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.