When you walk through the garden
Got to watch your back
The last episode of The Wire is being broadcast tomorrow night. It's been called "the best show on television" - not merely the best show now, but the best show of the last twenty years, if not ever - and that's pretty much how I feel about it.
One of the strangest things I've seen in my lifetime is the emergence of television - television, of all things - as the medium of expression for a large, novel-sized vision. Film remains a director's art, but the most interesting modern television belongs to the writer/producers who have emerged as show-runners: besides The Wire's David Simon, one thinks of David Chase (The Sopranos), Chris Carter (The X-Files), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), David Milch (Deadwood), Alan Ball (Six Feet Under). Once upon a time, television drama, whether it was The Untouchables in the 1950s or Star Trek in the 1960s, or Kojak in the 1970s, seemed to proceed under certain assumptions - the most important being that the viewer had never seen an episode of this show before. So the characters would be re-established every week, and the action would be wrapped up before the closing credits. As far as I can tell, all of this - the story arcs, the evolving casts, a created world moving through time - began to change with Steven Bochco's Hill Street Blues, which began production in 1981.
David Simon said early on that his show would be unlike the police procedurals that populate network television. For one thing, he said he wasn't interested in good and evil as a theme. He's also not much interested in relationships (between people, anyway), and he's not much interested in character development. For the most part, the people of The Wire have already become who they were going to be. (With the large exception of the children of season four, seen in the process of becoming what they're going to be, and perhaps one or two others.) Simon has said he is most interested in the relationship between individuals and institutions. That might be most clearly evident in this fifth and final season. The epigraph for this season's opening episode is "The bigger the lie, the more they believe" and that motto turns out to be the final season's recurrent theme. We see the enormous investment three quite separate institutions - city hall, the police department, the media - make in the central lie that dominates the season, and what that lie and that investment does to the individuals caught up in it all. The word "bleak" is invariably used to describe the show's vision of the world, and certainly the show's attitude towards the major institutions it portrays represents a degree of cynicism too vast for our instruments to measure. Behind all of this is anger - no, not anger, but a deep and palpable fury - at what the modern American city has become.
While there are so many things one could say about this program, let me for now confine myself to saluting a remarkable cast of almost entirely unknown actors. It's unfortunately true that the biggest exposure most African-American actors get is playing the third hoodlum from the left on one of the numerous Law and Order franchises. The Wire put this amazing pool of talent to work.
Anyway, we're not going to let this occasion go by without a Hall of Names commemoration.
A request and a warning - NO SPOILERS! I've talked so far in general terms about the show's themes and perspectives, but I'm trying to avoid specifics. Fanatics like myself may have watched every episode (multiple times, in fact!) - but others are working through the DVDs, others have yet to get on board. So let's not give anything away. For my part, when it comes to identifying the characters that make up the basis of our team, I will confine myself to describing who and what they were when we first met them on the show. And when it comes to removing spoilers, I promise to be as ruthless as Stringer or Marlo when it comes to weeding that garden. Watch your back!
In five seasons, an awful lot of people have passed through the Western District (and the schools, and the docks, and city hall, and police HQ). But as familiar as some of them become, we don't always find out their names. Corner boy Wallace - I don't know if that's a first name or a last name, and as I'm only using last names we're passing him by. Frequently all we know is a street name, although sometimes a passing glimpse at a warrant tells us the character's real name. There's a Stanfield soldier we meet in the fourth season known only as O-Dog. For obvious reasons, I was set to put him at second base anyway. As it turns out, the character's name is Darius Hill, so I went with Aaron.
With great regret, I have been unable to find good comps for such unforgettable folks as Brother Mouzone, Tommy Carcetti, Bubbles, Kima Griggs, Herc Hauk, Ellis Carver, Dukie Weems, Chris Partlow, William Rawls, Bodie Broadus, and Frank Sobotka. All of whom ought to be represented. Oh well. Let's make a team anyway.
