The Night Of.

I started HBO’s limited series The Night Of when it premiered in July, liked the first three episodes, got busy and just never got back around to it, because it’s the kind of series that demands your full attention, not scattered looks here and there. I finally binged the last three episodes over the past few days, racing to the end, and, well, as usual Alan Sepinwall got it right, although I think on balance I liked the series more than he did.

Co-written by Richard Price, who wrote several episodes of The Wire along with the incredible novel Lush Life and the solid Clockers, HBO’s The Night Of was adapted from a five-hour British TV series called Criminal Justice, keeping the same core elements but adding several critical details. The story centers on Naz (Riz Ahmed, nominated for a Golden Globe Award), a naive college student of Pakistani descent who “borrows” his father’s cab for a night out, ends up picking up a girl, partying and sleeping with her, only to find when he wakes up in her apartment that she’s been brutally stabbed to death. After a sequence that’s both gripping and a comedy of errors, he’s arrested and charged with the crime, which informs the remainder of the series. (If you don’t have HBO, you can watch the series on amazon.)

The Night Of splits across at least four intertwined plot threads that eventually coalesce in the eighth and final episode. Naz is first represented by eczema-riddled, $250/pop defense attorney John Stone (John Turturro, also nominated for a Golden Globe Award), later joined after various machinations by the young idealist Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan); they’re opposed by DA Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) and about-to-retire Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), with each side’s efforts forming one subplot. A third focuses on Naz’s experiences in prison, where he’s taken under the wing of convicted murderer Freddy Knight (Micheal K. Williams, a.k.a. Omar Little). A fourth focuses on the impact of Naz’s arrest on his family and the Muslim community, including the destruction it wreaks on his family’s finances, and the harassment they get from Muslims who fear that it will stir up further prejudice against them and from white supremacists who, frankly, need little provocation anyway.

Awards aside – this is going to lose everything to The People vs. O.J. Simpson at the Golden Globes – The Night Of is strong and compelling but flawed. The storylines don’t carry equal weight or even work that well when presented in counterpoint; the prison stuff felt very rushed and often lurid, while the investigative threads are deliberate, almost cautious, building tension because the stakes are high, and the truth of what happened that night doesn’t become clear until the last episode. If you look only at those two subplots – the prosecutors and the defense – The Night Of is a smart crime drama elevated by several brilliant characters. Interspersing prison scenes or the languid (if entirely plausible) vignettes of Naz’s family presents pacing issues that dragged the middle episodes for me.

And then there is the utter disaster of Chandra Kapoor’s character, who is completely undone by her utterly inexplicable and unrealistic choices in the seventh episode to shatter ethical boundaries between attorney and client, putting her career at risk (or right in the toilet) with no warning or internal justification. Karan nails this character up through that episode, effusing intelligence and confidence with her voice, her posture, and her facial expressions; this is a young lawyer on the come, a woman of integrity, destined for big cases where she owns the room and the cameras, so when the writers have her do two mind-blowingly stupid things as mere plot contrivances (i.e., so Stone can deliver the closing argument), they undo all the work they and Karan have done to build this character into a credible, three-dimensional person.

(Unrelated, but I was floored to find out Karan was born in the UK; her American accent isn’t just good, but precisely neutral. Ahmed is also British, but his character’s accent is very New York, and you can hear little moments where he’s emphasizing certain consonants to harden it. Doing a dead-neutral accent like Karan is a harder task.)

In the original series, the defendant was played by Ben Whishaw (The Lobster, The Hour), so the switch to a Muslim character and son of immigrants introduced an entirely new element to the series, one that the writers chose to explore on the outside of the courtroom but sort of dropped on the way to trial inside it. With white supremacists becoming more open in their hate and their actions, I feel like the treatment of the hostility toward Naz’s family and Muslims in general could have received more thorough handling in the family thread, perhaps with less of the pandering violence scenes from the prison.

Peyman Moaadi (A Separation) is great but underutilized as Naz’s father, reduced to a sad-sack character whose life is spinning beyond his control, and Williams chews up the screen most of the times he appears, playing a character (the criminal with a code) we’ve seen from him before. The series has a bunch of fun cameos, though, with J.D. Williams (Bodie from The Wire) appearing in several episodes, Trudie Styler (an actress best known as Sting’s wife) as a cougar who dated the murder victim’s stepfather, and Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street) as the jury foreman. I didn’t recognize rappers Sticky Fingaz of Onyx or Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, but both appeared as fellow inmates of Naz and Freddy at Rikers Island.

Despite all of those issues with the series, I found the core storyline – did Naz do it, and how would both sides assemble and present their cases to the jury – very compelling. The final episode doesn’t resort to cheap tricks or big gotcha moments; we get small, very human glimpses into most of the characters, even ones we don’t know that well like DA Weiss. The resolution of Naz’s story is poignant yet ambiguous, and Stone gets almost the same kind of half-and-half treatment. But I do think the cat was just a metaphor, nothing more.

Clockers.

All of my GenCon wrap-up pieces for Paste are now up, including the top ten new games I saw, the summary of every other interesting title, and an essay on the experience of attending for the first time.

Richard Price is back in the news these days with the critical acclaim for the HBO limited series The Night Of, an adaptation of a British series, with Price as lead writer on the U.S. version. (I’m only through episode three, but it’s excellent.) Price isn’t new to HBO, writing five episodes of The Wire, and gritty urban stories are his milieu in literature as well, with his 2008 novel Lush Life one of the best novels of the century so far. I just tore through his 1992 novel Clockers, later adapted by Spike Lee into a film that also featured The Night Of‘s John Turturro, an unsparing, compelling portrait of both sides of the pointless battle in the war on drugs.

