Monday, January 21, 2013

The Wire (2002-2008)

One of my primary goals involving entertainment in this already fast-moving new year was to catch up on a lot of classic television shows I've never watched before. To kick off a new year also meant to start strong, and what better way to begin that journey with what many people call "the greatest television show of all-time" The Wire. HBO has the well-deserved reputation as the most successful and profitable premium cable network in the entertainment industry, and shows like The Wire are one of many examples to back up that proclamation. Thriving off brisk, gritty realism, supremely well-developed characters, and deep sociopolitical themes of a city that is far more idiosyncratic than it may seem on the outside, this is a show that demands to be seen as both a cultural and learning experience.

But before I really go in-depth with my praising thoughts on this exceptional gem of a television show, I thought I'd do this review in a different format (a format I'll also do for future "series" reviews), because writing a full review on this series would dive into an essay that would cover aspects that could get too far into spoiler territory. Instead, I'm going to lay out the framework of this show in five parts: Summary, Best Season, Best Episodes, Best Characters, and Dear Creator (A letter to the creator(s) of the show reflecting on the series). With that now out of the way, here's my "review" of HBO's The Wire.

Created by former Baltimore Sun reporter and author David Simon, The Wire is set in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, which the city itself is essentially the main character of the show. Each season focuses primarily on a different institution of the city. In chronological order of the shows five seasons, they are: the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, city politicians and the government, the school system, and the influence of print news media. The series features a vast, diverse ensemble cast primarily composed of character actors, who had little to no recognition for their previous performances in other work outside the show.

Initially starting out as a police procedural involving a police detail surveilling the actions of a Westside drug-dealing organization known as the Barksdale Organization, the show steadily begins to show that its really about how an American city functions on a day-to-day basis, in addition to showcasing how the dysfunctions of one institution can affect another. Several of the characters also begin to realize this as the show continues in its five-season run, and they have to accept that fact that they're held within the bounds of their given institution with little hope of rebelling against its rules that must be followed. Those who do rebel though, usually aren't as fortunate as their comrades and they're quickly put into life/death situations that could affect their future.

Without going too much further, the primary plot and character of these five seasons is the American city itself, which in this case happens to be Baltimore, Maryland. Though it may not be a glossy metropolis like New York City, Simon and his exceptional writing staff still manage to send a searing love letter to the city, something that may have inclined me enough to travel there and observe it myself.

Best Season
When thinking hard on what I believe is the best season of The Wire, I reflect on the time when Ellen DeGeneres asked Emma Stone whose the better kisser between Ryan Gosling and Andrew Garfield. Stone responded by saying "Apples and oranges," followed by "I love all fruit." That same analogy can be applied to The Wire, because each season is on par with each other despite their main subject material varying from one another. Even though each season changes its setting on the main institution being explored, the stories that occur within these settings are equally compelling.

However to avoid being a hypocrite to this section's title, I'd have to side with Season 4 being the best one. The fourth season focuses on the continuing illegal drug trade and city politics, but the primary story is set on the inner-city school system, and that's where the sometimes tragic innocence of the shows youngest characters creates an emotional response unlike any other for the viewer. The four main "corner boys" Namond, Dukie, Randy, and Michael are some of the shows most surprisingly fleshed-out human characters, and the journey they embark on is one that had me fighting emotions of all kinds. Inner-city life in Baltimore for these four friends is portrayed in the most tragic, yet supremely realistic style, and the progression of the season establishes more instances for you to emotionally feel for how conformed these kids are to the lifestyle of the harsh neighborhood they live in.

Apart from the four boys at focus, the exploration of the inner-city middle school system is enriching in how it shares a key parallel with the other systems dissected in the show, that being how its an under-funded system that even has its most superior officials feeling bitter because of its uneven structure. On a lighter note though, the school story also allowed one of the shows most underrated characters Roland "Prez" Przbylewski to have their crowning moment(s). He becomes an 8th grade math teacher that is initially disrespected by his students that don't want to comply with both him and the material, but his past career as a police officer allows him to see through their personalities and thus gradually enact positive change in their education. That's something that The Wire does so well in all of its seasons, where it has a character part of an institution stuck in a major rut, but still manages to shine a light on a select group of people for the hard work they've accomplished.

