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Friday, February 8, 2008

TV Review: The Wire Season 5 -- Bringing Dickensian Baltimore to a Close

Wendell Pierce as Bunk

Being called the best show on television is a hell of a burden to carry. Season 4 of HBO's drama The Wire won wide acclaim from critics, if not Emmys or Golden Globes noms, and show mastermind David Simon has set up this fifth and final season as a coda for his themes of a dying metropolis and its struggling inhabitants.

He and his team have done a pretty good job, though Season 4 probably still stands so far as the show's high water mark. This is due to a canny balance between the life of the children on the streets and the wheeler dealers in the halls of power that was breathtaking in it's sweep -- failing public schools, crime statistics manipulation, venal machine politicians, backstabbing police politics. This all while creating and maintaining a huge cast of defined realistic characters and scenes of subtle humor and grace that could leave the viewer chortling right after misting up.

The new season, which is about at the halfway mark now, adds the newspaper business to Simon's beat -- the fictional Baltimore Sun standing in for Simon's ex-employer, the uh, Baltimore Sun. Much has been written, especially in Slate's TV Club, about Simon's axe to grind with the Tribune Company -- The Sun's owners. The Slatesters seem to find the journalism subplots to be weak links in the season, and I agree it's hard to get worked up over the slash in newsroom budgets when a character like Bubs, who has spent 4 Seasons in thrall to drugs, is trying so hard to get right.

That being said the various strands are starting to dovetail, as a decimated police force (the mayor -- like Corey Booker in Newark -- was left a surprise deficit by the previous corrupt administration and has had to choose between the cops and the schools) and a bottom-line oriented sensation seeking media organization begin to collude in shady ways.

I find the political stuff mesmerizing -- it's typical of the show that after a heartbreaking season of watching underfunded schools spit these kids out, and a reform-minded if mercenary mayor win election -- Simon asks us to see the consequences of what we so dearly wish for. "Fix the schools!" On The Wire every choice has consequences and repurcussions and in Season 5 this fervent wish on the part of viewers and characters alike means the police have to suffer through a barebones budget and the big case that could bring down drug dealer Marlo Stanfield being put on the back-burner.

Andre Royo as Bubbles. Give this man his Emmy already!

The cast of The Wire is a big part of what makes the show so extraordinary. Dominic West is sort of the known quantity, brought back to prominence this season as in season 1 as lusty boozehound Detective McNulty -- back off the wagon, on the hunt for some strange, and in the midst of a collossal con job. Wendell Pierce as his partner Bunk is scintillating, shifting effortlessly between concern and disgust for McNulty. Lance Reddick, newly added to the cast of Lost, gives Daniels a noble resigned wariness. Clarke Peters brilliant survivor Freamon, Andre Royo as the aforementioned Bubbles who should have been given every television acting award in town by now, Michael K. Williams as Omar -- TV's only gay hold-up man with the power to make a whole city block run for cover. The list goes on...

The bottom line is that I can't wait to see how the rest of the season unfolds, and anyone who appreciates not just good television but great film ought to see every season of this fantastic show. Season 5 won't win any converts, and may not be the place to start (that would be Season 1, fool) but this is the kind of show that you want to put in a time capsule or the Library of Congress. The Dickens comparison has been made quite a lot (Charles, not Kim) to the extant that in one of the newspaper scenes there is a lot of fun poked at the Dickensian reportage expected on the city's schools. Truly though, great television is the closest film comes to the scope of a great novelist, and this will be the fifth in what has been a great set of books.

Here's a key scene from Episode Two -- McNulty staging a murder scene with Bunk looking on:

And a bonus -- Isiah Whitlock Jr. as corrupt politician Clay Davis has become legendary among Wire fanatics for his way with the word "shit". Here's one of his best utterances, from last week's episode.

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