Set in Price’s fictional Dempsey, New Jersey, Clockers focuses on two primary characters, the low-level drug dealer Ronald Dunham, known as “Strike,” and the homicide detective Rocco Klein, who end up on a collision course when another dealer who works for the same person as Strike is shot and killed execution-style, and Strike’s clean-cut brother Victor surprises everyone by confessing to the crime. Klein doesn’t buy the confession, and Strike is certain Victor is covering for him (even though Strike was assigned to make the kill, he wasn’t able to follow through), so each is, in his own way, trying to get Victor off the hook without knowing who actually committed the murder.

Price’s gift in his work is his ability to create entire universes populated with a variety of realistic, distinct characters from the kids known as “clockers” working the street for Strike and his boss to the mixture of homicide and drug cops, some of whom are incredibly bigoted, to the handful of extras whose lives intersect with Strike’s and Rocco’s. There’s substantial balance in all of his portraits, avoiding the cliched cops-good-clockers-bad mentality without losing sight of the murder that set the entire story in motion, so that the reader feels empathy for the “bad” guys and plenty of antipathy for some of the “good” ones. While Klein and his partner are flawed, they’re relatively well-behaved compared to the street cops responsible for policing the drug trade at the housing project where Strike works, and Price gives us racist cops, cops on the take, drunk cops, and okay maybe the cops don’t come off too well in Clockers, perhaps worse in a lot of ways than the majority of the clockers, most of whom are kids, come off.

If there’s a message in the novel at all, and I could see Price arguing there isn’t one, it’s that the drug trade exists because of the lack of other opportunities for poor urban youth. There’s a constant dialogue among the clockers, including Strike, his boss Rodney, Strike’s brother Victor, Strike’s intended protege Tyrone, Tyrone’s surrogate dad Andre the Giant, and so on, about the limited alternatives to dealing. School is barely mentioned, and only with disdain. Young black men who work regular jobs, like Victor, are respected, but Strike et al see the brighter financial outlook from dealing and decline to take the difficult, legal route. Andre, a cop who tries to mentor some of the at-risk kids in the projects, especially Tyrone, is respected and feared, and is known to use violence to make his will known because that’s the language that works. He might be the closest thing Clockers has to a “good guy,” except that he’ll use extrajudicial means to protect the kids he’s trying to help, and the other kids are terrified of him, so if that’s your good guy … well, then you get the gist.

Price doesn’t moralize much anywhere in the book, though; this is dispassionate, plot-driven writing, and even an easy target like the wastefulness of the War on Drugs doesn’t get a whiff. (The book was published in 1992, when drug decriminalization was only far-left hippie talk.) The only time he goes astray is in the scenes of Klein’s home life; he’s an older first-time father, struggling to balance the amorphous time demands of his job with the desire to be a father and a wife who may or may not understand how his job works (he thinks she doesn’t, but we don’t really get her side of this). It’s thinly drawn, especially the characterization of the wife, but also because we don’t see enough of his family relationships to get more out of it than that he loves his daughter and is thinking about the future after his career as a detective. That’s the difference between this novel and the superior Lush Life, by which point Price had honed his plot development skills so that the scenes off the streets were every bit as compelling as the scenes on them.

Next up: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in her Neapolitan Novels tetralogy.

Saturday links, 10/13/12.

Fall League coverage has tied me up all week, but I’m stuck around the house today waiting for a mechanic to finish $1500 in repairs to my car’s A/C, radiator, and catalytic converter assembly (the latter rather important with an emissions test looming), so here’s a mess of links I’ve collected over the last three weeks. Enjoy.

  • Monsanto and other major manufacturers of synthetic pesticides are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat California’s Prop 37, which would require that genetically modified foods be labeled as such. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Nestle are also listed on the Yes on Prop 37 site among companies that have spent at least $1 million to defeat this basic pro-consumer law, which doesn’t ban genetically modified foods, but merely enables consumers to make informed choices.
  • With the Orioles’ unlikely season ending yesterday, it’s a good time to revisit Wire creator David Simon’s podcast with Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch. Speaking of Simon, he also did an interview with Salon a few days before that podcast in which he revealed that HBO turned down a Wire spinoff that would have followed Tommy Carcetti’s career in a new series.
  • Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan wrote a great piece on former A’s prospect Grant Desme, who retired from baseball to join a seminary after a breakout Arizona Fall League performance in 2009. I didn’t see Desme as a potential star or even a solid regular, but that doesn’t make his story any less interesting.
  • What your beer says about your politics. More fun than meaningful, although I think in my specific case it’s pretty spot on.
  • Via mental_floss: Why does sex make men sleepy? Amazing how you can explain things with science.
  • Bill Shaikin of the LA Times did a wide-ranging Q&A with Bud Selig. I’m having a hard time seeing the distinction between the Dodgers’ and Padres’ situations that Selig tries to make.
  • I haven’t tried this recipe yet, but I did bookmark it because it sounds and looks so good: crackly banana bread, using whole wheat flour and whole-grain millet to add a crunchy texture.
  • Michael Ruhlman on the fallacy of “follow your passion” advice. He meanders a bit before getting to the crux of the post, but I enjoyed following his train of thought, and I certainly agree that passion and $2 will get you a cup of coffee.
  • I usually avoid straight politics here, but I’m linking to this David Leonhardt piece on ”Obamanomics” because I like the underlying story of how a poor evaluation at the start of a rebuild can negatively affect policies for several years afterwards and lead to further incorrect evaluations that support the first erroneous conclusion. It could just as easily apply to teams like Houston and Colorado at the beginning of long rebuilding processes, to teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore that had unexpected successes this year based partly on individual performances that aren’t likely to recur.
  • Maybe self-esteem is the wrong buzzword for improving happiness – experimental social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson argues that self-compassion is the real key. I first came across her writing in this July piece on success that argues (I admit without much evidence in the article) that believing in your own ability to learn and improve is a key to increasing job performance and finding happiness in your work.

