Monday, September 17, 2007

The best TV show of all time?

I concur with this article, from The Wire is brilliant and the unbelievably brilliant fourth season is about to be released on If you don't watch TV, buy one for this show.

For a while, people -- not just critics, but the show's creators, too -- were going around claiming that "The Wire" is like a novel. What can this mean, except that the series is not like what most of us think of as TV? Specifically, it's not like the cop show you're picturing as I tell you that "The Wire" is about the Major Case Squad in the Baltimore Police Department and the black drug dealers it tries to bring down. The series is complex, with a lot of characters, and it's never going to hold your hand through the intricate curlicues of each season's story line. You have to pay attention, even when you're not sure what's going on.

But since a novel may or may not share these qualities, since a novel can be just about any kind of story these days, it might help to know that "The Wire" is also not like, say, a Dickens novel. It indulges in neither sentimentality nor moral goading. Each season has a social theme -- the failure of the war on drugs, the collapse of labor unions, the hash of local politics and, last time around, the crippled public school system -- but "The Wire" lacks the Victorian naiveté to believe that any of us will be sufficiently riled up by these tragedies to do anything about them, or that we'd succeed if we tried.

"The Wire" is also not like the crime novels produced by some of its most celebrated contributing writers (George Pellecanos, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price) because, as is only proper, those books deal in questions answered and narratives resolved. Novels end, but the vast, fascinating, unspooling mess that is the Baltimore of "The Wire" can have no conclusion. The storytellers may stop telling it, but the story itself will go on. If every last character we've loved and hated in the series over the past five years were to roll over and die, it would still go on, with us or without us.

What "The Wire" is about is the game. The "game" is what the show's black characters call the drug business, but the smarter players know that the game's boundaries are not so finite. Although the series is scrupulously realistic (its creator, David Simon, is a former Baltimore Sun crime reporter and his writing partner, Ed Burns, is an ex-homicide detective), there is one improbably romantic character: the maverick stick-up artist Omar Little -- beholden to no one, afraid of nothing, resolute in his abstention from curse words and the injury of "taxpayers," and, last but not least, gay. Leave it to Omar, the show's only true outsider, to state the series' premise while pulling off a bit of prime courtroom rhetoric in a scene from Season 2. Testifying against a soldier of the dreaded Barksdale gang, accused by the gang's sanctimonious lawyer of leeching off the drug trade, Omar coolly tells the shyster: "Just like you ... I got the shotgun; you got the briefcase. It's all in the game."

But, like I said, Omar is the exception. The rest of the characters in "The Wire" are trapped, and depending upon their intelligence and insight, they are more or less at peace with that fact. When thinking about the mood, the ethos of "The Wire," what comes to mind (rather than "War and Peace" or "For Whom the Bell Tolls") is a moment in the last book of "The Iliad" when old Priam, the king of Troy, sneaks into the camp of the Greeks to plead with the Greek warrior Achilles to return the body of his son, Hektor. Priam implores Achilles to remember his own father, who hopes to see his son again someday, and who (both men realize) never will.

"A single, all-untimely child he had," Achilles replies, relenting, "and I give him no care as he grows old, since far from the land of my fathers I sit here in Troy and bring nothing but sorrow to you and your children." From the hotheaded Achilles, this comes as a weary sigh. He is far from the father he loves, embroiled in a pointless war, mourning the death of his best friend and facing a grieving man whose son's corpse he has desecrated in a fit of misdirected rage. Someday he, too, will be similarly bereft. Yet how could it be otherwise? These men are warriors, born to fight; this is what the gods who control their destinies decree.

"The Iliad" is only one poem from a series known as the Epic Cycle ("The Odyssey" is another; the rest are lost), full of dead heroes and the fathers (and mothers and wives and children) who mourn them. This story, too, goes on and on. Death, loss, enslavement, the ruination of all their hopes and dreams, and yet in the midst of the world's stony realities, as inevitable as the wine darkness of the sea and the rosy fingers of dawn, there can be heroism, courage, honor. Just don't expect things to change; all of this is part of the game, and in "The Iliad" the game is war.

The characters in "The Wire" inhabit such a world. The gods may have different names; instead of Apollo and Juno pulling the strings, it's the bureaucracy, party politics, the free market: all equally capricious and implacable. Anyone who tries to alter the system -- be it Stringer Bell aiming to turn legit businessman, Bunny Colvin experimenting with decriminalizing drugs in "Hamsterdam" or Frank Sobotka struggling to save his beloved stevedores union from its inevitable demise -- will be crushed. The best they can hope for is to clean up one little corner of their world; Bunny may not be able to save the neighborhood, but at the end of Season 4, he managed to save one kid. To thrive, you have to learn to fly low and kiss up, and if you're unfortunate enough to be afflicted with a sense of vocation, you play it like that smooth operator, Bunk Moreland, not like that perennial troublemaker, Jimmy McNulty.

In a way, it doesn't make sense to talk of "The Wire" as the best American television show because it's not very American. The characters in American popular culture are rarely shown to be subject to forces completely beyond their control. American culture is fundamentally Romantic, individualistic and Christian; when it's not exhorting you to "follow your dream" it's reassuring us that in the eleventh hour, we will be saved. American culture is a perpetual pep talk, trafficking in tales of personal redemption and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. We don't do doom. "The Wire" is not Romantic but classical; what matters most in its universe is fulfilling your duty and facing the inexorable with dignity.

I can't argue that the classical view is superior to the Romantic one; to even introduce the idea that art is meant to nudge us toward moral improvement and social awareness is to concede to Romantic hope. But for some people, in some places, the classical view is more true, and in such cases, the artist's duty is to show us that these lives are no smaller for that. And it is -- as we always, always seem to forget -- not depressing but strangely exhilarating to see this truth about humanity acknowledged for once. It may not be the only truth, but it's a truth all the same.


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