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Jason Panella

The Wire (2002-2008)

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Before watching the final episode of the series tonight, Alan Sepinwall's column would be a great read. It details a few of the great scenes, with their sometimes years long setup, of The Wire. There are :spoilers: in the part of his column that I quote below.

At the end of last week's episode of "The Wire" -- arguably the greatest episode of inarguably the greatest drama in TV history -- two 15-year-old boys, Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) and Michael (Tristan Wilds) sat in a car together, their lives in ruins. Michael was a killer several times over and now a hunted man by the drug crew that made him so. Dukie, born into then abandoned by a family of junkies, was about to go live with junkies again, his other options for residence and guardians seemingly exhausted. As the two boys contemplated their awful futures, Dukie smiled and brought up a silly story from the previous summer, when they and their friends decided to fight back against neighborhood bullies by throwing urine-filled balloons at them.

"That was a day," Dukie said, trying to hold onto his childhood for one more moment. "You bought me ice cream off the truck. You remember, Mike?"

Michael, his childhood long since abandoned, closed his eyes in pain and said, "I don't."

But we did.

<a href="http://" target="_blank"></a> What made that scene so powerful -- what makes so many "Wire" scenes so moving -- was how it built on things that had happened before, sometimes long before. We saw the balloon fight that Dukie describes, we saw how young and innocent the boys and their friends were and the long chain of terrible events that led them to this moment where Dukie desperately wants to cling to that memory and Michael is so far gone he can't even remember it. (Or doesn't want to.)

Edited by smith_chip

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I just watched the first season over the past two weeks. It is an exceptional program. I have read some that the creators are trying to show that all institutions are dysfunctional, something I firmly believe. Alas, most of my criticism of institutions is aimed at the Church.

I look forward to completing the series. Thanks to those who have recommended it.

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And the series finale just aired.

I think it was a damn good cap on the series. Not one of the storyline wrap-ups felt fake, and I was satisfied with all of them, even though some were more 'real' than I would have wished. (I almost cried over the final shot of Dukie preparing the syringe.) And it never seemed too fake or cheery, with some tiny triumphs

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Alright, I am on season three, and I must say... this show is ruining TV for me. It is too well written. I can't deal with other shows until time and love has passed for this series. It is like going out with a woman who is a 10 out of a 10. No matter what else I watch, even if it is really good, it isn't a 10, and I have experienced a 10.

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Alright, I am on season three, and I must say... this show is ruining TV for me. It is too well written. I can't deal with other shows until time and love has passed for this series. It is like going out with a woman who is a 10 out of a 10. No matter what else I watch, even if it is really good, it isn't a 10, and I have experienced a 10.

I feel the same way. As much as I love Lost, I sometimes find myself thinking things like, "That dialogue would've been better on the Wire."

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I sometimes find myself thinking things like, "That dialogue would've been better on the Wire."

I'm totally with you on that statement. Here is how far I go.

I am watching the episodes which have commentary, and I even love the commentary. First off, the episodes I have watched, the writers have done the commentary. Secondly, the commentary is sparse, but what he says is really something to chew on. Thirdly, the writer explains his process, but is not chatty the whole episode. You have no idea how much it unnerves me to watch a commentary and hear the director, producer, actor, writer, or whoever talk about how good a particular actor looks, or just sit and pat each other on the back the whole way through. It is like hearing a sermon and then listening to the preacher sit back and say, "I really made a good point there." Self-congratulation and nonsensical chatter are the worst things about commentaries.

Even the episode commentaries are ten times better than any other commentaries I have watched.

Ahem, I just thought about that, and Criterion's commentary of Ikiru is fantastic, and it is by far the standard bearer in my book of good DVD commentary, but The Wire is definitely in the mix.

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Well... as I write, I finished episode three of the last season tonight. What amazes me about how the show is arranged, is how I react to things. For example,

the scene where Burrell and Rawls come in with cooked stats and Carcetti knows it. Carcetti says that Rawls will likely call and tell him that he tried to talk Burrell out of cooking the stats. It never shows Rawls calling.

I have no idea whether he calls or not, but the scene set me up to expect it, and when I think about it later and realize that they do not put a scene like that in there, it makes me smile.

Also, I was rolling in laughter

at Jimmy corrupting the crime scenes.

