'The Wire,' Crackling With Heat

By Tom Shales
Sunday, January 6, 2008

Merely facing hopeless truths mitigates hopelessness. Crises become somehow less daunting for having been confronted, and therein lies one of the triumphs of HBO's "The Wire," returning Sunday for its fifth and, sad to say, final season. "The Wire" proves again, and with lacerating brilliance, that blurring the line between fact and fiction can be a very good thing. Good television, good conduct, good news.

Set and shot in Baltimore -- although at least one civic leader reportedly had concerns about the show -- "The Wire" started out being mostly about drug traffic in the city, especially the most squalid and impoverished parts of it. But over the years, "The Wire" has grandly expanded in scope. Now it's about everything -- or everything that's likely to have gone wrong in a big American city of the 21st century. Thus another of its accomplishments, one that can be stated simply: It succeeds strikingly at getting what's wrong just right.

"The Wire" is a gruelingly edgy combination of complexity and clarity, written and acted to the highest standards of the best TV drama. It's not just good, it's passionately good; the implicit dedication of those before and behind the cameras makes the show immediate and compelling and a potential modern classic as well -- a show very much of its time and yet in many ways timeless.

For those who live in Washington and its suburbs, "The Wire" has always seemed literally close to home -- its microcosmic Baltimore just up I-95 -- and in the final season, it gets closer. Series creator and executive producer David Simon makes "the media" one of the major narrative arenas this time, of particular interest to a media-mad town such as D.C. Even as those engaged in law enforcement find themselves hampered by insufficient resources and dwindling funds, so are the big-city dailies -- in "The Wire's" case, the Baltimore Sun -- facing a scary new age of economic crisis and technological change that really is rife with life-or-death issues.

Now, a discussion of "important media issues" would be a hard-sell item on television except maybe on one of those very-early-morning talk shows, the ones with two chairs and a potted plant for a set. But Simon and his many colleagues have managed to dramatize the nagging problems and distressing implications in ways that work very well as storytelling and as debate. The seriousness and scope of the crisis become harrowingly real not only in the dialogue -- there's relatively little outright speechifying -- but in plotlines and story arcs, as well.

In a cover letter to critics and editors, Simon asks that those plotlines not be revealed in reviews of the show. That insidious Web that is such a threat to the press turns out to have a dark side for TV producers, too; Simon writes that a "mislaid" or stolen copy of fourth-season episodes circulated on the Web beforehand so that, "well prior to broadcast, the entire season was being posted on Internet sites, with discussions or plotlines, character deaths and such becoming grist for much online commentary." Simon pleads for restraint "to protect our viewers and your readers," not even mentioning the interests of HBO and the producers of "The Wire."

That might hamper discussion of plausibility matters and such (seven of the final season's 10 hour-long episodes were made available, with the remaining three to follow), but it's highly likely that viewers who watched one or more, or all, of the previous seasons have already put the final season of "The Wire" on their list of appointment television absolutes.

What about those who've only seen one season or, worse, none at all? The story will be hard to follow at first, and there's no evidence of the writers going out of their way to spell out who's who and who did what to whom in the past. (If each episode will open with a "previously on 'The Wire' " recap, those weren't included on the critics' screeners and would likely be of limited usefulness if present.)

But you'll find that if you sit up straight (this is definitely not laid-back TV), pay attention and connect what dots are available, things will be falling into place by the second episode if not sooner. By the time the series shuts down, there will have been more than 250 speaking parts, but characters who qualify as major become evident fairly quickly -- even if few of them, as things develop, fall tidily and conveniently into "good guy" or "bad guy" pigeonholes.

Indeed, one of the most affecting deaths to occur within the first seven hours is the casually committed assassination of an underworld kingpin, a figure who hasn't been made warm and cuddly but who does have a dignity and even a nobility about him that get to you in subtle, sneaky ways. His expiration is reminiscent of Abe Vigoda's famous farewell in "The Godfather," but with less overt pathos.

There's a striking contrast between this efficient, savvy mobster and a cop who's essentially a perpetual lit fuse, burning perhaps even in his sleep. When neighborhood kids play a prank on him, the guy goes ballistic, overreacting beyond all sensibility and perhaps thus planting a portent or two for some hellacious climactic blood bath to come. We're not saying there is one, mind you, and not just because we don't know. As far as violence goes, there's at least one episode in which not a single soul is dispatched to eternity, nor even a gun fired, but when violence does occur, it's delivered with full force, personally painful no matter how many dozens, hundreds, thousands of bodies one might have seen blown asunder on movie and TV screens over the years. One killing is especially shocking because it is so nonchalant -- a veritable afterthought, committed almost out of boredom. The indifference seems more reprehensible, maybe even more vicious, than a planned, deliberate killing would be.

