I trust that our erudite and tasteful readership has by now absorbed the magnificence of Sunday's finale of The Wire.
"-30-" was the perfect cap to as close to a perfect television series as we're likely to ever get. No other program has managed such a sprawl of characters, plot lines and themes as deftly as The Wire. Essentially limiting itself geographically to a few square miles of Baltimore, David Simon and his cohorts cast a sprawling net over some of our society's worst problems: Crushing bureaucracy, endemic racism, suffocating poverty, corrosive corruption, the apparently unbreakable hold of narcotics and alcohol, and, well, basically the fallen state of mankind.
Happy happy, joy joy
So, yeah, the stories that unfolded throughout The Wire tended to be on the dark side. Even so, there were (just barely) enough glimpses of redemption that the show didn't utterly crush the soul. Also helping out: Thick, meaty slabs of some of the best gallows humor you could ever hope to find, often involving Jimmy McNulty and his faithful visit to a whorehouse as part of official police business, or catching reporter Templeton lying about the homeless murders that Jimmy has concocted out of thin air (and dead homeless people. Like I said: Tends dark).
Of course, the finale managed to come up with the series' funniest, darkest joke: new police commissioner Stan Valchek.
Putting the "punch" in "punchline"
The show never got great ratings. There are numerous reasons for the audience to stay away - a forgivable aversion to the harsh subject matters and explosive violence, a less forgivable unease with stories about poor black people, concern at having to follow exceedingly dense plots, or something as simple an inability to comprehend thick "Balmerese" cant.
But for those who could afford the time and attention, it was the most rewarding of experiences. Over five years, you learned that everyone mattered, from the lowliest corner kid (Kenard) to the most (self)important politician (Carcetti). Who knew, for example, that the person most likely to end up face down in the gutter in Season 1 would become The Wire's true vision of redemption and grace?
Yep. Bawling here.
Plot points mattered. Who could have foreseen the simple act of losing a surveillance camera by lunk-headed Herc would lead to such unremitting misery for the school kids in Season 4? Or how a stained-glass gift to a local Catholic church would have such wide-ranging consequences in Season 2? It was essential to pay attention to even the most apparently trivial of occurrences.
Language mattered. It could be complex, as in the way professional classes - lawyers, businessmen, cops, teachers, politicians - blanket themselves with vocabulary and grammar made impenetrable so as to seal themselves off from the rest of the populace. Or it could be something comically - more often tragically - simple, in the way an offhanded comment could lead to someone's inexorable ruin. Or the way the writers' and actors' genius often came through in the use of often profane words or phrases - "Sheeeeeeeeeit", "Indeed", "What the fuck did I do?", "The Dickensian aspect".
In the words of Lester Freamon, "All the pieces matter."
If there was one overriding theme to The Wire, it was the supremacy and tyranny of The System. People work through The System (Rawls, Prop Joe), or they work around The System (Omar, Cutty), but The System is always there. You can sometimes game the system to your advantage (Colvin, McNulty, Stringer), for a while, but unless you're at the top (and sometimes not even then, right Gov. Spitzer?), it will eventually grind you down to fine dust. The System always wins, people always lose. Unless you're a lawyer.
He wins. Everyone else loses.
This, of course, is no stupendous revelation; many others have made the same core observation. But Simon and his cohorts have to be commended for showing it in such a consistently impassioned yet clear-eyed manner. They were precise in showing the crushing problems facing our society, but made no pretense as to having answers. In the mode of the best artists, they never preached. Hectored, ranted, griped, mourned - all yes. But never preached.
(Actually, when it came to the Sun plot of Season 5, they did preach - and pretty much every critic out there notes that this was the one thread that rang false. I agree - the critical view of the current newspaper business was way too on the nose for such a normally subtle show, and to my eyes, it overemphasized some troubling current journalistic trends while ignoring others.)
This is what you show to people who say television is an inferior art form. For those who haven't had the pleasure of experiencing the show, I unreservedly recommend getting the DVDs. Watch three or four episodes at a time. Turn on the subtitles (as you should with, say, the British version of The Office). Let the episodes sit with you for a while before moving to the new ones, like you would a few chapters of a great novel.
It's well worth your time.