It was the nervous laugher of thinking, "I cannot believe what I am seeing." Bunk's expressions remind me very much of watching Capra films where a passive character reacts to the outrageous words or actions of an active character. For example, the guy who overhears George and Clarence talk about suicide and heaven in It's a Wonderful Life.

wl_100217.jpg

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For anyone thinking about starting to watch the greatest television show in history, or wanting to rewatch it, you should know that TV critic Alan Sepinwall is doing a weekly commentary on Season 1 at his blog this summer. He is doing two versions, one for newbies and one for veterans. Here's his description:

As discussed frequently, it's time to start revisiting the first season of the best drama in TV history, "The Wire." Because I know some readers will be starting the series for the first time, while others will be "Wire" die-hards not ready to let the show go just yet, I'm going to post two slightly different versions of each review: one for the newbies, with minimal discussion of what happens in later episodes (and seasons); one for the veterans, with a section at the end discussing ways that each episode ties into things that happened further down the line. The newbie edition will always be posted about a minute before the veteran one. Please confine any comments that would spoil later developments to the veteran post; anything too spoiler-y in the newbies comments will be deleted by me.

He is up to week 3, and will post a new commentary each Friday. The discussion in the comments section is also enlightening. Even though I've watched all seasons but the last one several times, rewatching while reading his blog has helped me to see things that I had missed before. All the pieces matter.

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Chip, thanks for the links. Just reading through some of the Veterans' Edition posts left me stunned

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I just picked up the first five episodes of Season One on DVD at the library, and am in line for the next set of discs, assuming I can get through these episodes before they

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I just picked up the first five episodes of Season One on DVD at the library, and am in line for the next set of discs, assuming I can get through these episodes before they

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I just watched the first four or so episodes, DVRing them from late night BET, but I can't keep up with it. I don't doubt it's worth every accolade it's getting, and some of the characters on the show are memorable and admirable. But being that I used to live in New York City, and am familiar with the surroundings of the inner city, I find a ton of the dialogue to be tv-writer-speak. And I don't think that Baltimore residents have that tv-writer-speak gene.

To a degree, yes. I feel like the show really changed a bit starting with the second season, in a good way. As the show goes on, it gets tightened. But considered WHO is doing the writing, in some cases (Ed Burns, Baltimore cop for decades, and David Simon, Baltimore crime reporter...not to mention the very 'with it' Richard Price), I'm sure some is close to home. Or at least more so than Law and Order.

Also, BET significantly edited the episodes, from what I understand. But mostly just for sexual / over-the-top language stuff, I think.

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I feel like the show really changed a bit starting with the second season, in a good way. As the show goes on, it gets tightened. But considered WHO is doing the writing, in some cases (Ed Burns, Baltimore cop for decades, and David Simon, Baltimore crime reporter...not to mention the very 'with it' Richard Price), I'm sure some is close to home. Or at least more so than Law and Order.
Thanks for the tip. I'll be on the lookout for season 2, then.

Also, BET significantly edited the episodes, from what I understand. But mostly just for sexual / over-the-top language stuff, I think.
Yep. In the absence of "CleanFlix" or any equivalent, it's the version I prefer. That said, they still allow s-words at 2am, and the nudity is blurred. In fact, I think the commercials at 2am are worse than the actual show...

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I feel like the show really changed a bit starting with the second season, in a good way. As the show goes on, it gets tightened. But considered WHO is doing the writing, in some cases (Ed Burns, Baltimore cop for decades, and David Simon, Baltimore crime reporter...not to mention the very 'with it' Richard Price), I'm sure some is close to home. Or at least more so than Law and Order.
Thanks for the tip. I'll be on the lookout for season 2, then.

Also, BET significantly edited the episodes, from what I understand. But mostly just for sexual / over-the-top language stuff, I think.
Yep. In the absence of "CleanFlix" or any equivalent, it's the version I prefer. That said, they still allow s-words at 2am, and the nudity is blurred. In fact, I think the commercials at 2am are worse than the actual show...

Nick, I can understand your hesitancy, but the show really stands apart from the other HBO/cable shows with regard to that sort of thing. There's none of that nudity-as-set-dressing that people came to expect from THE SOPRANOS, and somewhere in the third season the show's sporadic nude scenes pretty much go away altogether. As far as violence goes, there are way, way more violent acts, and more graphically depicted, in a typical episode of those forensic shows. Yes, there's quite a bit of profanity, but I honestly don't feel that any of it is soul-deadening. And I think people talk like that. Before I was able to get the DVDs from my local library, I tried to catch a few episodes on BET, too. While I'm grateful they tried to syndicate the show, it was absolutely awful in that format, so I'm not surprised you hated it. One of the aesthetic and narrative upsides to the show running on HBO as I see it is the ability to avoid the choppy act-structure breaks necessitated by commercials and the unnecessary establishing shot throat-clearing coming out of commercial breaks, so the show isn't built to be hacked up like that. And apart from Simon and Burns, the show has employed people to read the scripts to make sure the black characters aren't speaking middle-aged white guy.

