Tag Archives: The Wire

The Essentials – Television Episodes

By D.G. McCabe

I did an Essential Movies post a long time ago – its time to do an essential TV episode list.  The only rule is that the episode has to be at least five years old to give enough reflection time.  Anyway, in order of date, here goes:

Lucy Does a TV Commercial (I Love Lucy, 1952)

Generally speaking, television wasn’t very good in its formative years of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  TV shows were quickly churned out, formulaic, and edited to appease advertisers.  So why choose any episode from this era for an Essentials list?

Lucille Ball was so popular that she could get away with things that other TV stars couldn’t – doing a whole episode where the premise is that she gets really, really drunk for example.   We might take such plots for granted now, but its pretty special to see something like this that came out so early in the history of television.

Chuckles Bites the Dust (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1975)

We skip a couple of decades to the 1970’s, when TV comedies were starting to hit a good run (TV dramas still had some catching up to do).  The most innovative comedy of its day was the Mary Tyler Moore show, the prototype for all workplace comedies to follow.

The humor could get dark at times, and nothing demonstrates that more than the untimely death of Chuckles the Clown.  After being chomped to death by a parade elephant, Chuckles becomes the butt of endless office jokes.   What follows is a hilarious journey that takes us from hilarity to mourning and back again.

Abyssinia, Henry (M*A*S*H, 1975)

M*A*S*H was ahead of its time for its often dark humor as well.  But the humor isn’t what made it groundbreaking and popular – it was the attachment the audience felt to the characters.

Abyssinia Henry takes that attachment and uses it  for full emotional impact.  In the early seasons of M*A*S*H, it’s easy to forget the show takes place in a war zone.  The end of this episode makes that impossible afterwards.

 

Hill Street Station (Hill Street Blues, 1981)

The first drama episode on our list is the pilot for Hill Street Blues.  Hill Street Blues was a departure from the formulaic and soapy dramas of the first decades of television.  Its characters were complex and it dealt with the topic of 1980’s urban decline directly and without mercy.

The pilot puts us right in the middle of that decline and shows that Hill Street Blues won’t be like its predecessor cop shows.  Unlike those shows, the cops don’t get the crook or have a nice moment at the end.  Instead, the episode ends in horror.

Fortune and Men’s Weight (Cheers, 1984)

Cheers was almost like dozens of “will they or won’t they” sitcoms before it.  That was until it gave the audience exactly what they wanted – Sam and Diane to get together.

Fortune and Men’s Weight is the archetypical episode of why we should be careful what we wish for as an audience.  Sam and Diane weren’t ever going to work as a couple, and Fortune and Men’s Weight was when this was made abundantly clear.

The Contest (Seinfeld, 1992)

Seinfeld is the show about nothing where there is no hugging and no one learns anything.  It is, after all, about four hilariously awful people.  It is probably the most influential television comedy of all time and might be the most influential show period.

It is hard to pick a Seinfeld episode.  I had originally picked “The Chinese Restaurant,” but then I remembered that there’s no Kramer in that episode.  Anyway, The Contest is about who becomes “master of their domain.”  I don’t need to get into any more detail than that.

Last Exit to Springfield (The Simpsons, 1993)

The Simpsons is the longest running scripted program in television history.  Lots of shows have influence on other shows, but the Simpsons is influential on the English language itself.  D’oh!

The fourth season of the Simpsons is widely regarded as its best, and no episode quite packs in the jokes like Last Exit to Springfield (although A Streetcar Named Marge is a close second).  Gather round children it’s high time ye learned, of a hero named Homer and a devil named Burns….

24 Hours (ER, 1994)

After dozens of cast changes, re-hashed plots, and a case of overstaying its welcome by about four seasons, it’s easy to forget how innovative ER was when it first came on television.  It was fast paced, it was realistic, it had real medical terminology, and it might have the best pilot of any network series ever.

The pilot is a two hour mini-movie pulling the audiences into the intense world of the emergency room at the fictional County General Hospital in Chicago.  From then on, great television dramas were expected to have a certain production value and realism.

