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Sunday, January 6, 2008

10 compelling reasons to watch "The Wire"

Apologies to the other Channel Surfing bloggers, but I'm all but forced to monopolize the next few posts because of tonight's premiere of "The Wire." While it might be a futile exercise since it seems like critics are the only ones watching this show, if you're going to write about TV, you should write about the best, regardless of who's watching.

So to paraphrase show creator David Simon, "Screw the average viewer." To me, it's all about the characters, and "The Wire" features one of the best ensemble casts in the history of TV. Only on "The Wire" could its most identifiable face, Jimmy McNulty, be relegated to background duty in Season Four and the show not miss a single beat.

Apologies to those that missed the cut (I literally could have written about them all, and I personally enjoy watching Dennis "Cutty" Wise and Chris Partlow), but here are the 10 most compelling reasons to get hung up on the character-driven "Wire."

(Note: some minor spoilers included.)

Omar Little (Michael K. Williams). Hands down, the greatest anti-hero in TV history. You really shouldn't root for Omar - especially not after Bunk Moreland's denouncement of his predatory ways in Season Three, one of the show's all-time greatest scenes - but you can't really help cheering his audacity as a stick-up man. The whistling. The scar. His walking to the corner store in a silk robe to buy Cheerios. Omar sticking a gun to Marlo Stanfield's chin and saying, "Boy, you got me confused with a man who repeats himself" still sends shivers. And his performance in court with the tie? Priceless. Oh, and by the way, he's openly gay. In the ghetto.

Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). Everyone knows a McNulty. One of the most true-to-life characters ever presented on the small screen, the little things that make McNulty a great police officer are the same motivations that keep his personal life destructive. On one hand, train-wreck McNulty is compelling, often hilariously depressing, TV. Conversely, seeing him domesticated and on the wagon - his spaghetti-making is admirable - led fans like me to secretly root for a downward spiral so he’d become interesting again. It's sick. I know.

Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba). Again, the type of character you shouldn’t root for, but secretly do. It’s why “The Wire” is such revolutionary television. As is often the case in real life, the lines of good and evil are blurred, making it easy to forget that Stringer is a ruthless drug kingpin as he wears his business attire and enforces Robert’s Rules of Order on his lawless street crews. Elba’s performance as Bell (how did he not win an Emmy?) dominates Season Three – particularly the scene where friend/partner Avon Barksdale questions whether he’s hard enough for the game – and he's at the center of the show’s most indelible moment during the first four seasons.

Bubbles (Andre Royo). It isn’t easy to have sympathy for a smack addict. But Bubbles has been given so much depth throughout the series – Season Four is especially brutal to the longtime Kima Greggs' informant – that again, all the rules get thrown out the window by Simon. Hard to watch at first, but an endearing personality as his streetwise wisdom is given multiple layers by the end of Season One, Bubbles is the kind of character you, well, just want to hug. It’s rare for me to ask that “The Wire” break from the harsh realities that guide Baltimore’s streets, but here’s hoping Simon gives Bubbles a reprieve in Season Five. It’s almost been too hard to watch him stay in the same dark hole over four hopeless seasons.

Duquan “Dukie” Weems (Jermaine Crawford). If there’s a reason everyone should watch “The Wire,” it’s because of a character like Dukie. Living in complete squalor with drug-addled family members selling his only clean clothes on the street, Dukie is the portrait of poverty as a beleaguered "left-behind" eighth grader. By the middle of Season Four, he manages to rise above thanks to the kindness of his new teacher, Roland Pryzbylewski, but is later betrayed by the same system that’s supposed to protect him. Simply put: Dukie doesn’t feel like TV. He feels like the forgotten half of real-life society we all do our best to ignore.

Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters). The father figure of the entire enterprise. Lester’s pearls of wisdom keep the wire tap investigations charging ahead with laser-like precision. Noble to a fault, even small-minded company man William Rawls (while in the same breath noting Freamon’s "gift for martyrdom") can’t help but admire the veteran cop’s desire to get his hands dirty. The Season Four scene where he methodically peers at the abandoned row houses and concludes that they’re being used for tombs by drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield is his finest moment.

Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen). Creator David Simon has said one of “The Wire’s” foundations is the idea that, “the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed.” Once he began to roll up his sleeves and take a hard look at Baltimore's dilapidated streets, Carcetti became the rarest of beings - a noble, compassionate politician worth cheering for. But after all he did to overcome an incumbent black Mayor, it would appear "The Great White Hope's" first term will resemble the maddeningly frustrating act of beating one’s head against a wall repeatedly.

Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick). On a show that paints a bleak portrait of life as an inner-city African American, Daniels steps outside the box and gives viewers a glimpse of what it means to not only survive, but thrive. When push comes to shove, Daniels remembers what it's like to be "real police," even if it costs him a boost in the company pecking order. Daniels' eventual rise up the ladder is a rare example of Simon rewarding a character when he isn't scrambling like mad to stab people in the back. Optimism on "The Wire?" Well, kind of. If anyone ever says, "Why would I want to watch a show about real life struggles in the ghetto," pointing them to Daniels' quiet confidence is a great start.

William “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce). My favorite character on the show. Resolute and strong-willed as a homicide detective, but a sloppy boozehound and skirt chaser during off hours, “The Bunk” is one of the few characters brazen enough to look Omar in the eyes and almost reduce him to tears with shame. But like McNulty, the tough guy cop has a vulnerable side. His pathetic attempt to hit on women while simultaneously lamenting McNulty’s sobriety ("Jim-may!") in the company of Freamon is why fans also cite “The Wire” as one of the funniest shows on TV.

Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi). Largely used as comic relief and thick-headed muscle in the early-going, Herc has slowly become one of the show’s least admirable characters. Not that Herc is one-dimensional. But his arrogance and ignorance led to some of Season Four’s most dramatic and heart-wrenching twists, largely without him even being aware of the domino effect his bone-headed actions caused. Simon seems to be using Herc as a shining example of what happens when a character bites off more than he or she can chew. While he gets his come-uppance at the end of Season Four, the only lesson Herc appears to have learned in tonight's episode is how to try and backdoor the system once again.

And at the request of my wife, an 11th for free …

Shakima "Kima" Greggs (Sonja Sohn). One of the strongest female characters on TV, Kima is married to the job, and like McNulty, plumbs the same depths of personal dysfunction because of it. Her fearlessness could be misconstrued as stereotypical lesbian masculinity, but the bottom line is that Kima is "real police" in a department lacking capable minds and bodies. While early on she needs Bubbles on the street to do her job, Kima also shows him the care and compassion befitting a friend. Plus, she delivers one of the show's all-time laugh-out loud lines when she turns to a disheveled, un-showered McNulty and says, "Damn boy, you smell like sex."

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

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So, I saw an HBO documentary (almost accidentally) about the fifth season, and I'm sold. The documentary was absolutely riveting, so I honestly can't imagine how good the show has to be. Want to save me some DVD rental fees and lend me your seasons of "The Wire?"

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At January 9, 2008 at 9:34 PM  

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