March 23, 2011

Justify My Netflix: The Wire, Season 1

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

The Wire, Season 1

Today's movie: The Wire, Season 1, 2002 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because this is yet another one of those television shows I ended up missing when it first ran, because of being on cable, and for which I've been using my Netflix account over the last few years to get caught up, in this case a gritty crime drama that enraged the city government of Baltimore where it's set, because of its bleak portrayal of systemic and unstoppable corruption there, and that a small but passionate group of people claim is literally the greatest series in the entire history of television.

The reality: Well, I have to say, at least when it comes to its utterly perfect first season, The Wire is now the closest I've seen yet to a show achieving the much ballyhooed "television novel" status that has so come to dominate that medium here in the early 2000s; and that's because these thirteen one-hour episodes really do work as a unified whole the same way a novel does, with themes and ideas that are sometimes introduced in the first "chapter" but that don't pay off until the very last, a tightly structured Tolstoyian epic saga that features an impeccable blend between action and character development, and that goes to the unique trouble of making its "villains" as complex, fascinating and sympathetic as its "heroes." In fact, this is the most well-known thing about the first season of The Wire, is that an entire 50 percent of it is set among the Shakespearean clan of locals actually producing and selling the city's drug supply, presenting what is now undoubtedly the most nuanced, most intelligent, most realistic, even most office-workplace-oriented portrayal ever delivered of what an urban drug industry is actually like, pointing out much like Richard Price does in his insanely great Clockers how a black-market drug organization with that much money and that many moving parts really does take on the same kind of structure as a large corporation if it wants to survive, with its success hinging mostly on a series of salaried middle-managers whose job it is to oversee and control all the minimum-wage "retail clerks" actually on the street, taking cash from addicts and delivering glass vials, and with your rise and fall within such a corporate pyramid dependent on such pedestrian issues as how much of a team player you are, how much initiative you take, how much you kiss up to your immediate boss, etc. (UPDATE: And in fact, I've since learned that Price was one of this show's staff writers, along with Shutter Island's Dennis Lehane, which should give you a good idea of just what kind of quality these scripts have.)

Then in the meanwhile, series creator David Simon brings this same kind of ultra-complexity to the cop side of his grand tragedy as well, putting together a brilliantly Byzantine series of events that leads to the formation of this special "drug task force" we follow through these thirteen episodes, a multilayered story about bureaucracy, ambition, dirty cops, even dirtier state politicians, media frenzies and ignorant civilian populations so ingenious and complicated, I can't even begin to describe its details to you here in this short overview. And that's probably the most satisfying thing of all about The Wire, that it takes literally sitting down and watching all thirteen episodes to fully understand its grandiose storyline, just like how no short synopsis will ever do Anna Karenina justice either; and not just that, but the mind-blowing way that every single piece fits into every single other piece, how every single action has a series of reverberating reactions that help fuel and define everything that comes after it, all the way to the end of the season no matter how early it's introduced. It's a hard thing to describe in mere words, which is why Wire fans tend to get so flustered when trying to talk about the show, and why one's first impulse is simply to hand the box set to someone new and say, "Look, here, just watch this and we'll talk in another thirteen hours from now, all right?" (And indeed, if I had had the entire DVD set in my possession at once, it's likely I really would've sat there and watched the entire thing in one big uninterrupted thirteen-hour marathon; even as it was, each time a new disc arrived in the mail from Netflix, I would immediately stop everything I was doing, sit down and watch those three episodes in a row, literally going without food or bathroom breaks until they were done.)

Although I'm avoiding learning about it in advance, it's my understanding that each of The Wire's five seasons actually takes on a different aspect of Baltimore life (I know that season 2, for example, takes our main cop from the previous season and puts him on shore patrol [as punishment from his boss for being such a headache that previous year], with those thirteen episodes then being all about crooked dock workers, corrupt union officials and the like); and this makes the show even more ingenious, not just a "novel for television" but an entire Proustian series of interrelated novels, each season a standalone thirteen-part story but all of them eventually adding up to one giant 60-part uber-plot. As always, further reports on the saga will be coming as I make my way through subsequent seasons; but absolutely you should see at least the first season yourself if you never have, a mind-blowing experience that perhaps for the first time in history finally fulfills every expectation even possible from serialized audiovisual storytelling.

Strangest piece of trivia: How could I talk about The Wire and not mention that Idris Elba, who most of us better know as the nebbish corporate honcho Charles Miner from several seasons of The Office, plays here perhaps one of the greatest villains in the entire history of human drama, the coldly calculating and prodigiously intelligent drug-gang number two "Stringer" Bell -- the guy holding everything together, so unflappable as to be almost sociopathic, and almost always two steps ahead of the bumbling, dimwitted cops trying to catch him. (By the way, British readers, you will also know him as the star of last year's Luther on the BBC.) If Elba doesn't eventually become a big huge star, I'm going to be bitterly disappointed.

Worth your time? Have you even been listening?!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:24 PM, March 23, 2011. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |