Judge Adam Arseneau has the fire and the fury at his command.
Our reviews of The Wire: The Complete First Season (published January 5th, 2005), The Wire: The Complete Third Season (published August 8th, 2006), The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season (published August 25th, 2008), and The Wire: The Complete Series (published December 17th, 2008) are also available.
No corner left behind.
Complex, engaging, and rewarding, The Wire just might be the best thing television has produced in the last decade or so.
Take a look at The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season.
Facts of the Case
A plot summary? Of The Wire? This might take longer than the review itself. Here goes nothing.
With Avon Barksdale in jail and Stringer Bell deceased, young Marlo has effectively cemented his hold onto a large portion of Baltimore's drug trade. His fierce independence runs at odds with Prop Joe and the remains of the New Day Co-Op, who want the young player to join their alliance and cease with the corner feuding. The decimation of the Barksdale crew leaves Bodie and his crew out of work, forced to work a package from their once-enemy Marlo to survive.
As for the police, things have been quiet. Herc enjoys his new detail protecting the mayor and Carver takes it upon himself to improve his street-level relations in the Western District. The Major Crimes Unit have been tracking Marlo and his crew, but are unable to explain how the young gangster has been able to hold down as much territory as he has in Baltimore without dropping any bodies. The homicide department has been eerily devoid of activity. Something is up, but the police have no idea what.
Bubbles continues on his plan to sell goods on the streets of Baltimore from his shopping cart, taking under his wing a young street kid named Sherrod. He tries to teach him the ropes of the mean streets, but Sherrod's anger soon gets him tied up in street corner activity. Worse for Bubbles, he runs afoul of a local thug who takes perverse pleasure in shaking him down for his money and drugs whenever he sees Bubbles rolling by. Desperate for help, he reaches out to his police friends, but eventually is forced to take drastic action.
Downtown, ambitious councilman Tommy Carcetti is in the fight of his political life, running for mayor in a city where being white is not advantageous to one's electoral worth. His opponent, longtime incumbent Clarence Royce is well entrenched in the city's infrastructure and political web, but has insulated him from the pervasiveness of the city's problems, leaving him weak on issues of crime and education.
On the subject of education, former police Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost, Winter Passing) starts his new job as a Baltimore city teacher, and soon realizes that being a cop was easy in comparison. His inner-city class is a barely controlled powder keg of angst and violence. As for his students, four friends soon find their lives at crossroads: the avarice and ambitious Randy, the boisterous and aggressive Namond (son of jailed Barksdale muscle Wee-Bay), the socially outcast and despondent Duquan, aka "Dukie" and the quiet, reserved Michael. All four come from circumstance in one sense or another, holding onto each other's friendships like life preservers, in fear of being lost to the mean streets.
The poorest of the friends, Duquan's family are drug friends who routinely sell his possessions and food for drug money. He is teased relentlessly by his classmates for being poor and unwashed, but soon finds a sympathetic ally in his new teacher, "Mr. Prezbo." Randy has the most ambition and drive to succeed, but soon runs into trouble when he lets financial greed get in the way of street sense. Namond is a troublemaker and a bully, feeling the need to live up to his father's street reputation, but at heart is not the man his mother and father expect him to be. He catches the eye of Howard "Bunny" Colvin, a former Major now working on a university-funded research project into social violence in the inner city. Michael is calm, cool, and in control of himself, but rather enigmatic, rarely ever speaking his thoughts or feelings. He spends his time at the gym, training to box under reformed convict Dennis "Cutty" Wise, but his quiet personality hides some darkly traumatic events that soon erupt into violence. All four friends will soon come to a crossroads in their lives, taking them in radically different directions.
Also, about a billion other things happen. It's hard to quantify something this complex.
Akin to shifting our attentions from the streets of Baltimore to the shipping docks in Season Two, The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season shakes things up by taking viewers back to school, literally. Focusing its caustic magnifying glass upon the fundamentally flawed inner-city education system, The Wire finds a new muse of bitter melodrama and social realism to exploit, all ready and waiting. Once again, the show targets another element of society that is inherently corrupt and mismanaged by the powers-that-be, whether deliberately or accidental, and showing us exactly what happens to those who try to rock the boat for change. The consequences either way are not always pretty, but it consistently makes for the best show on television, season after season.
The Wire revels in its realistic portrayal of police, criminals, unions, the education system, and politics and how the dividing line between all these aforementioned elements a thin and vague thing, subject to ebb and flow. It is unique to find a show take such fierce pride in being complex and realistic, even at the cost of its viewing audience. Critical acclimation is all well and good, but it does not always translate into strong ratings. The fan base the show does have is voracious and passionate, but small in number due in large part to the show's complex presentation and the creator's refusal to dumb down its subject for the sake of ratings. Here is a show that, unless you have seen every single episode three or four times over the subtle nuances of character development, story arcs, and political machinations will elude you. Step up to go to the washroom for thirty seconds, and wham—you're out of the loop. The show pulls no punches, takes no easy roads, and never wavers from its dedication to show Baltimore in all its forms, good and bad, glamorous and horrifying, and the rotting dystopia that creeps up from the cracks of its institutions.
