Friday, December 12, 2008

Evening Essay: "The Wire"

Five score and a handful of months ago, Old No. 7 called an all-staff House of Georges meeting of the ethics variety. The conference room was full of passion and disdain, and after the fact, Seven and I had a series of extensive phone conversations regarding, race, violence, and the American dream. Opinions were voiced, angst-riddled phrases were exchanged, and among other things, I was told the following: "Dude, you have got to check out season four of The Wire." It's kind of seldom that the man actually says something serious to me, so when he be fa'-real talkin', I be listenin'.

Stubborn prick that I am, though -- I can't dive into something like that; I've got to have the handle, the entire litter as opposed to the alleged pick. So I got on the NetFlix, and I ordered it up, one disc at a time, cordially interspersed with one movie for the wife, then one for me in between. Earlier this week, I finished the entire program, and I can't remember the last time I felt so thankful for a recommendation, so stunned by a production of any kind. And I say all that to say this: There is nothing current-events-related about this post. The Wire called it a wrap and ended their fifth and final season earlier this spring. But, like Jim Gaffigan says,

it's frustrating when you see a movie for the first time that everyone else has already seen ages ago, and you want more than anything to talk to someone about it. That's the position I'm in right now, so I'm talkin'.

Every once in a while, people are moved, and that's how I felt watching the credits of every single episode of this HBO series. The viewing experience was quite the marriage of adrenaline and dismay, one that fostered some kids by the names of outrage and inspiration. I'd get a disc with two to four episodes on it, and at my first opportunity, power through the whole thing, and find myself literally motionless on the couch, treading the depths of ponder. First thing the next morning, I'd get it in the mailbox and wait, oftentimes updating my queue if we hadn't gotten around to the movie on hand. In that exchange would come a fond animosity that wavered from hatred toward the postal service for taking half-days on Saturday and Sunday off, and a relief knowing that I was actually buying more time before the program would end, given that there are only five seasons. But this thing, this magnifi-tastic monster that David Simon and Ed Burns put together blew me away, and I'm not interested in attempting to convince folks to watch it. I'm really not. You simply do or you don't.

But I've got to talk about it, nine months (Editor's Note: Or five years; your pick.) late or not.

One common theme I've discovered surrounding folks that have discussed it or written about it is the program's realness. And for the record, you bumpkin Oklahomans, that word is pronounced "pro.gram., not "PRO-grum." But the show, even though I've never spent a prostitute's hour in the ghetto or a mayor's week in a city hall, is real. In season one, we're turned on to the Avon Barksdale drug ring, one that is henched by his main man, Stringer Bell. It should also be noted that I'm not going to apologize for ruining anything for folks who haven't seen it. This is an essay, not a preview. I watched all of the cast/producer commentary at the conclusion of the program, and one line (among many) really struck me, and it came from Delaney Williams, who played Sergeant Jay Landsman, and it went something to the tune of "At the end of season three, I had to wear a t-shirt that said 'I had nothing to do with the killing of Stringer Bell' for like six months."

You know, here in the blogospheres, you see the occasional writer or commenter that has a goofy screen name like Angelo Pappas or Morpheus or Stringer Bell, so it was of some surprise to me that there were actually fans of that character out there. The guy, played by Idris Elba, was a total, complete piece of mad-cow-riddled calf shit. The wretched, steamy kind with a pack of flies hovering. I didn't stand up for Barksdale; I was of course a fan of (Dominic West's character) Jimmy McNulty to the bitter end. I did, however, appreciate the way Barksdale did business, and I even liked that his power followed him to the clink in a seemingly authentic way. My point: Fuck Stringer Bell. If ever I start a new Web site, the domain will be Also in the realm of side notes, listening to West speak in the commentary was like listening to someone interview Bob Marley. That shit fascinates me while it drives me to pull my testicles from my scrotum. When Marley sings, his English is annunciated and audible. When he speaks, his Jamaican drawl is far from comprehendible. When West acts, his American dialect is perfect; when he speaks as himself, it's back to wanker-ese, and I feel like composing a song called "Just Fucking Speak Normal Already."

