A View From The Handbasket

Thursday, September 07, 2006
Get your re-up
Posted by neros_fiddle at 12:39 PM

Many years ago, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun named David Simon spent a year with the Baltimore homicide squad, doing what today would be called "embedded" reporting. The result of that work was a book called Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets. Even after it was filed away with the lurid exploitation material in the "True Crime" section, the excellent journalism in the book shone through. Homicide stripped out the cop show cliches and exposed real, grinding, everyday police work in exacting and fascinating detail.

In one of the bigger pop culture ironies in recent history, the book that demolished cop show stereotypes was made into a cop show on NBC, Homicide: Life On The Streets. The surprising aspect of the show was that, especially in its early seasons, it stayed true to the source material and delivered drama that was only heightened by its believability. Plots weren't tidily wrapped up, there were no car chases, and detectives were often not emotionally bound to their cases in predictable ways. (One memorable episode featured a guest-starring Robin Williams as the husband of a murder victim who is shocked to stumble upon the detectives joking about the case.) Add to that a cast of top-shelf talent including Yaphet Kotto, Ned Beatty and the mind-bogglingly good Andre Braugher (indeed, even guest stars like Steve Buscemi and the aforementioned Robin Williams never stole the show), and you have what many (including your humble blogger) believe is the best "cop show" ever made, and a strong contender for the best show on network TV, period.

David Simon was involved to a certain extent with Homicide the TV show, penning a couple of episodes. After the show ended in 2000, Simon went on to work with former detective Ed Burns on a book called The Corner: A Year In The Life Of An Inner-City Neighborhood. Using the same journalistic toolbox that he brought to Homicide, Simon, along with Burns, produced a look at the crumbling neighborhoods of Baltimore and drug trade that dominates them. (The Corner was later made into a miniseries for HBO by Simon and Burns.)

After these two projects, Simon and Burns realized that the cops and drug dealers had more in common than not -- both were part of entrenched bureaucracies that ground down the foot soldiers while pushing the most Machiavellian among them up the chain of command. And they came to an even greater epiphany -- the dysfunction of police departments and drug gangs mirrored the dysfunction in most areas of American urban life, where broken and corrupt institutions of industry, politics and education try to cope with events and circumstances they can barely acknowledge, let alone address.

Clearly, this was a story that needed to be told. The result was the HBO series The Wire. On its surface, it resembles a cop show, but in truth it's perhaps the most amibitous drama ever attempted on US television. In it's first season, it examined a group of Baltimore police and a group of Baltimore drug dealers, and their attempts to outsmart each other while simultaneously struggling with the limitations and frustrations of their own roles. In the second season, the story expanded to include the story of an embattled labor leader on Baltimore's docks and his family as they tried to cope with the slow but steady erosion of the urban working class. The third season looked at the issue of reform within the police department, the government and the drug gangs -- the best intentions of reformers and the way the status quo passively wears them down.

On Sunday, the fourth (and potentially final -- the renewal for season four was a close call) season begins on HBO, with the theme of education and the introduction of new young actors in the roles of inner-city middle school students getting pulled into the various compromises of adulthood.

Education is an apt theme for this show, as for the viewer it's a tough learning curve. At this point, there are enough speaking roles to fill six or seven shows (and the amazing part is that they'd all be shows worth watching). It's not a comforting show, either -- there's not a whole lot in the way of uplifting messages about hope for the future and the dignity of man. The Wire isn't interested in politics (except as a symptom) -- it's instead the best sort of journalism. It does not preach to you, it challenges you to justify to yourself the conditions it shows you. Watching the show can be work. But if you're at all interested in why America looks the way it does and behaves the way it does and treats its citizens the way it does, it is work worth doing. Check it out this weekend, or get your hands on the DVD sets of the first three seasons. (The HBO site I linked above has a good primer to get you up to speed on the cast of thousands.)

At the very least, it's a better way to spend time with your television than ABC's outrageous right-wing propaganda disguised as a documentary.

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