Perhaps the most obvious variation in Season Four compared to previous seasons is the cast shake-up. We have a lot of new faces this time through, and a lot of older faces either gone (Avon, Stringer) or downgraded (Bodie, McNulty, etc.) to cameo status. In particular, Detective McNulty, once the show's immoral center barely gets any camera time, probably because the character has made peace with his own demons, finally. How long such contentment lasts remains to be seen, but for now, one can feel happy about his absence. The Wire is a show about moral ambiguity, and content characters are of essentially little interest. His absence from the rotation is actually a good thing, at least in terms of character happiness.
In this season, the main focus is on the education system in Baltimore, experienced firsthand through the eyes of four young protagonists, the latest in a long string of thematic explorations tackled each new season. With the Barksdale gang decimated, we spend a lot of time in new places; in back alleys where young kids spend their times on the Baltimore streets, as well as in the classrooms, somewhere we have never been yet. In one sense, this is the show's most furious and scathing condemnation of any institution thus far, highlighting the gaping flaws in the nation's education system with savage intensity by showing its effects on a struggling city. How things play out for the four kids, I shall not spoil, but suffice it to say, things rarely ever end up the way you might think. By taking attention away (at least partially) from the drug trade, the unions, and the politics and focusing on our nation's youth, every bittersweet and brutal revelation hits that much harder, especially in regards to the endemic levels of violence and desensitization.
What works well this time around in Season Four is how seamlessly all elements of corruption blend into a cohesive narrative. We fly from the back alleys of Baltimore to the classroom, into the mayor's office and back again in rapid succession with perfect transition. If television had the ability to be truly organic, The Wire is the closest you would come to a living, breathing organism, full of life and death, order and chaos. Creator David Simon takes a near-perverse pleasure in pointing out exactly what "fighting the system" ends up getting you, and exactly how minor and insignificant the individual's role in the institution is. Be it education, politics, unions, drug dealing, or police work; to step outside the chain of command, rock the boat, or try to affect any kind of change (good or bad) leaves one vulnerable. The divisions between the institutions in question are moot at best. From the streets to the schools to the back-room politics of city administration, all the same rules apply.
The character development and plot lines in The Wire put conventional programs to shame. The massive, multicultural ensemble cast of characters here is more lifelike, more sincere and flawed and messed up and perpetually unscrupulous than any others on television. Nothing they say or do is contrived or contrary to their nature. Rather than having a script of events laid out and writing the characters to fit within the story, The Wire succeeds at creating organic, flawed characters, lovable and loathsome in equal quantities and crafts story arcs that fit within their experiences and decisions. Every decision, every course of events is perfectly in line with the characters involved. It is the most natural and realistic feeling show on television today, and embarrasses the hell out of everything else in its genre. Trying to watch a similarly themed show like Law & Order after spending some time in Baltimore with The Wire is like getting a root canal in your brain.
That was the good: now for the bad. Something horrible happened to the technical presentation in this installment of The Wire, and I have no idea what it is. The Wire: The Complete Third Season had a wonderfully detailed, clean transfer free from distortion or compression artifacts, but this season is a screaming mess. Black levels are washed out, graininess is out of control, and the compression has been ratcheted up to absurd levels. Edges break down into a mess of aliasing and jagged edges sharp enough to cut your teeth on. The only thing I can thing to explain how piss-poor this presentation looks is that either the show has switched to bargain-basement digital video for its cinematography, or that HBO was in such a hurry to get Season Four out before Season Five premiered in January that they literally just threw the show onto discs and sent it out the door. Neither explanation seems particularly plausible or acceptable in my books.
Extras are comparable to previous seasons, with six episodes getting full-length commentary tracks with creator David Simon and various cast and crew. In addition, we get a two-part series of fantastic documentaries, "It's All Connected" and "The Game Is Real," interviewing cast and crew about the show's fourth season and its themes. Two must-watch features, both docs are informative, fascinating, and full of information and behind-the-scenes info. Not a lot of material, but what is included is quite meaty.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This show takes investment in both time, money, and brainpower. It is not a casual show, in the worst sense of the word. You can forget about trying to get into the show at some arbitrary point, like catching a rerun on television. It might as well be in Hungarian for all your ability to appreciate its plot twists and character pitfalls on the fly. Do not even try.
No, the only way is to sit down with The Wire: The Complete First Season on DVD, followed in rapid succession by The Wire: The Complete Second Season and The Wire: The Complete Third Season, and then to re-watch the entire affair again a second time to pick up all you missed. Seventy-two hours and $180 later, you'll be ready for this set.
The only other bone of contention to mention here (outside the lame image quality) is the packaging. HBO does not sell its products cheaply, and fully appreciating The Wire in all its gloriousness is going to tax your wallet something fierce. In this season, HBO discounted the packaging, transitioning from the book-style packaging of previous seasons into the slim-line case style fashionable for multiple-disc releases these days. The MSRP is cheaper, but so is the packaging—you give a little, you get a little.
Despite the lousy technical presentation, The Wire is the best show on television, period. Nothing else even comes close to its depth, convictions, and entertainment value. Season Four changes the rules yet again, but the game always remains the same.
Buy all four seasons and be prepared for this show to ruin all other television shows for you. It's that good.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Wire: It's All Connected" Documentary
Review content copyright © 2008 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.