If you like neat, tidy packages, then HBO's “The Wire," which begins its third season on Sept. 19, is not for you. There is no tying up of loose ends in the final act. Sometimes characters learn from each other, other times they kill each other. The police are frustrated, the stevedores are anxious, the drug dealers are nervous. It is probably the most infuriatingly uncompromising show on television, which also makes it one of the very best.
Satisfaction is an iffy proposition. As a viewer, there are events you would naturally like to see take place on a television show, and you usually get them. The criminal is pursued, tried, convicted and sent away. Justice prevails. The good guys usually get over on their nefarious counterparts.
With “The Wire,” the entire series is like a brazen gunfight on an inner-city street. Even if you think you are safe, you could still be hit with a stray bullet. Characters that you’ve invested time and emotions in suddenly are gone. Executive producer David Simon apparently has too much integrity, intelligence and respect for the harsh realities he and his crack team of associates deal with to hand out one-hour helpings of vanilla. Here’s hoping he keeps it up.
“The Wire” gets away with satisfying us in a most unsatisfying way because it humanizes all of its characters, not just the ones in the white hats. Drug dealers made their own choices to live the life, but they’re also victims of their own circumstances. Police operate within the law, but they do what they have to do when the situation demands it. The longshoremen want desperately to earn a decent living, but when the economy droops and events conspire against them, they’re eager to earn a little on the side.
Rarely has the line between reality and fiction on television been so difficult to detect.
An unflinching world
In season one, which dealt mostly with the conflict between powerful drug lords in Baltimore and the police unit that is set up to bring them down, there were many instances that cranked up the cringe factor. Perhaps the most memorable, and the one that illustrates “The Wire” in microcosm, is the murder of Wallace.
Wallace (Michael B. Jordan) was a 16-year-old kid caught up in drug dealing who witnessed a murder. He gave the police information, and quickly was shipped away to the country for his protection. But he became homesick and returned to the projects. Big mistake. The show’s two most ruthless characters, drug barons Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), ordered his killing. And it was carried out in a cold-blooded shooting by Bodie (JD Williams) and Poot (Tray Chaney), two of Wallace’s pals. An innocent, pleading in the name of friendship, was snuffed out by soldiers who punished him for being weak.
Season two was even more unflinching. Simon and his cohorts expanded the reach of “The Wire” to include the plight of the working class. The world of the docks was added to those of the dealers and of law enforcement. Two of the central figures in that storyline were Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), head of the union local, and his son, Ziggy (James Ransone). Naturally, neither got the girl nor won the lottery.
Sobotka did some business with The Greek (Bill Raymond) and his henchmen, and for that he got a garrote necktie. Ziggy also dabbled in extracurricular activities. He set up a deal with Glekas (Ted Feldman), the sleazy owner of an appliance store, to deliver stolen cars. But when Glekas only gave him half the money they agreed on, Ziggy became enraged, left the store, came back with a gun, killed Glekas and shot another employee, and in doing so ruined his own life. I won’t even mention what happened earlier to Ziggy’s pet duck.
Fans of “The Wire” probably sensed that Ziggy would not go on to do great things, since he was inherently a screwup. But the murder of Sobotka stung. Even though he got his hands dirty at times with pilfered merchandise and payoffs to politicians, he was essentially a good person with a conscience, and the well-being of his fellow longshoremen was always a top priority.
His death was made even tougher to swallow when The Greek and his second-in-command, Vondas (Paul Ben-Victor), hightailed it out of the country before the police arrived. If ever there were two characters whom the audience longed to see behind bars, it was these two. Instead, they escaped with their business intact.
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Meanwhile, among the drug kingpins, D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), nephew of Avon, was sentenced to a long prison term. Around the time he was apprehended, he began to feel squeamish about the life he was leading, and started cooperating with the police. While in jail, Stringer secretly had a contract put out on him. Instead of serving his time, changing his ways and going on to live happily ever after, D’Angelo was strangled in the prison library. It was made to look like a suicide, so Avon wouldn’t suspect his partner of murdering his nephew.
Sometimes, the bad guys win
Sometimes the good guys lose. Sometimes the bad guys win.
“The Wire” doesn’t have a monopoly on jagged-edged plotlines. Another HBO series, “The Sopranos,” while known more for its retribution and revenge, has moments when fans are left unsatisfied, and just have to learn to deal with it.
In season one, there was Tony, restraining himself from using vigilante justice when he found out the girls’ soccer coach was molesting one of his players. In season three, Dr. Melfi was raped, yet instead of allowing Tony to learn this so he could mete out punishment that the cops could not, the producers let the matter drop so Melfi’s conscience could be clear. In season five, two relatively popular characters, cousin Tony B. and moll rat Adriana , were both whacked.
Yet although it’s a show about the mob, “The Sopranos” deals with a more civilized environment overall. Audiences explore suburban life, the growing up of Meadow and A.J., Tony and Carmela’s marital woes, the church, even the restaurant business.
Because the milieu of “The Wire” is more unforgiving, so is the show itself. It never takes the easy way out, because in that world, they would need directions to find it.
In that regard, I hope the new season is even worse. That will make “The Wire” even better.
Michael Ventre writes regularly for MSNBC.com and is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
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