Lush Life.

I discovered Richard Price’s 2009 novel Lush Life on Lev Grossman’s list of the ten best novels of the 2000s, where it was one of only two novels I hadn’t read (the other is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). Price’s novel was, and still is, just $6 new on amazon, and after picking it up I found out Price wrote the story and/or teleplay for five episodes of The Wire, which would have been enough to sell me on the book in the first place. (He even appeared as the leader of the prison book group where D’Angelo Barksdale gives his thoughts on The Great Gatsby, one of the best episodes in the entire series.) Lush Life does have a lot in common with that TV series, in its realistic depictions of the police and the criminal underclass, in outstanding dialogue that’s almost a little too sharp to be real, and in the deft weaving of multiple storylines revolving around a large ensemble of characters. It’s the best novel I’ve read this year.

Lush Life begins, after a brief prologue, with a murder, a mugging gone wrong in the small hours on a street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where three drunk white men are accosted by two teenagers in an encounter that leaves one of the men dead, another passed-out drunk on the sidewalk, and the third unable to tell a straight enough story for the police. From that starting point, Price branches the story further and further out, tracking the two surviving victims, the two assailants, the murder victim’s father and stepmother, and the various detectives investigating the case (and the higher-ups who either want the case closed quickly or forgotten entirely).

By setting the book in the broad tableau of Manhattan urban life, Price can touch on a vast range of themes without ever making one central or lapsing into preachy or pedantic prose. Race sits at the heart of the novel because the victims were white while the assailants weren’t, and because the white-dominated media loves a privileged white victim of urban crime. Yet Price avoids most explicit discussions of race or racism, allowing the story to unfold through dialogue and changes of perspective that also show scenes of the economically disadvantaged project kids, two of whom are responsible for the crime, most of whom are shown without much hope of upward mobility outside of theft or the drug trade. The media are largely shown as leeches. The higher-ups at 1 Police Plaza are more interested in results that keep them employed than, in this case, closing a difficult-to-solve case. Even the detectives who caught the body here – led by Matty Clark, a McNulty-esque character with less of a drinking problem – are far from saints, motivated to close the case and move on to the next one so no one breathes down their necks, even if they don’t get the right perp, while Clark becomes entangled with the victim’s family with unintended consequences.

The most remarkable aspect of the novel is just how much Price manages to pack into a book of about 450 pages, between the richly developed characters and the myriad plot threads that spread from the initial murder and in many cases come back together at the novel’s close. I finished Lush Life feeling like I’d just watched a six-episode season of a TV drama, something as intelligent as The Wire yet surprisingly fresh and compact. The dialogue sparkles and the characters never seem to sit too far to either side of the wide expanse of grey between the two stock extremes. It’s also darkly funny in places, sometimes with gallows humor, sometimes with the stupidity of the kids getting caught with cars full of marijuana smoke or the venality of the cops, lawyers, reporters, and business owners whose lives are indirectly affected by the murder. It’s not groundbreaking literature, but it is highly intelligent fiction that never talks down to its reader and possesses the narrative greed of a good detective story even though the reader knows who committed the crime and is less concerned with their capture than with the evolution of the story in between those two points.

Next up: Don DeLillo’s very strange novel White Noise, part of the TIME and Radcliffe 100 lists.

The Wire, season five.

If you’re new to these recaps, you should start with my notes on previous seasons – on season one; season two; season three; and the longest post, on season four.

I’ve held off a bit on writing about season five of The Wire for two reasons. The obvious one was work – the end of spring training is always a sprint between daily games, keeping up with draft stuff, and, you know, actual assignments, like columns and podcasts. But I also wanted to create some distance between myself and the material (I finished the series on the 23rd, watching the last two episodes back-to-back on a flight home from Charlotte) to see if my impressions of the season would vary in time.

They really haven’t, however: Season five just wasn’t that good. It’s a sad ending to what was otherwise such a phenomenal achievement in television.

There’s a laundry list of problems with season five, but I’ll limit myself to three. One is that the entire season feels rushed. The show adds another setting, the Baltimore Sun newsroom, and cast of characters, including old Homicide favorite Clark Johnson. Yet without shedding many characters from previous seasons, we’re left with the same sixty minutes per episode spread out over an ever-increasing number of subplots and characters, so the newsroom folks don’t get the development they need, and every one of them remains two-dimensional after the series finale – particularly the setting’s villain, Scott Templeton, whose motivations are never sufficiently explored. The increased character density means we also get less time with series stalwarts like Omar, McNulty, Marlo, and Carcetti, all of whom receive plot treatments far more superficial than what we’ve seen before. The explanations, if you could call them that, for McNulty falling off the wagon and into a ditch fell far short of the standards set as recently as season four for character development and background. Add to all of those issues the shorter season length, ten episodes instead of twelve or thirteen, and the need to tie up as many storylines as possible before signoff and you have a season that feels like a compliation rather than a coherent set of stories.

The second is co-creator David Simon’s proximity to the material. The Templeton storyline is Simon’s vengeance on a real-life coworker at the Sun, Jim Haner, whom Simon accused of fabricating quotes and events while also accusing the Sun‘s editors and management of protecting their star reporter. Templeton is a flawed character, but is more fleshed-out than the simpering managing editor Thomas Klebanow (who talks like a damned grief counselor) and executive editor James Whiting, both of whom are depicted as willfully blind to Templeton’s malfeasance because they only see the potential for awards and a Hail Mary play to save the newsroom. I have no problem with Simon wanting to use his platform to decry plagiarism and fabrications by reporters, but it watched as if no one edited him down from his pulpit.

