Posts Tagged ‘The Wire’

Cut to Black: The best (and worst) post-‘Sopranos’ series finales

June 9, 2017

It’s been a decade since “Don’t Stop Believin'” cut off in Holsten’s, and The Sopranos cut off with it. June 10 marks the tenth anniversary of the original airing of “Made in America,” the final episode of creator David Chase’s modern mafia masterpiece. Credited (correctly!) with kicking off a new Golden Age of Television, the show ended on an equally influential note: silence. We’ll never know whether mob boss Tony Soprano was killed as he sat down for dinner with his family (as in nuclear, not crime), or if his life simply went on, with the next FBI raid, hitman or plate of ziti always just around the corner. Nor are we meant to figure it out, no matter what you’ve read on the internet. For Chase, the ambiguity and uncertainty speak not only to Tony’s uniquely precarious existence, but all of ours’ as well.

Demanding, divisive and pretty much perfect for the show it concluded, “Made in America” remains the gold standard for finales to this day. In one form or another, nearly all its successors are a reflection of it, whether attempting to right its perceived wrongs or live up to its masterpiece status. Moreover, as one of the first major shows of its kind that was allowed to end in its own time and on its own terms, The Sopranosaccidentally popularized the unfortunate idea that a show is only as good as its final episode, and that if you don’t “stick the landing,” nothing that came before is worthwhile. That’s an extreme overreaction, of course — a bad finale is not a magic eraser that wipes out the hours you spent enjoying the show up until that point — but it’s a concept creators and audiences alike now wrestle with.

With Tony trapped in that diner limbo for ten years (Schrödinger’s Soprano?), we’re taking a look at six of the standout series finales that have aired since: Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Lost and Battlestar Galactica. What did they get right, or wrong, about the shows they’re concluding? What did viewers take away — and what should they have focused on instead? Should we be asking if they stuck the landing, or if they leapt into the unknown? Fire up the Journey and find out.

I wrote about some of the most satisfying and disappointing finales of the past decade, all involving really good shows, for my debut at Mic.

‘The Godfather’ Was Really the First Great Prestige TV Show

April 24, 2017

Not to get all Beavis and Butt-head about it, but bad shows suck because, well, they suck, not because they are insufficiently episodic in structure. This is why calls from the critical community, leading many of the fan conversations on these shows, to eschew unified, serialized storytelling in favor of tight arcs and standalone episodes feel like a misdiagnosis. For one thing, they fail to consider that noticeably self-contained installments of series like Game of Thrones and Girls are as memorable as they are precisely because those shows don’t usually work that way.

These claims fall into the same trap of cinematically minded showrunners who insist that “it’s not TV” by agreeing with them, setting up a false dichotomy between what constitutes the proper use of the medium and what doesn’t. In its maturity, television has proven capable of countless things: TV dramas alone can be as densely serialized as The Wire Season 4, as memorably episodic as Mad Men Season 5, as sweeping as Fargo Season 2, and as sensation-driven as Empire Season 1. Sometimes they can be several things at once; Black Mirror, like its groundbreaking antecedent The Twilight Zone, tells a different story with a different set of characters every single episode, making it simultaneously one of the most movie-like and most episodic shows on television. Saying any of these series is closer or farther away from The One True Way to Make TV obscures the fact that there’s no such thing.

In fact, this array of options, this wide-open landscape of different structures and tones and techniques, is the truest indicator that “prestige TV” is not a contradiction in terms. Problems with the execution aside — and problems with the execution is all they really are — television can do whatever you want it to do at this point, and declaring one approach or the other superior is a procrustean blunder — like arguing The Godfather is less great a film because you can break it down like a television series, if you’re feeling particularly perverse (ahem). If that means some showrunners get to declare their series a double-digit-hour movie, so be it. The proof will be in the pudding, or the cannoli. You can have it both ways. Why wouldn’t you want to try?

What was your favorite episode of The Godfather? “Khartoum”? “The Thunderbolt”? The pilot, “I Believe in America”? I presented a modest proposal about a cinematic classic in order to talk about where all the “no, your TV show isn’t a 73-hour movie” structuralist reprimanding gets us for Thrillist.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Ten: Case Closed

February 12, 2015

Nor do the season’s problems prevent it from being beautiful to look at. The final episode alone contains two of the series’ most visually striking scenes: First, Bubbles and his sponsor Walon sit in the park at night, discussing the article that’s been written about him, the glow of the lamplight illuminating them like they’re characters in a painting by a Dutch master. Later, after he’s sprung from jail to begin his new career as a legitimate businessman, Marlo is regaled with tales of fortune and glory by the corrupt developer Andy Krawczyk as they gaze through a window at the harbor, the humming blue light of the night giving a scene that must already feel strange to a soldier like Marlo an almost science-fictional surreality. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of Season Five’s visual achievements. Just for example, when I think of Templeton’s evening under the underpass with the homeless, or Bunk interviewing Michael’s mom while standing in her open front door, or Sydnor giving the secret anti-Barksdale squad their assignments in the parking lot, I’m not sure any show has ever done a better job of capturing the warm electric indigo glow of the early summer evening.

If only that kind of acuity had extended beyond the visual plane. Just as there are all kinds of ways to shoot a city at night, there are any number of paths the show could have taken to explore the effects of a bad newspaper on community that relies on it, or how detectives simultaneously facing devastating departmental cutbacks and the most vicious criminal of their careers might cut corners to get their job done. Why take the most heavyhanded, hamfisted approach every time? When all those shades of blue are available, why paint in black and white?

Since these are the concluding episodes of the series, it follows they serve as a conclusion, one that the show is drawing about its own subjects. We can draw one in turn: didacticism and sentimentality, Season Five’s twin problematic poles, are the series’ overall weaknesses as well. Even at its best, which is as good as TV has ever ever ever gotten, The Wire never leaves you thinking “wow, I don’t know what to think.” It does the work for you, rather than trusting that work to be done in the ephemeral space where author, intentionality, art, and audience all interact, creating something unpredictable and unique and exponential. “We’re building something here,” Lester said all the way back in Season One. “And all the pieces matter.” But art is not casework. The piece that makes a perfect fit is a fine, fine thing. But it means less than the missing piece, left for us to picture on our own.

The final paragraphs of my final review of the final episodes of the final season of The Wire. For the rest of it, read my last The Wire Wednesdays column at the New York Observer.

I’m so glad I got the chance to (get paid to) revisit this series. Thanks to my editor, Drew Grant, for giving me the gig; this swig of Jameson’s for you.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Nine: The Death of Print

February 5, 2015

Jimmy McNulty steals a newspaper. Jimmy McNulty sees a front-page story naming Cedric Daniels, the commanding officer who rescued him from harbor patrol and helped him make the case of his career, the heir apparent to the Commissioner of the entire Baltimore PD. Jimmy McNulty flips past it to find the story he planted about the fake serial killer he concocted. In this moment, Jimmy McNulty is The Wire Season Five. And The Wire Season Five is bad.

The Wire’s fifth season pursues parallel plots in which narcissists make up elaborate lies in order circumnavigate institutional obstacles set in place by financial contractions. On the cop side, McNulty invents a sexualized slayer of homeless men to drum up funding for the Marlo Stanfield investigation from a police department that newly minted Mayor Carcetti is stiffing for long-term political advantage. In the scope-expansion slot previously occupied by the dockworkers, the Carcetti campaign, and the school system, Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton creates sources and quotes from whole cloth to score better bylines and burnish his resume in a newsroom beset by cutbacks. Largely because of these storylines, Season Five has a reputation for being not just the show’s worst, but one of prestige drama’s worst, so bad it undercuts the series’ achievement overall. This is a reputation it deserves.