The cops and the press regularly co-opt one another, or try to, especially in the course of a major story line involving an attempt by a seasoned and cynical homicide detective -- Dominic West as James McNulty, with the show from the beginning -- to secure more manpower, overtime and up-to-date equipment for his unit. The plan goes haywire, backfires, flip-flops and takes other odd turns that are part of the Life of Its Own, as if it were some piece of high-tech gadgetry gone amok.

McNulty's chief opposite is Jamie Hector as Marlo Stanfield, who has risen from the ranks of the youthful mob to a position of slick, heartless leadership, executing a plan -- or ordering the execution of an enemy -- with the iced cunning of a corporate chieftain. The number of outstanding performances borders on uncountable, yet nobody comes off as too showy or with that "Look Ma, I'm Acting" smugness. Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters are both bulwarks as detectives "Bunk" Moreland and Lester Freamon, who both have to decide whether true friendship calls for unquestioning loyalty to a buddy or an occasional sobering slap in his face.

Actors playing underworld figures seem to have taken care not to come off as too "cool" in the way they look, move, talk and generally behave. Hector's Stanfield is definitely a charismatically amoral presence, however. So is Felicia Pearson as Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, so liberated a woman that she can aim and shoot a handgun without the slightest tremor or doubt, nor even a blink.

The names of the gangsters suggest updated Damon Runyon, colorful monikers being a sort of revered tradition among lawbreakers -- and "Snoop" Pearson being just one of a gallery that also includes Cheese, Bug, Beadie, Fatface Rick and, as elegantly and unflappably played by the imposing Robert F. Chew, Joe "Proposition Joe" Stewart.

Although Simon himself spent 13 years at the Sun (another "Wire" writer, William F. Zorzi, is also an alumnus) and David Mills, who authored the fourth of the new episodes, once worked in the vaunted Style section of The Washington Post, the portrait of the working press is by no means glossy or painted pretty. A desperately ambitious hotshot named Scott Templeton, played by Tom McCarthy, sets a major plotline in motion when he pulls a stunt roughly similar to one pulled by reporter Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra and Robert Riskin's "Meet John Doe." Only much worse over the long haul.

Templeton leaves Baltimore briefly in one episode for a job interview at The Post; at least one Post editor is portrayed as the proverbial effete snob, connected only tenuously to the real world as lived by most of the paper's readers. At least one Sun editor, too, is the hyper-tailored type who sports suspenders and crisp imported shirts and has a fondness for using words such as "Dickensian" to dignify pretentious hooey.

Editors and reporters bandy lofty words about, and claim to want more space to investigate issues of great public concern, but seem thrilled beyond words when they can seize on a juicy serial-killer saga and splash it across the top of Page One. As it happens, the story is largely a phony, wherein lies only a portion of the trouble that the cops and the press create for each other. Whether all hell will break loose in the last chapter I do not know, but quite a bit of hell breaks loose in the first seven -- enough for "The Wire" to be even more unnerving and essential than ever.

Talk of "buyouts" and "layoffs" and anal-retentive corporate owners lusting for a healthy bottom line helps keep "The Wire's" portrayal of an endangered press timely and troubling. In the third episode, there's a lovely speech by a career journalist that sums up, without rhetoric, some of what's at stake as even great papers shrink in size and circulation. The man reminisces about his childhood and how his father decreed 15 minutes each morning as inviolate and indispensable -- the time he spent at the breakfast table with The Morning Paper. Even as a boy, the man recalls, "I knew I wanted to be a part" of what so firmly captivated his father.

Although various directors worked on the series, "The Wire" is always sure-footed and straightforward. It's not about technique -- blinkety-blink editing or jumpy-bumpy camerawork. The absence of gimmickry and the presence of respect for the story and the audience give "The Wire" organic advantages over nearly all other TV dramas, whether they deal with cops and crime or birds and bees. Which is to say: If you want to see the television of tomorrow, it's on HBO tonight.

The Wire (one hour) airs tonight on HBO.

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