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TV Review: The Wire Returns, Bringing “Boys of Summer”

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Like a new chapter in a grand and sweeping novel, The Wire returned tonight, opening up its fourth season on HBO. Perhaps The Great American Novel is making way for something else. If that's so, I'd argue that The Wire is a Great American Story, made up of some of the richest and most fully realized characters ever to grace the television screen. And like The Sopranos, a Great American Story that just happens to be about mob guys and their families, The Wire just happens to be about cops and drug dealers and politicians.

But it's really about people and their stories and lives, the way the best stories always are. The sum is greater than the parts, which are of course meticulously constructed from outstanding writing, superlative acting, and marvelously realistic and gritty and beautiful images of Baltimore, the stage on which The Wire takes shape. The show seamlessly flips between characters with no conscious decision to cast any in "good" or "bad" light. All are just doing their thing, getting by, doing the best they can, just like all of us.

Episode One does a wonderful job of (re)-introducing and then transitioning through the myriad of characters, checking in and advancing the story of each as the viewer is caught up on events and circumstances. It's also nothing less than miraculous that there is no true main character or even characters on The Wire. Baltimore is the main character, maybe, or human nature, or crime, or justice (or lack thereof), or some combination of them all. Or maybe it's McNulty and his hopes and demons, after all.

The beginning of the fourth season was significant both for the new characters and situations introduced as well as some major players that do not show up at all (Omar and Bubbles and Avon Barksdale most significantly, as well as the police brass that played such a major role in Season Three).

New to the scene is a quartet of middle-schoolers from the hood, kids poised in such a way that we're not sure which side of the law they'll eventually end up on. We spend the most time getting to know Randy, a good-looking kid with corn rows who sells candy and seems to be reasonably well looked after by his mother, and DuQuan, a poor, awkward, and outcast boy who is nonetheless obviously bright.

After DuQuan is bloodied up, the neighborhood kids decide they must retaliate as they are the only ones with the right to beat him up. Randy devises a plan to lure the larger, older group of offenders into an ambush of piss-filled balloons. This backfires rather quickly, however, and turns violent.

Later on, Randy is lured himself into a more serious storyline involving gang-related murders between Marlo's crew and the remnants of Barksdale's guys. Fruit, a Marlo dealer introduced to us in Season Three, gets brutally shot in the face at point-blank range over a beef involving a girl. Randy later agrees to a request that, unbeknownst to him at the time, leads to a payback murder. How this terrible knowledge affects the boy will be something to watch.

Marlo, for his part, is now coolly and confidently wearing the drug kingpin crown that he sought (Barksdale-man Bodie tells Lex early on that "Marlo has the city by the ass"). Even the police, for now, can't understand how he can be controlling so much of the city's drug trade without "bodies dropping."

It seems, however, that his people are adept at stashing bodies in hard-to-find places (a trip to a hardware store to purchase a high-end nail gun and a scene in which creepily young hit men, Snoop and Chris, board up an abandoned row house bookend the show). Marlo and crew is also up on Lester and Kima's famous bulletin board as the target for their ongoing quest to get "hard targets" "up on a wire," so the chase will be on soon enough.

The school system is a new setting in the ever-evolving focus of The Wire's eye this season. Prez, who left the police force after a series of awful decisions (and some brilliant behind-the-scenes investigative work), is now teaching at a Middle School. The principal and vice principal launch from "lambs to the slaughter" talk at the sight of him (white, clean cut) to visibly impressed when they learn he used to be "a police."

There's a brilliant back-and-forth that takes place where we see teachers getting trained to say IALAC (I am loveable and capable) as police officers are getting trained on terrorism "soft targets." The implication is that both training environments are wildly out of step with the realities of the street.

Politics are taking an ever-increasing role on the show. This was underscored by the emphasis on Tommy Carcetti's long shot campaign to get elected as a white mayor of Baltimore. Carcetti must split the black vote between incumbent Mayor Royce and fellow city councilmen and (former) friend Tony Gray if he has any shot at winning. Royce, a crafty politician but seemingly poor administrator (crime is way up) – perhaps a commentary for how our leaders tend to first win our vote before proceeding to fail us – muses that Carcetti needs to learn what it's like to be "out in the woods."

And off into the woods Carcetti is, which makes for some of the lighter moments of the episode, such as a high minded speech he issues to a bunch of bored constituents at a senior center before being asked by an old lady, "Is it the Salisbury steak for lunch today, or is they doing tacos?"

Comedy comes from strange and unexpected corners on The Wire, such as when Detective Bunk Moreland offhandedly says to Lester, "You my real partner, Lester – my life partner," to which Lester replies, "Don't tease, bitch!" As Lester walks away, Bunk drawls, "Look at that bow-legged motherfucker… I made him walk like that."