Upon revisiting these episodes for the first time since they aired, a prospect I greeted the way I approach cleaning the gunk out of my kitchen-sink drain, I half expected to emerge with a radical reevaluation, akin to how some critics now describe the serial-killer and newsroom storylines as satire of institutional dysfunction that makes the season one of the show’s best. To be blunt, no fucking way. Largely abandoned to his own devices by his writing partner and sounding board Ed Burns, who recognized the newsroom storyline as the personal matter it was, David Simon was subsequently abandoned by his own gifts — for nuance, for empathy, for characters who, while shaped by the system in which they are a part, never merely take the shape of that system, like allegorical figures in a hackneyed editorial cartoon. Point-making, score-settling, nose-tweaking: not the stuff of great drama, very much the stuff of this season.

The day has come: I reviewed the first half of The Wire Season Five for the New York Observer.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Eight: School’s Out

January 28, 2015

Call it heartbreaking. Call it breathtaking. Call it brutal. But don’t call The Wire’s fourth season tragic. This final stretch of episodes, surely what most people think of when they call The Wire the greatest show of all time, contains many of its most agonizing moments, its most crushing defeats. But tragedy implies inevitability. What makes this the hardest, greatest part of The Wire to watch is that there was nothing inevitable about any of it. If people had tried harder, politicked less, cared more, the ruined lives of the series’ school-based season could have been saved.

In the latest installment of my weekly rewatch/review column The Wire Wednesdays at the New York Observer, I cover the final seven episodes of Season Four, one of the best stretches of television ever to air.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Seven: Season Four’s School Spirit

January 21, 2015

The best line from The Wire is also, not coincidentally, its bleakest. It comes from the lollipop-sweetened mouth of Marlo Stanfield, who during the first half of Season Four handles surveillance cameras, high-stakes poker, inter-gang rivalries, and gunpoint stickups like he’s got icewater in his veins, but who cannot abide the backtalk of a lowly convenience-store security guard. The guard tries to explain to Marlo — who’d knowingly stolen candy in full view of the guy just to fuck with him — that even though such behavior is trivial, and even though he wouldn’t dare truly challenge Marlo over it, it strips him of what little dignity his dreary dayjob affords him. Marlo, his arrogance filling his wide eyes with something that approximates life, responds with one repeated phrase: “You want it to be one way.” When the guard finally backs down, Marlo delivers the punchline: “But it’s the other way.” Marlo keeps his lollipops. The guard loses his life. You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.

This fatalistic credo (fatal for the people on the wrong side of it, anyway) fits The Wire to a tee, and never more so than in Season Four. How could a season dedicated in large part to the American education and electoral systems be about anything but the clash between great expectations and horrorshow reality? But the line could just as easily apply to the show’s decision, once again, to push its main characters to the side in favor of these new worlds. The Barksdale outfit has been shut down; McNulty, Daniels, and Carver are happily working the Western District; Kima and Lester join Homicide after the Major Case Unit is destroyed from within by the bosses. All of them are marginalized to make room for Marlo, the Mayor, and middle-schoolers. And just as in Season Two, it pays off spectacularly.

So much of the credit must go to the kids at the center of the school storyline: Randy, a friendly and ambitious foster kid whose side hustles gets him into trouble; Namond, the class-clown son of imprisoned Barksdale soldier Wee-Bey (whose wife, Namond’s mother, is the worst wife character on the show yet, which is saying something); Duquan, the weirdo of the group, a smart, strange kid marginalized by the extreme poverty of his junkie parents; and Michael, whose quiet self-confidence draws people to him even as he tries to hide a sexual secret. The Wire has the best track record with child actors this side of Game of Thrones, and the foursome to whom it awards the lion’s share of screentime this season (Maestro Harrell, Julito McCullum, Jermaine Crawford, and future R&B star Tristan “Mack” Wilds) are all as good as it gets. They’re so easy and enjoyable to watch as they navigate new additions to their world, from Marlo’s crew to their new teacher, former cop Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, that the absence of McNulty and Daniels barely registers. (Both are deep in domestic bliss with their former Major Case colleagues Beadie Russell and Ronnie Pearlman respectively.) That’s without even considering the school setting, which like the docks and unions of Season Two has the irresistible aura of a once vital thing slowly dying.

I reviewed the first six episodes of The Wire Season Four for the New York Observer. “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way” is one of the best things ever aired on television.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Six: The “Good Problems” of Season Three’s Final Episodes

January 14, 2015

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW

The end of Stringer — his misguided ambitions, his misplaced faith in his ability to outfox experienced white-collar criminals like Clay Davis, his successful but short-lived attempt to overhaul Baltimore’s drug trade into something more cooperative and less lethal, his tasteful interior decorating — at the points of Omar’s shotgun and Brother Mouzone’s Walther PPK provided the season’s climax. But his story had no shortage of competitors in its headlong rush to the finish line. Lacking the tragedy that the deaths of Wallace and Frank Sobotka provided its predecessors, it compensated by setting up a whole series of ticking time-bomb scenarios and counting them down one on top of the other. Thanks to Avon’s betrayal, Mouzone and Omar got to String first, but Daniels, McNulty, Kima and company were only steps behind, while his parallel plot to rat Avon out to the cops was nearing completion just as quickly. Even as the police prepped to pinch Avon, his own men were moving into place to take down his rival Marlo Stanfield. It felt, marvelously and terrifyingly, like any fucking thing could happen at any fucking moment.

Elsewhere, in the social-experiment storyline centered on Bunny Colvin’s de facto decriminalization of drugs in “Hamsterdam,” a similar race was on. A whole slew of characters — Bunny, his loyalists like Carver, rebellious troops like Herc and gung-ho Travis Bickle wannabe Colicchio, the press, the brass, the Mayor, and the increasingly shifty politician Tommy Carcetti — ran neck and neck to determine the final fate of the free zones. In that case, only a series of bad decisions led to the race’s unhappy resolution: Commissioner Burrell thought Mayor Royce was delaying the shut-down in order to more securely fuck him, when in fact Royce was inches away from exporting the initiative’s successes citywide; acting on Burrell’s faulty intel, Carcetti chose to hang Colvin out to dry and hang it on the Mayor for political advantage. Given The Wire’s thesis that the system is irrevocably fucked — a thesis on evidence in the endemic brutality and corner-cutting displayed by even the most heroic cops, which with post-2014 hindsight is even more uncomfortable to contemplate than Simon likely intended it to appear at the time — it couldn’t have gone down any other way. But such is the skill of the show that it sure as shit felt like it could have.

I reviewed the final six episodes of The Wire Season Three for the New York Observer.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Five: “F— the Bosses”

January 7, 2015

The chair recognizes Stringer Bell. What to make of this consigliere turned kingpin turned real-estate mogul and gangster parliamentarian? In Season Three, The Wire posits String as an honest-to-god reformer, amid a cast of characters consumed with the idea, from ambitious politician Tommy Carcetti to conscience-stricken cop Bunny Colvin. And a reformer he is, to a point. Stringer correctly sees that it’s violence, not drugs, that attracts police attention to the drug trade, and he works to acquire the skills necessary to keep product flowing without the accompanying tide of blood. Authorial intent is usually for suckers, but on a show as editorially driven as this one, creator David Simon must be given the floor, and his repeated characterization of String as a force for positive change in the drug game during interviews and essays counts are borne out by how the show plays out.

