and politicians on The Wire are life, not exposition.

That's because this Baltimore-set series is a rare bird: a novelistic
show that isn't melodramatic. It's ambitious, but only in how human
details paint a communal picture, not in outsized emotions or tricked-up storytelling.
Ostensibly, The Wire is about an investigation: the first season, into
a drug ring in the projects; the second, into dockworker corruption; and this
season, into the intersection of the drug war and civic reform. Take a step
back, though, and the show is about the way the cultures of cops and criminals
operate — the ins and outs of their hierarchical structures and bureaucratic
boondoggles. But going for an even wider view, you sense that it's about
how an entire city works, and maybe how it doesn't work. During two seasons
of intricate, brilliant storytelling, smart but flawed cops have made inroads
into the hows and whos of a major drug organization only to see their efforts
stymied by the petty rivalries of career-obsessed higher-ups back at police
headquarters. Meanwhile, smart but flawed drug lords keep adapting to the changing
economics of their trade and ever more sophisticated crime-fighting tools, only
to be stymied by the petty rivalries of murder-obsessed members in their own
ranks.

What ultimately fuels The Wire, then, is the nitty-gritty of two-steps-forward,
one-step-back — in institutions and in personal relationships — and
the writers, actors and directors get amazing suspense mileage out of the smallest
of hard-won gains or hard-lost sacrifices. In this increasingly moralistic age
of TV crime shows, hewing to that kind of cold reality about the engine of society
is something of a revelation. And the show is consistently funny about it, too.
In last Sunday's premiere episode, for example, cagey-but-weary Lieutenant
Daniels (Lance Reddick), head of a narcotic wiretap detail, explains to the
politically minded acting commissioner Burrell (Frankie R. Faison) their scheme
to arrest a certain foot soldier so that his immediate boss will replace him
with an idiot relative who gabs so much on their wiretap that he might lead
them to the kingpin.

“What makes you think they'll promote the wrong man?” asks Burrell
between golf swings in his office.

Daniels doesn't even raise an eyebrow when he solemnly quips, “We
do it all the time.”

Sometimes the fight is so heartbreaking it stings. Later that same episode,
a soon-to-retire major (Robert Wisdom) takes a night drive along the streets,
which seem an endless parade of buying and selling. At one corner, a kid approaches
the major's passenger window to deal. He waits for him to see the badge,
hear the radio squawking. The kid just keeps asking what he wants. The major
puts his police hat on and stares. The kid backs away, but seems more put out
over a lost sale than intimidated. The look of futility on the major's
face is one of the most devastating moments I've ever seen on a TV show.

Here's a valiant shot, then, at getting you up to speed in case you're
coming to The Wire fresh and can't wait until October when the first
season hits stores on DVD. The main story is the ongoing attempt by a dedicated
police team to bring down the wide-ranging drug operation of Avon Barksdale
(Wood Harris), who in the first season was a shadowy West Baltimore figure until
an extensive wiretap run by Detectives Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Shakima
Greggs (Sonja Sohn), “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce) and Lester Freamon
(Clarke Peters) — under the supervision of Daniels and with help from assistant
DA Rhonda Pearlman (Dierdre Lovejoy) — came awfully close to nailing him.
What ultimately diluted the investigation and eventual busts were superiors
like Colonel William Rawls (John Doman), who cared more about quick results
that could be trumpeted to the public and make the department look good, superiors
with an eye on moving up the chain of command, and — most distressingly
— politicians whose campaign contributions have murky origins.

In season two, the detail, most of them penalized with ridiculous demotions,
were brought back together to look into dockworker union corruption, spurred
by a feud between a Polish police major and a Polish union boss over a contribution
to a Catholic parish. The case led to the illegal trafficking of Russian prostitutes
and started to encompass drug trafficking, but the detail was hamstrung once
more by the narrow-minded brass for reaching too far. Apart from the police
work that season, the series shone a sympathetic light on the easily corruptible
but desperate laborers at the wharf: a slowly vanishing yet still proud working
class.

This year, the Barksdale investigation returns to the forefront, as does political
maneuvering. Barksdale has been in prison but on lesser charges, and is now
about to be paroled, while his second-in-command Stringer Bell (Idris Elba)
is not only running things, he's harder to reach than ever through conventional
wiretaps. In the first new episode, the high-rise projects that have been Barksdale's
territorial goldmine are destroyed in an effort to renovate and redevelop the
city's more crime-ridden areas, putting Stringer in the position of rethinking
the importance of turf in moving product. Stringer is a committed capitalist:
He takes business courses and confounds his streetwise crew by running meetings
according to Robert's Rules of Order. Also, as we start to learn in season
three, he has aspirations beyond dealing drugs. But he's no less ruthless
when he wants to be: In season two Stringer secretly ordered a prison hit on
his own boss's beloved, conscience-stricken nephew D'Angelo to keep
him from talking. Barksdale believed his nephew committed suicide and was devastated.

Then there are the characters on the margins, so important to the show's
patchwork, like stickup man Omar (Michael K. Williams), who takes joy in robbing
drug dealers, and Bubbles (Andre Royo), a junkie informant perpetually unable
to go straight.

Foremost among new characters are a weasely councilman (Aidan Gillen), whose
ambitions to clean up Baltimore's streets dovetail nicely with his mayoral
ambitions; a newly paroled felon (Chad L. Coleman) tempted by the call of his
old life; and a steely-eyed young drug dealer (Jamie Hector) entering into a
turf war with the Barksdale crew.

It's a lot of story to digest. It may even be a few weeks before your
blood starts pumping for each new “chapter,” as Simon and HBO call
the episodes. But the pitch-perfect performances help, from West's self-destructive
yet job-driven Irishman; to Sohn's lesbian cop, a workaholic having second
thoughts about the baby her lover just had; to Pierce's wisecracking, hard-drinking
homicide detective, the freshest and funniest version of that cop show staple
in years. These are characters whose shrewdness, personality flaws and exchanges
are so casually electric they make scenes as brief as three or four sentences
— a necessity when so many strands are being juggled — come alive
with foul-mouthed, determined wit. They are the bruised but unbowed soul of
an excellent, too-long-ignored show about the pinched tragedy of daily compromise.

THE WIRE | HBO | Sundays at 9 p.m. with repeats throughout the week
| Episode 1 of Season 3 repeats Thursday, September 23, at 9 p.m. and Saturday,
September 25, at 11:40 p.m.