Thursday, June 2, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #1

The Wire - Season 4 - At this point, proclaiming The Wire the greatest television series of all time sounds almost cliché, but by the end of its fourth season, I feel that the show had unquestionably earned the title.  Creator David Simon started out with grand plans of chronicling the drug war in Baltimore from both sides of the fight, and the vision kept on expanding season by season until The Wire was a portrait of the destruction of the American city.  Season 2 continued with the drug trade, but centered on illegal activity among the city's working class stevedores.  The third season folded in politics, juggling a plot line about a young White city councilman angling for a mayoral run with the story of a rogue police captain who comes up with an unconventional method of combating crime.  And then season 4 took all of the elements from previous seasons and added a critique of the educational system detailing the ways our society is failing the younger generation.  What makes The Wire so special is how it shines a light on important and often ignored sociopolitical topics in a way that is completely entertaining.  It never feels preachy and is never condescending.  In fact, the show is so committed to realism in its depictions of life in inner-city Baltimore that some of the dialogue and character motivations can occasionally go over the head of even the most attentive viewers.  Yet David Simon and his writing staff of ex-cops, teachers, journalists, and crime novelists know how to keep the big picture visible and how to use engaging tactics such as generous amounts of humor interspersed with shocking acts of violence.

The Wire, more so than any other show on this countdown (and more so than pretty much every other show on TV), is constructed like an epic novel with every season as a chapter of the larger story.  Each season has a theme and a defined beginning, middle, and end, but individual episodes do not stand on their own -- they are just pieces of the whole.  Season 4 has an intricate structure that follows a group of four "corner boys" (at-risk youth) from the the last days of summer through the beginning of the 8th grade school year and concludes during the Christmas season.  The writers use this timeline in service of the characters and not simply as a backdrop for the story.  Take for example the episode that takes place in early November, "Margin of Error."  School is closed for Election Day and Randy, one of the corner boys, gets recruited to deliver campaign fliers throughout the neighborhood.  His friends agree to help him complete the job, but they quit when they learn that Randy was paid up front.  They can't understand why they should actually do the work if they already have the money.  Randy, displaying a good heart and a sense of righteousness, does the job himself.  Another of the corner boys, the troubled Namond,wants to sit around and play video games on his day off, but this doesn't sit well with his savage mother who forces him to go out and sell drugs to support the family's somewhat lavish lifestyle.  This gives an insight into how Namond became who he is and the difficulties that he faces on a daily basis.  Finally, Councilman Tommy Carcetti, the Great White Hope, after winning the election, is seduced by his campaign manager Theresa.  We already know that the married Carcetti has adulterous tendencies, but he pushes Theresa away, perhaps showing that he has grown as a person.  The Wire has an uncanny ability to not only flesh out characters using a few well-written scenes, but also to show how the characters change over time.

Season 4 kicks off on a perfect note with a scene in which androgynous street soldier Snoop (played by a real survivor of the Baltimore ghetto, the authentically mush-mouthed Felicia 'Snoop' Pearson) shops for a nail gun at a large Home Depot-esque hardware outlet.  Her interaction with a friendly employee is simultaneously funny, because she seems so out of place in a retail store, and frightening as it dawns on us, as well as the helpful clerk, what this nail gun might be used for.  Of course, this being The Wire, when the use of the nail gun is later revealed, it is not what we were thinking at all.  Snoop and her partner in crime, the more serious but equally scary Chris, cast a foreboding darkness over season 4.  They, along with their employer Marlo, represent the fate that the season's four young protagonists are hurtling towards.  There is no future for children in West Baltimore.  They will get swallowed up by the "game" and those who don't get arrested will probably end up dead in a vacant row house.

The heart of the fourth season lies with the characters who are attempting to change the status quo.  Former cop Roland 'Prez' Pryzbylewski takes a job as an eighth grade math teacher and finds that the school system is just as broken as the police force.  When he learns about the emphasis on teaching students how to pass meaningless standardized tests, he remarks, "Juking the stats...Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I've been here before."  But Prez fights the good fight and, after a rough start, begins making strides by teaching something the children can use in their daily life -- the probabilities of dice throwing.  The teacher also dusts off a brand new computer that was sitting unused in the school supply closet, which helps him cultivate a relationship with the gifted latchkey kid Duquan.  At the other side of the school, another former police officer, Bunny Colvin (a commanding Robert Wisdom), is trying to make a difference.  He has been recruited to help with an experimental class for the school's most troubled students.  The theory is that these children need to be socialized before they can be educated.  This too proves to be an uphill battle, the difficulty of which is driven home by a sequence where Bunny takes a group of students, including Namond, to dinner at a fancy downtown restaurant.  Echoing the season 1 scene in which drug dealer D'Angelo Barksdale takes his girlfriend out to eat, the kids begin the evening bursting with excitement, but they become increasingly uncomfortable in such a foreign, subtly hostile environment.

The heartbreaking fact is that in the world of The Wire, the good guys don't always win.  Out on the streets, the junkie with a heart of gold, Bubbles, does some educating of his own.  He takes a young homeless teenager under his wing and teaches him the tricks of the somewhat-honest street trade, but to say that this plot line ends in tragedy is an understatement.  The performance of Andre Royo as the energetic Bubbles is one of the more devastating turns in the history of television.  His is a character that you would not find on another series.  The Wire has always flown under the radar for the same reasons that it is so special.  It tells stories that that are often ignored by the mainstream.  It also has a recurring cast of about fifty, most of whom are minorities, and all of whom are played by little-known actors.  But season 4 of this superb series is about as perfect as TV can get.  In just 13 hours, it paints a picture of a contemporary American city that is failing and, amazingly, has something to say about what to do about it.  The Wire's scope, ambition, and intelligence make every other drama series on television pale in comparison.

The Full List:

10. Twin Peaks - Season 1
9. Northern Exposure - Season 4
7. Deadwood - Season 1
6. The Office (U.K.) - Season 2
5. The X-Files - Season 2
4. Seinfeld - Season 4
3. The Simpsons - Season 6
2. Arrested Development - Season 3
1. The Wire - Season 4 

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

Freaks and Geeks - Season 1
My So-Called Life - Season 1
Lost - Season 2
Slings and Arrows - Season 1
The Sopranos - Season 4
Breaking Bad - Season 3
Mad Men - Season 1
Friday Night Lights - Season 1


  1. Great list and very entertaining writing! I really need to finish The Wire sometime (stopped after season 4 for some reason)

  2. You should finish! Season 5 is a drop off for sure, but it has a nice conclusion. Best show of all time, hands down!

  3. Agreed. Also, Season 4 had the best version of the theme song.