This doesn’t mean the show lets Stringer off the hook, necessarily. He’s clearly shown to be naive in his belief that a creature like Marlo Stanfield can be massaged into compliance, his skullduggery with D’Angelo and Donette is as reprehensible as anything any prestige-drama antihero has ever gotten up to, the disconnect between his commanding presence in the gang and his earnest-schoolboy appearances in community college is weirdly adorable and a bit pathetic, and his attempts to force the hoppers and dealers in his employ to play by Robert’s Rules are played for some of the biggest laughs in the series. (And in this season, with Carver’s threat to beat a suspect “harder than you beat your own dick” and a murder mix-up involving the murder of a dog instead of “my dawg,” that’s saying something.)

But those laughs come at the expense of the underlings, not String, and that’s where the show goes wrong. Putting the “organized” in “organized crime” is not without precedent — hey, it worked pretty well for Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky! — but one look at either the goofs and goons below him or the dyed-in-the-wool warlord above him, Avon Barksdale, should have been enough to show String his plan is doomed to failure. Can you imagine Tony Soprano saying “The chair recognizes Paulie Walnuts?” without it coming across as transparently ridiculous? I can’t, and neither could David Chase — hence his creation of characters like the pretentious malaprop factory Little Carmine Lupertazzi, or the Gladiator-quoting Ralphie Cifaretto, who exist to embody and satirize those delusions of grandeur. (Little Carmine was always right, as it turned out, but that would have been a lot clearer if he wasn’t trying to sound like a grand fucking statesman.) Yes, Poot’s supposed to sound silly when he says “Do the chair know we gonna look like some punk-ass bitches out there?”, but String’s just as silly for expecting anything else.

My weekly Wire rewatch/recap column for the New York Observer returns with a look at the first half of Season Three and its many bad bosses.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Four: “Your Way—It Won’t Work”

December 31, 2014

Along with leftovers and late-arriving relatives, The Wire in HD showed up the day after Christmas, in all its cable-marathonable, HBOGo-bingeable glory. And despite its debut being the impetus and inspiration of this column, I really hadn’t planned on talking about it at all. The high-def remastering is one thing, a fine thing, and a legion of cinephiles could, and no doubt have, walk any interested reader through notable changes screenshot comparison by screenshot comparison. But the new aspect ratio — a flatscreen-friendly 16:9 for a show shot in good old-fashioned boob-tube 4:3 — brought out the McNulty in me. I had to fuckin’ say something.

It turns out that The Wire expanded for widescreen screens looks exactly as bad as widescreen films look cropped for square screens. You are very clearly seeing a stretched-out fraction of the original image, and it looks wrong. I kept instinctively searching for a remote control to resize the picture. Sure, David Simon helped supervise the reformatting, so it’s unlikely you’ll suddenly see lighting rigs and crew members cluttering up the edges of the image as you have in less carefully prepared remasters. And yeah, it’s the kind of thing you get used to, just like generations of viewers got used to seeing movies chopped and cropped whenever they switched on their TV or popped a tape in their VCR. But you shouldn’t have to get used to a deliberately fucked-with version of a show as thoughtfully constructed as this. The industry-wide switch to widescreen TVs was a victory for cinematic sanity — now we’re gonna go nuts again in the opposite direction? I kiiiiiiiinda think everyone involved in this decision should be ashamed of themselves.

Or I would, if The Wire Season Two hadn’t made a convincing case that America is a nation beyond shame. Season One established The Wire’s interest in exploring the system’s resistance to change, but that was only part of the story. In its second half, Season Two argues the system can change, but only in one direction: whichever way the already powerful want it to go. The economy can mutate, shedding union jobs like a snake sheds skin, replacing derelict ports and graineries with high-priced condominiums. The law can mutate, prioritizing post-9/11 terror panic at the direct expense of catching organized-crime outfits already living, working, and killing here in the homeland; or busting unions on corruption charges instead of pursuing the kingpins who corrupted them in the first place.

My final piece of the year is the latest installment of The Wire Wednesdays, my weekly Wire rewatch/review column for the New York Observer. This week I’m looking at the second half of Season Two (and complaining about the reformatted remastered HD edition of the show).

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Three: “We Ain’t Back in the Day”

December 24, 2014

By the time the opening credits finish rolling on the The Wire’s second season premiere, you’re watching a different show than you were when the closing credits finished rolling on the first season finale. Jimmy McNulty, system-bucking enemy-making super-detective, has been reduced to riding a boat in the Marine Unit, but that sorry spectacle is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. For one thing, there’s actual ice to contend with: The summer heat has been replaced by gray midwinter chil and clouds of frosted breath. The plummeting temperature feels reflected in the credits themselves: The Blind Boys of Alabama’s rollicking roadhouse gospel version of “Way Down in the Hole” has been replaced by the delirium-tremens minimalism of Tom Waits’ art-rock original, and its second verse’s references to Satan (“he’s got the fire and the fury at his command”) are a damn sight more menacing than the swapped-in third verse present during Season One, with its uplifting praise of “Jesus’ mighty sword.” And while the imagery is still a montage of tight close-ups on transactional hand gestures and inscrutable electronic surveillance mechanisms, the jittery jump-cuts between them are largely phased out in favor of slower, cooler dissolves. And we haven’t even touched the radically different waterside setting for much of that imagery — or the whole new set of cast names slapped atop it. The post-credits epigraph, from a bit character called Little Big Roy, sums it up: Whatever The Wire is now, “Ain’t never gonna be what it was.”

It turns out that it was literally impossible to understand the nature The Wire until its second season. It wasn’t until then, when it left the West Side projects behind to head for the docks and introduce a whole new cast of criminals and civilians with blue collars and white skin, that it truly became itself. That’s different from shows that simply got sharper, even dramatically so, as they went along — the example everyone points to for this kind of thing is “College,” the landmark fifth episode of The Sopranos’ first season, which juxtaposed Tony’s family life and Family life with unsparing clarity as he stalked and murdered an informant while on a road trip with his college-bound daughter. As I’ve said before, The Wire, by contrast, had its tone and pacing down pat in the pilot. What it didn’t have — what it couldn’t have, until it did an entire season’s worth of establishing itself in one particular setting — was the unprecedented shifting and widening of scope that would come to characterize it from season to season.

Celebrate this festive season with my review of the first six episodes of The Wire Season Two for my weekly column in the New York Observer, The Wire Wednesdays. Santa Sobotka is coming to town.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part Two

December 17, 2014

Towering, intimidating, with a voice like carved granite, Lieutenant Cedric Daniels is the (mostly) benevolent Darth Vader of the Baltimore Police Department, and in Season One’s back half he serves up a summary of the show as dualistic as the Force’s Light and Dark Sides. “The wire is what gives us Barksdale,” he tells Deputy Burrell when the half-stepping brass tries to shut it down. “It gives us the whole crew. Day by day. Piece by piece.” Orderly, methodical, unrelenting. But this is only after he offered a very different spin on the investigation to his wife. “You follow the drugs, you get a drug case,” he tells her. “You follow the money, you don’t know where you’re going.” Every new lead followed, every new piece of evidence gathered is a potential first step on a journey into the unknown. Or as Lester Freamon, the Obi-Wan of the Barksdale detail, more profanely puts it: “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers, but you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.”

