Video Virgil: Hooked
Most fans of the 3-year-old HBO series The Wire started out sniffing and skin-popping: one hour-long episode a week, with the habit building up slowly over time. Me, I went straight to mainlining the stuff: over the last several days I've watched the whole first season, and until the next batch of DVDs arrives, I'm stuck here with a severe jones, craving my next dose of sorry-ass Baltimore cops, drug dealers, mixed-up kids, and cynical city officials.
Thanks to rap, movies, and video games, the hardcore urban setting of this show feels familiar to millions of viewers who have never been anywhere near places like the projects of West Baltimore. But here's the amazing thing about The Wire: unlike most of the entertainments that trade in what hip-hop pioneer Bill Stephney calls "the ghetto orthodoxy," it doesn't sensationalize the place or the people. Rather it humanizes them.
To appreciate this, you have to get past the language, which (as was once said about the British Army) uses "fuckin'" to indicate the approach of a noun. Even the middle-class characters talk like this, and after a while, it has the same effect as the childhood game of repeating a word until it loses all meaning.
But that's my only complaint. The point of comparison here is The Sopranos, a show I would admire more, were it not for its juvenile compulsion to push out what's left of my envelope. The Wire couldn't care less about my envelope. In this first season, the drug kingpins meet in a "gentleman's club," but the camera doesn't ogle the bobbling silicone. People get killed, but there aren't any Tarantinoesque scenes of inept gangsters chopping up a body in a bathtub.
Instead, The Wire is about something truly shocking: power and politics, especially as played out within small organizations (the drug ring) and large bureaucracies (the police department). If you start tracing the parallels between these two worlds, and noting the similar ways they exploit and then stifle what's best in human nature, then you'll be getting the point of The Wire. But I warn you: it's addictive!