Game In, Game Out

[from Reservoir / December 11, 2007]

There is no way to talk about HBO’s The Wire without throwing around phrases like “greatest television series of all time” and “true work of genius,” so let’s get right to it: in three weeks and some change, the true work of genius that is The Wire, that single greatest television series of all time, will begin its fifth and final season.Season Three

Superficially, it’s a cop show centered on the long, slow, tedious game of cat-and-mouse between the ruling powers of street crime and the cops and politicians who are supposed to stop them. In real terms, The Wire is anything but. Set in a very real and a very unsettling Baltimore, the show is at once about Charm City and about every place else.

The good guys aren’t always all that good, but – and this is key – the bad guys aren’t always all that bad, either. Take the righteously immoral Omar Little, the shotgun-toting Robin of the Hood with a mile-long rap sheet, feared on the streets for his systematic executions of drug dealers, yet stopping to pay – to pay! – for a pack of Newports after emerging victorious from a corner store shootout and taking his grandmother to church every Sunday morning.

Or Stringer Bell and his business-school approach to legitimizing a drug empire and the complications that arise from trying to extinguish the old ways of living and dying. Hamsterdam and the “wrinkled-ass brown paper bag” experiment. Prop Joe and the criminal conspiracy. Dukie and Prez. A night in baby booking. Bubbles for your troubles. D’Angelo and Wallace. Wallace and Bodie. Bodie and Marlo. Marlo and Bunk. Bunk and McNulty and Daniels and Rhonda. The characters and their intersecting stories give rise to an ugly, ugly web of interconnected lives that not only creates an exceptionally large myriad of characters (especially for a TV show), but also takes these mostly-invented characters and serves notice: none of us are that far or that different from the things we fight, the things we hate, and the things we fear.In grander terms, The Wire isn’t just a show; The Wire is one of the truly great dissertations on city life, a Dubliners of the ghetto or Bright Lights, Big City for the pay-cable crowd. For all its crooked politicians, corner boys, overzealous cops, methodical robberies of the public interest, widening gulf between the haves and have-nots and ever-blurring line between right and wrong, “Bodymore, Murdaland” could just as easily be any of the dying cities among America’s Rust Belt, or, much as we might not like to admit it, our own Sweet Home Chicago. The show’s true genius lies in the fact that it stands as a work of fiction that is not really all that fictional.

If The Wire is in fact to be seen as a crime drama, the veritable ocean of characters makes it impossible to look at it as a show about the crimes against the individual, but rather as one about the all-encompassing crimes society commits against itself. The zero-sum class war of You the man, Jimmy.season one; the slow extinction of blue-collar labor in season two; the ugly side of power in season three; the failed promises of the nation’s education system in season four; and now the role of mass media in shaping our view of the world around us in season five.

Show creator David Simon, a widely-acclaimed journalist from his days at The Baltimore Sun, has long employed the twin canvases of the street and the corner to tell his stories. While his other two great television works – Homicide: Life on the Street and The Corner – used those settings literally, The Wire casts the metaphor on the largest scale possible. The corner of good and bad, of perception and reality, of what we know and what we believe. The easy part of all of this is acknowleding that there is very little in this world that is truly good. The hard part comes when Simon and Co. force us to accept that there might be just as little in this world that is truly evil as well. If you haven’t seen it by now, do yourself a favor and start watching. You’ve got twenty-four days to prepare for the show’s long goodbye.

No, not a goodbye. A victory lap.