And finally, the serial killer storyline, the one thing that ties just about everything together other than the Omar plot, was so implausible and so far out of left field that I found myself wishing I could skip through those scenes (I couldn’t, because the series is otherwise so tightly plotted that you can’t skip anything, ever, or risk becoming hopelessly lost) and get back to the routine street violence. The idea that straightlaced Lester would be so consumed with his desire to nab Marlo that he would engage in an illegal endeavor that would jeopardize not just his and McNulty’s careers but would jeopardize the case against Marlo and the careers of people like Cedric Daniels is too far gone for my suspension of disbelief to encompass it. Yeah, I caught the parallels between Templeton’s fabrications and McNulty’s, but that literary flourish doesn’t justify the departure from four seasons of severe realism.

There were literary flourishes within the season that did pay off for me as a viewer, however, especially the underlying conceit that the players may change, but the streets will remain the same until the structures that govern (or fail to govern) them fall. Avon Barksdale fell, to be replaced by Marlo, who will be replaced by someone, perhaps Slim Charles. Omar’s gone, but Michael has stepped right into the void. One addict, Bubbles, escapes the streets, only to be replaced by Dukwon, with their closure scenes airing back-to-back in the final episode just to hammer that point home. The government’s continued cycle of rewarding superficial stats over honest results, and politics over performance, was actually the funniest part of that final montage, one bit I won’t spoil in case any of you haven’t seen it; I’ll just say it took me a while to figure out who was going to fill that void because the choice was so unlikely (and, yet, so ultimately predictable). That self-referential aspect, the way loops always close and minor characters (like Lester’s girlfriend) resurface, remains one of the series’ most enduring qualities for me. Those closures also give the series as a whole that novelesque quality absent in most series – these massive story arcs and entrances and departures of characters mirror those of great Russian novels and require degrees of attention and skill absent in so much modern fiction in all media. I just wish the final season had played out differently.

* Because I know someone will ask, I’d rank season five as the worst, and four as the best – but you can’t really call season four the best without attaching it to the groundwork laid in season three, can you? Season three didn’t stand well on its own for me, but the 25 episodes in those two seasons combined, slightly longer in episodes than a standard network season (and about a season and a half in show minutes), beat any season of any other TV show I’ve ever seen, and it’s not that close. I still maintain that season two is unfairly maligned, however; it was different, but in a good way, and even seeds planted on the docks bloomed in the series’ final few episodes.

* One thing I’ve puzzled over far too much is which Wire actor was most deserving of some recognition from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which completely whiffed on the series while wasting Outstanding Drama Series nominations on the likes of Joan of Arcadia, CSI, Boston Legal, and Heroes. (The Wire received just two Emmy nominations that I can find, both writing nods, one for S3E11, “Middle Ground,” and one for the series finale, “-30-.” It appears the Golden Globes can’t even say that much.) My answer was far from certain after four seasons, but season five clinched it: Andre Royo, for his portrayal of Bubbles. It probably didn’t help his cause with award committees that his subplot was always in the background, or that the character’s required range only became evident over multiple seasons, but his performance was the most compelling in a series full of compelling performances. Only Seth Gilliam as Carver saw his character develop that much over the full five years – but we all know the award shows love a good addiction storyline.

The Wire, season four.

Daniels: What’s this kid to you?
Prez: I don’t know. He’s one of my students.

There appears to be a very strong consensus among critics and serious fans of The Wire that season four is its pinnacle, perhaps the greatest single season of any American TV series from any network. I won’t say that I disagree with that assessment, but that I find it very hard to view season four outside of the context of the three seasons that led up to it – season four stands strongly on the foundation laid by 37 prior episodes that established storylines, developed characters, built tension, and began a form of social criticism that draws on traditions that predate the medium, a kind of angry exposure of societal injustice and hypocrisy that called to mind the angry righteousness of Native Son. The Wire always had a point to make; season four is where that point got made.

The end of season three saw the demise of the Barksdale gang and the rise of a new, more ruthless drug kingpin on the west side of Baltimore, Marlo Stanfield, who lacks the charisma of Avon Barksdale or the intelligence of Stringer Bell, ruling his territory and crew like an authoritarian dictator, disappearing enemies and buying allegiances when he needs them. The investigation into him sputters due to the lack of bodies – a void undetstood by the viewers, but not by the investigating unit – and city politics, allowing a new storyline built around four new characters and one familiar one to take center stage.

Prez turned in his badge during season three, but resurfaces here as a math teacher in one of Baltimore’s failing public schools; four of his students, Namond (son of Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey), Randy, Michael, and Duquan (“Dukie”), each of whom earns his own subplot. I would challenge any viewer to watch this season without becoming emotionally attached to these at-risk kids, each of whom started life with a negative balance and only one of whom ends the season with any real hope for improvement, thanks largely to the intervention of an adult who goes well beyond his duties to save a kid from jail or death on the corners. I always found Prez a little hapless as a detective; when he showed aptitude for the problem-solving aspects of the job, the camera always seemed to look on him as an object of pity, as if we should be proud that the slow kid finally found something he was good at. Even watching him slug his father-in-law (who had it coming) had that underdog feeling to it. In season four, Prez becomes a fully-realized character, a man who may have finally found his calling after leaving a job that never fit him, justifying (on some level) his presence as more than simply awkward comic relief. But Prez also becomes our conduit to not just another aspect of urban decay but to the missing piece to fill in the puzzle of the plight of the American urban underclass that this series documents. As it turns out, the problems with the streets and corners start inside the broken homes that line them.

