Monday, September 03, 2007

Down to 'The Wire': Thoughts on the end of the only television show worth watching

I watched my first episode of The Wire, the HBO series chronicling the machinations of various law enforcement, drug dealing and political types in the city of Baltimore, while sitting in my modest apartment in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, in 2002.

Chronicling, as I was at the time, the political opportunism, casual brutality, narco-dollar fueled political careers and other characteristics that informed Haiti’s political landscape, something about the The Wire’s depiction of imperfect cops, ruthless and savvy drug lords and the young lives they exploit, and other assorted social elements from the margins to the center of power in one of America’s most violent cities rang very true with me.

More than being a simple cop show, the series, largely the creation of former Baltimore Sun crime reporter and author David Simon and former Baltimore cop Ed Burns, addressed a larger tableau of inner-city life that for much of America must have been a revelation to see, tackling subjects far beyond Baltimore’s criminal underworld to examine themes such as the struggles of longshoreman in the city’s decaying harbor (as exemplified by the tragic saga of the Sobotka family) to the U.S. educational system to larger issues of urban poverty and governance.

Simon’s powerful writing was complimented by one of the most talented casts ever assembled for the small screen, and they gave their all to the rich material he provided them with. Michael Kenneth Williams created an unforgettable character in the openly-gay stick-up man Omar Little, at once as unique as anything put on television and as recognizable as someone you might bump into walking to the corner bodega. The talented British actor Idris Elba’s nuanced portrayal of the drug kingpin Russell "Stringer" Bell, fellow Brit Dominic West’s embodiment of Detective James McNulty, Andre Royo’s heroin-addicted Bubbles and a host of other recurring characters that populated the show over the years are all equally notable and praiseworthy.

Though I almost never had access to cable after returning from Haiti in 2003 (and spent much of the interval between then and now outside the U.S.), the first two seasons of The Wire that I was able to see stayed with me as an example of the medium of television being used with a genuine artistic intent as opposed to merely serve as vacuous entertainment.

This month, The Wire filmed its final episode, with writers, cast and crew deciding, probably wisely, to make a dignified exit while the series was still relevant and at the top of its game. It leaves behind five years worth of images and commentary on American inner-city life the depth of which will not be repeated in the medium anytime soon. Much to it’s credit, The Wire showed the myriad of joys and sorrows in that milieu with an unflinching eye whose lack of sentimentality made it all the more emotionally-charged.

As Bubbles said at one point on the show: “Thin line between heaven and here.”

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