Monday, January 21, 2008
The Wire: A Novel for Television
Reviewers (not to mention P.R. flacks) keep calling HBO's cops-in-Baltimore series The Wire "A novel for television," so why not review it as a novel (even though the last episodes of the fifth and final season haven't aired yet). In its first season, The Wire seemed to be about drug dealers, and it was a gritty drama that was totally convincing in its invented dialect of "the corner" and its portrait of Baltimore at street level. There's the requisite white detective (to pull in the mass audience, I guess), whose foolish conscience kicks the whole thing off (by mentioning to a judge that the biggest drug dealers in town, the Barksdale crew, aren't even on the police department's radar). But very quickly, the series leans heavily on an ensemble cast that is mostly black, dealers, politicians, cops, detectives, and the kids on the corner (the "retailers" of the drug industry). It's an immersive environment, and you gradually learn the language and begin to sort out who's who and what's happening (since the writers and producers don't spoonfeed the audience, thereby heightening the impact of the whole). The ruthlessness of the drug trade continues in the second season, with the addition of a second plot concerning a container-load of dead women, shipped by traffickers into the port of Baltimore. The port plot, though, has more to do with the dying port itself, and the mostly Polish union members that are being brought down with it. As one of the actors from the series's drug plot said in an interview, everyone thought this story was about the drug trade, but the second season made it clear that David Simon, who created the series, had nothing less in mind than a portrait of an entire city. But before we begin to think that Simon and his series was abandoning the projects and Baltimore's mean streets, the drug trade is still a major plotline, and we return to it in a larger way in the third season, which ostensibly deals with city politics. The first three seasons form an almost classical tragedy, within the drug plot especially, as the principals of that story (Barksdale, his nephew, and his chief lieutenant and business manager, Stringer Bell--played by the brilliant Idris Elba as as an ambitious MBA-type moving himself and his business toward its logical place within the corporate economy) rise up to meet the threats to their dominion from a ragtag crew of detectives and the other dealers in town (who ultimately join together in a cartel someting like OPEC). The tensions between childhood friends Barksdale and Bell, as the gangsta and the businessman, plus the ominous intrusions of a freelancer-predator named Omar and the attempt by Barksdale's nephew to escape the family business, rise beyond the confines of crime-TV to nearly classical tragedy. And as the series contues beyond the crescendo of the first 3 seasons, some themes and plots carry forward, into the seasons ostensibly dealing with the schools and with the media, with new and old faces personfiying aspects of the essential story of the city.But any description of the series should also take into account that there is considerable humor, especially in the interplay among the detectives and the larger arc of the police struggle to keep up with the street trade (as well as some grand ironies of ethnic identity, bureaucratic competition for power, and frailties of character). The series could not have carried its audience so far without its grim sense of humor, only one of the virtues brought to the excellent stable of writers, including some proponents of noir like George Pelecanos and Richard Price. Calling The Wire a novel for television is not quite accurate: as is appropriate for any story taking place over a long period of reading or viewing, it has a baggy quality more like Dickens than a tightly plotted crime story, but then Simon's ambitions are also approach those of Dickens more than a garden variety crime story. But The Wire does share with some of the best crime fiction a success in portraying a particular place and people under stress (think of some of the best of current Scanidinavian or Australian or Irish crime fiction) and should for that reason alone share shelf space with the cream of contemporary noir (printed or filmed), and in its realization in vivid writing and production and striking, natural performances, the becomes something unique in the admittedly not too competitive field of succesful Noir TV. I should add that, unlike (for example) the excellent and venerable but quite different Law & Order series, The Wire presents a problem for the dedicated fan: There are some events within the plot that can be very painful to watch, especially if you become involved with the characters and even more if, re-watching episodes or the series, you know they're coming. This is not a series you can pull off the shelf and casually dip into, because of that painful aspect as well as a continuity that presents problems to picking up the plot in the middle and especially for someone starting the story in the middle, having not seen the first season (several people I know have tried that, only to get lost in not only the complexities of the story and characters but even in the language spoken in various of the show's subcultures). Those drawbacks, though, only attest to the courage and the accomplishment of this exceptional "novel for television."