No spin on a knuckleball. You still can’t tell how it’s gonna break.

Whether David Simon started The Wire to tell great stories, to criticize the actions and policies that were (or are) destroying inner cities in the northeast and the rust belt, or both is immaterial, because the result is clear: the series tells phenomenal stories, longer, deeper, and more intertwined than on any other American TV series I can remember, but always with a clear (if occasionally preachy) message about why. When I was younger, if a network series wanted to cover a major social topic, they would do a Very Special Episode; The Wire was, in that parlance, a Very Special Series.

The macro story here is the decline of the city, at least since the start of season two, since you might argue season one was primarily about the folly of the war on drugs. Adding the failing education system and the way city politics and bureaucracy perpetuate that failure (although the teachers’ unions come in for little to no criticism here) in season four only makes the overall picture more dismal. The police are corrupt. The schools are hopeless. City Hall is only concerned with numbers and elections. The FBI is too busy chasing terrorists to look at homegrown crime. The war on drugs only increases misery, but no one wants to consider decriminalizing them for fear of a backlash. Any attempt to start a small business to help the community and maybe create a job or two will be met with unreasonable regulations – or a need for bribes. And so on. You couldn’t paint a much bleaker picture unless you wanted to turn it into a series about zombies roaming across a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The trick of The Wire is its ability appeal to your emotions without manipulating them, especially hard because we’re now talking about a season that revolves around kids who are swimming upstream against a current that is trying to drown them. The writing veered as close as it’s come to preaching with the storyline in the schools, with scenes that can’t help but leave the viewer angry – but could they have been written any differently? Stories of failing inner-city schools no longer make the front page because they’re too commonplace, and because (I presume) readers are resigned to these situations as unfixable. Pouring more money into the system hasn’t helped. Testing creates massive incentive problems, which becomes a subplot this season. But more than any other cause, lack of structure and support at home shows up in reality and in season four as a major cause, if not the major cause, of the failing schools.

(I did find the academic project, removing ten disruptive kids from classrooms and educating them holistically while avoiding the standard curriculum, a little contrived, but because it got us another season of Bunny Colvin – and the bittersweet restaurant scene – I won’t complain.)

Even watching the drug dealers of Baltimore recognize the benefits of cartel behavior – the “New Day Co-Op,” meeting in a local hotel conference room – keeps the show grounded in the drug-war theme that was established in season one and continued, often below the surface, in seasons two and three. It also had the benefit of giving me more of my favorite character, Proposition Joe, whose prank phone call to gather intelligence on Herc rivals his “nephews and cousins” line from season two for the biggest laugh I’ve gotten from the series.

A good churchman is always up in everybody’s shit. It’s how we do.

Where season four did set itself apart from the previous three seasons was in the depth of writing on individual characters. Earlier years weren’t superficial, but didn’t get as far into motivations as season four did, and there was too much emphasis on current actions relative to character history. Putting the four kids at the center of the show for a full season allowed the writers to focus on past and present because for junior high school kids those two things have little separation between them, and in the case of these kids, the issues from their pasts are still active during the show. Nowhere did this have the same impact (no pun intended) as it did in the storyline involving Michael and eventually Stanfield enforcer Chris Paltrow toward the end of the season. (Spoilers ahead.)

Michael’s visceral, negative reactions to any attempt by adult males to establish clear bonds with him were always odd, but about halfway through the year it became obvious that his reactions were some kind of latent response to prior abuse, likely sexual abuse, by a male authority figure earlier in his life. (It later becomes apparent who the culprit was, and why Michael makes the choices and sacrifices he makes as a result.) When Michael reverses course and asks Chris, who, for all of his coldness during murder after murder, shows peculiar flashes of empathy, even for victims (assuring them it will be quick), Chris’ emotions come to the surface with a fury that reveals a profound, unhealed emotional wound that explains not just the violence of his fulfillment of Michael’s request but the dichotomy in his own character, a murderer with a sensitive side that actually fits him, not one that was grafted on by writers to make him less repellent.

The camera has always liked Cutty Wise, as actor Chad Coleman has this mournful expression along with a deep, deliberate style of speaking that draws your attention even when he’s not in the middle of the action. Yet season three used him more as a prop in plotlines about the difficulties of reintegrating into society after incarceration and the hurdles city government puts in front of small businesses than as an individual character involved in micro stories. Here, his gym is thriving as a center of community activity, with all four boys spending time at the gym, two forging uncertain relationships with Cutty that lead, of course, to violence, but also to one of the season’s few slightly hopeful outcomes.

The one individual story that didn’t grab me was the mayoral campaign of Tommy Carcetti, who, despite getting a little more depth this season (as opposed to the raw ambition of season three), can’t command a scene like a credible fast-rising politician character should. I also never really doubted the outcome of the election – why would we be spending so much time with him, and seeing a resolution in the middle of the season, if he wasn’t going to win? What happens after he takes office is less a function of him and more of the moral hazards rampant in democratically-elected governments. Even the identical character played by an actor with stronger oratory skills would have been more effective.

Carver: You know what this is? This is one of those enabling relationships.
Herc: Enable me, Carv.

