Friday, July 8, 2011

THE WIRE (HBO) - FIVE SEASONS (2002-2008 - Created by David Simon)

(Review originally written on September 11, 2008.)
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"When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back,
Well, I beg your pardon, walk the straight and narrow track.
If you walk with Jesus, he's gonna save your soul,
You gotta keep the devil way down in the hole."
- The Wire
opening lyrics

What can I say? HBO's TV Show The Wire is an epic masterpiece. Forget all your average CSI run-of-the-mill cop dramas, in fact, forget most of the garbage, mass-marketed network TV shows out there. The Wire may just be the most ambitious TV drama made in decades. High praise I know, but creator David Simon deserves all the praise he's getting from the critics and more.

"The Wire ... is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America. This claim isn't based on my having seen all the possible rivals for the title, but on the premise that no other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature."
- Jacob Weisberg, Slate Magazine

The Wire is about the inner city of Baltimore, Maryland. The cast of characters is both large and filled with intricately detailed character development. People in Baltimore, or in any big city, are faced with constant poverty, bureaucracy, crime, corruption, entrenched & failed institutions, and the fallen human condition. The Wire tells the the story of what choices Americans are faced with when stuck in this soul-sucking environment.

Note for Christians: So how can I recommend a HBO show like The Wire to other Christians I know? Having standards for the content of what you allow on your television is not only commendable but necessary. At the same time, when you consider ... how can I put it ... the literary greatness, moral depth, or understanding and teaching on our modern culture that The Wire has to offer ... well, the "offensive content" objection just doesn't seem important anymore. It makes me wonder what the young kids in season 4, with their literal life & death struggles, would think of white suburban Christians who couldn't learn from their story because they use the F-word when they talk.

I mean ... I suppose if you're overly sensitive to some bad language, dirty jokes, or sexual content, then you won't be able to learn anything from this show because you'll just be too distracted. I won't criticize you for that. I've heard the Christian ask the question before - "Why? Why create a show or movie with offensive content? And why should I condone sin by watching it?" I've also heard the answer - "Because that's the way people act in real life." And I've never really completely bought that answer. Merely because something is real doesn't mean you have to show it on the screen. But I also don't quite agree with the question - because it automatically assumes that you are condoning sin (or even sinning), by watching the theatrical portrayal of sin on the movie screen. Shakespeare wouldn't agree with this assumption because it's not true. And I can honestly say that if the creators of The Wire cleaned up the language and actions of the characters, then the impact and story of the show simply would not have worked. In fact, it's a bit astonishing to me that I even have to say this. There is a reason why David Simon did not create The Wire for the popularly marketable mass audience.

David Simon is a controversial guy. He infamously said a few things in this interview with British novelist, Nick Hornby, that offended a large number of people. The entire interview is worth reading and thinking about, particularly if you believe Christianity is true, but here's a few of the more famous excerpts -

"My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

"Beginning with Homicide, the book, I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out. I also realized — and this was more important to me — that I would consider the book or film a failure if people in these worlds took in my story and felt that I did not get their existence, that I had not captured their world in any way that they would respect.

"Make no mistake — with journalism, this doesn’t mean I want the subjects to agree with every page. Sometimes the adversarial nature of what I am saying requires that I write what the subjects will not like, in terms of content. But in terms of dialogue, vernacular, description, tone — I want a homicide detective, or a drug slinger, or a longshoreman, or a politician anywhere in America to sit up and say, Whoa, that’s how my day is. That’s my goal. It derives not from pride or ambition or any writerly vanity, but from fear. Absolute fear. Like many writers, I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgeable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions ..."


Simon strives in his work for blunt honesty. This is because he believes that accurate depictions of our world and a true understanding of how other people live and think and struggle is one of the most powerful ways of challenging us. He continues -

"... Which brings us back to Average Reader. Because the truth is you can’t write just for people living the event, if the market will not also follow. TV still being something of a mass medium, even with all the fractured cable universe now reducing audience size per channel. Well, here’s a secret that I learned with Homicide and have held to: if you write something that is so credible that the insider will stay with you, then the outsider will follow as well. Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill — these are travelogues of a kind, allowing Average Reader/Viewer to go where he otherwise would not. He loves being immersed in a new, confusing, and possibly dangerous world that he will never see. He likes not knowing every bit of vernacular or idiom. He likes being trusted to acquire information on his terms, to make connections, to take the journey with only his intelligence to guide him.

Most smart people cannot watch most TV, because it has generally been a condescending medium, explaining everything immediately, offering no ambiguities, and using dialogue that simplifies and mitigates against the idiosyncratic ways in which people in different worlds actually communicate. It eventually requires that characters from different places talk the same way as the viewer. This, of course, sucks."


