After more than a year’s hiatus, the final season of The Wire debuted tonight. By popular demand, we’re back with the weekly blogging. If you’ve been catching up on the DVDs recently–and if you haven’t been, you should start–see here for the final post from last season (or just search for “wire” in the search box at right for the whole list), and here at the Guardian Unlimited for my take on why it’s the greatest American television program (sorry, “programme”) ever made. Matt Yglesias also wrote a good post last week arguing that while series creator David Simon’s pessimistic worldview may be objectively overstated, it’s essential for the series’ artistic success. Bonus: a response from Simon himself in the comments thread.
Episode 1 summary: Carcetti shuts down the Major Crimes Unit investigation of the Marlo / Chris / Snoop organization and rowhouse mass murders because he’s sucking money of out the police budget to cover the school fiscal crisis (and because he won’t take school money from the governor he plans to unseat). McNulty is drunk and angry again, which is bad for his relationship with Beadie but good for the viewership generally. Bubbles is clean, and if there’s an ounce of sympathy in David Simon’s soul, which there may not be, which may be a good thing, he’ll end up okay.
Herc is gone from the force and working for Levy, which means he’s working for the criminals he used to incompetently try to put in jail. Whether this is a net plus for the murderers and drug dealers of Baltimore remains to be seen. Herc is so dumb that he can’t even figure out how to abuse his expense account. (A lobbyist friend of mine taught me this a long time ago, when I tried to beg off his paying for lunch on the grounds that we had discussed nothing business-related. “I don’t care if my clients pay for your lunch” he said. “But if they don’t pay for yours, they don’t pay for mine.”) Marlo is scheming against Prop Joe and Method Man.
The Baltimore Sun, meanwhile, is apparently much like all the other important instutitions in the city: declining, absurd, and led by incompetents, but populated by a few smart, flawed-but-noble individuals who haven’t stopped fighting for the greater ideals the institution represents. In this case, that would be Meldrick Lewis from Homicide:Life on the Streets, who’s now ten years older and more of a stickler for usage.
In many ways, however, there’s not a lot to say about Episode 1, because not a lot happens, which is the way every season of The Wire begins, which is one of the many reasons it’s so great. The Wire is only the only show I’ve ever seen that fully takes advantage of long-form television’s greatest asset: time. The typical movie runs 120 minutes, 200 at most. That’s more time than a 44-minute TV episode, but you’ve still got to accomplish a great deal of character and narrative development in a small space. A series has more potential in theory, but for a long time every TV episode was structured like a 44-minute movie, with the additional burden of having to structure the plot around commercial breaks. The 1980s saw the introduction of season-long story arcs in the better dramas, but even those only went halfway, interspersing stand-alone episodes and continuing to give every episode some kind of beginning, middle, and end. Even critically-hailed series like The Sopranos still work this way.
The Wire, by contrast, is essentially one story in five chapters, a season per. The first few episodes are all about establishing characters, settings, and themes, and only as the story progresses do you start to see how it’s all connected. The Wire also packs much more into each minute, simply by not wasting time explaining things to the viewer. Most TV shows are absolutely clogged with clunky expository dialogue (Typical C.S.I. scene: Grissom: “The body is completely exsanguinated.” Coroner: “You’re right, Grissom, all the blood has been drained from the body.”) The Wire does you the favor of assuming you’re not stupid. Like all art worth experiencing, it asks you to pay attention. The result is a cumulative dramatic force that’s unmatched. It also leaves room for lots of small, understated moments pregnant with meaning, like when Beadie decides she’s left the light on for McNulty long enough…and then changes her mind, for at least a little while longer.
Next week: The Sun’s dubious editor decides to gin up an expose of the school systemm. which mean’s we’ll get to go all meta on TQATE by discussing fictional critiques of shaky education news coverage right along side the real thing.