Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Wire, season three

As the fifth and final season of The Wire has just wrapped up, the little cult show with the rabid following seemed to finally burst into the mainstream, and there has been an avalanche of articles declaring it the greatest show of all time. The more these declarations are made, the more intimidating the series seems for new viewers, and the more likely they are to give up on it if it doesn't immediately live up to their heightened expectations. I'm not going to call The Wire the greatest TV show of all time because I don't think it is the greatest TV show of all time, but also because engaging in hyperbole like that accomplishes nothing. It certainly doesn't get more people to watch.

All that aside, I'm still watching, and I've still got a long way to go before getting to the finale that seems to have gotten mixed reviews. And I admit I've become a little skeptical of the show's iconic status, even though I thought the third season was mostly very good. For me, the first season still achieved the best integration of the stories about cops and criminals, and although this season returned the focus to Avon Barksdale's crew after taking a detour to examine crime on the docks in season two, it still seemed a little unfocused and less powerful. Part of the problem for me is one of the central plot elements of this season, "Hamsterdam," the drug-selling free zone established by Bunny Colvin to move all of the crime away from the law-abiding citizens of his poverty-ridden district. While I agree with creator David Simon's stance on the pointlessness of the drug war, this whole storyline seemed like unrealistic wish-fulfillment for the writers. Would any major urban police commander really legalize drugs in certain controlled zones, even if it does reduce crime? Even though the whole plan fell apart at the end, showing the failings of the system, the fact that it even existed in the first place felt fake and forced to me.

But other things worked well, including the addition of a few local politicians as major characters, the increased focus on the romantic lives of some of the cops (it was great to see Amy Ryan as Beatrice Russell show up again at the end of the season) and the grand tragedy of Stringer Bell, who still isn't ever going to be my favorite character but did meet a suitably epic end. Although the second season is often considered the weakest, I liked the dock-worker characters and was disappointed to see almost no carry-over from their storyline (although I think some connections crop up in later seasons). Going back to focus on the drug dealers almost seemed like regressing, rather than exploring new areas of crime in Baltimore, as in season two. I realize the drug trade is the dominant criminal enterprise in the city, but a lot of what happened this season seemed like a retread.

What was more interesting than the plot, to me, was the character development of people like McNulty, Kima and Bunk, all of whom really felt the toll that being a cop took on their personal lives. And Carcetti, the city councilman, was a great addition, an excellent mix of amoral power player and genuine concerned citizen. Bunny Colvin's Hamsterdam may have bugged me, but the character of the cop about to retire who just wants to do one honestly good thing in his career was compelling and rang true. Among the criminals, I never really understood the purpose of Dennis "Cutty" Wise, who got out of prison, joined Barksdale's crew for a bit, gave up on a life of crime and then started a boxing gym. I guess he was meant to illustrate the possibility of redemption, but his storyline never connected with what else was going on.

Many of these seemingly unresolved character arcs and storylines come back in the next two seasons, or so I've heard, and I definitely plan to watch the show through to the end. But I eagerly jumped into season three after loving season two, and now I'm going to be taking a bit of break before checking out the rest.

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