Back to the Review - There's no question about it, The Wire is a thoughtful adult show for thinking adults. The Wire is also a story that includes little children living lives in the American inner city hells that no child should ever have to live. How the main characters respond to this is part of what gives The Wire it's moral power. It's inherently a moral story about the lives of police officers, drug runners, drug addicts, politicians, dock workers, crime bosses, lawyers, journalists, and convicts and the ethical character forming choices that life presents every single one of them with.

But, it is particularly when the story deals with children that you see the heart of some of the main characters on the show - cruelty, love, evil, and self-sacrifice all come to the surface here. But this is where you realize what high quality stuff this is - most TV shows do not force you to ask yourself questions about your heart and moral depth. Most network TV shows are actually designed to turn your brain off, not on.

"I agree with Chase in one respect. I read an interview with him where he said what American television gets wrong relentlessly is that life is really tragic. Not a lot of people want to tune their living room box to that channel. It's an escapist form. There are people who are willing to look at it for something else. It's not a mass audience, but possibly some portion of that mass audience finds its way to something else, and then they expect to be treated as they've always been treated. There's nothing the writers can do about that, other than twist themselves into hacks trying to please people with what they want."
- David Simon

An hour of The Wire will not happily satisfy your desire for light entertainment. It doesn't please a lot of people (which is why they refuse to watch it). It's called a "dark" TV show. There are some "dark" shows and movies out there that pride themselves in showing every little detail of human depravity and then reveling in it. In these shows, there are no good guys - everyone is evil. "Here", they sneer, "look at all the sins and crimes that man is capable of." I personally can't stand that sort of garbage - becoming more and more currently popular in the horror genre for one example - and I refuse to justify watching evil simply for the sake of watching evil. That seems wrong to me. There is nothing of grace or redemption in doing so. And while the "everyone is evil" theme may be horse-blinder Biblical, it's also too simplistic. The Wire is dark in that it sometimes horrifies or shocks the viewer, yet it also teaches, inspires, and asks meaningful questions. Expect questions when you watch this show, not only about about personal integrity, but also about the society and institutions that surround you, how they are failing, and what, if anything, you can do about it.

"It's cynical about institutions, and about their capacity for serving the needs of the individual. But in its treatment of the actual characters, be they longshoremen or mid-level drug dealers or police detectives, I don't think it's cynical at all."
- David Simon

"On the off chance that you need to be reminded, this is not 'Desperate Housewives' ... 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. If you're not interested in 'The Wire' after that, Godspeed to your unexamined life ... It's not Simon who should worry that people won't watch his show because it's difficult. It's viewers who should worry that they are missing the absolute best of what television has to offer merely because it requires effort."
- Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle

So, there are 5 seasons of The Wire . Each season has a different theme that deals with the lives of different people in the big city. The main characters stay mostly the same, and the major themes will stay the same, but each season seems like it is also designed to ask specific questions about specific parts of our culture & society.

Season One is about the drug trade - a large, and often ignored, problem in almost every city in America - but The Wire will focus on Baltimore as an example. Season Two is about the city harbor - or, more importantly, about the dock workers there and the life of increasingly marginalized blue collar working man, unions, labor leaders - the manual labor working class of America is literally just being pushed aside today. Poverty is the increasing result. Season Three focuses on city politics - the subject of the incompetence of government & bureaucracy is a constant theme running throughout each season of The Wire, but this season takes it on full force and continues to relate how the drug trade is tied to Baltimore politics.

"The Wire will have an effect on the way a certain number of thoughtful people look at the drug war. It will not have the slightest effect on the way the nation as a whole does business. Nor is that my intent in doing the show. My intent is to tell a good story that matters to myself and the other writers -- to tell the best story we can about what it feels like to live in the American city."
- David Simon

However, it was finally in the middle of Season Four that I decided that, all along, I had been watching what perhaps may be the greatest TV show of at least my lifetime. Season Four is finishing the politics story from 3 while next focusing on the city's education system. And this is where you might get the closest to despair - because it becomes absolutely clear that the education system is not working. Not only is it not working, but the system works against the competent people who are really trying to help the kids. The government's numbers and statistics is more important than actually doing real work that accomplishes anything. In fact, the effort to produce media worthy statistics (mandatory tests for the schools, number of arrests for the police department) ends up sacrificing teaching the kids anything and actually preventing crimes that matter.