Pine Barrens (The Sopranos, 2001)

There is television before The Sopranos, and television after The Sopranos.  While its predecessors moved television closer to a place where a show like it could exist, The Sopranos for the first time demonstrated the artistic potential of the medium.

Pine Barrens is my pick for the essential Sopranos episode.  The cold, hellish terrain that Paulie Walnuts and Christopher traverse within serves as a microcosm of the entire series.  After all, isn’t The Sopranos about being trapped in a horrible situation, chasing after something that might not even be there?

Two Cathedrals (The West Wing, 2001)

The Sopranos gets due credit, but another show came out in 1999 that demonstrated the artistic power of television.  The West Wing has its flaws, but no other network show has its level of Shakespearean gravitas.

Two Cathedrals is a near flawless episode, exploring Jed Bartlet’s past as he addresses the greatest crisis of his presidency.  The scene in the National Cathedral itself is my favorite scene from any episode of any drama that I’ve seen.

Middle Ground (The Wire, 2004)

The Wire is nearly perfect in its execution, self-contained continuity, and emotional power.  It may be the most consistently high quality television drama produced up until this point.

Its third season is its high-water mark, and Middle Ground is the best episode of that season.  Arguably the entire first three seasons build up what happens in this episode, and everything else afterwards is about living with the consequences of those events.

The Wheel (Mad Men, 2007)

Mad Men is doubtlessly the highest quality and most influential period drama in television history.  Its production value is almost as rich as the depth of its characters, which are its absolute strength.

The Wheel sets the tone for the characters that are with us for the rest of the series.  Don and Peggy are the series lead characters, and this episode demonstrate the central dichotomy that they have in common – triumph at work, failure at home.

(c) 2014 D. G. McCabe

2014 Emmy Nominations – Snap Reactions

By D.G. McCabe

So a bit of a summer lull here at Grandcanyonscope has been broken up with some actual news – Emmy nominations:

http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/emmy-nominations-2014-complete-list/story?id=24501383

My snap reactions are as follows:

1. I think the word “category” doesn’t mean what the Television Academy thinks it means.  Orange is the New Black is a comedy? American Horror Story is a miniseries but True Detective is a Drama Series?

2. One day people will be watching the complete series of “The Americans.”  Like “The Wire” before it, there will be abject surprise and shock when those viewers find out that the show got only two Emmy nominations for its first two seasons.  The Wire got only two as well, neither of which it won, and is considered to be one of the best, if not the best, series of all time.  Way to go Emmy voters.

3. That’s another thing – how does Downton Abbey keep getting nominated for awards?  Sure this past season was better than the Game of Thrones-light slaughterhouse that was season three, but not much better.  I get that Maggie Smith is amazing but the rest of the show is descending in quality like whale droppings.

4. Game of Thrones deserves its nominations, but I think that it might keep getting passed over for Best Drama.   If it can’t win for seasons with Blackwater and Rains of Castamere, I’m not sure if it can.

5. And this year’s “old voters desperately trying to look ‘with it'” nomination goes to: Silicon Valley!

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

The Wire – The Complete Series (2002-2008)

This is the first in a series discussing the complete series of notable past television shows. If you have NOT seen the entire series, and are either in the middle of watching it or planning to watch it you should skip this article – it is filled with spoilers. When you’ve finished the series, come back for this commentary.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you – D.G. McCabe

The Wire

2002-2008, U.S., Creator and Primary Showrunner- David Simon

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”

– William Shakespeare, Brutus from “Julius Caesar” Act IV, Scene III

The Wire often tops “best of” lists for television dramas and television programs in general. The declining aspects of Baltimore, Maryland, which at its zenith in the 1950’s-1970’s had almost a million people, serves as the backdrop of a story of institutional decay as seen primarily through the eyes of the Baltimore Police Department (although the show does a fantastic job developing characters ranging from powerful politicians to poor school children).