Give it another shot on DVD.

Edited by Russ

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Nick, I can understand your hesitancy, but the show really stands apart from the other HBO/cable shows with regard to that sort of thing. There's none of that nudity-as-set-dressing that people came to expect from THE SOPRANOS, and somewhere in the third season the show's sporadic nude scenes pretty much go away altogether. As far as violence goes, there are way, way more violent acts, and more graphically depicted, in a typical episode of those forensic shows. Yes, there's quite a bit of profanity, but I honestly don't feel that any of it is soul-deadening. And I think people talk like that. Before I was able to get the DVDs from my local library, I tried to catch a few episodes on BET, too. While I'm grateful they tried to syndicate the show, it was absolutely awful in that format, so I'm not surprised you hated it. One of the aesthetic and narrative upsides to the show running on HBO as I see it is the ability to avoid the choppy act-structure breaks necessitated by commercials and the unnecessary establishing shot throat-clearing coming out of commercial breaks, so the show isn't built to be hacked up like that. And apart from Simon and Burns, the show has employed people to read the scripts to make sure the black characters aren't speaking middle-aged white guy.

Give it another shot on DVD.

The only season that suffers from the "Hey, we're on HBO!" syndrome is the first, and only when they're in Orlando's strip club, and maybe one other spot. ("Hey, look! Lesbians!")

In a weird way, the second season is the most shocking with nudity, but it fits into the plot without being set-dressing-ish. (I'm thinking of Ziggy's, um, wild impulses.)

Listen to Russ. You still may not like it, but it works.

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Nick, I can understand your hesitancy, but the show really stands apart from the other HBO/cable shows with regard to that sort of thing. There's none of that nudity-as-set-dressing that people came to expect from THE SOPRANOS, and somewhere in the third season the show's sporadic nude scenes pretty much go away altogether.
But the interesting thing is, I actually LIKE the Sopranos in its format on A&E. Believe me, I hate the commercial breaks as much as anybody, but when a script is solid, it manages to be funny and shocking and touching and profound despite its use of the word "freakin'" and perhaps moreso when the nudity (almost always a distraction) is blurred. I checked my favorites with the favorites on imdb, and it is clear that most fans of the Sopranos and I are in sync.

As far as violence goes, there are way, way more violent acts, and more graphically depicted, in a typical episode of those forensic shows. Yes, there's quite a bit of profanity, but I honestly don't feel that any of it is soul-deadening. And I think people talk like that.

I didn't mean to sound like "people didn't cuss" in the inner cities. I meant that colloquial double-meanings while teaching each other how to play chess is most definitely how people do NOT talk in real life. Sorry. I know. I went to a high school in the inner city, and I was a part of the chess club there. Never did the posse-members and the chess geeks meet.

Some things are just so fictitious, it strains credibility, even as the writers strive for resonance, or character depth.

BTW, I am not unnerved by violence or gore. I'm not even unnerved by language, provided that it works. But as a married man, I just don't want my eyes wandering... and I find that these cable-ready shows that have a fixed locale in one of these seedy "Gentlemen's clubs"--I simply have no time for that. Like I wrote above, it's almost as if the writers sensed they may be losing their audience, so they threw in a scene or two just to wake them up.

In fact, in this past issue of Rolling Stone magazine, (the comedy issue), Gary Schandling shared that the HBO execs were telling him that there was too LITTLE raunch on his Larry Sanders Show, and demanded that they step it up. It's stories like this that confirm the conservative viewer's worst nightmare--that story is clearly taking a back seat for exploitive detours. Rave reviews notwithstanding, no thanks.

I suspect that it won't be long for Entourage to be syndicated. I enjoyed season 1, but save for language, I noticed that the raunch factor seemed to grow exponentially as the second half of that season commenced. I wait with bated breath.

But if season 2 heads away from the seedy strip clubs of Baltimore, and I can catch up on the story from there, I will give it a try. It will only be a few more weeks until it begins...