WEST BAL'MER WIRES
** Hall of Famer
* All Star
MGR - Grady Little (stickup man Omar Little, one of the most original, unforgettable creations you will ever see on television )
C - Babe Phelps* (Baltimore Sun state desk editor Tim Phelps - three time All Star)
1B - Derrek Lee* - (middle school pupil Michael Lee - two Gold Gloves, led NL in BAVG and slugging in 2005)
2B - Aaron Hill - (Stanfield soldier Darius "O-Dog" Hill - still working on his legend)
SS - Garry Templeton* (Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Templeton - first man to get 100 its in a season from each side of the plate)
3b - Buddy Bell* (Barksdale consigliere Stringer Bell - five Gold Gloves and more than 2500 hits)
RF - Keith Moreland (detective Bunk Moreland - Cubs moved him from RF to 3b in 1987, and he hit 27 homers)
CF - Hack Wilson** (political operative Norman Wilson - 56 HR and 191 RBI in 1930. It wasn't his only good year)
LF - Pat Burrell (deputy police commissioner Ervin Burrell - 30 HR and 100 BB every year)
DH - Kal Daniels (police lieutenant Cedric Daniels - injuries stopped him very early, lifetime OPS+ of 138)
C - Jody Davis* (state Senator Clay Davis - two time All-Star, Gold Glove)
Inf - Bill Russell* (port authority officer Beadie Russell - 2181 ML games, all with the Dodgers)
Inf - Rickie Weeks (Bubbles' partner Johnny Weeks - still building his legend)
Inf - Ricky Gutierrez (Sun reporter Alma Gutierrez - played with 6 teams from 1993-2004. Been released by another 3 since)
OF - Pat McNulty (detective Jimmy McNulty - hit .314 for the 1925 Indians, then faded away)
OF - Buck Freeman (detective Lester Freamon - yes, the spelling is wrong. But we have to have Lester - his 25 HRs in 1899 was the highest single season total between 1885 and 1919 )
SP - Dave Stewart* (East side drug kingpin Proposition Joe Stewart - four straight 20 win seasons 1987-1990)
SP - Rick Wise* (Barksdale soldier Dennis "Cutty" Wise - won 188 games, plus Game 6 of the 1975 World Series)
SP - Mike Norris* (detective Ed Norris - 22-9, 2.53 in 1980, should have won the Cy Young)
SP - King Cole (detective Ray Cole - 20-4, 1.80 for the 1910 Cubs)
SP - Tommy Bond (district attorney Rupert Bond - won 123 games in three years)
RP - Bill Campbell* (politician Nerese Campbell - went 17-5 with 20 saves for the Twins in 1975, led the AL with 31 saves for Boston the next year)
RP - Scott Williamson* (drug kingpin Kintell Williamson - 1999 NL Rookie of the Year)
RP - Joe Haynes* (Baltimore Sun editor Gus Haynes - 14-6, 2.42 for the 1947 White Sox)
RP - Kevin Stanfield (drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield - got into 3 games with the 1979 Twins)
RP - Alan Brice (Barksdale soldier Wee-Bey Brice - career ERA of 0.00!! and a losing record!! 0-1 in 3.3 IP, 2 unearned runs )
And we have some prospects chomping at the bit! They should be on this squad, and with some luck (on their part), someday they will!!)
James Barksdale, Pirates OF prospect (West side drug kingpin Avon Barksdale)
Tyler Colvin, Cubs outfield prospect (police district commander Howard "Bunny" Colvin)
It's been an astonishing run. By the way, there were actually characters on the show with last names like Williams and Reese and Johnson - but they were generally so minor and so obscure that it would have seemed too much like cheating to include them. By including Ted and Pee Wee and Walter, we could certainly make this a better baseball team, if we wanted. But the Hall, like The Wire, wishes we could conduct ourselves with a little bit of integrity, in a harsh world.