Anyway, season one reveals the drug ring, the power, the money, and the same aspects of the Baltimore Police Department officers trying to track it and beat it. In season two, they re-craft the art of intelligent. That is, instead of delving deeper into the introduced scenario, they go the opposite direction: global. Cops, along with the curious citizen, want to know where the drugs are coming from. With that comes an implication of "find the drug boss and the thing's solved." This approach actually tackles where the drugs are coming from, like, who's bringing them to the boss. In that roost come dozens of eggs that hatch hooker smuggling, rugged blue-collar life, and conspiracy. Amazing stuff. An odd transition to adjust to, but really God-damned amazing, nonetheless. The puppeteers of the show are able to do this by an examination of a major Baltimore industry: overseas shipping receiving. Like its predecessor, the season educated and found a new way to exemplify how people's lives be bein'.

Somewhere in the mix of this, politics is introduced, hand-in-hand with money, blackmailing, power, and corruption, or, as I like to put it, "da' troof from da' boof'." The politicians want to eliminate symbols of drugs, gangs, violence, and poverty, and there's a massive moment where they detonate some apartment complex towers, edifii that define certain cast characters' entire lives. Yet, the drug ring works around it, finds new methods. Barksdale gets out of prison, secrets unfold, and dabbled in there like an accidental paint splotch, is the Brother Joe character who's outsourced from New York to come down and fend off the newcomer drug fellas. He's quite the presence. His re-appearance later in the program was masterfully done as he and Omar Little -- my even-though-I-have-like-six-way-tie favorite character from the entire series -- mow down Bell with the efficiency of a self-propelled Lawn Boy.

And season three, which appropriately did away with Bell after seeing him scammed by lawyers and property developers, is quite the Sangria of issues. We get back to the drug ring, get more detailed on the police investigation, but we also get into Baltimore politics, we dive into the mind of a newly released-from-prison, former gang-banger, and we look at a perhaps-insane attempt to tackle the inconceivably cumbersome animal that is the quote war on drugs. This all leads us to season four, and the impetus for Seven's insistence.

In season four, which by the way is not necessarily my favorite, the producers and writers deliver, in a word, culmination. As a blogger, I often wrestle with other gay men in unitards the logistics of cursing. In one venue, you can't be taken seriously if you drop eff bombs, while in the other, the liberty provides the opportunity to -- as one might think -- get the point across. But, Andre Royo, in an interview with the Smoking Section, says it best:

"In every season, I’ve had a great moment or great episodes. But the fourth season it was just everything just lined up, everything was powerful and the flow of the whole show, it never dropped...When I was growing up, my parents and everybody was having these parties. And it would be like a round table, and they would say, ‘It’s the school system,’ or they would say, ‘It’s the government,’ or they would say, ‘It’s the family,’ and they would argue all night, but in reality they were all right. Everything matters. You can’t just fix one thing and leave everything else fucked up. It won’t work. You gotta fix it all, know what I’m saying? And the fourth season just made that really, really clear. Everything is connected and everything has an effect on the other."

That quote defines the show. It really does, and I have to hand it to whoever at Smoking Section lined that shit up. This is the shaved almonds of the cereal Old No. 7 was spooning: It's all fucked. Understand that that statement doesn't come with a surrenderous white flag or a shrug to the Final Jeopardy question. It's an analysis. When talking about people, one member of one demographic can't finger another with the mindset of opportunity ignorance. The thought behind all of this is that if the drug ring is out there and even seven year-olds are a part of it, you can't chunk the education system in there or slice the economy out of the pie, or head nod in the direction of politics. You can't, and I can't. We, on many occasions, will, regardless. Because we want to fix things, because we want a perfect world wherein at the grocery-store endcaps of life, the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie issues, the Madonna-and-the-Pope chats are our biggest concerns. Not the future of our offspring. Not the decay of our hometown cities. Not the actually never-ending cycles of non-consideration of life. This television program is about life. And not their life. Not his life. Or her life. It's about our life. It's about our cluelessness with regard to how to improve it.

That last sentence isn't an insult. I am the perfect example of a clueless individual. I wrap my aorta around the traffic this blog doesn't get. I'm embarrassed multiple times in a week when folks mention news items I've never heard of, ones that are already months old. My year teeter-totters on The Tradition. I feel that I am like most animals within this human species: I can be a good leader at one or two things, but for others, I need a leader to follow. I could rally my energies around a feasible solution to school systems, to violent crime, but how intimidated am I by the notion of determining the starting point to fix it? Really dang intimidated.