Season Five is about journalism - or the city's newspaper, a fictional substitute for the Baltimore Sun - more incompetence, more about failing institutions, more about work that does not matter and hurts people rather than helps them. Season Five also completes a very large number of character arcs that have been amazing to watch throughout the entire show. Some of your favorite and most beloved characters are going to go up against their toughest and most dangerous tests in the last season.

There's no other way to put it - This is a masterpiece, and I'm recommending it to anyone who has the capacity of learning something from it. It's amazing being exposed to a work of art of high quality can change you. I honestly believe that I can be just a little bit of a better person for having seen the story of The Wire. This is not something I've ever been even tempted to hope for when happening upon the low quality mass-marketed crap on network television.

"One of the sad things about contemporary journalism is that it actually matters very little. The world now is almost inured to the power of journalism. The best journalism would manage to outrage people. And people are less and less inclined to outrage ... I've become increasingly cynical about the ability of daily journalism to effect any kind of meaningful change. I was pretty dubious about it when I was a journalist, but now I think it's remarkably ineffectual."
- David Simon

So there, I said it. Watching The Wire could change who you are as a person. It could change the way you think. It could change the way you look at people. It could even motivate you to do something, and if happen to believe in a small collection of truths out there, then it should. I don't know yet how much The Wire is going to affect me, but I'm in a the stage in my life where I'm looking to start a career - and I think that watching the cops, detectives, lawyers, bureaucrats, mayors, and journalists all on The Wire has made me more think more realistically about this. The way the system works, it'd be very easy to work all your life at a career where basically your job is to screw people over. Finding a job that would allow you to really help people? With all the evil in the world today, that would be something to take joy in.

"'The Wire' is an inherently sad story. Though Simon and his writers infuse it with street-smart humor and even a droning, Dilbert-like quality that strips workplaces and government institutions to their flawed core, the heart of 'The Wire' is a dark one, as always. The tale that Simon has told ... can best be summed up this way: 'It doesn't work.' The war on drugs is flawed not only from a police procedural standpoint but also because the department is beholden to the mayor and the mayor to special interests. Even the most cleverly constructed, forward-thinking drug gangs are flawed because the greed, hopelessness, laziness and fearlessness of others always intervenes. Politics fails because so much of Baltimore is in the death grip of immediate need, of decades long failure that demands reparation. And now we see how the education system doesn't work, from a strapped school district that advocates 'social promotion' so that teachers don't have to deal with bigger, stronger troublemakers, to the cruelty of poverty and how it strips away chance and, ultimately, to the much more damning, complicated notion of historical nonparticipation of poor families in the very idea of necessary education for betterment."
- Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle

"I very painstakingly said: 'Look. For 35 years, you've systematically deindustrialized these cities. You've rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you've alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say 'What's the solution?' and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don't know, but until you start it's only going to get worse.'"
- David Simon

Simon, the creator of The Wire, has some very passionate things to say. A former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun , he's seen how our political institutions are failing. He's seen the incompetence and red tape of bureaucracy preventing the police from doing their jobs first hand. And he also has a low opinion of most of our modern day entertainment industry. Simon went outside the mainstream TV show world of script writing, and put together a collection of hand-picked crime fiction writers (including Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos) to write for The Wire. His main co-writer, Ed Burns, is a former Baltimore police detective and public school teacher. So both the experience and talent for making something very special is all there.

He's got the fire and the fury at his command
Well, you don't have to worry, if you hold on to Jesus' hand
We'll all be safe from Satan, when the thunder rolls
Just gotta help me keep the devil way down in the hole.


So why watch even watch a TV show? Some Christians just don't. Others do endlessly for hours on end. It's obviously not the best use of your time ... necessarily. All things are permissible, but all things are not useful or wise. Of course, we can go into the theological question of entertainment some other time, but I do want to look at the cultural question for a little bit here. The whole "emerging church" crowd always seems to be obsessed with trying to be "culturally relevant" all the time. They enjoy using the word "relevant" continuously. I didn't know "relevant" was a buzzword until I went to a couple of their churches. They also like the word "authentic." And technically, it is a good and praiseworthy thing to address the objection that Christianity is no longer relevant to our culture. If something isn't relevant, then it doesn't matter, and Christianity matters so ...

Thus the irony that "relevant" and "authentic" emerging churches are mostly of only one generation, mostly white, mostly middle-class, and mostly finding that they themselves have created yet again a little insulated sub-culture.

But there's an argument out there that we should watch popular movies & TV shows so that we can understand the culture. This way, we can include little film clips in our sermons, or include little TV show quotes in our "sharing the gospel" - and that makes us cool. So let me distinguish my recommendation of The Wire from this "Christian" recommendation for trying to relate to the "culture" right now. You should not watch The Wire to try to be the cool or hip, to be relevant, to be part of your culture, or so you can have a "nexus of sharing" with other people in your culture. This is what some Christians do - and well, it's really really dumb.

