The above are the opening lines to the song "Way Down in the Hole" by Tom Waits, the theme song to The Wire, the best drama in the history of American television. The first season used a smooth, blues flavored cover of the tune and explored just how damn hard it often is in the real world to "walk the straight and narrow track" as the lyrics go later on. Now, the theme is the original gut-wrenching, raw Waits version, and the ability to do good in a fallen world doesn't come any easier. I've written briefly about The Wire before. Lileks wrote about it this week:
Look: if you have the scratch, buy this thing when it comes out on DVD. Last season was great. This season is great. It makes the Sopranos look like the Osbournes, okay? The Sopranos, in a nutshell: Tony’s stressed. That guy you think they’re gonna whack? Eventually they whack him. I love the Sopranos, but compared to the acting, writing, characters, plotting and casting of the Wire, it’s nothing.
Now that we're almost at the end of the second season of the show some inevitable thoughts of declinism creep into my mind. The second season was a radical, brave departure from the first, and was therefore both more ambitious (no mean feat) and more flawed. While the first season had both epic sweep and perfect narrative drive and cohesion the second season has been more diffuse and rangy.
What amazed critics about the first season was that it portrayed simultaneously and with such depth and nuance both sides of the drug war. The achievement of showing us with journalistic detail and novelistic sympathy the worlds of police officers, small-time drug dealers, big-time drug dealers, junkies, politicians, lesbians, top police brass, and poor people caught in the middle among others was awe-inspiring in its own right. Yet, all of these various richly observed subcultures were unified by the overarching story of the fight to build a case against Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell.
With Barksdale in jail and the journey through every nook and cranny of Baltimore's sick soul seemingly complete, I wondered how creator David Simon and writer Ed Burns would sustain the same sense of urgency and of a unified theme for another season. Their answer of expanding the themes and subject matter of the show beyond the already fecund subjects of "the drug war" or "police corruption in Baltimore" to a survey of worldwide smuggling and nationwide law enforcement corruption, and of the state of unions in post-industrial America has been breathtaking to behold in its scope, though its also rendered the show more episodic and lessened the feel the first season's story had of being a beautiful, intricately wrought jewel of a narrative.
While the first season took us through a dizzying number of richly observed mini-worlds, it was ultimately the chess match between Avon and Stringer on one side and the detail lead by Lieutenant Daniels on the other that propelled the action. This time around, the Avon and Stringer plot has been almost completely spun off, while the police characters undertake an even more complex and more difficult investigation that leads them to a smuggling ring of international scope. There are now not just two "sides" but "three". And, somehow, it still works, thought the elements don't cohere quite as well as the first time around. The plot involving Frank Sobotka and his nephew Nick as they move from taking the occasional pay off or "boosting" the occasional bit of merchandise into involvement with international gangsters is the most subtle, plausible, and intellectually honest study of corruption I've ever seen in any medium, period. While the first season at times seemed to divide the world into mostly white Irish cops and black gangsters and drug dealers, this season has shown us with great sympathy and eye for detail a group that you seldom see portrayed in any American cultural product: the uneducated white (in this case Polish) people in mid-sized cities whose worlds have been more or less destroyed by the switch to a service economy.
If it hadn't already been firmly established before, we know now that crime drama is the pre-eminent American art form. American Studies doctoral students may wish to explore why this is and why these stories have only become more popular as our crime rate has by all accounts continues to go down. For a time the Mafia crime drama was becoming the central American myth. The prevalence of Mafia spoof films and Mafia comedies as well as The Sopranos turning increasingly to absurdism and shock tactics may signal that the Mafia drama is falling into a more decadent, post-modern state. The Wire on the other hand is the most naturalistic drama in the history of American TV. Its expansion from being a story about the drug war and corruption in Baltimore, Maryland to being a story about the war against all kinds of illegal trafficking and corruption worldwide also mean that it's the most timely drama currently on American TV. While intellectuals have long argued about what is the "Great American Novel" none of the most common answers (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick) have been works that rendered the American city in a dense, socially realistic way. The Wire actually does this in a way that virtually no other American television series, book, or movie ever has, or at the very least it does it on the same level as Greed or An American Tragedy. Its not just that these great HBO dramas are better than anything else on TV (which they are) or better than almost all movies released in theaters (which they are); the freedom of subject matter, lack of commercial breaks, and the ability to develop stories and characters very slowly over many hours give the freedom to create what amounts to an entirely new art form, one that has the most in common with a great novel. In the future critics may be looking at The Wire as our equivalent of the "Great American Novel."