I think we all recommend The Wire, you to me and now me to everyone who’ll listen, because it is smart, compelling television, infused with bright and dark humor, a show that deserved a wider audience when it was alive and will get that audience , come hell or high water, now that it’s gone. But people should watch The Wire not just for its entertainment value, but because it is a social document, one that treats serious issues seriously, that handles characters like people rather than like tools of the writers, and that shows an essential understanding of the economics of behavior that drive all aspects of our lives. You do not need an econ degree to watch or enjoy this show, just as you do not need one to respond to incentives in your daily life. But you will get an education watching the show, if only in the way that a real education forces you to think critically about issues and search for answers, to ignore easy solutions and to question the pat responses you get from authority figures. It’s showing up on college syllabi, as this two-year-old Slate article attests, and not just in film studies classes. It is an American landmark, a work of protest disguised as a police procedural that, like its best characters, ignores the boundaries set out for both genres in the name of the greater good. There may be, or have been, better American series out there; I’m not well-watched enough to say more than that I haven’t seen one. But rather than elevate season four above the three that preceded it, I’d prefer to simply elevate the series, and hold that season four’s greatness is merely a testament to the vision of its creators, and to the strength of all of the material which laid the groundwork for it.

The Wire, season three.

Season three of The Wire marks a pretty significant departure from the compact story arcs of the first two seasons, a shift with both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, this was the most abjectly political of the three seasons I’ve watched so far, making clear, cogent statements on the futility of the War on Drugs, the nature of government bureaucracies, and the immutable law of unintended consequences; it surprises me, in hindsight, to hear that senior government officials loved this show when it puts the lie to several of their policies. On the negative side, however, I found it the least compelling of the three seasons as it approached its conclusion because there wasn’t much of a conclusion; the one major storyline that ended in the penultimate episode (spoilers below) had such a slow buildup that the climax felt anticlimactic.

Season three continues with the theme of urban decay from the first two seasons, but the camera pulls back to show rot and corruption in more areas, particularly how the entrenched interests across the city will work to thwart attempts at reform, or any sort of unorthodox thinking. Major Bunny Colvin, under pressure to reduce violent crime in his district, carves out three “free zones” where the sale and use of drugs is effectively decriminalized, resulting in safer streets everywhere else in the neighborhood. He does this without the knowledge or sanction of any of his superiors, and is eventually undermined by the officers below him who can’t change their mindset from “catch bad guys” to “keep the neighborhood safe.” (Nothing in this season was more vicious than the depiction of the opportunistic, short-sighted media jumping all over the free zone story without an iota of consideration for its merits.)

The Colvin storyline intertwines loosely with the ambitious city councilman Tommy Carcetti, who is looking for a cause to help him make a run for mayor despite the disadvantage of being a white politician in a largely black city. (By the way, either they dropped the ‘h’ after the second ‘c,’ or everyone is pronouncing his name wrong – as it’s spelled, it should be ‘car-CHET-tee.’) Yet for most of the season Carcetti is just a run-of-the-mill politician, uninteresting and uninspiring until making one speech in the closing scenes of the season finale that starts to redeem the character at least in terms of his appeal to the public, if not in any actual substance. Perhaps his character improves in future seasons, but in this one, I found him, and his storyline, flat, far less compelling than any other story arc I’ve seen on the series.

The return of the battle between the Major Case Squad and the Barksdale crew was welcome, as it worked on a macro level and on an interpersonal level, within each group and in the enmity between McNulty and Stringer Bell. The contrast in styles and aims between Avon and Stringer could stand in for almost any organization that has grown to the point where it faces attacks on all sides – from smaller upstarts, from government regulators, from suppliers, from would-be partners – or to the divergent goals of U.S. political and military leaders in the war in Iraq, to which this season made several allusions (including the series finale’s episode title, “Mission Accomplished”). The cat and mouse game involving the burn phones, including the MCS’s maneuver to move from one step behind Barksdale to one step ahead, was easily the best plot thread of the season, including Clarke Peters (as Lester Freamon) getting to step out of character as a slick con man.

But the resolution of the Barksdale/MCS storyline fell short of expectations for me. The death of Stringer, my favorite character – one of the few things on this series that has actually surprised me – speaks strongly to the emptiness of the drug war in the inner city. When McNulty is brooding over Bell’s corpse, the victory seems hollow for a host of reasons, from the fact that the death of a major player does nothing to stop the use or sale of drugs to McNulty’s personal disappointment in losing Bell before he could put him in cuffs. (And it speaks to the emphasis on chasing individuals rather than looking at the problem holistically, such as working to reduce demand, rather than supply, while decriminalizing use.) But from a plot perspective, Stringer’s falling out with Avon had been so far under the surface for so long that the acceleration over episodes S3E10 and E11 was too quick to generate the tension involved in, say, the Frank Sobotka storyline in the previous season. The discord was there, but without any crescendo until right before Avon sets Stringer up (reluctantly, as opposed to what Stringer does to Avon at the same time). A character as good as Stringer Bell shouldn’t be so easily written out of a series.

The season was just as smart as previous seasons, but just didn’t have that same narrative greed; I enjoyed individual episodes, but didn’t spend hours trying to figure out when I could watch the next episode as I did toward the ends of the previous two seasons. A disappointing Wire season is still miles ahead of a good network police procedural season, though.

Stray bullets…

* When Brother Mouzone handed the weapon to Omar and said he trusted Omar would “do it proper,” did he mean disposing of the weapon – or disposing of Dante? (Or both, really.)

* The war in Iraq was just 20 months old at the time the episode aired. I suppose you could at least argue that the war in Iraq had an end, but I wonder how much angrier David Simon would have made this season had he seen how much longer U.S. troops would be on the ground in that country.

* Good riddance to Johnny, perhaps my least favorite recurring character. Bubbles didn’t really need him as a foil.