At other times the humor is more ironic or pointed, such as when Bodie says of his underachieving drug dealers, "Young 'uns don't have a scrap of work ethic nowadays." And particularly subtle and effective were the drug dealers' cries of "Pandemic! Pandemic!" as a way of announcing what likely is a new street-name for the product.

As the multiple storylines play out, I'm hopeful that we'll see more of McNulty, who still seems to be trying to continue his mission of getting to know his community rather than simply "cracking heads." It's great to have a show smart enough to respect the intelligence of its viewers, to allow us to figure out what this might mean.

Maybe it's a commentary on US foreign policy in the Middle East, or perhaps it’s a cry to tone down racial profiling and brutal police tactics in inner cities. Or maybe it's just McNulty being McNulty.

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  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Kudos for drawing attention to the best show on television. I am astounded at how the cast continues to grow in size, yet none of the characterizations suffer. In a brief couple of scenes, we get all we need to know without being spoon-fed.

    If you have HBO On-Demand, they already have episode 4.2 up to watch.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Thanks El B — if it’s not the best show on television, it’s very very close.

    Much like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, I get obsessed with Top Fives. Top Five TV Shows that are still currently running would be a great one. The Wire is a shoe-in, and I think I’d fill out the list with The Shield, The Sopranos, Rescue Me, and maybe Lost squeezes into the final slot.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I’ve been trying to cut out shows, so I never gave Lost or Rescue Me a chance.

    While I watch and enjoy them both, The Shield is to predictable and at times unbelievable, such as Vic and Whitaker’s wife. The Sopranos takes to long to accomplish very little.

    If there wasn’t a mini-season left, I would have given up on The Sopranos. It feels like there’s a number of TV shows taking place, but I only get glimpses of each, so it’s never satisfying. They leave too many threads open as if the writers just give up.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Interesting, El B — you seem to dislike both predictability and the leaving of “too many open threads,” which presumably goes against the grain of your expectations!

    I’m also surprised that you like The Wire so much, a show that famously leaves storylines messy and open.

    In any event, The Shield is a very different show than the The Wire, and admittedly less realistic. However, it ups the ante on intensity and suspence like very few shows I’ve ever seen. The Sopranos may or may not end on the highest of notes (I’m still hopeful, by the way) but on its worst day is still better than most.

  • Melinda

    Great review, Eric! Always enjoy reading your blogs.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Thanks Melinda !

  • Janice

    I’ll have to tune into HBO and check this one out — sounds very intriguing!

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I don’t need everything tied up neatly with a bow. Threads being left open are okay if the resolution up to that point was satisfying or believable.

    When Paulie and Christopher killed or attempted to kill (I don’t remember anymore) that Russian mobster in the woods, it seemed unrealistic that there would be no retaliation. Tony’s anxiety attacks are gone, but he deals with all the same issues, if not more, and his therapy isn’t working.

    Once his mother died, the show lost steam and became repetitive. The Joey Pants character was no different than Richie Abril. However, the character of cousin Tony was good and covered different areas. The show still has brilliant moments, but not with the same frequency.

    The Shield has good stories, but I don’t find myself surprised by it often or the character’s actions. If Ronnie had dropped the grenade instead of Shane, it would have caught everyone off guard and would still have remained believable since he was in the same boat. Was there any doubt that Vic was the father of Danny’s baby?

    In the pilot, Vic started out as a bad cop, but then they finessed him so he’s really not so bad. The writers want it both ways with Vic. He gets away with too much. Maybe if the character suffered more setbacks, it would work better for me.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Paulie and Christopher thought they shot the Serbian (I believe?) dude in the woods, but they never found out for sure. That episode, “The Pine Barrens,” is of the very best, by the way. I actually like that I expected a retaliation but that it never came. That feels more like real life to me, where you often see or foresee patterns that don’t actually exist. I also think that parts of Season Six have been among the show’s very best. Tony’s near-death experience and dealing with that really injected fresh blood into the show. And I really do think the final eight episodes have the opportunity to cement (ha ha) the show as the very best of all-time. We’ll see.

    Call me an apologist for me favorite shows, but I love that Vic has been softened by degrees over time. And I love that we’re reminded from time-to-time that, wait a minute, this is really not a particularly guy, a guy who murdered a fellow cop in the pilot episode, whatever his reasons might have been. But like The Sopranos, we like and root for Vic because he’s a cool guy, a funny guy, a tough guy with charisma to spare. And we all wish at times that we can lend ourselves that kind of freedom from rules and consequence.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I enjoyed the interaction with Paulie and Christopher. Paulie’s one of my favorites. We’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Just saw episode 4.2 of The Wire and am willing to stand by my claim of the best show on TV. I’m not sure if it’s the best show people aren’t watching or the best book they aren’t reading. The weaving of plot and character are inspiring.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    In 9/12 Variety

    HBO has granted a fifth and final season renewal to David Simon’s critically hailed crime drama “The Wire.”