If you have to work that hard to "relate to your culture" that means that something is wrong. In fact, that means that you have somehow separated yourself from the culture you live in. Christians taking the "be in the world, but not of the world" idea much farther than it was ever meant to be taken. I read a book recently about this Christian college where some of the professors were trying to teach the students there how to "relate to their culture." The author of the book was asked later by an attending student what she thought about the ending of the very last episode of The Sopranos, a show he'd never seen and would never see because of the bad language and the nudity. But, he had read about it intentionally trying to have something to talk about with the "outside culture." Doesn't anyone understand disconnect in this type of thinking?

There is one simple reason to watch The Wire. And that reason is because it's a good, solid, high quality work of art made into a TV show. It has less to do with whether you are or aren't a Christian, and it has more to do with same reason you'd just read a good book over a badly written book, or why you'd listen to good music rather than listening to poor quality music. For example, by the time you are watching Season Four, you are treated to the story of 4 young kids living on the streets and in the schools of Baltimore. The story of Michael, Namond, Randy & Dukie is the story of all children who live in poverty today. Like Charles Dickens had something important to say about the state of his society while writing novels in the 1800s, The Wire has something to tell you about the state that our children find themselves in inside today's city schools. If anything is "relevant" about watching this, it's learning the lessons that are here to be learned, and asking the questions about our education system that need to be asked.

"Watching the show this season feels less like observing these four children navigate their cruel world than it does like adopting them in hour-long sessions. The story begins with the boys entering eighth grade. At 12 and 13, these kids still have a chance to escape the streets. The central drama is whether "the game" of drug dealing will exert its gravitational pull on them or whether they will somehow beat the odds pointing them toward jail and violent death ... Having previewed all 13 episodes, I won't give away what happens to them, except to say that as usual, the program reverses your expectations while breaking your heart."
- Jacob Weisberg, on Season 4

"There are two ways of traveling. One is with a tour guide, who takes you to the crap everyone sees. You take a snapshot and move on, experiencing nothing beyond a crude visual and the retention of a few facts. The other way to travel requires more time — hence the need for this kind of viewing to be a long-form series or miniseries, in this bad metaphor — but if you stay in one place, say, if you put up your bag and go down to the local pub or shebeen and you play the fool a bit and make some friends and open yourself up to a new place and new time and new people, soon you have a sense of another world entirely. We’re after this: Making television into that kind of travel, intellectually. Bringing those pieces of America that are obscured or ignored or otherwise segregated from the ordinary and effectively arguing their relevance and existence to ordinary Americans. Saying, in effect, This is part of the country you have made. This too is who we are and what we have built. Think again, motherfuckers."
- David Simon

There is a righteous indignation within Simon's storytelling. He is focusing on the poor, the lost and the needy. He is showing us how lives are being destroyed in the very places in which we live. He is showing us how we aren't doing anything about it. And he is showing us how good and intelligent people who try to do something about it keep meeting with defeat ... again and again ... and occasionally, ever so rarely, one of them is given the grace to be able to win a small victory.

I've always had a love for a good story. The Wire is an incredible story - and an important one because it tells the tale of people who have usually fallen below the notice of average attention, local or national. Because of the moral choices that they have to make, the main characters gradually become villains that you hate or heroes that you love. The conflict between good and evil is portrayed in such a way that you wake up to it as if you were surprised that it was really this intense on our own cities' streets. The powers of darkness are tirelessly working to destroy the souls of the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. And you probably at least drive right by the battles every single day.

The examples are numerous in The Wire's huge cast of characters - Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) is a high-principled stubborn police detective who can't live with himself when he's convinced that his job is meaningless, or for that matter, morally corrupt. Eventually, the choice for a man like this may have to come down between sticking to his principles or destroying his career.

When you first meet Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), he's running a drug-trafficking city-wide empire, growing fast with the help of his cold & calculating second-in-command Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) - but is it possible to do the right thing, following your conscience while trafficking in human misery? Barksdale thinks so, but then his nephew D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) starts calling this into question.

And then you have everyone's favorite character, Omar (Michael K. Williams), the drug-runner equivalent of Robin Hood (if there could ever be such a guy, he's it) - who may sometimes be doing more good for people then even the city police department can. How is this possible? Just watch the show.