As below, so above. As The Wire’s first season builds to its anticlimax — McNulty, Daniels, Freamon and company bust Avon Barksdale and much of his gang, but on relatively penny-ante charges that leave his consigliere Stringer Bell free, and at the cost of lives and livelihoods on both sides — it repeatedly reveals surprising new depths. The crime and corruption are bigger, the cost sadder, the cops and criminals alike more complex than anyone had any reason to suspect. But it also functions exactly as a great cop show should, delivering top-notch genre-based suspense and barreling forward from plot point to plot point with the narrative inevitability of a freight train. It epitomizes the very form of storytelling it subverts.

I rewatched and reviewed the second half of The Wire Season One — which contains one of the greatest scenes in the history of television — for the New York Observer.

“The Wire” Wednesdays, Part One: “We’re Building Something Here” (Season One, Episodes 1-6)

December 10, 2014

The Wire returns to screens of all kinds in 16 days, but it never really went away. More than any other show from the New Golden Age of Television, it has remained a part of the conversation long after the last notes of its final musical montage played out, seven years ago this coming March. The Sopranos started it all, but the cultural currency of its genre — the mafia saga — ended with it. Deadwood was the Baltimore crime drama’s contemporary, and like The Wire it mapped the intersection of criminality and community, but its truncated run, designed to lead to a fourth season that never saw the light of day, leaves it as much of a question mark as an exclamation point. Sex and the City eventually got the props it deserves as a forerunner for idiosyncratic cable programming, but its status as a sitcom, its fixation on status symbols, and, sadly, the gender of the characters doing the fixating preserve its marginalization. But this Baltimore cops-and-crooks drama — with its go-for-broke serialized storytelling, its prescient placement of American political problems at its structural center, its cross-cultural cast, and its endlessly quotable writing — has only increased in both praise and prominence since its initial six-year, five-season run, during which it was already being hailed as the greatest television show ever to air. HBO may have remastered it for its HD rerelease on December 26, but that’s simply technology catching up to the minds of the viewing public, where it’s been high definition and state of the art all along.

I’m very proud to present The Wire Wednesdays, a new weekly column for the New York Observer in which I’ll be rewatching and reviewing the show. The plan is to cover half a season at a time, so this installment covers Season One, Episodes 1-6. I have complicated opinions about this complicated show and it’s a great pleasure to be able to write about it at length.

The Shocking 16: TV’s Most Heartstopping Moments

April 2, 2014

I wrote up 16 of the New Golden Age of TV’s most surprising and suspenseful scenes and sequences for Rolling Stone (with a little help from my fabulous editor David Fear). Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Deadwood, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Lost, Mad Men, Orange Is the New Black, The Shield, The Sopranos, True Detective, Twin Peaks, The Walking Dead, The Wire. Read, then vote in our neat bracket tournament thing!

The Wire: A (mostly) one-sided dialogue

March 14, 2008

Beginning in mid-January, I started watching The Wire from Season One onward via Netflix and, eventually, TiVo. Obviously I’d heard great things about the show for ages, but the crescendo surrounding the start of the show’s fifth and final season coupled with the realization that I could pop a disc into my computer and watch an episode a day on my lunchbreak finally proved too much for me to resist. Soon after starting, I began emailing my thoughts about the show to sundry friends, but mostly to All Too Flat mastermind Kennyb, who had started plowing through the show a couple months before me, I think.

Now that I’ve finished the series, I’ve compiled all these little (mostly) one-sided dialogues for your enjoyment. Taken together, they provide a running commentary on the show, and an ongoing view into my reaction to it. And since I came to the show with the perspective of someone who loves its main rival for the title of Best Show Ever, The Sopranos, these emails also frequently compare and contrast the two shows.

So, SPOILER WARNING FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T SEEN EVERY EPISODE OF THE SHOW. I blow plot points left right and center. But if you have seen the whole thing, my hope is that you can get something out of watching my take on the show evolve from episode to episode and season to season until it becomes a more-or-less coherent response to the political and thematic issues addressed by the show and the techniques it uses to address them.

—–

Date: Jan 17 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Justin Aclin
Subject: TV

Best Dramas Ever:
The Sopranos
Twin Peaks
Lost
Battlestar Galactica

Best Comedies Ever:
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Fawlty Towers
The State
Seinfeld

You could cobble together a top-tier comedy from the best stuff SNL has done over the years, and I’m about five episodes deep into The Wire so the jury is still out on that one, but for now, THE END.

—–

Date: Jan 23 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: Comment

I’m watching an episode of The Wire every day during my lunchbreak. Pretty good so far. Yesterday I finished Season One Episode 8, the one where Omar (who’s awesome) kills Stinkum and they up the bounty on his head to $10,000. I’m enjoying it a lot, though at the moment I don’t see the argument for it being better than The Sopranos.

—–

Date: Jan 30 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: The Wire season one

I just finished it yesterday and will probably start season two on Friday during lunch (today I’ve got no discs from Netflix and tomorrow I’m interviewing Katee “Starbuck” Sackhoff during my lunchbreak). It’s fun to see that (judging from the season’s final scene) the creators quickly realized that Omar is basically the coolest character ever. I really enjoyed it overall and am glad things more or less worked out for the cops. My one quibble is that D’Angelo’s relationship with his Lady Macbeth-esque mother wasn’t well-established enough for it to make sense to me for him to suddenly change his mind at her behest about all the horrendous stuff his uncle made him a party to, which we just spent an entire season establishing he just couldn’t stand, and do a 20-year bid on Avon’s behalf instead of flipping.

What I like about this show is how it sets up the ultimate indications of good policework and being a good person as cooperation, competence, and creativity, three vastly underrated qualities in the real world.

—–

Date: Jan 30 2008
From: Kenneth Bromberg
To: Sean T. Collins
Re: The Wire season one

Ally and I just finished watching Season 4 last week. That problem
with fundamental changes in behavior with no discernible reason
happens a couple of times throughout the show (it’s actually something
Ally and I were discussing the other day about a character in S4).

The second season is good, but not as good as the first, in my
opinion, ‘cuz the bands all broken up at the beginning, and it’s an
entirely different chemistry. Possibly still good, but I watched it
so soon after finishing the first season (as you will be) that it was
hard to get into and enjoy the same way.

—–

Date: Jan 30 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Re: The Wire season one

I was gonna say, it must be tough for the writers to justify getting McNulty out of the marine unit and back with his old team.

—–

Date: Feb 6 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: The best Wu-Tang verse ever?

My top five:

1) Ol’ Dirty Bastard on “Brooklyn Zoo” (the whole song is all one verse for chrissakes)
2) U-God on Raekwon’s “Knuckleheadz”
3) RZA on Ghostface Killah’s “Ghost Deini”
4) Inspectah Deck on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph” (“I bomb atomically” etc.)
5) Inspectah Deck on GZA/Genius’s “Duel of the Iron Mic” (“Building lobbies are graveyards for small-timers/Bitches caught in airports, keys in they vaginas” is the most evocative hip-hop couplet ever written)

You?

