Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reconsidering the controversial fifth season of The Wire

I recently decided to revisit the most acclaimed television show of all time, The Wire, because...well, do I need a reason? It's a brilliant show, albeit not the uniform paragon of amazingness that some critics suggest it is. I'd argue that the show's third and fourth seasons are virtually perfect and constitute some of the finest television ever made, while the other three seasons fall short by varying degrees. Of course, all five seasons are extremely high up there in terms of quality--even the weakest season (that'd be number two, with the docks) is classic television, filled with terrific artistry, ideas and observations. Season one is a bit choppy compared to later seasons, as most first seasons usually are. The earliest episodes often include scenes that are a bit clunky--for example, the scene in which McNulty refuses to go on Daniels' raid falls flat because neither of the actors in the scene were quite comfortable with their characters yet to really go too far with it, and then there's the overwrought symbolism of D'Angelo teaching his underlings the rules of "The Game" by analogizing with a chess set--but it rights itself completely by the end of the season, and as far as character development goes, I doubt another season of television will ever match it. We are initially introduced to the characters and see only one side to them, but over the course of the season we see more and more sides in such a way that established character never quite gets broken so much as filled-in. Not only that, but almost everyone at the show has a chance to exceed expectations, though more than a few have chances to disappoint as well. The show handles character and theme so well that you might not even expect there to be a solid plot, though there certainly is. It's absolutely a classic, though with a few rough edges.

Season two marked a different direction for the show. The Wire went from being a cop show that tried to show both sides of the drug war from a variety of angles to a show trying to do something broader about life in America circa 2003. I think the show was successful at doing this, but only partly so. The plotline about the docks was interesting and engaging in a way that demonstrates the show's genius, but the show wasn't really able to balance the docks stuff with the police stuff, so the entire show was the docks that year. This was a little frustrating to people who wanted more season one-esque action and plotting. So little were the characters we met the previous year developed that you can effectively skip the second season, move onto the third, and not really miss too much that can't be quickly picked up, which is the only season that this is true of. McNulty spins his wheels, Daniels and Kima get estranged from their spouses, and we don't see too many new sides to any of our characters. The most relevant thing here is that D'Angelo gets murdered by Stringer. Now, none of this is bad or ineptly managed, so much as it's given too short shrift. As for the docks and dockworkers, they are mostly there to stand in for the beleaguered American middle/lower-middle class, which is fine enough, but the big problem here is that David Simon's anger about these issues is extremely palpable, and when Simon gets angry, he gets propagandistic. Hence the presence of Saint Frank Sobotka, the most noble union racketeer in history. The show portrays him in very favorable terms, as someone who is doing everything for other people and none for himself. He even lives in a normal, crappy house! I think the show ultimately decides that Sobotka's decision was the wrong one and had some bad consequences--dead girls, his son careening off the rails, and ultimately his own demise--but it doesn't seem like he had any other choice but to turn to crime, as the presence of a dockworker as a homeless person in the fifth season seemed to suggest. And the closing montage of season two suggests strongly that all the same stuff was going to happen with or without Sobotka, so why not try to save his union? Every season of The Wire contains a number of arguments, but in season two it all gets muddled. What are we supposed to take away from the second season? That the middle class is screwed, I suppose. This case, though powerful, is made unevenly. Sobotka's parting words about how we used to build shit in this country, but now we're just sticking our hands in everyone's pockets are actually more powerful now than they were back then, but getting there requires being the subject of a fair amount of proselytizing. I'd say it's worth it, but the concept needed a bit more playing around with to work.

Seasons three and four are the show's finest accomplishments, though they are surprisingly different in a lot of ways. Season three is a fulfillment of the show hinted at in season one--it's mostly about drugs, cops and crooks, though with a bit of political material that remains only a minor focus for the season. Fundamentally, season three is about the "Hamsterdam" experiment to tolerate the drug trade, and while the show in no uncertain terms believes that Bunny Colvin's experiment is disastrous, albeit one with a few good side effects (and, coincidentally, it is proof that the show's political viewpoint is decidedly not libertarian), the show treats Colvin as a good guy who tries something desperate with the best of intentions. Unlike Sobotka, Colvin is a real person, you have some idea of where he's coming from and you root for his experiment to be a success. Season four, conversely, is a fulfillment of the show hinted at by the second season, one that explores the city from top to bottom in an allegorical fashion, but one that achieves a much greater sense of balance among its storylines than season two did, and one that has a much greater sense of momentum. The season accurately diagnoses the problems of politics and education effectively, and it is able to turn unlikely things (like government finance) into compelling drama. There's a genius to all that, and The Wire seemed like The Clash after London Calling came out: it seemed like they could do anything. In both cases, that perception was quickly reversed upon the next release, but both cases produced flawed masterpieces that were excessive but packed with genius. Okay, I'm really done with that metaphor. Honest.

