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Saturday, 9 August 2008

The Wire - Season Two


Despite bringing in a case (of sorts) at the end of last season there is a fair bit of fallout for Baltimore's boys in blue at the beginning of season two. Lieutenant Daniels has been banished to the basement archives and McNulty is a fish out of water working with the harbour police. In fact the first few episodes show brilliantly how ill at ease he is. His barrel chest looks likely to topple him over the side of the boat and there's a repeating joke about his inability to tie any kind of knot. The action shifts for the most part away from the projects run by Avon Barksdale (who now languishes in jail with his nephew D'Angelo) and his crew and to the docks where stevedores and longshoremen ply their trade. In the modern age there is plenty of money to be made from those anonymous looking shipping containers but when one of them is found to contain the bodies of 14 eastern European women a new case begins.

Some slightly transparent plotting allows Daniels out of his underground exile with carte blanche to assemble his old detail (and the promise that if they bring in a case the team will become permanent - very handy for subsequent series) but once things get going it's just nice to have them all back together again. Only McNulty is left adrift and we see his private life following that familiar collision course from the first season. His drunken conversations with 'Bunk' are a particular highlight (and should come with subtitles of their own). We also get to meet Mrs McNulty for the first time as he tries to patch together his relationship.

At the centre of the case is the Sobotka family: Frank is a union official, knee-deep in corruption, his nephew Nick, short on hours at the docks, is doing what it takes to make money whilst also trying to keep Frank's son Ziggy from messing it all up. This series lacks some of the interest of the first. The dock workers can be difficult to care about at times because they are often shown to be just plain stupid. Higher up the ladder is 'The Greek' who with his constantly clicking worry beads is the enigmatic boss. The police work too doesn't get its hooks into you in the same way. Perhaps because of what they've learnt from the first case it all feels far more procedural rather than as if they're feeling their way through. But this is still a compelling series as we watch the personal lives of the team develop, that conflict between home and work putting strains on relationships.

Barksdale's crew continue to fascinate and it is Stringer Bell, played brilliantly by British actor Idris Elba, who exerts all the power whilst Avon does his time inside. His hands are on everything, and I mean everything, and I wonder how that might develop in season three. Could there be some possible conflict in the future? The thief Omar is the other really strong character, still stalking the streets looking to revenge the murder of his 'boy'. Underneath his chilling exterior there is that passion of a man wronged and he is given some of the more memorable utterances. The script continues to be wonderfully baffling at times and maybe suffers in places from much more obvious political point making but whilst it may not have been as impressive a series it still remains far more engaging, serious and worth watching than anything comparable from this side of the water.


9 comments:

Demob Happy 1 February 2009 at 17:46  

Hi William,
Very interested to read your posts on The Wire. I am a relative novice, currently enjoying the first series happy in the knowledge there are so many more to go.
Love HBO, and particularly The Sopranos, but I'm not yet convinced The Wire will quite reach that level. Did you ever watch Homocide: Life on The Streets in the mid 90s? It was based in part on David Simon's research and was a kind of prototype version of The Wire. There was an interesting comparative study of Homocide, The Wire and The Shield from the Guardian a few weeks back - if you haveb't read it already...
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2008/dec/27/tv-drama-david-simon-wire-shield

William Rycroft 1 February 2009 at 19:32  

Hi James,
I certainly did watch Homicide and loved it. I remember recording the two part season finale, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and marking the tape 'DO NOT ERASE'.

You, like me, have been spoilt by The Sopranos, but my best advice is to try not to compare the two programmes. They both set out to do different things, and in their own ways are equally successful I think. I'm feeling the loss this year of a series to follow so if you have any suggestions please...

Demob Happy 2 February 2009 at 20:00  

Hi William,
I quite enjoyed what I've seen of The Shield but it is so duplicitous and twisted as to be pretty repellant. I disagree with that particular Guardian article's suggestion that The Shield is better than The Wire because there are no true good guys in it. I think what makes The Wire such a compelling show is that it features human portraits that are believably fallible but are not entirely guided by greed or self-preservation. I think you touched on this in your post about series one, which I tracked back to, and for me, that's a more tangible reality.
Other big shows? A lot of people swear by 24 but I've never seen a single episode. I was a big Twin Peaks man, which I think opened the door a bit wider as far as the potential of the tv series goes. Although I didn't rate 'Six Feet Under' nearly as highly as The Wire and Sopranos, it seems HBO generally has the edge over all others.

kevinfromcanada 2 February 2009 at 20:33  

I did compare The Wire to The Sopranos and I think it is a fair comparison -- have to admit that Tony wins in the end, but it is a fair contest. For those of you who watch DVDs on Mac, consider trying Weeds, a Showtime product that is not up to Tony or The Wire but excellent shortterm entertainment. That assumes, of course, that you have already dipped into Madmen, which is fun.

William Rycroft 3 February 2009 at 09:27  

I think that The Sopranos succeeds so well because it has been made as a drama first and foremost, and the characters just happen to be involved in organised crime. The Wire on the other hand, according to David Simon recently, is a programme made for the cops and the junkies who feature in it. It is about portraying that side of life and the human drama comes slowly into play through the series.

The Sopranos also has an extraordinary central character in Tony, around whom the others, as they would being part of 'the family', revolve. The Wire doesn't really have a central character like that (perhaps Baltimore itself is the closest thing to that), its strength being the ensemble of characters and the ring of authenticity that comes from having non-actors in some roles.

I did the first couple of series of 24 but lost interest and whilst Six Feet Under had its moments I can't say for sure why it never compelled me to tune in. I haven't made up my mind about Mad Men yet but if the second series continues to be a parading of research ('In the sixties, people used to smoke, A LOT, because they didn't know it was bad for you' - 'In the sixties gay men had to be discreet') rather than drama then I may well give up.

Picky bugger aren't I?

kevinfromcanada 3 February 2009 at 16:35  

William: You aren't picky at all, you are showing why you are a good actor. I too abandoned 24 quickly and never found Six Feet Under to be worthwhile.

The Sopranos works, as you say, because it creates real characters. I think The Wire takes more time to do this, but in the end succeeds -- unlike the Sopranos it does this season by season (because each has a separate story line) instead of over the whole work. The biggest problem with The Wire is that it takes two or three episodes to set up each season and, if you want instant gratification, it doesn't work.

All of which suggests to me that both Big Love (which I love) and Weeds might meet your criteria. I think Big Love in particular speaks to an aspect of America that someone living in London may find interesting.

Cheers,

Kevin

William Rycroft 3 February 2009 at 20:51  

Well said Kevin! I remember being baffled for at least the first five episodes of the first season of The Wire and just when I thought I'd got the hang of it season two came along set in an entirely different place.

Thank you once again for the recommendations. I shall have to have a look at those two.

Cheers

Demob Happy 3 February 2009 at 21:06  

I think where the Sopranos really excels is its freedom to go where it wants. It goes off on anarchic tangents following peripheral characters without feeling the need to pin it to the central narrative. Sopranos also has a unique storytelling technique: it can be both lean, almost brutally brisk in its narration but then take pleasure in its willfully offbeat moments. The Wire seems comparatively conventional, more focused on procedure and minutae, but hey I'm only in Season One so I can't speak authoratively on this. What I can say is that both series are refreshing for the fact they do not feel the need to explain everything to the viewer - it's nice to be treated as an adult by a television programme for once.

William Rycroft 4 February 2009 at 12:13  

I think you're going to like The Wire James and I certainly agree with you about the best way to treat your audience.

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