Best Episodes
Like picking out a best season of The Wire, it's also somewhat difficult to reply with what the greatest episodes are. Writing is the most essential component to reaching the status of an acclaimed television series, and that was something that had a constant presence in every episode of the show. Simon's writing style in the show (and on Treme) aims for a multi-faceted narrative composed of realistic dialogue and authentic plot devices that never feel contrived. His equally talented staff of writers included former BPD homicide detective turned teacher Edward Burns, crime novelists Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and George Pelecanos, in addition to former colleague/television writer David Mills (R.I.P.). All of these great men contributed in some way to the best hour-long episodes of the show, and here are the ten listed that I thought were the best of the series.

10. Soft Eyes, Story by David Simon & David Mills, Teleplay by David Mills
9. Game Day, Story by David Simon & Edward Burns, Teleplay by David H. Melnick & Shamit Choskey
8. Bad Dreams, Story by David Simon & George Pelecanos, Teleplay by George Pelecanos
7. Margin of Error, Story by David Simon & Eric Overmeyer, Teleplay by Eric Overmeyor
6. The Cost, Story by David Simon & Edward Burns, Teleplay by David Simon
5. Moral Midgetry, Story by David Simon & Richard Price, Teleplay by Richard Price
4. Late Editions, Story by David Simon & George Pelecanos, Teleplay by George Pelecanos
3. Final Grades, Story by David Simon & Edward Burns, Teleplay by David Simon
2. Middle Ground, Story by David Simon & George Pelecanos, Teleplay by George Pelecanos
1. -30-, Story by David Simon & Edward Burns, Teleplay by David Simon

Best Characters
The trend continues up to this part where it becomes hard choose what qualifies as "the best" in a show like The Wire, because the series is noteworthy for having so many great characters. Though I would prefer to do a 25 list so I don't feel bad for shunning out any big names, I'm going to trim my list down to 10.

10. D'Angelo Barksdale

9. Shakima "Kima" Greggs

8. Reginald "Bubbles"Cousins

7. Michael Lee 

6. Cedric Daniels

5. Bunk Moreland

4. Stringer Bell

3. Lester Freamon

2. Jimmy McNulty

1. Omar Little

Dear Creator...
Dear David Simon,
         Before I started The Wire, I was already well aware of the notoriety for how underrated your acclaimed career as a reporter, author, television writer, and public speaker has been. Journalism is both a hobby and career that we share together, but now I view the field with a new point-of-view that is fare more substantial in scope and knowledge than ever before. I've seen many times how journalism can be applied to an entertainment program whether it be in a movie or television show, but you proved that it can be applied to a whole society and give off an illusion come to life that we're watching real life as it happens in the American city. Whether someone may be a drug dealer, longshoreman, politician, teacher, or journalist, you're vital aim for authenticity made all of these institutions feel equal to one another for how they're not perfect in structure, and also all show form of shared weakness for how people want the system to be improved. However, you still shine a light of hope on someone part of that institution that they could have a chance at a bright future ahead of them as long as they make the right decisions in their plan to do so. Though not everybody can achieve that feat in their life, they can still dream about it to keep their hope at a certain level that will suit them in their given emotional state.
         "Dog-eat-dog" is the best way to describe not only the institutions you explore inBaltimore, but can also be applied to almost every big city in America. There is a "game" happening everywhere, whether it be rigged or "all in," and it even occurs in facets of a society that we haven't discovered yet, too. Heck even in the city I live in, Irvine, California, there could be a "game" occurring in a place where I'd least expect it. 
         I could go on an on about how astounding your expertise is on America as a whole, in addition to how journalism can be applied on the big screen in the most unexpected places, but most of all I'd like say thank you. Thank you for the passionate, hard work you put into this fascinating program with your exceptionally talented ensemble cast and crew, in addition to bringing together one of the greatest writing staffs in television history, all who had substantial knowledge to one or more of the institutions explored in the show. Thank you for portraying urban city life in the most realistic way possible, in addition to the journalistic spin you added to it where this form of life should be considered a much more important manner on both a national and statewide level. I will continue to follow your outstanding career by reading your books, watching the rest of your shows, in addition to the hope that you travel more around the United States for public speaking appearances and show your honest, insightful vision of the world for where it is currently at, and what can be done to amend any present problems that exist. Take care, and I wish the absolute best of luck for where you will journey with the rest of your career.

Tyler Christian (CaliCritic)

Final Grade: A+


  1. I gotta say you most love writing. I know you do. But this is some of the most writing I've seen. I still got to watch this show! but can you like give me a list of shows I should watch? FYI: I agree with you on The Last Stand!

  2. Hello, I'm here again, seeing updates. Excellent post, congratulations.
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