Season five is not quite as weak as season two, but it's got similar problems. Simon has often been noted as the angriest man in television, which is probably true, but while he's clearly angry at many things he's also quite good at making us feel empathetic toward people who are clearly pretty bad people, like Avon Barksdale or Stringer Bell. Every institution in The Wire seems to have its comparatively good people and its assholes. Moral comparisons are difficult--someone like D'Angelo is a killer, after all--but D'Angelo is clearly a conscientious guy who isn't comfortable with a lot of what he's been pressed into doing. The show is extremely good at manipulating empathy and showing how complicated people really are--even someone like Bill Rawls, who mostly exists to sabotage good police work and make the department look a lot more effective than it is--is a plausible character that you can identify with at times. I don't think too many other shows even try to show how complicated and contradictory human beings can be, but none are as successful. At least, none that I've seen.

In season five, though, this quality is simply not much in evidence. As in season two, Simon has found a topic that absolutely infuriates him: the state of the media. As in season two, this compromises his arguments, in many cases significantly. The newspaper plotline is clearly the season's albatross: full of unrealistic characters that are more types than people, where the internet doesn't seem to have been invented and that puts its points baldly and preachily. It's David Simon's Network. This isn't to say that all his points are wrong. Simon believes that cutbacks have significantly affected the quality of news, which is by all indications true. He believes that too many news executives care more about prestige and selling papers than saying what's really going on in the world, which seems to be true to me. He doesn't much care for big paper chains, which could be right. But all of these points are made with text (technically, with dialog), which is a problem. What's more, he adds in a fabulist character (a la Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair), which is supposed to tie in by showing that having to do "more with less" means that there's less resources/experience/will to crack down on bad reporting. But this whole story doesn't make much sense. Templeton (the fabulist) isn't able to get away with what he's doing because nobody has time to catch him. His editor is onto him from the start. He's able to get away with it because the paper's bosses are insufferable tools. Which is not really a new problem for news, I suspect, so much as it is grudge-settling for Simon himself after his forced departure from the Baltimore Sun some years ago. Simon doesn't get inside the heads of Klebanow and Whiting because he doesn't really try to. They're liars and idiots who are respectively evil and out of their depth, and no further nuance is required. The newspaper material is less of the season than I recalled, and it's not as prevalent as the port material was in season two, but it unfortunately sets an aggrieved tone for the rest of the season.

Indeed, that anger seeps into many other storylines this season. After spending several seasons hoping that McNulty would get his act together, the show has him backsliding right off the bat. Previously, the show always held that people could change, could be redeemed, with McNulty as the subject of all of this. Can McNulty straighten himself out? At first the answer seemed to be yes, and all of a sudden that is no longer the case? It's just anger, really, though those dramatic beats could have been done convincingly. Anger also in the case of Omar, who breaks his code to go after Marlo when Marlo kills his best friend. Anger in the case of Carcetti, who goes from firing a bad police commissioner for bogus stats to firing one himself for not falsifying stats in the course of less than one season. It's not that none of these character beats make sense, it's that they're all distinctly uncharitable and they're all really sudden. One can blame this on the shortened season, but I think it's just a factor of Simon's anger. That Namond, Carver and Bubbles stay on the straight-and-narrow muddles everything further. Then there is Herc, who seems to be all over the place this season. When the story requires him to be a mole for the cops, he is. When it needs him to be on Levy's side, he is. It's all rather sloppy, and while it does lead somewhere it's hardly satisfying.

It's too bad that this anger is so pervasive, because the major stories here (aside from the newspaper stuff) are actually quite good. Having McNulty and Lester fake a serial killer is a great idea, one that shows the self-righteous and self-immolating martyr sides of their personalities in new light. It's good character development, if not the sort of character development we might have hoped for. Really, it's the other side of the coin to all those sympathetic portrayals of drug dealers--we also have to see the ways in which our heroes are flawed in a way that we can't really relate to them. And then there's the Marlo stuff, which nicely shows his totalitarian impulse in some striking and shocking ways, and the brilliantly ironic ending to his arc is the perfect way to wrap up his story. Some of the final season's "reunion" moments--like Sobotka's nephew yelling at Carcetti--are really lame, while others (like seeing Randy again) are extremely effective. I suppose it makes sense that the most sturdy material of the show is the material that Simon is best able to understand and see multiple sides of, which is to say the cops/criminals material. That shines through in the fifth season, if a lot of other stuff doesn't.

Perhaps the problem isn't really anger so much as it is taking it personally. Simon is clearly angry about the drug war, but he doesn't take it personally and can view the whole thing with journalistic restraint. When it comes to the struggling middle class, or the even more struggling news industry, he can't quite find the distance to be objective. The generosity and empathy that Simon is usually able to find become scarce when things get personal. But while there are a number of problems here, I do feel like the pro's easily outweigh the cons here, and that a lot of the bellyaching really is because people didn't want to see Omar die, or McNulty fall off the wagon, instead of out of an objective view of what the show set out to do. Despite the angrier tone, the season really is a great accomplishment--perhaps not a masterpiece like its two preceding seasons, but still a show with something to say and some ability to say it. I can't say I'm sorry that season six of The Wire never happened, considering the trend here, but season five is still worth your time.