Sean

PS: Six eps deep into The Wire Season Two. You’re right, it starts slow, but it’s super satisfying to watch the bullshit politics with Valchek work in their favor! When I realized that was what was gonna happen I laughed out loud. Also, the show is doing a really good job with the dockworker characters–they really could have screwed the pooch on the whole show if those guys weren’t interesting and well-acted. However, I was disappointed with the death of D’Angelo because it felt like an afterthought in that episode. Compare it to deaths of major characters in The Sopranos where you spend the whole episode terrified of what’s going to happen even if you don’t know that it IS going to happen. What’s funny is that his demise is the most Sopranos-esque thing that’s happened on the show, from the loyal relative/underling having second thoughts about the life angle to Stringer screwing his babymama.

—–

Date: Feb 14 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: The Wire and fairness

Okay, so I just finished the second-to-last episode of Season Two, and one thing that I’m really finding about this show is that I can handle murder–it’s people being UNFAIR I can’t stand! I hate the Greek’s FBI mole, I hate that Stringer tried to trick Omar into killing Brother Mouzone, I hate the brass fucking Daniels and McNulty and Prez for political reasons…if you want to sell drugs and rob and steal and kill people for money, by all means. Just be HONEST!

On a related note, please don’t tell me if there is eventually an Omar/Brother Mouzone team-up at some point, because for now I’m enjoying writing the fanfic in my head.

—–

Date: Feb 20 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: Wire update

Okay, I finished Season Two last week, and it definitely ended on a high note. It was weird–right until the last two episodes I felt like “whoa, this season’s almost over? It feels like it barely got started!” I think that was because compared to Avon and Stringer, the Sobotka boys were pretty harmless, so you didn’t feel that the show had generated the same sense of urgency about catching them. But then it flipped to whether or not they were going to get killed, and even though they got a little heavy handed at times (the weird slo-mo after Ziggy killed the greek guy who ran the electronics store), I really felt for Frank and Nick. And I was SUPER-glad Omar wised up to Stringer giving him bad intel about Brother Mouzone, as I think I mentioned.

Now I’m a couple episodes into Season Three, and I can’t help but be a little disappointed that they’re not taking things in just as left-field a direction as dedicating Season Two to the plight of the stevedores union. It’s right back in the Avon/Stringer/corner-dealer/police-politics territory of Season One. I mean, still a good show, but I was hoping for, I dunno, airport workers.

—–

Date: Feb 22 2008
Chat with Justin Aclin

Justin: Lost definitely learned a thing or wo about introducing characters versus Nikki and Paolo last year
me: Yep.
Do you watch The Wire?
Very good at introducing new characters even when they seemingly have NOTHING to do with the characters we already know.
(I’m catching up on Netflix)
Justin: Haven’t watched it yet
me: It’s good.
Justin: So I hear. One of these days

—–

Date: Feb 26 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: About halfway through Season Three of The Wire

I like that Stringer set up the Commission!
Omar is underused. I don’t know if they could use him more without removing some of the mystique, though.
Last night I had a dream that D’Angelo Barksdale and Tasha from Omar’s crew had somehow been brought back to life by the government and were going to work for the cops as informants. But then Tasha was a double agent.
You know what one big difference between this and The Sopranos is? The Sopranos is one of the scariest shows I’ve ever seen. I always kind of spent the episodes in a state of half-terror that something was going to happen. Even when there are gunfights and murders on The Wire, you don’t feel that way. Somehow it’s just a much more straightforward show, if that makes any sense.

—–

Date: Feb 26 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kiel Phegley
Re: Bourne movies

I HAVE heard good things about them, particularly in the formal-filmmaking areas you cite. Although I must admit that I got a little cheesed off when I heard him talking smack about James Bond, considering how good Casino Royale was.

Maybe I’ll Netflix ’em after I get through The Wire–I’m about halfway through season three now, which leaves season four and the current/final season. Do you watch that show?

I find it very engrossing, but I don’t see myself returning to it the way I do The Sopranos, Lost, Twin Peaks, or BSG. Or Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, or Seinfeld, for that matter.

I don’t know why that is, necessarily–perhaps because it’s just less WEIRD than any of those shows, and the weirdness, the stuff that you can’t point to and explain exactly why that was there in the show, is where the most intellectual and emotional excitement is located for me.

But as a police procedural, it’s pretty impossible to beat. And almost all the characters are INSANELY likeable. You wanna hang out with all of them!

—–

Date: Feb 27 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: Wire update

I’m going to blog all these once I’m finished with the series btw.

So I’m up to, like, ep 9 of Season Three.

Poor Prez! Ah, you knew things would end badly the second they took time to make sure we noticed him and McNulty doing anything together.

Thought of the day: Brother Mouzone must be to Wire fans what the Russian is to Sopranos fans.

—–

Date: Feb 27 2008
Chat with Justin Aclin

me: I’m still working through The Wire
addictive!
but mostly because of this one character who I won’t spoil for you
but you’ll know who I’m talking about if you ever watch it
boy, will you ever
Justin: Nice.
I’ll watch it when me and the missus are in a mental state to watch something a little heavier
me: yeah.
although it doesn’t bring me down the way The Sopranos did
when I first watched the first three seasons of The Sopranos in a row, it affected my personality
Justin: wow!
me: yeah, I got angrier easier
I went about in pity for myself
Justin: They never established who gave him that card, did they?
me: no
Justin: It was the Russian.
me: if I had to pinpoint the reason why The Sopranos is better than The Wire, it’s that The Wire would tell you
hahahahaha
actually this morning I thought to myself that a certain Wire character must be the Russian for Wire fans
Justin: The Russian was responsible for all dangling plot threads
He killed the cameraman at the end of the finale
me: hahahahahahaha
brilliant
Justin: Thanks. 🙂
“The further adventures of the Russian” – YouTube gold!
me: w3rd

—–

Date: Feb 29 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: TJ Dietsch
Re: Last night’s Lost

A side note about how anal-retentive I am regarding avoiding spoilers: I close one eye and use one hand to block the very bottom of the screen during the opening of every episode in order not to see who’s guest-starring in the episode, because the dumbasses constantly blow big surprise cameo appearances by putting the actors’ names in the credits at the beginning of the show. In much the same way, I used to block the screen before episodes of The Sopranos when HBO would put up the content-warning screen because I didn’t want to know beforehand if there’d be any violence or not.

This is why I refuse to learn who plays who on The Wire aside from Dominic West and Lance Reddick.

—–

Date: Feb 29 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: I just saw the second-to-last episode of The Wire Season 3

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Mother fucking TEAM-UP!!!!!!!!!!!!

It was everything I’d hoped for and more. Well played, gentlemen. Well fucking played.

HHHHHHHAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Okay, I think I’ve calmed down long enough to point out that Omar and Brother Mouzone’s little joint venture worked the exact same way as a Silver Age superhero crossover. When they first meet, there’s a misunderstanding and they fight, but then they clear things up and work together to take down a common foe. (Now that I think about it, that was the idea behind the movie that the Three Amigos rejected and got fired over.)

I am in heaven.

One more episode to go in this season I guess, but it’s nice to see it following The Sopranos’ pattern of having the biggest stuff happen in the penultimate episode.

My main wish is that everything work out for Dennis the boxer. I’d be really pissed if he ended up getting killed or arrested or his gym gets closed. That would be unfair!

Now that I think about it, this season stands a chance of having everything work out for everyone. I’m sure Daniels’s group will be bummed about Stringer’s death since they don’t get to put him away themselves, but meanwhile Bunny will arrest Avon, Carcetti will go to bat for the free zones, and young up-and-comer Marlowe will end up in charge of the area. Huzzah!

Sean

PS: You must have gotten a kick out of me comparing Brother Mouzone to the Russian the other day.