* Finally, the series’ use of gratuitous sex scenes became ridiculous in this season, to the point where it’s just a distraction from what is otherwise one of the most intelligently-written American TV series I’ve ever seen. Carcetti cheating on his (very cute) wife with a trashy woman he met at a fund-raiser seemed more like a failed attempt at comic relief than any kind of illumination on his character – Terry D’Agostino, his campaign manager with a strong sexual appetite, provides far more humor in the bedroom (through role reversal) without anything that would force me to fast-forward if I’m watching it on an airplane. (McNulty’s experience in the brothel in season two? Now that was funny.) The Barksdale crew party house also served no obvious purpose for the plot or for laughs. Boardwalk Empire had the same problem in the eight episodes I watched before I gave up; does HBO just encourage producers to introduce sex scenes because, hey, it’s HBO, so let’s show some skin? It’s not offensive; it’s just silly, demeaning to the actors and the audience at the same time.

The Wire, season two.

The Wire: The Complete Series is on sale again on amazon for almost 60% off, at $85.49 – perfect timing for me, as many of you have asked for my thoughts on season two, which I just finished watching on Friday.

I get why so many of you warned me that season two might be disappointing; some said it’s the worst season, or just not as good as the first, or just so different that I might not like it. I wouldn’t say any of that held true for me, though – it was just as good as the first, in large part because it was so different, and aside from one complaint about the plot I would be hard-pressed to offer any negative sentiments.

Again, for the handful of you who haven’t seen the series (I’m fairly certain I’m the last one on this particular ship), The Wire follows an ad hoc group of Baltimore police officers who, under the charge of Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, form a major case squad to pursue drug dealing operations. In season two, the squad has been spread to the winds after the end of the Barksdale case from the first season, but gradually Lt. Daniels puts the group back together to pursue a vendetta for a police commander, Stan Valchek, who is angry with the leader of the dockworkers’ union over the placement of a stained glass window in their local church. (Seriously.) That case mushrooms into a sprawling investigation that links the union to white slavery, black marketeering, and a source of drugs for Proposition Joe’s gang (which is a good thing, because we need more Proposition Joe).

The feel of the season is different because of the change in theme. The first season was very much about the inherent fallacy behind the war on drugs, and how ineffective and expensive that battle is likely to be. The second season revolves around the decline of blue-collar employment, which, like the drug war, is behind the economic and social decay of many older American cities. The dockworkers are struggling and their union head bets it all, in effect, on double-zero, putting illegally gained funds into lobbying efforts to dredge a nearby canal and increase port traffic. Those funds are the proceeds of payoffs from smugglers, who attract the attention of the police when one of the containers contains the bodies of thirteen dead women who were being smuggled into the U.S. to work as prostitutes, likely under duress.

The new storyline brought in a host of new characters, most strong, led by the union leader, Frank Sobotka, and the port officer who ends up joining the major case squad, Beadie Russell. Sobotka’s story plays out almost like a classical tragedy – he’s probably doomed from the start, and is so heavily invested in his work that he’s ignorant of the impending danger to members of his immediate family. (Ziggy, his son, was one character I could have done without, or simply done with less of; I almost felt sorry for him when he finally snapped, but then again, could anything we know of his history really excuse what he did?) And Sobotka is faced with some difficult choices, ones with nothing but gray area, because of his moral and political responsibility to his fellow dockworkers.

Russell was a little less well-formed than Sobotka, and her development from security guard to investigator wasn’t as well written as the development of Carver in season one from goofball to surveillance expert (although I suppose this season showed that was a fluke and he just regressed to the mean). The Russell character worked more because of how Amy Ryan played her, almost like she was trying to shed the stereotypical soft female cop image and develop some toughness, much of which falls apart in the final episode. People win Emmys for that sort of thing – that is, when the Emmys are aware that the series exists in the first place.

The expansion to the docks comes at the expense of the Barksdale storyline, although the writers did a solid job of keeping that thread alive throughout the season so they can pick it up again at a future point. Avon Barksdale remains in jail, so Stringer Bell – still the strongest central character in the show from my point of view – becomes more central, even ordering the murder of a potential turncoat and setting up a hit on someone Barksdale hired to work for the group. Bodie’s attempts to grow into some sort of leader within the Barksdale crew was one of the stronger points in the first half of the season, but was dropped for the second half as the focus shifted more and more to the docks. His scene in the flowershop, while insanely silly, was a highlight of the season for me.

That one complaint about the plot I mentioned earlier was pretty significant, even if it was probably realistic (and here comes a spoiler). The FBI agent who tips off the Greek about raids and eventually about Sobotka felt like a tacked-on element, as if the writers needed to ensure that this case wasn’t a total win for the cops, with very little on the agent’s true motivation for protecting a murderous mobster. Is he unaware of the Greek’s body count? Does he view that as an acceptable tradeoff for the information the Greek provides, especially on terrorism? Is this sanctioned by his bosses? Will he ever face any consequences? I get that a rout for the cops would seem too network-police-procedural, and absolutely not realistic, but to have them sunk because of a leak from outside their group, felt like a deus ex machina for the bad guys – a less compelling resolution than we saw in season one.

* I’m not sure what was funnier – Proposition Joe’s response to Sergei’s comments about family (“I got motherfuckin’ nephews and cousins fucking all my shit up…”) or McNulty’s one line when they finally move in on the white slavery operation (“You’re late”), but I remain continually impressed by the writers’ ability to weave in humor without interrupting the flow of the narrative. If you think about it, not only is that more like real life than the idea of separating humorous moments from everything else, but it’s the natural human response to stress, anxiety, or sometimes even grief or despair. It should appear everywhere, and should be seamless. That doesn’t make it easier to write, but it does mean it’s important to make the effort.

* And the wait for the payoff on the “Why always Boris?” joke – one of the longest I can remember in any TV series – was absolutely worth it. I wonder if that was planned from the start.

* So does anyone else think FedEx knew they’d get tremendous word of mouth by hiring the actor who played Bodie to appear in one of their new commercials, or was it just their own dumb luck?

