“It’s not TV, it’s HBO.”
I’m not sure if HBO is still using that one in their advertising these days, but to a small but dedicated group of fans it’s much more than a tag line. Nowhere in the medium is the line more brightly drawn between the standard fare of “Tee-Vee” and the truly excellent than it is between a remarkable HBO program and any network show one might compare it to. Yes, The Wire, the cable network’s critically acclaimed but largely unknown drama is, at long last, back on Sunday nights, alas for its final season. Only the first of this year’s ten episodes has aired, yet already I mourn the show’s passing.
Longtime readers of these columns may recall my praise for The Wire back in October 2004, as it began its third season. At that time I (like many others) called it the best show on television; it has only improved since, with the addition of a new milieu with each successive year. Season one focused on the intricate conflict between cops and drug dealers on Baltimore’s west side, and viewers were treated to the most unflinchingly realistic depiction I’ve seen of how both sides operate. The city’s waterfront was added in season two, the urban politics of city hall in three, and the city’s troubled schools in four. This year brings us inside a struggling city newspaper, where viewers may be surprised to learn that the patois of the newsroom is often no less coarse than that of the docks, the schoolyard, or the squad room.
It is only fitting that The Wire should conclude its run with a look at the media. The show’s creator, David Simon, was a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun from 1983 to 1995, during which time he wrote Homicide, a Year on the Killing Streets, still one of the best books I’ve read on policing the inner city. It is the rare outsider who can accurately portray the world of a big-city homicide detective (the murder poh-leece). For one thing, cops are wary of reporters (often with good reason), and to write the book Simon first had to win the trust of a group of crusty and cynical Baltimore detectives, then have the gifts to bring their lives to the page. He succeeded at both, and the book became the NBC television series Homicide: Life on the Street, on which he would serve as a writer and producer. With the addition of the newspaper this year, The Wire explores the full gamut of life in some of America’s inner cities. The setting may be Baltimore, but the show’s depictions of an overworked and underfunded police force, a newspaper chafing under out-of-town corporate ownership, inept city councilmen, and an ambitious but venal mayor, will strike familiar chords with viewers in many cities, Los Angeles most certainly among them.
Simon wrote the episode that aired last Sunday, and it’s clear that he’s lost neither his eye nor his ear. In the opening scene, Detective “Bunk” Moreland (played by Wendell Pierce) interrogates a murder suspect who has not yet copped out to the crime the police know he’s good for. “This remainin’ silent [stuff] ain’t nothing like they make it out to be,” Bunk tells him, then goes on manipulate him into a confession. An ordinary copy machine serves as a polygraph, and when the suspect is confronted with his own lies – pre-printed and loaded into the copier – he gives it up. “How many years you figure we’ve been doing this same [stuff]?” Bunk asks a colleague. “Twenty, at least,” comes the answer. Indeed, I’ve seen the same game run on crooks since I was a rookie.
As last season ended, detectives were investigating a series of more than twenty murders linked to the drug trade and one Marlo Stanfield (Jaime Hector), a brash youngster unafraid to take on and take down his more tenured counterparts in the business. As the new season begins the cops are no closer to clearing the case than they were a year ago, this despite months of intensive surveillance. Now, city budget cuts have forced their major-crimes unit to disband, leaving Marlo to enlarge his territory with little interference from the police. Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who last year, having run his marriage into the ditch with his drinking and tomcatting, seemed to have sobered up and settled down with a nice girl, finds himself sent back to the drudgery of the homicide rotation. A return to his self-destructive habits soon follows.
Don’t look for any neatly tied ends to the series when the final episode is aired in March. In David Simon’s dramatic world, as in the real one, tidy resolutions to complex problems are not so easily achieved. One of last year’s most stunning arcs was that of Michael Lee (Tristan Wilds), the son of a drug-addicted mother and absent father. As the season progressed viewers saw him transform from a mild, almost sweet, high school kid to a heartless, walk-up-and-shoot-him-in-the-face killer. Still, he is nonetheless capable of the most doting tenderness with his little brother. As any cop knows, as does Simon, the bad guys are not always so bad.
And the good guys are not always so good, which is why The Wire’s cops are so compelling to watch. There have been isolated instances of police corruption depicted on the show, but for the most part the cops are honest, even as they struggle within a system that seems determined to see them fail. They cut corners here and there, they defy their preening superiors, and they get comfortable operating in that vast gray area that lies between outright corruption and by-the-book police work. In short, like all the show’s characters, they’re real.
They’re not TV cops, they’re cops on The Wire, still the best show on television.
– Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.