—–

Date: Mar 1 2008
From: Kenneth Bromberg
To: Sean T. Collins
Re: I just saw the second-to-last episode of The Wire Season 3

> PS: You must have gotten a kick out of me comparing Brother Mouzon to the
> Russian the other day.

It made me laugh a lot.

—–

Date: Mar 5 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: The Wire update

Okay, I’m three episodes deep into Season Four now, but within one episode I pinpointed why I was always vaguely disappointed with Season Three. At first I thought it was because S1 established the ground rules, and then S2 threw them out the window in a thrilling way and introduced a whole new environment with the Sobotkas and the docks and the Greeks, while S3 basically went back to S1 territory. (Albeit with a slight expansion, into Bunny Colvin’s sci-fi alternate reality where America had a semi-sane drug policy. Carcetti’s political stuff was mostly an afterthought and at any rate didn’t feel nearly as far removed from the world of the show at large as, say, the stevedore stuff felt from the Barksdale gang.)

I still think that’s PART of why S3 felt less impressive in the end than the other seasons, but when I saw that they’d be spending a lot of time on the middle-school kids in S4, I realized a different factor was at play: S3 didn’t have a *tragedy.* Season One had D’Angelo and Wallace–basically good people who got caught up in crime and paid for it. Season Two had Frank, Nick, and Ziggy Sobotka–same deal. Season Three didn’t have anything like that. Now, maybe everything will work out for Namond and Dookie and Randy and the rest of those little rascals, but somehow I doubt it–bang, tragedy.

So far I’m enjoying Marlowe as the villain. He and his followers (especially Chris and Snoop, obvs) are creepy and dangerous rather than blustery and dangerous like Avon and Stringer’s outfit. It’s an interesting tonal shift. I await the inevitable Snoop vs. Omar conflagration with bated breath.

There has also been an impressive amount of visible dick in the season thus far. Including an erection, mid-BJ! (Belonging to the Colonel from A Different World, no less.) It’s not TV, it’s HBO.

Finally, Prez Goes to School makes me think of my wife’s job. Hers involves fewer incidents with boxcutters, to be fair.

—–

Date: Mar 6 2008
From: Jim Dougan
To: Sean T. Collins
Subject: Parting Ways

The Wire “not even close” to the Sopranos? Here’s where you and I part ways, sir…in divorce court this is what they call “irreconcilable differences”.

smooch

—–

Date: Mar 6 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Jim Dougan
Re: Parting Ways

Not even close.

—–

Date: Mar 6 2008
From: Jim Dougan
To: Sean T. Collins
Re: Parting Ways

Funny; I feel the same way in the exact opposite direction. I guess we’ll agree to disagree again…

—–

Date: Mar 6 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Jim Dougan
Re: Parting Ways

I get the sense from reading political blogs that preferring The Wire to The Sopranos is a DC/NY thing.

—–

Date: Mar 6 2008
From: Jim Dougan
To: Sean T. Collins
Re: Parting Ways

Funny, that. I’m guessing it’s the primacy of government and other institutional power here, whereas NY is a more war of all against all kind of thing – individuals vs. individuals. It also could be just the familiarity of the setting, a little “hometown pride” thing, conscious or unconscious.

We DCers can identify more closely with the plight of souls futilely (is that a word?) throwing themselves against implacable, corrupt institutions than with individuals carving out their own space, their downfall being their implacable and unchanging personal demons, in a world that they otherwise would be expected to control (or at least guide). I know that years of dealing with the DC city gov’t (not even the Feds) through an interminable home renovation has left me permanently scarred and highly sympathetic to The Wire’s worldview. That is, I can change and become a better person (unlike Tony), but no matter how much I’ve got my shit together personally I will always be at the mercy of an government institution that makes Brazil look attractive (at least there you can bribe people to get shit done.)

And yet, here I am.

—–

Date: Mar 6 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Jim Dougan
Re: Parting Ways

I’m cooking up a massive post on The Wire for when I get through all of it, constructed of these little missives I’m sending to a buddy of mine every once in a while who caught up with the show before I did, and I’m sure I’ll elaborate on this point in that eventual post, but I think you’re right about the primacy of institutional elements in The Wire vs. what I read as a more “open text” approach in The Sopranos, where it’s less tied into the mechanics of how the police/docks/gangs/schools/newspapers work and more about an examination of a bad person.

And yeah, I’m sure Jersey plays the same role for New Yorkers and Long Islanders that Baltimore plays for the Beltway.

—–

Date: Mar 8 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: Powering through The Wire Season Four

..in a desperate and no doubt futile attempt to be able to finish all my TiVo’d Season Five episodes before the inevitable series-finale spoilers become unavoidable online. I’m in the middle of the second-to-last episode now.

Thoughts:

1) The stuff with the kids is fantastic, just as gutsy as the dockworker stuff but probably even better. A storyline like this is definitely what Season Three was missing, both in terms of that tragic feel I was talking about and the out-of-left-field-ness of it. I’m going to be really, really, really upset if (when) something really bad happens to one of them, goddammit.

2) The political blogger Matt Yglesias is a big fan, as are seemingly all political bloggers, and he posted something I caught out of the corner of my eye the other day saying the show’s best stuff was the rise and fall of Stringer Bell. I don’t think so. Not that Stringer wasn’t an interesting character or a good villain or played by a good actor, because all that’s true, but of all the non-politician, non-brass, non-Greek, non-Marlo’s-crew characters, he’s basically the most unapologetically douchebaggish. We never see that he really cared about anyone or anything other than power and himself and getting more power for himself. Compared to Avon or Frank Sobotka (or Tony Soprano or anyone from that show), he never really did anything nice for anyone, or showed that he was upset about doing any of the deceitful and awful things that he did. I guess selling Avon out upset him mildly, but clearly not as bad as selling Stringer out upset Avon, or as bad as finding out what happened to D’Angelo upset Avon, and on and on and on. So when he dies, I really was just thinking “good riddance to this jerk.” Especially since he was killed at the hands of the best character on the show and another really cool villain.

3) I’m really digging well-adjusted, sober, family-man, non-dickhead McNulty. I hope he keeps it up!

4) As the show goes on I continue to feel genuine affection for all the characters who go out of their way to help each other and be competent and cooperative and not stab people in the back. Lester would probably be number one, but also Bunny, Bunk, Kima, Prez, and to a certain extent Daniels and Carcetti. Working together and being nice to people because it’s nice to be nice to people are among my favorite virtues in this world.

And oh yeah, fuck Marlo. The second he had that poor security guard killed because he dared talk back to him, he put a bullseye on his head as far as I’m concerned. Avon would have civilians killed if they really crossed him, but not just because they had the temerity to ask not to be insulted.

—–

Date: Mar 8 2008
From: Kenneth Bromberg
To: Sean T. Collins
Re: Powering through The Wire Season Four

I know I don’t often respond to these messages of yours – don’t think
it’s because I’m not interested in what you have to say, or don’t want
to hold a discussion about it. It’s because I know I’m ahead of you
in the season, but it’s all kind of mashed up in my head. So I don’t
want to inadvertently say something which would ruin the show for you.
This is one of those shows where that would be a real shame.

> And oh yeah, fuck Marlo. The second he had that poor security guard killed
> because he dared talk back to him, he put a bullseye on his head as far as I’m
> concerned. Avon would have civilians killed if they really crossed him, but not
> just because they had the temerity to ask not to be insulted.

