Still Plugged into 'The Wire'

Cop series is simply the best thing on TV.

By Steve Burgess 15 Sep 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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'Makes you care.'

I spent a big whack of money this week. Bought me a Shaw digital box with a whole lot of programming space, partly in preparation for the new season, partly because my nearly-obsolete VCR is on the fritz again, and partly so I could get the premium Movie Channel outlets. And that in turn was largely on account of one exciting development -- season four of The Wire started this week.

I've written about The Wire before, and if I come off somewhat like a guy in a bad suit standing on your doorstep holding a religious pamphlet, I apologize. But I implore you, brothers and sisters. Listen while you still can. I proclaim before the Sacred Altar of Gilligan that thou shalt have no other television like The Wire. Amen.

Fans of The Wire tend toward zealotry, simply because the Baltimore-based cop series is something of a TV miracle. Creator David Simon wrote the books that provided the source material for the acclaimed series Homicide: Life on the Street, and the HBO miniseries The Corner. But The Wire is Simon's masterpiece. Many of the series' writers are novelists, and Simon has said that each season of The Wire is designed more like a novel than like episodic TV. Simon once defended the show's structure by citing Melville's Moby Dick, pointing out that nothing much seems to be happening in the opening chapters of that classic either. But it all unfolds in time, and when it does the payoff is all the richer. Compared to the usual slam-bang cop-show pace, The Wire can at times seem glacial (which is why DVDs are a good way to gorge on the show, if you don't mind waiting forever -- season three is only now on shelves after a two-year wait). But the complexity, the richness of the storytelling, is probably unprecedented in American television.

Each season is brand new

The Wire provides dramatic developments and great, larger-than-life characters like the gangster-raiding gangster Omar Little, the drug lord turned real-estate mogul Stringer Bell, and the bedraggled, amiable street informer known only as Bubbles. While it demands patience and careful attention, it is still thoroughly entertaining TV. But what truly sets the show apart is the unflinching, unsentimental depiction of police politics, civic politics, the complex underground economic system of the narcotics trade and, above all, what Simon calls "the frippery of the war on drugs." The Wire provides no happy endings -- far from it. But the results of all the political and police manoeuvring have the depressing ring of truth. Arrests are made, asses are covered and players change. Little else does. And still The Wire makes you care about the people in the trenches who struggle to make progress. It also tells compelling stories on both sides of the law.

There have been scenes in past episodes that I felt did not work. But I can count them on one hand while picking my nose. The Wire has a unified, sure-handed feel from episode to episode and year to year. Seasons one to three are all available on DVD, and it's a good idea to start at the beginning.

Each season tells a whole new story, albeit using some of the same characters. Season four will follow a group of inner-city kids as they go through the Baltimore school system. Some will inevitably intersect with the cops we've come to know through the first three seasons.

There are other HBO series that might inspire a subscription to the premium channels. The toga opera Rome is fun -- not exactly weighty, but it does show an admirable regard for historical fact while cooking up its potboiler intrigues. Eventually The Sopranos will launch into its denouement, and Entourage has its fans as well.

But there is nothing else on TV like The Wire, a point that is only underlined by pale, sad imitations like The Shield. If you can't afford to buy that spiffy new cable box, rent the DVDs. You'll find that the most compelling drama being made today is on television.

Steve Burgess reviews the screen, big and small, for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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