I dunno. Maybe this guy

was a step in the direction we were seeking. Maybe he wasn't. Maybe there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. Maybe we're all in this mess until we figure out a way to fix it ourselves. Maybe we never will. But I naturally digress. We've gone to non-recognizable efforts to clarify that this blog is not about politics. This blog also isn't about television. This blog, at the risk of sounding Muenster, is about freedom. We have the capability of talking with the abundancy of oxygen, about our two favorite football teams, and whether or not one can or will beat the other and triumph. And that freaking rules.

But the fourth season goes into the schools, it introduces a quartet of young actors who play kids. They all portray crucial -- that word might get thrown around a lot but it's really significant here -- roles in terms of real world. You got Randy, Duquan, Michael, and Namond. And I ain't tryin' to get all Whitney Houston here. I ain't. But these kids are the future. The characters these youths play are real. They are. Again: Never done no time in no ghetto, but the point of this post is that this stuff is real. It's the Meyer of Oscar, yo. At one time or another, in the heart of their eighth-grade year, each one of these kids has a glimmer of a chance to go in a positive direction. One does. The rest become under-the-bed dust mites, products of the system, which doesn't lead down the path of positivity.

School. I don't know how or why, but somehow, some way, there has to be a means for change in school. Now, I don't own a soap box, and even if I did, I wouldn't be tightening my shoelaces. I'm talking about a portrayal on television. A real one.

Season five.

Given that I'm just under 48 hours of having finished it, I'm still not done processing. There are things that happened in those 10 1/2 episodes that absolutely murdered me. In fact, most of the concepts birthed in that season did. But like a gargle of warm salt water, I took them. But only for one reason. I tell you, I don't watch a lot of TV. I see a fair amount of movies, but almost always late, and on the rare occasion that I deem one "really good," my opinion of the movie as a whole is ruined by the ending. Take "No Country for Old Men" for example. Couldn't believe that what's-his-name, the dude from "The Goonies," the good guy, bit the bullet. Couldn't freaking believe it. I was flabbergasted that his ol' lady was killed off. And I was lock-jawed at the fact that the bad dude got away. Those events are crucial to the theme of the storyline. That I get. But I'm a fuddy duddy, or something like that. I want justice. I don't always need a happy ending, but I look for redemption, and for scores to be settled. When they don't happen like that, I'm pissed. Great movie either way, and many props to Cormac McCarthy, one of the greatest authors of our day. But in The Wire, I feel -- at least now -- like I needed some more redemption than I got. And this isn't a criticism of the show; it was a real canvas.

It was so real, that I, stubborn prick that I am, was fine with it. Because I knew it was real. And I knew it wasn't about a huge payday, or an Emmy. It was about making good television that served the purpose of a message, and I'm not the first to say it, but allow me: That was what Brown could do for me. I happen to like truth. I happen to like progress. I happen to like good writers and even hope to one day be one.

In conclusion (Note: Has a worse introductory phrase ever been invented?), I am mildly embarrassed to admit that I don't know that the purpose of this post was beyond writing about The Wire. It is phenomenal. Like cooler than Transformers. And I, a few weeks beyond Thanksgiving, couldn't be more thankful for having experienced the best television ever made.

There is the aspect of the fifth season that I have not yet touched on: the newspaper. Killer angle. The producers deliver some incredible newsroom angles and successfully address issues associated with the allegedly dying form of media: print. I've always been an optimist. I've always felt confident that the Chiefs will one day win a Super Bowl before my children put me in a nursing home, and I've, in recent years, felt that print journalism will rebound. I've also been called a fool on more occasions than there are words in this post. So who knows. The way things shake down for McNulty are rough, and the same goes with the city desk editor of the Baltimore Sun. In essence, there's a truckload full of bullshit dealt to the guys fighting for what's right. Further defining the galactic scope of what's wrong with "things," they lose. Tremendous insight, though. We also get an edge into some police work that only seeks the right thing, and we spy on some attorney-based corruption as well. And the thing, the final episode, wraps up with a full-circle examination of how things be. How things've been. How they will continue to be.

I'm sure that I've read a novel that exploded my cortex, met a woman that rocked my Tropic of Capricorn, and heard a song that gave me daydreams of rockstardom, but I cannot recall any that moved me as much as this production.

Cheers to David Simon, Ed Burns, and of course, Old No. 7.