Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Grim, Dirty, Corrupt, and Real

Brief Review: TV Series The Wire starring Dominic West, Sonja Sohn and Lance Reddick


One of the wonders of cable and webcast TV viewing is that occasionally, you can stumble into an entire amazing series you missed when it was originally broadcast. For me, this was The Wire, a series from 2002-2008, set in ghetto-and-dockyard Baltimore. After it was recommended during a recent "Watchathon" by multiple writers whom I trust, I began with Episode 1, Season 1, and watched it in its entirety over the course of a couple of weeks. In this environment, the story proved to be complex, well-written, with interesting characters who developed over the seasons into people I cared about, at least enough to curse at!

As the name might imply, the plot gimmick is telephone surveillance, run by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) against the drug trade. Each season focuses on a new investigation, and explores it with a slightly different kind of wire. The series' continuing characters (both in BPD and on the streets) are, with just a few exceptions, criminal, dishonest, or corrupt—or all of the above!

The starring character, Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), is no exception: a self-destructive alcoholic locked in an adversarial relationship with his employer, Baltimore PD, he finds new focus with the initiation of a clever wire-tap equivalent as a task force of losers is assembled to investigate the street-corner drug trade in Baltimore's project housing. Over the course of 13 episodes in Season 1, the wire-tap crew comes together as an effective force arrayed against a criminal organization headed by Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).

In this crowd of conniving police and murderous criminals, the few incorrupt individuals shine. Det. Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) is a competent cop side-lined by her gender and sexuality. Det. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) was shunted into a position as evidence clerk when he took a principled position against a superior 13 years before. Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) struggles to work within his framework as the department supervisor, but his effort is hamstrung from the beginning by department politics, budget limitations, and the misfit crew assigned to him. 

There are lots of questionable cops as well. Just to name a few, Det. Hauck (Domenick Lombardozzi) comes across as a bigoted thug. He and his partner, Det. Carver (Seth Gilliam), a wise-cracking sneak, are always looking for a way to skim. Under-reported drug money, bribes, theft of evidence property, and a few other scams send a trickle of graft to their pockets. Among the other losers detailed to the investigation unit is the clueless Det. "Prez" Pryzbylewski, son-in-law of the district commander, who manages to shoot a wall while showing off his "hair-trigger" personal sidearm in the first episodes. 

My short comments cannot possibly show all the ways the criminal Baltimore ghetto, the corrupt Baltimore political machine, and the crooked cops interact to undo any honest efforts to straighten out the mess. In each season, my initial response is glee at the clever twist on surveillance that promises to bring down the drug conspiracy. This segues into suspense as the venality of everyone, both sides against the middle, brings the investigation to naught. The final feeling is always frustration, as I realize the mirror that is held by The Wire reflects anti-crime activities everywhere, not just Baltimore.

I'll add only one thing. If you have the opportunity, hold your nose and brave the vile language. The Wire is worth wading in the muck, fighting the frustration, and rueing the political shenanigans. It's an action thriller that horrifies because it cuts a little too close to the bone, a little too close to home.