I came late to "The Wire," the HBO series that will begin its fifth and final season in January. For one thing, I don't subscribe to HBO. For another, I'd been unimpressed by all the other premium-channel hits my friends raved about. "Sex in the City"? Slightly amusing, mostly annoying. "The Sopranos"? Alternately boring and annoying; basically, I just couldn't sustain any empathy for any of the characters. (Even Carmela, and I love Edie Falco.) I dropped in on "Deadwood" too late in its run to have the faintest idea what was going on; maybe I'll give it another try sometime, but what I did see and understand I found uninvolving. I made it through one and a half episodes of "Six Feet Under": I love black humor, but this show was too arch and artificial for my taste. Ditto for "Mad Men," which aired on a channel I do subscribe to and which was about advertising, something I care about. I watched three episodes, admired the clothes and the furniture, but resented being hammered by every knowing cultural reference: no seatbelts--got it; smoking while pregnant--ditto; anti-Semitism and sexism--yep, got those too.
Final reason for not watching "The Wire": I had jumped to the conclusion that it was Just Another Cop Show. I'd seen enough of that genre to know all the formulas.
Well, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
I discovered the first season (2002) of "The Wire" in the DVD section of my branch library and was hooked as soon as I heard the opening music (Tom Waits's alt-gospel "Way Down in the Hole," sung during the first season by the Blind Boys of Alabama; each season opens with a different cover of the same song). Plot, characters, camerawork, dialogue, sense of place: everything about "The Wire" is orders of magnitude better than anything you've ever seen on TV. The show's co-creator, David Simon--a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun who's written two nonfiction books about Baltimore and who was a writer on "Homicide"--compares his vision to those of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Euripides. Simon has a robust ego, but I wouldn't argue with him. I raced through the first season, then watched it a second time with the commentary track, then raced over to the local video store to rent the second season. I'm now midway through the third season. (Each season features the same principal characters but with a different case, and a different part of Baltimore, as its focus. The first season centered on the drug trade in the projects; the second was about corruption in the stevedores' union; the third went into the corridors of City Hall; the fourth was about the schools. Elements of previous seasons' plot lines carry over every year, just as storylines weave through, say, the chapters of War and Peace.) I've slowed down: the fourth season has just come out on DVD, and it'll be quite a while before I can see the fifth season, unless I break down and subscribe to HBO.
Margaret Talbot has written a terrific piece about "The Wire" and David Simon in the Oct. 22 issue of the New Yorker, full of inside info and great quotes. In it I learned that the fifth season of the show will take place "at a downsizing newspaper called the Baltimore Sun," with several former reporters and editors playing roles. Talbot writes:
Some of the dialogue from the fifth season is taken word for word from the Sun’s newsroom. Simon recalled, “There was this writer, Carl, who every day would eat the same thing for lunch: cottage cheese. One day, somebody walked by and saw him staring down into his cottage cheese, poking it with a spoon and saying to himself, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck.’ That’s in there.”
Sounds exactly like some of the newspaper guys I used to work with. Talbot goes on:
Viewers of “The Wire” must master a whole argot, though it can take a while, because the words are never defined, just as they wouldn’t be by real people tossing them around. To have “suction” is to have pull with your higher-ups on the police force or in City Hall; a “redball” is a high-profile case with political consequences; to “re-up” is to get more drugs to sell. Drugs are branded with names taken from the latest news cycle: Pandemic, W.M.D., Greenhouse Gas. “The game” is the drug trade, although it emerges during the course of the show as a metaphor for the web of constraints that political and economic institutions impose on the people trapped within them. And, in one memorable neologism, a penis is referred to as a “Charles Dickens.”
There's also "ambo," for "ambulance." And the way the cops refer to themselves--"He's good police," pronounced PO-leece. Talbot writes:
Simon is an authenticity freak. He said, “I’m the kind of person who, when I’m writing, cares above all about whether the people I’m writing about will recognize themselves. I’m not thinking about the general reader. My greatest fear is that the people in the world I’m writing about will read it and say, ‘Nah, there’s nothing there.’ ”
Curiously--some would put it more strongly than that--"The Wire" has never won an Emmy. (It was nominated only once, for a script written by the crime novelist George Pelecanos.) It draws a viewing audience of only about 4.4 million; last season 13 million people watched "The Sopranos" each week. Talbot writes that the people who watch "The Wire" fall into two groups: "people who identify with the inner-city characters, and critics." (Participants in the show's bulletin boards seem to fall into the former camp. One of them wrote recently: "i think jimmy is Da man for whenever he has the chance to be an @$$ hole he back to people who did it to him, like the floating body from season 2 ep 1 that was a classic.") Talbot observes: "Sometimes the fan base of 'The Wire' seems like the demographics of many American cities—mainly the urban poor and the affluent élite, with the middle class hollowed out."
Toward the end of the profile, Talbot reports on a trip she took with Simon to New Orleans, where he's been researching his next series, about that city's music community. Oh, goody. Looks as though an HBO subscription is definitely in my future. Meanwhile, back to Season Three.