I’m not one for sweeping statements, but here’s one: The Wire is the greatest show on TV. Not just now. Ever. During its five year run, it sketched a complex portrait of Baltimore with fictional stories illuminating the real social and bureaucratic forces that make our cities work, or just as often, not work. Creator David Simon and his writing/producing partner, Ed Burns, worked and lived in many of those bureaucracies: the police department, the school system, and the newspaper, the new focal center for the fifth and final season. They aren’t shy about telling us how and why the system is broken, and what it costs.
As with each previous season, the old stories are woven into the new, and this season the new are the reverberations from budget cuts at The Baltimore Sun (from reduced news coverage to slipshod reporting of that which does get covered) and a crack-brained scheme from wild card Detective McNulty (Dominic West) to pry money out of the city. The money earmarked for the police by the Mayor has been drained by the floundering school system, which had been starved and neglected and fallen in debt thanks to previous administrations (see Season Four). What better way to loosen up the city purse-strings than a big, headline-grabbing serial killer story, even if the whole thing is a fiction brainstormed by McNulty on impulse and retrofitted into a conspiracy by Detective Lester Freaman (Clarke Peters), perhaps the most gifted and brilliant detective in the department. He builds cases and pieces together evidence like a master puzzlemaker, and he and McNulty concoct a lie so big, with such far-reaching implications, that the city can’t risk the truth getting out. Certainly not the ambitious and irresponsible junior reporter (Tom McCarthy) who inadvertently contributes to the conspiracy by adding his own fictional details to the story, suspicious embellishments that glory-hungry editors are willing to let through without scrutiny. “We have to more with less,” proclaims its managing editor. “You don’t do more with less, you do less with less,” complains the newroom’s voice of reason and bearer of standards, City Editor Augustus ‘Gus’ Haynes (Clark Johnson, of Simon’s Homicide), and so they do, but with splashier headlines.
Simon, a former reporter with The Baltimore Sun himself, is especially critical of what he sees as the media’s dereliction of responsibility as the community’s watchdog and his insistence comes with a noticeable loss of nuance in that particular story, but the scope of the show remains just as ambitious and rich. The writing is the best on television (the season features scripts co-written by authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George P. Pelecanos) and the writing and construction has a beautiful symmetry as the show comes to a close. It doesn’t have the neat poetic drama of the “Dickensian” narrative (as the paper’s editors like to call it), merely a changing of the guard, with irony and poetic justice, rewards and punishments, guilty who go free and innocents who flounder. Yet for all the incompetence and corruption that keeps percolating to the top, so there are good cops, good editors, honorable folks who take the places of those burned out by the system that resisted all efforts to change it. The show ends with a system that perpetuates itself – a system reproduced in microcosm in everything from city politics to the school system to the drug hierarchy of the streets to the newspaper to, of course, the legal system – a people that continue to struggle against it even as others give in. To complete the symmetry, co-star Clark Johnson, who directed the show’s debut episodes, returns to direct the 90-minute series finale, which appropriately enough features a spirited wake.
My review is featured in the TV section of my weekly DVD column on MSN.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
The central point of this glum dramedy is that smart people can be emotionally dumb and willfully insensitive. That’s certainly the case with self-absorbed Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), a widowed college English professor too full of his own self importance to bother with simple politeness and social niceties, let alone extend any respect to his students. His contempt for the world has seeped into his teenage daughter (Ellen Page) like a hereditary condition: she’s a friendless overachiever who wears her sarcasm like a uniform…. Yes, it’s another American movie about damaged souls stewing in their own loneliness and pain until they learn to let down their emotional armor and let themselves feel. It’s not as smart as it should be, but to the film’s credit, their inevitable breakthroughs have an honest awkwardness to them, as if they are stumbling through uncharted territory.
Read the review here.
TV: Lea Thompson in Caroline In The City: The First Season, Prison Break: Season Three and Terminal City: The Complete Series, a brutally, darkly funny series about dying of cancer and struggling through life, starring Maria del Mar and Gil Bellows:
Katie Sampson (Maria del Mar) is just your average upper-middle-class wife and mother dealing with cancer. She just happens to be doing it live on national television, where she has become the darling of daytime TV for her uninhibited and intimate revelations. After sinking into denial about her condition, the TV forum becomes a kind of shock therapy and the network wants to ride her crisis to ratings gold…. The darkly comic Canadian series has the daring and depth of the best shows breaking boundaries on American cable. It’s ambitious, startling, mordant and sensitive as it explores the unusual edges of human behavior and the irrational reactions to human crises and emotional loss.
Read the review here.
Special Releases: “The Films of Lech Majewski” (including Gospel According To Harry with Viggo Mortensen), Tai Chi Master with Jet Li and Michelle Yeah, and Dark City: Director’s Cut, which actually came out a couple of weeks ago arrived after my filing deadline:
It’s the damnedest alien abduction story ever made, a controlled experiment in human behavior run by extraterrestrial scientists treating the human race like lab rats, but it’s also a movie about making movies and playing with stories. These depressed, downtrodden souls are unwitting actors in a film being made – and remade – around them, with sets are torn down and rebuilt and actors suddenly recast in new roles, their parts injected directly into their minds…. This new edition of the 1998 cult sci-fi noir features both the original theatrical release and an extended director’s cut, which doesn’t add scenes so much as it fills out detail with extended footage and atmospheric touches, yet he also withholds information to keep the film shrouded in mystery longer.
Read the review here.
Jean-Claude Van Damme was never much of an actor, but he had a good head for choosing directors. He followed John Woo’s American debut, “Hard Target,” by bringing over another Hong Kong action superstar, Ringo Lam, a director with a grittier, edgier, less epic approach to action cinema. “Maximum Risk” is the kind of solid B action thriller that the American cinema used to be so good at producing, a lean thriller that casts Van Damme as a cop from Nice who finds out that a recent murder victim was a twin brother he never knew and sends him to New York and back to find his brother’s killers. Van Damme still isn’t much of an actor, but Lam strips his performance down to an austere focus and makes him an efficient, fierce dynamo of a scrapper
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