Yeah, that was such a tense scene right there, and completely defined
him as a character. And by “character” I obviously mean “douche”

—–

Date: Mar 8 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Re: Powering through The Wire Season Four

Dude, no worries at all–I totally don’t expect any replies. In fact I expect and DEMAND no replies for the exact reasons you cite. Mostly I just hope to entertain you with my inaccurate predictions a la Brother Mouzone = The Russian. 🙂 And like I said I’m compiling all this stuff for a big blog post after I finish the series.

I forgot to put Dennis and Omar on my list of competent, decent people. Well, relatively speaking with Omar.

—–

Date: Mar 9 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Re: Powering through The Wire Season Four

Okay, finished Season Four. The final two episodes were pretty magnificent basically because of what I was saying before about the role the kids played. Not only were all of their stories really moving, but I think casting them as the victims of the unfeeling bureaucracy rather than the cops made that theme hit home emotionally in a way that before that it was really doing primarily mentally. Like, we all know the drug war is a farcical assault on poor people, black people, civil liberties, common sense, and basic human decency, and now the system is rigged so that it really can’t be stopped. We all know that, which makes the point kind of an easy one to make, which is why I think all the political bloggers and mainstream-media critics love the show so much–they don’t even need to work AT ALL to find an ALLEGORY for the dark side of the American dream in this, because that’s what it’s about on a surface level. But making it about the kids and seeing how that rigid approach to fluid problems affects not just the police and the judicial system but also the education system and the political system kind of elevates it into that realm that I like so much, which is that notion that pretty much everything is terrible.

My one slight quibble is that Bodie’s change of heart in a positive direction was really just as sudden as D’Angelo’s change of heart in a negative direction at the end of Season One. Bodie didn’t get enough time this season for that to feel properly built up. Bubbles’s suicide attempt had a little more build-up but it still felt a little undercooked–maybe because he was discovered by Landsman, who didn’t have the history with him that Kima or even McNulty did?

—–

Date: Mar 9 2008
From: Kenneth Bromberg
To: Sean T. Collins
Re: Powering through The Wire Season Four

Ally and I discussed that first bit a lot after we watched the last
couple of episodes. We both felt that sort of character shift was a
very surprising weakness in an otherwise incredibly strong show. And
it was funny, because you could *see* that it was going to happen, and
that the shift was inevitable… but not because of any actual
character development that was going on. Just because it was an
inevitable part of the storyline.

—–

Date: Mar 9 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: Powering through The Wire Season Five

Okay, now I’m three eps deep into Season Five. Rough start if you ask me.

1) After the dock stuff and especially the school/kids stuff, having the latest left turn be into the newspaper world feels pretty self-indulgent. Compared to what happened to Randy, Dukie, Namond, and Michael, I really don’t care that the Sun shuttered its Beijing bureau.

2) You wanna talk about incongruous changes of direction in character, how about McNulty? If the reason he’s drinking and whoring and being a dickhead again is because he’s frustrated that he can’t make big cases, why wasn’t he drinking and whoring and being a dickhead when he was a beat cop for that year? I’m not just complaining because he’s stepping out on Amy Ryan, who by rights should make any Irishman happy as a pig in shit to come home to every night–I’m complaining because it feels like the writers got bored with him being a decent person and reverted to form.

3) And don’t even get me started about him making up a serial killer. I feel about that the way Bunk does. And Lester joining in? Another out-of-character moment. Doesn’t it occur to these two geniuses that even if their plan works, they might end up getting taken off the Marlo Stansfield investigation to work their non-existent serial killer?

4) Speaking of lying douchebags, I’m already sick of the fabulist at the newspaper. They could have at least cast an actor who doesn’t scream “I’m a dick!” just from looking at him. I know, I know, I hate unfair stuff and lying is unfair and that’s why I don’t like this storyline, but I don’t like this storyline.

5) Man OH man does Marlo and his crew of psychopaths have to go. The problem is that I don’t see how the writers WON’T kill Omar in the process of him taking Marlo down, which is pissing me off preemptively.

6) Wouldn’t it have just been easier to leak the shuttering of the investigation into the 22 rowhouse bodies to the press and get the money flowing again that way than making up a goddamn serial killer? Seriously, that’s annoying.

—–

Date: Mar 10 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Re: Powering through The Wire Season Five

Only three more episodes to go in the season. I feel like in this last episode it took a slight turn for the less infuriating, what with Gus finally starting to unravel Scott’s bullshit stories, Omar really going to work on Marlo’s people, and at least some tangible benefits for other cases stemming from Jimmy’s unbelievably cockamamie invent-a-psycho storyline.

But there are still so many problems:

* It’s not just that Jimmy and Lester are being dishonest, which would just be a flaw in the character, it’s that they’re also being stupid, which is OUT of character. As I predicted, their nonsense is keeping Bunk from ACTUALLY pinning a real murder on Marlo Stanfield–I had a feeling that Chris spitting on Michael’s abusive stepdad after he killed was stupid of Chris to do what with DNA and all, and they seem to be setting up that the DNA results, once the ME’s office actually gets to them, will crack the case. So they prevent this from happening. Jimmy also acts stunned that the serial killer he made up in order to get press and resources…is getting press and resources. No shit, sherlock. Now, this would all be mildly tolerable from Jimmy, who’s got a track record of douchebaggery toward anyone who gets in his way–but not Lester! Lester in fact CHEWED JIMMY OUT in Season Three for refusing to get with the program and give up on Stringer. Now he’s doing the exact same thing–worse, in fact! Nothing that’s happening now is any worse than what happened to Lester back then–let alone being exiled to the property unit for over a decade–so a “well, he finally just snapped” defense doesn’t make any sense for this behavior. And worst of all, they both seem oblivious to the fact that this could take down everyone involved–not just them and Sydnor, but Landsman, Daniels, Pearlman, anyone with any oversight who didn’t catch on. Fuck that. The problem isn’t one of good writing about bad people, it’s a problem of bad writing.

* Meanwhile, the newspaper storyline proceeds with everything playing out under the watchful eye of those two supercilious newsroom higher-ups–total caricatured buffoons with no nuance as characters whatsoever. I mean, just compare them to the multifaceted evil brass types like Bill Rawls and Ervin Burrell. I guess Simon really hated his editors? Fair enough, but working out his frustrations regarding the overuse of the word “Dickensian” in this hamfisted way makes for rotten characterization.

* The only storylines I’m really still invested in at this point are Bunk’s, Bubbles’s (every time he shows up it’s like a flashback to a different, better show), Michael & Dukie’s (ditto) and Omar’s. Kima’s too, but she’s not getting enough screentime. I’m mostly sitting around hoping that McNulty and Freamon don’t somehow screw over poor Daniels with their horseshit.

On the plus side, Marlo killing Proposition Joe indicates to me that Marlo will in fact get his comeuppance, because that’s what happens to characters who kill characters like Prop Joe. I also like how Marlo’s now hooked up with the show’s only other pure-dee archvillain, the Greek. And Carver is great any time he shows up, while when Herc stole Marlo’s cell number from Levy’s rolodex I literally cheered. And hey, John Munch cameo! I was wondering if they’d pull that off.

—–

Date: Mar 11 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Re: Powering through The Wire Season Five

Omar deserved better. Not a better death–a better show to die in.