Nick

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As far as violence goes, there are way, way more violent acts, and more graphically depicted, in a typical episode of those forensic shows. Yes, there's quite a bit of profanity, but I honestly don't feel that any of it is soul-deadening. And I think people talk like that.

I didn't mean to sound like "people didn't cuss" in the inner cities. I meant that colloquial double-meanings while teaching each other how to play chess is most definitely how people do NOT talk in real life. Sorry. I know. I went to a high school in the inner city, and I was a part of the chess club there. Never did the posse-members and the chess geeks meet.

That is a great scene, precisely because it sets up the conflict of the thinking man in the drug trade. D is not a normal "posse-member." But the game is not made up of just corner boys. Talented, intelligent men (mostly) get involved, rise to the top, and are required to think strategically about their "business." Part of the tragedy of the game is the way that those corner boys are seen as disposable, both by respectable society and by the Stringer's and the Barksdale's. Kind of like chess.

When I was working in urban Pittsburgh neighborhoods, there was a group of older black men who established a little ministry teaching gang-bangers to play chess. They didn't use the same kind of language that DeAngelo, Bodie, or Poot use in that scene, but when the teens were hanging out together, they certainly did.

BTW, I am not unnerved by violence or gore. I'm not even unnerved by language, provided that it works. But as a married man, I just don't want my eyes wandering... and I find that these cable-ready shows that have a fixed locale in one of these seedy "Gentlemen's clubs"--I simply have no time for that. Like I wrote above, it's almost as if the writers sensed they may be losing their audience, so they threw in a scene or two just to wake them up.

They stop spending time in Orlando's after season 1. The locale that take's Orlando's place is quite a bit different! It definitely feels to me more like "Look, we're on HBO" than "we better throw some nudity on the screen to keep the audience's attention." The whole approach of The Wire is the slow build.

But if season 2 heads away from the seedy strip clubs of Baltimore, and I can catch up on the story from there, I will give it a try. It will only be a few more weeks until it begins...

I'd be the first to say that The Wire is not for everyone. You might want to read some kind of recap of season 1 before jumping into season 2. If you are going to try again, committ to watching at least 5 or 6 episodes before making a judgment on the show. It might not take that many episodes to decide that watching the show would not be beneficial to you, but the only way to understand the story is to give it that much time.

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Since we're talkin' about it, might as well embed it.

Nick, we're on the same page. The first time I saw that scene, I thought it was probably too purple, or too neat a summary of the subtext. It grew on me, though, and now I can't get enough of it. D'Angelo explains to Bodie and Wallace that every piece in chess plays a particular role. That role is preordanied by the piece's shape. This speech has to come from D'Angelo; if it was coming from any of the other hoppers, corner boys or middlemen, I'd readily agree that it's out of place. Without spoiling things, that scene and its larger implications end up being the summation of the series. Metaphorically, this small g game is the referent for the big g game that's talked about throughout. Bodie takes us back to this moment later on near the end of the series, and we realize that it was all laid out for us from the start.

Chip's right that the show demonstrates that surviving the upper echelons of the drug trade requires skill and intelligence and some people skills, much like any other job. It's apt that Stringer Bell studies macroeconomics. But the show is also relentlessly about the determinism that imprisons people whose limitations or circumstances doesn't permit them to be anything other than what they're expected to be. D'Angelo tells those guys about the chess pieces, and it's appropriate that he'd do so because he's built differently than most of the other bangers. He's empathetic, like Wallace, and he has the capacity to look critically at his situation. But he's the heir to an operation that doesn't have any room for those qualities. He's a round peg in a square hole, or a rook that wants to be a knight. And he's not the only one-- Prez, Wallace, Cutty, Dukie-- all of them struggle hard against those pre-established roles and the expectations that accompany them.

That's bigger than anything Wallace or Bodie can take away from that, though, because they're too sobered by the realization that in the game, they're the pawns. They're the soldiers, and they're expendable. And while we're talking about comparative locations, we've got to mention that in the first season of The Wire, apart from the dingy cop squad room (the stock setting for every crime drama ever filmed), the second most commonly-used location in the show is that orange counch in the Pit. Which is pretty great.

