Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Catching Up With The Wire: Season 1

As someone who professes to watch a lot of great television, the skeleton in my closet is that I'm not up on The Wire. The countdown to the fifth and final season has begun (the premiere is on January 6,) and the one silver lining in the writers' strike is that I now have time—albeit only 18 days—to play catch up and get "in the game."

Part of what makes The Wire the best drama nobody's watching—and many argue the best drama period—is that it's less a series then a visual novel. Characters, plot and the like are slowly developed, and even the smallest detail will be a key reference ten episodes—or even two seasons—later. Episodes jut up against one another without any distinction save theme music, and knowledge that an hour has passed. Like a novel, the series requires commitment from it's audience, but as I've recently found, the viewer is rewarded generously for the little extra effort. All that makes watching it on DVD actually the preferable way to experience it—providing you have the patience to wait for the next season's release.

The seasons are broken up thematically letting the viewers inside the institutions that are both affected by and help nudge along the slow decay of urban Baltimore, the city where co-creator David Simon was a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Seasons are broken down as follows: One - The Dealers/The Projects, Two - The Working Class/The Docks, Three - Politics, Four - Education/The Schools, Five - The Media. Season one's investigation focuses on Avon Barksdale and his West side crew, and, thanks to the ego and mouth of Detective McNulty (Dominic West,) the formation of a special task force to tackle it.

The opening and closing scenes that bookend the season say a lot about the series as a whole. In the opening, McNulty is interviewing a witness to the murder of one Snot Boogie, who was shot doing a 'snatch and run" from a weekly craps game. When McNulty finds out that SB tried to steal the pot every week, he asks "if Snot Boogie always stole the money, why'd you let him play?" The reply is revealing. "Got to. This America, man." [video] Everybody has their part in 'the game,' be you dealer, junkie, police, lawyer, judge or politician, and each plays within the arbitrary rules set up for them. And each is ultimately powerless against the will of the faulty institution that they find themselves in. Meanwhile, the final scene helps cement the notion of 'the game,' when Omar, the gay stickup man -- the lone romantic figure in the series -- saying during a robbery, "it's all in the game, yo... it's all in the game." [video]

The Wire makes of point of only using diegetic music, to keep everything grounded in realism. Because of that, it's not always easy to pick up on a lot of the music playing throughout, but music supervisor Blake Leyh, who composed the ending credits music "The Fall," has a blog that calls out some of his favorites, which I've added below. The opening theme song is "Way Down in the Hole" written by Tom Waits, and is performed The Blind Boys of Alabama (different versions are used for each season). The upcoming season uses a version by Steve Earle, who in season one plays recovering addict Wayne, which is an example of The Wire's knack for true-to-life casting.

Playlist: The Wire - Season 1
1. "Way Down in the Hole" - The Blind Boy of Alabama - Season One theme song
2. "The Fall" - Blake Leyh - End credits
3. "Use Me" - Bill Withers - Ep 1.01, first scene in 'Orlando's Gentlemen's Club'
4. "IZZO (H.O.V.A.)" - Jay-Z - Ep 1.01, Wee-Bay talks to D after he gets out of jail
5. "American Woman" - The Guess Who - Ep 1.02, Prez, Herc and Carver are drinking beer and arguing about the case
6. "Love is Strange" - Mickey & Sylvia - Ep 1.02, McNulty drinking in his car
7. "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" - Lucinda Williams - Ep 1.03, McNulty in Rhonda's bed
8. "Down Ass Bitch" - Ja Rule - Ep 1.03, 'Orlando's Gentlemen's Club'
9. "Sugar in My Bowl" - Nina Simone - Ep 1.04, Greggs and partner on sofa
10. "Oh My God" - Spearhead - Avon's Escalade
11. "Respect the Nubians" - Positive Black Soul - Ep 1.06, D’Angelo gets dressed
12. "Wax Box Music" - Lorem Ipsum - Ep 1.06, rare use of score backing slow motion
13. "Fleurette Africaine" - Duke Ellington - Ep 1.06
14. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" - The Tokens - Ep 1.08, McNulty has his sons playing 'front and follow,' spying on Stringer
15. "Rock the Nation" - Spearhead - Ep 1.09, Avon's Escalade as he's being tailed from the game
16. "Hater Players" - Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli) - Ep 1.10, radio turned up load as Orland and Greggs are led into a trap
17. "Unfriendly Game" - Masta Ace - Ep 1.11, D drives Wee-Bay to Philadelphia
18. "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" - Paul Anka - Ep 1.13, Wallace, Bodie and Poot eat chili dogs in a restaurant
19. "Step by Step" - Jesse Winchester - Ep 1.13, final montage

More: If I had to pull one scene out of this great season, the one that works without too much set up is from episode 1.04 ("Old Cases") where Detectives McNulty and Moreland (Wendell Pierce) solve a six-month old case communicating with each other using only variations of the f-word.

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