‘The Wire’

In a rare show of endurance and stick-to-itiveness, I have concluded my 10-week program of watching all five seasons of "The Wire." It wasn't easy. I ventured late into the night, consuming piles of burritos and pizza slices, quaffing unpretentious but still premium brews and humbler vintages of red wine as the gritty life of "Ballmer" played out before my slack jaw and uncomprehending stare. But finally, red is black, and the last disc is ready to go back to the video store.

The project was occasioned by wanting to watch Season 5–the one in which The Baltimore Sun is a major player–for the first time. But I wanted to put the season into perspective by seeing everything leading up to it. As the series aired, I saw only Season 4 as it aired. I had already seen the first season on DVD and maybe parts of the third year, too.

Treading where millions have before, I offer a few takeaways:

–If you could see just one season, watch the first. You can chase your tail arguing about which season was the best conceived, best written, best acted, etc., and I'm not certainly above that (see below). But what the first season has that the rest never equal is surprise: A world and characters are revealed with depth and detail and tension rarely equaled on the tube. The best of the subsequent seasons build on the first, the worst of them mimic them in a tired sequel kind of way.

–Best seasons: the first and fourth. The first for reasons already elucidated. The fourth because of the combination of wonderfully tight story lines and the group of kids the season follows.

–Worst season: the second. It seems forced and formulaic; reminiscent of the SCTV parody of "Ocean's 11."

–Best take on the theme song, "Way Down in the Hole": Season 1 (The Blind Boys of Alabama) and Season 4 (DoMaJe, said to be a group of Baltimore kids). Tom Waits wrote the song and his version is used in Season Two; I found it grating to the point of fast-forwarding through it.

–Favorite characters: Bunk, Omar, Freamon, McNulty. Not in any particular order. And oh, special mention to Snoop, one of the oddest and scariest characters ever; and to Bubbles, who alone among all the characters is redeemed at the end.

–Favorite arcane newsroom moment: From Season 5. An editor at the Baltimore Sun asks a rewrite man to do something. The rewrite man, Bill Zorzi (actually a former Sun reporter), retorts: "Why don't you stick a broom up my ass and ask me to sweep the place?" If you spent any time around The San Francisco Examiner in the 1980s, this was a moment of pure deja vu. There was a copy editor there named Tony Stelmok, an old-timer whom a colleague describes as looking like Colonel Sanders. One night, the slotman directed him to trim a story or write a whip (a "reefer" line, for instance, one referring readers to a story on another page), to which Stelmok responded: "Whip, whip, whip. Trim, trim, trim. Why don't I just stick a broom up my ass and sweep the place, too?") As it happens, there is an Ex-Sun connection: Jim Houck, a news editor at the Examiner, became managing editor at the Sun. Given the relative rarity of the formulation "why don't I stick a broom up my ass," I'm betting that Houck carried the Stelmok tirade to the Baltimore newsroom, and eventually, through oral tradition, onto TV.

9 Comments

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9 Responses to ‘The Wire’

  1. Coincidentally, my older son just concluded the same activity. He exhorted me to watch “The Wire” as well because it was “awesome.” He indicated it might be his favorite show of all time. Doubtful I’ll do it though since I have an ironclad rule about not watching TV shows on DVD. We had an interesting discussion this past weekend about whether the Baltimore police force is as bad as “The Wire” makes it seem.
    I wonder if he also consumed piles of burritos and quaffed beers. Probably.
    K-

  2. Dan

    I think all the big urban police forces are as bad as they seem. I think it comes with the territory and with the impossible nature of what they are assigned to do. But we don’t have to go there.
    Why the rule about no TV via DVD? I’d say it improves the experience manifold simply by removing the commercials (and in the case of the HBO work, which are made sans commercial breaks, the DVD versions are identical to the air versions). And for me — well, we’re not doing broadcast TV right now, so it’s DVD or nuttin’.

  3. Why? Unmitigated, totally unreasonable, hysterical bias against TV. I just don’t watch TV once it’s aired, whether it’s “The Sopranos” or “Scrubs”. I figure there are enough good movies out there that I haven’t seen I don’t need to intentionally add serial TV to the mix. I admit that it’s remotely possible I’m missing something good.
    K-

  4. I watched the entirety of “Six Feet Under” on DVD (through Netflix) in the space of a couple of months. It’s the only way to watch TV!

  5. Arcane, indeed. I wonder if anyone else figured out the connection. That’s pretty good, Dan.
    I watched the entire Sopranos on DVD and totally enjoyed being able to zip through without having to wait week to week, season to season.

  6. Ann Brekke

    DVDs helped me through my last lay-off! Bunk and Bubbles for sure!

  7. jb

    Kem White…I know what you mean. I don’t have cable so I just don’t see this stuff when it’s on. I think I’ve seen The Sopranos something like twice. But The Wire is different. They kept this interesting all the way through…to the fourth season at least, haven’t seen the fifth. The writing, acting, production is great. The characters are anything but two dimensional. You actually care about their story. It’s what good theatre should be.

  8. JJ

    I disagree that the 2nd season was the worst. 2nd season was meant for a change of pace to to get off the projects some.
    2nd season was unpredictable! Who really thought Ziggy was going to go local on the foreigners?

  9. Dan

    JJ: You’ve got a point — who’d have guessed? On the other hand, Ziggy was IMHO one of the lamest, weakest characters in all of Wire-dom. Who’d have cared what he did?

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