But here's what's really genius about the chess vs. checkers scene: it perfectly encapsulates the inescapable, crushing tragedy of The Wire. Bodie and Wallace want to play checkers with a chess board, and D'Angelo laughs at them. Sure, checkers is a simple game-- a kid's game-- while chess is for refined savants. The difference between the two games goes deeper, though. Checkers is a fundamentally egalitarian game. Each piece is worth the same as any other, has the same mission as any other and has the same chance to get kinged-- to become, as Bodie says, top dog. Chess is completely different. Every piece has its role, and is forced to play that role. Sure, D'Angelo allows, any pawn can become a Queen, but we know that's not a realistic outcome. Those pawns are there to die. Everybody serves the King.

Where The Wire breaks my heart is in the way in which it so effectively illustrates this clean and terrible divide: in your life you are either playing the game of checkers, or you are playing the game of chess. That is to say, some of us believe with reason that we are as valuable as any other piece, that we will be treated as such, and as a result can act as such, while others know that they are trapped in their role, and given one limited role to play, and are not expected to do anything other than die. Some know which game or the other they are playing, and some tortured souls know they are in one game and want to be in the other, but can't find the way out. And so Dukie says, "How do you get to the other side of the world?" And Cutty replies, "I wish I knew."

Chip, are you a Mt. Lebo native? I worked with a woman a few years ago whose son had the same name as you, so that's potentially pretty strange.

Jason, do you ever make it into Oakland? I know you're over in Beaver (where I've been spending a good bit of time lately), but if you're ever near Oakland on Sundays, we're running a film discussion group on Sunday nights through the next four weeks at church (First Trinity Lutheran at 535 N. Neville). Last night we did The Night of the Hunter, while in the forthcoming weeks we're doing Au Hasard Balthazar, My Night at Maud's, Ostrov and Stromboli. And we managed to avoid any conflicts with Steeler Holy Days.

Edited by Russ

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Russ...

Thanks. That was a mouthful, but very eloquently stated. I may begrudgingly have to give the series a second shot.

Nick

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Jason, do you ever make it into Oakland? I know you're over in Beaver (where I've been spending a good bit of time lately), but if you're ever near Oakland on Sundays, we're running a film discussion group on Sunday nights through the next four weeks at church (First Trinity Lutheran at 535 N. Neville). Last night we did The Night of the Hunter, while in the forthcoming weeks we're doing Au Hasard Balthazar, My Night at Maud's, Ostrov and Stromboli. And we managed to avoid any conflicts with Steeler Holy Days.

Russ, that chess summation was so well put. Thank you. I know how important that scene is in so many ways, but I feel like you highlighted so many more nuances that slipped past me.

Sunday nights are rough for me (not necessarily because of Steelers, either

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Great post, Russ. I also love that scene.

Chip, are you a Mt. Lebo native? I worked with a woman a few years ago whose son had the same name as you, so that's potentially pretty strange.

Nope, I moved to Pittsburgh to go to CMU, and then stuck around for 5 years after graduating. The time that I mentioned in the above post was mostly spent in Garfield, but also in East Liberty and Larimer.

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Finished with Season 1, which started fine and ended strong. My favorite character? The guy who makes dollhouse furniture. I'm terrible with names -- I think it's Lester.

The first four discs of Season 2 are waiting for me, but I won't pick them up until later this week.

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Cool Lester Smooth (Lester Freeman) is amazing. Glad you're liking it, Christian. :)

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How does Season 3 rate against the other seasons of this show? How 'bout Season 4?

I'd heard -- maybe I've posted about this already; will have to check if this post is redundant -- that Season 4 was a letdown, but then I heard elsewhere that Season 4 was great. I've heard Season 2 is the best. But based on the three seasons I've seen so far, I think Season 3 is the strongest.

I'm willing to be argued out of this, not having had more than 12 hours to ruminate on this topic since completing Season 3.

If you haven't previously posted your ranking of the different seasons, please do so.

Oh -- is there a Season 5? I saw a single-disc labeled Season 5 and thought to myself, "Didn't The Wire last only four seasons?"

EDIT: I really should read through the previous posts in a thread before spouting off with my amiss theories, shouldn't I? Chip says the show grows progressively better, not worse, and Jason's 5-star ratings of Seasons 3 and 4 seem to agree.

BTW, guess who's appearing at Arlington's Central Library -- the library that I walk to each week to check out The Wire and all my other DVDs (and books and audiobooks and music CDs) -- next Monday night?

George Pelecanos.

I have to be out next Tuesday night, so I'm negotiating with Sarah to be out two nights in a row. I plan to take my copy of Soul Circus along to be signed by the author, and to think up one or two Wire-related questions I might ask.

Edited by Christian

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