Monday, December 20, 2004

TV: The Wire

Season three of HBO’s crime drama came to a rousing close last night. The focus of the series has always been the mechanics of big-city life; watching it is like getting a glimpse of how the world actually works.

This season was built around a concept that allowed the show to delve deep into the subject. A Baltimore police commander with his eye on retirement (Robert Wisdom, in one of the best performances of the year) decides to enact a drug enforcement policy of his own. If the dealers restrict the trade to unofficial “free zones,” the cops will leave them alone. (Wisdom has a magnificent speech, written by novelist Richard Price, in which he compares his plan to the paper bags that the old corner boys would use to conceal their drinking.) The rest of the season traced the fallout of his decision among the dealers, the police and the politicians.

The result was a brilliant piece of storytelling, packed with characters that live and breathe and a density of detail found only in novels. It was also important, a piercing exploration of the broken promises of both the drug war and urban life at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Naturally, it’s the only HBO series that hasn’t gotten any love from the Emmys or even the Golden Globes. And it may be facing the end of its run; HBO has yet to decide if the show will be back. It was moved from the summer to the fall this year, where it ran head on into ESPN’s Sunday Night Football and the first non-cable water-cooler show in eons, ABC’s DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. As series creator David Simon says, the days of HBO nurturing a marginal ratings performer like OZ are over.

I suppose I should feel angry at HBO for dithering about the show’s fate. But frankly I can’t believe THE WIRE ever made it on the air, much less lasted three years. So instead of complaining, I’m going to hope for the best and thank HBO for running one of the finest drama series in the history of TV. I guarantee that twenty years from now, people will still be talking about it. Season One is out on DVD, with Season Two to follow early next year. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

Book: The Confession, by Domenic Stansberry (2004)

I don’t believe in the phrase “guilty pleasure.” But I’m sorely tempted to use it when I say that I have an affection for movie thrillers written by Joe Eszterhas. Even the ones that don’t work – OK, none of them work – have a gaudy appeal. Many are set in and around San Francisco. They’re packed with sex, violence and outrageous plot twists. The characters are rich cops, lawyers or psychologists who all have wildly inappropriate relationships with each other.

So I intend it as a compliment when I say that Stansberry’s novel, from Hard Case Crime, reads like the most entertaining Joe Eszterhas movie ever made. All of the elements are here, perfectly combined. Stansberry’s greatest accomplishment is the voice of his protagonist. It’s cruelly insinuating, peppered with phrases like “as I’ve already said” and “I’m sure you agree” that make you complicit in his tale. I found myself wanting to draw away from him – but not so far that I couldn’t hear him talking.