—–

Date: Mar 11 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Re: Powering through The Wire Season Five

Okay, show’s over! Quick thoughts:

1) You just know that the argument in favor of how the show killed off Omar is gonna be “hey, there are no heroes in real life, people just get shot.” That would work if this were No Country for Old Men, but it isn’t. It’s a show where Omar and Brother Mouzone had a superhero team-up and, in the final episode, Son of Omar roams again! Just to be clear, I’m not agreeing with the people who’ve apparently complained all along that Omar is some bullshit fictional character, because he was SOOOOOO well-developed and such a fascinating and (I think) beautiful man. Michael Williams really gave the performance of a lifetime in his final episodes, when he really seems to be losing it over all the people who got killed just for knowing him, staggering around on a limp, voice on the edge of cracking all the time, destroying everything he touches. He was a MAGNIFICENT character, and they punked him to make a point every bit as preachy as having the moron editors voice the complaint that “if you just do a story about society’s ills, you throw in everything but have nothing”–ha ha ha, eat THAT, people who don’t like The Wire–breaking the show’s own established storytelling methods in doing so. Screw that.

2) And again, screw McNulty and Lester behaving not immorally–which is the whole point of the show–but RIDICULOUSLY. OF COURSE this would sink their case against Marlo, OF COURSE it would inspire copycat killings, OF COURSE it would devastate the families of the dead homeless, OF COURSE it would threaten the careers of decent people like Daniels and Ronnie and anyone else anywhere near it who had nothing to do with it. The writers made them idiots all of a sudden. Screw that.

3) And finally, screw the small-beer Sun storyline, which really does seem like Simon getting back at his bosses at the expense of his own show. It’s every bit as incongruous as Beethoven interrupting his 9th Symphony for a spoken-word monologue about how his piano tuner gypped him one time. They didn’t even TRY to make the two evil editors or the careerist bullshit artist reporter sympathetic or even multi-dimensional. Marlo practically comes off better. What’s even more frustrating is that this flat, undercooked storyline and the absurd serial-killer business ate up so much time in an already shortened season that actually interesting characters/storylines like Carcetti, the Season Four kids, and the raw detective work of tapping Marlo’s phones and decoding his code felt like afterthoughts.

4) Should Marlo have been killed? You bet. I swear this isn’t a case of me succumbing to Sopranos-fan-esque “they shoulda whacked him”-itis–Marlo is a really interesting character, but he has NO dimensions, he’s a pure sociopath. Having him reclaim a corner in a business suit tells us nothing about him we didn’t already know. Wanting him dead for all the outrageously heinous things he orchestrated isn’t shortchanging him–it’s the kind of resolution a character like that practically demands. And hey, if they can Sonny Corleone old Stringer Bell at the hands of Batman and the Punisher, there’s no room for a high horse about “people just get away with stuff.”

And oh yeah, Dukie becomes a junkie–yet another out-of-nowhere character reversal. Ridiculous!

—–

Date: Mar 12 2008
From: Sean T. Collins
To: Kenneth Bromberg
Subject: Overall thoughts

Is it an excellent show? Of course it is.

Now that I’m finished with it I’m catching up with some of the critical response to it and am sort of getting a sense for what people are focusing on with it. First up is the “radical” narrative structure where no one episode is “about” anything, they’re all just hour-long units that contain scenes from the ongoing storylines. To be honest I didn’t even notice that! In retrospect I can see how it went further in that direction than really any other show, but I do feel like watching The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and Twin Peaks (perhaps the last one most of all) primed me for being able to follow a show structured along those lines without any difficulty. Actually, that reminds me: Twin Peaks was just a riff on the way soap operas told stories, so seeing it that way, The Wire isn’t any more innovative in pure structural terms than All My Children. Still, kudos for going there.

And it’s obviously powerful politically and socially. Time and time again I was knocked on my ass by how awful things were for many of these characters–Wallace and his siblings’ apartment, that big bearded stevedore ending up homeless, Randy in the group home, and allllll those scenes of little kids witnessing murders or murder victims. Brutal and, I’m ashamed to say, eye opening.

In formal terms I can think of a grand total of one scene that I though overplayed its hand cinematographically–Ziggy’s shock after killing Double G–and that’s it. It’s a beautiful looking show. It’s a fantastically acted show–I mean, jesus, find a false note among any of the main performances. ANY of them, and there were, like, 60! And while there were some story arcs that are better than others (Seasons Two and Four over Seasons One and Three), with the exception of McNulty & Lester’s absurd meltdown and the wooden Evil Newspapermen in Season Five and those random character turn-arounds I’ve been talking about, it was written with dead-on precision in dialogue and plotting.

All that being said, I think it’s a much more WYSIWYG show than The Sopranos. I don’t think there’s much mystery to The Wire, in terms of what it’s saying about the characters, or their milieu. I just don’t feel like I had to do as much work as a viewer–I don’t think I was challenged to look at myself, for example. As I said, this is why I believe political writers are so fond of The Wire: their issues are tackled dead-on, like a position paper. Provided you dislike the drug war, No Child Left Behind, and Jayson Blair, you’re almost off the hook. Ultimately that’s why The Sopranos is better. The meaning is occulted and the indictment extends to everyone. Moreover I think it took fewer chances and reaped fewer rewards in terms of formal experimentation, editing, cinematography, tonal shifts, humor, satire…Even before the fairly disastrous final season, the notion that it’s not just better than The Sopranos but leaves it in the fucking dust just isn’t supportable to me.

And regarding the problems with the final season, see also this quote from David Simon about how he views audience objections to Season Five:

“Freamon had been told no for a long time, for most of his career. And McNulty? Shit, I think he’ll try anything once. His intellectual vanity has been on display since the first season. But if people didn’t believe it, they didn’t believe it. I’m second-guessing people a little bit, and that’s not fair–every viewer’s entitled to their own opinion. I think what they really didn’t believe was that their favorite characters were behaving in an unethical way. That bothered them. I think TV shows are supposed to deliver on certain things. Omar is supposed to go down in a blaze of glory. McNulty is supposed to either lose and suffer or finally win, but he’s not supposed to walk away from the rigged game and do something that bothers viewers.”

I knew this would be Simon’s defense of the serial killer storyline, but he’s wrong. The problem isn’t that McNulty and Freamon’s behavior is unethical–I mean, good people behaving badly has been the theme of the entire show! And the audience is used to that–it’s a core part of the show’s appeal. What we’re NOT used to is smart characters behaving like total morons all of a sudden, ignoring the obvious consequences of their cockamamie scheme (drawing resources away from other investigations, inspiring copycat killings, risking the careers of their friends like Daniels and Pearlman and Griggs and Sydnor and Carver, and on and on and on). Even if you put aside the fact that Lester sat in the property unit for over a decade without complaining, and that a couple of seasons back he chewed McNulty out for refusing to get with the program and investigate Kintel Williamson instead of Stringer Bell as ordered, it simply wasn’t believable that these two brilliant detectives would do something this ridiculous.

Moreover, Simon can wax superior to Omar going out in a blaze of glory all he wants–but that’s EXACTLY what happened to Stringer Bell! And, to an extent, Frank Sobotka. And Bodie, for crying out loud. And Snoop. And Wallace. And Prop Joe. With the exception of D’Angelo, almost all the major victims had a dramatic build-up to their demise. And as the emergence of Michael as Silver Age Omar shows, even AFTER they kill Omar they can’t resist mythologizing him. Which is fine! Just OWN it, and don’t break your own rules to make a lame point about how shit happens.