The Wire, season one.

When I finally started watching The Wire in June or so, I didn’t intend to write about it here because I feel like no show of the last ten years has been written about, and written about so well, as this one. Enough of you have asked for my thoughts that I changed my mind, but I’m not sure I can offer you anything new on the subject.

I was a big fan of Homicide: Life on the Street, Wire creator David Simon’s previous show, also based on Baltimore on a nonfiction book Simon wrote, and a show that stood out for the depth of its characterization rather than its use of the crimes themselves as the primary generator of narrative threads. The show made Andre Braugher a minor star – it should have made him a major one, but the show was buried on Friday nights at 10 pm for much of its run and never found the audience it deserved – and did win four Emmy awards over its run, including one for Braugher, so at least it was noticed by the industry if not by the viewing public as a whole. It was also one of the first shows I can remember that used the ensemble cast as a true ensemble; Braugher was the best actor, and the best character, yet was never singled out in the writing as the show’s main star beyond his character’s story arcs. You watched for the group, not just for him.

That casting and writing mentality – that the ensemble is bigger than the sum of its actors – is the great separator, in my mind, between The Wire and just about any other show I’ve seen in any genre. The acting is strong, the dialogue is strong (still stylized, just not as much as your standard formulaic network crime drama), the plotting is intricate, but at the end of the day, it is the idea that the stage that unites all of these players is the true center of the show that makes The Wire such compelling viewing.

For the four or five of you who haven’t seen this series, season one follows an ad hoc task force in the Baltimore city police department as they identify and investigate a large drug-dealing operation in the city’s housing projects that is also responsible for up to a dozen murders. The show gives more or less equal time to the members of that drug cartel, all African-American, running their criminal operation in an efficient, business-like manner, led by Avon Barksdale and his consigliere Stringer Bell. The good guys can be bad, the bad guys have some elements of good, and there is no question where Mr. Simon’s sympathies lie on the twin subjects of the war on drugs and drug decriminalization – but it’s never preachy the way most network shows (I’m looking at you, Law & Order: SVU) are when they try to get topical. Season one of The Wire shows the impact of the war on drugs and lets those results speak for themselves.

You have to dig fairly deep into this show to find poorly drawn or stock characters – over the course of 13 rich episodes, the writers show us multiple sides of at least a dozen central characters, most amusingly Wee-Bey, and show significant development of at least half of those, including cops Pryz (screw-up nepotista to dedicated researcher) and Carver (clock-puncher to hardcore surveillance guy … but with a twist in the final episode of the season) to Barksdale lieutenant and nephew D’Angelo (grows a conscience) to addict/confidential informant Bubs. Yet even those stock characters have their value, such as personal favorite Proposition Joe (whom I quoted in last week’s chat) or Ed McMahon-in-uniform Jay Landsman.

And then there’s Omar Little, whom I think is the show’s most popular character – a violent, ruthless thief who also speaks unusually formally (never swearing), abides strictly by his own set of ethics, and is gay. He only appears in a handful of episodes in this season before absconding, but he’s the best example of the series’ stylized speech – you may never encounter someone who speaks like this, but it is so memorable and so clever that I can forgive the departure from reality.

For my money, though, the star of season one is Stringer Bell, played (to my shock) by an English actor, Idris Elba, now the star of Luther. Bell is a brilliantly conceived character, the brains behind the Barksdale operation, taking economics classes in the evenings, running front businesses as actual businesses, devising codes and changing protocols, and ordering murders when necessary. Elba infuses this character with tremendous gravity between his baritone voice and this one facial expression where he drops his chin without lowering his eyes, delivering a look that could pin a thought in midair and drop it to the ground without a fight. If he’s on the screen, I don’t want to miss a syllable.

Some scattered remaining thoughts from season one:

* Many of you have told me you consider this the best series in TV history, but I haven’t seen anywhere near enough television to offer that judgment. I actually don’t like most scripted TV series; the medium isn’t the problem, but the industry serves the mass audience a product that just doesn’t speak to me. The best TV series I’ve seen isn’t a series by our standards – that would be Foyle’s War, a British detective series that airs in roughly 90-minute self-contained episodes, with just a few per season. It’s more a series of short movies than an American-style TV series. It’s nothing like The Wire in setting, look, feel, time, or place, but it is everything like The Wire in intelligence, wit, and tension.

* So I mentioned the other day that Unforgiven was the only movie for which I can remember walking out of the theater before the film ended, and the scene that did it was when Eastwood’s character (EDIT: I got this wrong – see the comments) kicked the tar out of English Bob, after which we saw Bob’s companion urinate down his own leg. My wife wanted out at that point, and I can’t say I disagreed, even today: The use of someone pissing himself as comic relief is such unbelievably weak writing that I’d be ashamed to laugh at it, and as a demonstration of terror it’s rather over the top. Contrast that with Wallace’s final scene, when he realizes he’s trapped and that the person who ordered the hit isn’t around to countermand the order. He’s done, and he’s shocked, scared, betrayed, and when he loses bladder control, it’s mentioned in passing by Bodie as a way for the writers to heighten the emotion of the scene – not for cheap laughs. That wasn’t the part of the scene that made the strongest impression on me (that would be Poot having to tell Bodie to shut up and pull the trigger, then taking the gun and finishing the job himself, showing how much of Bodie’s tough-guy act was just that, an act), but it is a testament to the strength of the show’s writing.

* Speaking of Andre Braugher, if you haven’t seen his FX series Thief, for which he won his second Emmy for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series, the entire six-episode run is available for free on imdb.com. Braugher is the clear star here, but the plotting on The Wire reminds me more of this series than any other I’ve seen.