"The inner city is now the Wild West, the new frontier in terms of American storytelling, it has been for several decades now. We played a lot of our Western film themes and archetypes through Omar's story ... There is a desire to lean towards the heroic and to hope for the highest aspirations human beings can have, for what they might achieve as heroes. That's in all of us."
- David Simon

The Wire is a skillfully & intricately woven story that, while it may be the most realistic show on television, still sets up classic conflicts between good and evil - same as the greatest books and films always have. Even though I'd probably praise the depth of Season Four the most, you cannot just skip to it & watch it separately. The main reason it's so powerful is that you've grown to know each character and who he or she is through the first three fantastic seasons. Each season presents another new conflict to be dealt with, and you watch each character either miserably fail or meet the conflict and grow into someone stronger. And yet, at the same time, things just keep getting worse.

The heartbreaking thing about The Wire is it shows the problems of the current human condition. Everything is getting worse. As each season progresses, the political corruption and bureaucratic idiocy of the police department only increases with time, but on the other hand, the drug trade is getting worse too. The drug runners in the first season do have something of a moral code and try and live by rules they believe are right. Then, a couple seasons later, all the last shreds of morality are going out the window. That, and the criminals are all just getting younger and younger. And they increasingly care less about any moral codes. There are a minority few who do care, so what happens to them?

There's one scene where a college professor is trying to study how young men are getting pressured "by their environment" into the drug trade - his study group is males, aged 18-20. When an ex-cop shows him that that is too old, he's then forced to learn that even high school is too late - try early elementary school. Things are constantly getting worse. And yet, there are still people who are trying, against all the odds, to do the right thing. The Wire is their story.

The more I learn about the show's creator, David Simon, the more I respect the guy. He has an experienced and educated viewpoint -

On trying to reform the system in Season Three, he says -

"Reform of all kinds. Political reform, reform within the department, reform within the drug trade. Reform is the theme. You'll see a political component. But the theme of reform is not just political. There will be several characters who will present themselves as potential reformers. Some of them actually will be reformist, and some of them will not. Part of the season, from the viewer's perspective, is figuring out who's who."

On the state of modern day journalism -

"In their heart of hearts, the guys who are running my newspaper and a lot of newspapers, they now cede the territory, the moral and essential territory, of whether we're asserting for our society, our city, our community ... By the way, if you want to not focus on what the [expletive]'s going on, read the newspapers. Suffer the journalism, and don't worry: the big picture will elude you nicely."

On the problems of city government on his show -

"I think there are some core dynamics in terms of how humans govern themselves and how they route power and wealth and authority that are eternal. And the notion of democracy goes back to the city-states, and Athens in particular. Obviously, the contradictions and complexities of democracy have been a source of struggle ever since the form was suggested and practiced ..."

"Several critics have commented on The Wire's 'literary' quality. In particular, The Wire has echoes of the Victorian social panorama of Charles Dickens (who gets a mention this season, as an obscene anatomical reference). The drama repeatedly cuts from the top of Baltimore's social structure to its bottom, from political fund-raisers in the white suburbs to the subterranean squat of a homeless junkie. As with Dickens, the excitement builds as the densely woven plot unfolds in addicting installments. The deeper connection to Dickens' London is the program's animating fury at the way a society robs children of their childhood. In our civilized age, we do not send 12-year-olds to work in blacking factories as the Victorians did. Today's David Copperfield is instead warehoused at a dysfunctional school until he's ready to sling drugs on the corner, where his odds of survival are even slimmer."
- Jacob Weisberg

Once again, this show isn't for everyone. But it's had an impact on me, and I'd just like to share it with anyone else who is capable of getting anything out of it. Sometimes you can find hints of a Christian worldview in unlikely places ... yes, even places like HBO. Watching The Wire doesn't make you cool or sophisticated or in touch with your culture. It will, however, help you learn, force you to think, and even inspire. The song lyrics of the opening credits are no accident.

All the angels sing about Jesus' mighty sword.
And they'll shield you with their wings and keep you close to the lord.
Don't pay heed to temptation for his hands are so cold.
You gotta help me keep the devil way down in the hole.

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Update:

In May of this year, United States Attorney General made some publicity for himself by asking/commanding Simon to give all of us a sixth season of The Wire.

"Having looked at those clips again, I'm reminded how great that series was ... I want to speak directly to Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon, do another season of The Wire. ... I want another season, or a movie. I have a lot of power."

David Simon responded -

"The Attorney-General's kind remarks are noted and appreciated," he wrote. "I've spoken to Ed Burns and we are prepared to go to work on season six of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition."

Simon further claimed that the government's current anti-drug policies are "nothing more or less than a war on our underclass".

He continued: "[It is] succeeding only in transforming our democracy into the jailingest nation on the planet."


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