The quality of The Wire cannot be denied.  The acting and writing are consistently excellent, and the camera work weaves an impending sense of doom throughout even the series’ more mundane moments.  It has several key themes woven throughout it’s five season run beyond the obvious “decline of middle class institutions” theme.  It is also one of the most frustrating stories ever told, an anti-show that would make Anton Chekov proud.

Getting to the Top

The main antagonists during the series’ first three season are drug kingpins Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).  While Bell and Barksdale are clearly evil, they are not corrupt in the sense that they operate by an established code and run their drug organization much like a legitimate business would operate.  At one point, Bell even establishes a co-operative with the other Baltimore drug lords so that everyone can benefit from the high quality drugs being smuggled in by an Eastern European crime syndicate. While both men are ruthless, paranoid, murderers, they don’t get to the top by breaking the rules, so to speak, of “the game.”

The same cannot be said about Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), Bell and Barksdale’s successor as “most powerful drug lord in Baltimore.”  Marlo is corrupt in ways that Bell and Barksdale are not (the murder of Proposition Joe, ordering Chris and Snoop to murder a family because the guy was “talking smack,” etc.). Nor can it be said about Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) who gets his position not through ability but by manipulating crime statistics and through shady political connections.  Interestingly enough, these corrupt men stay on top for long periods of time.  While they are ultimately done in by outside forces, they personify the nature of how breaking “the rules” can result in unjust rewards for people willing to do anything to gain power.

Keeping Power

Even people seeking power with good intentions fall short due to what it takes to keep power.  In season three, Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) runs for mayor to “clean up the city” and promises Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), at this point the leader of the Major Crimes Unit, a future without manipulation of crime statistics for political purposes.  This goes out the window at the end of season 5 where, in exchange for promoting Daniels to Commissioner, Carcetti asks for manipulated crime statistics to bolster his run for Governor of Maryland.

Likewise, Frank Sobotka, the union leader in Season 2, allows an Eastern European crime syndicate to flood Baltimore with drugs and prostitutes in exchange for the funds he needs to keep his co-workers employed.  He also uses the money to lobby politicians to give his dying profession a future.  In summary, he looks the other way from violent criminals in order keep himself in a position when he can help his fellow dock-workers.

Justice and Vengeance

Another major theme of The Wire is the relationship to justice and vengeance, and how the show makes the audience feel about them.  When Stringer Bell is gunned down by Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams) at the end of Season 3, it is anti-climatic because we watched for three years the struggle of Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Lester Freeman (Clarke Peters) and the other protagonists spend so much time and energy trying to put Stringer behind bars.  Indeed, Stringer is an evil man who deserves his fate, but the show makes the audience feel cheated in the way that fate is doled out.

Similarly, in season one, when Greggs is shot by Barksdale’s thugs, the man who pulled the trigger is killed off-screen.  While it is satisfying that Barksdale himself ends up behind bars, something feels empty by the way that the man responsible for the near murder of one of the show’s main protagonists simply disappears.

Disruption

Whether it is McNulty making up a serial killer to fund the operation to take down Marlo, Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom) and his season three “Hamsterdam” experiment, or Stringer Bell setting up the drug lord co-op, there are dozens of instances in The Wire of one individual taking initiative to disrupt the regular way of doing things.  In most instances, these disruption are punished by the status quo.  McNulty and Colvin lose their jobs (McNulty is demoted twice before that) and Stringer loses control of the co-op due to the return of the “status quo” drug violence of Barksdale.

The character of Omar, with McNulty a close second, personifies the disruptive figure. Omar is an outlaw even among outlaws, robbing drug dealers at gunpoint and avoiding the resulting bounties on a regular basis.  Still, even Omar cannot escape the random and violent world of the drug “game” when he is unceremoniously taken down by a twelve-year old in a bodega at the end of season five.

Missed Connections

And this brings me to the Shakespeare quote and Chekov reference above.  In season one, the cops have D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) ready to turn on his uncle, when his mother convinces him not to.  In season two they have Frank Sobotka in the same position, when he is murdered by the Eastern Europeans.  In season three they have Stringer Bell nailed, when Omar takes care of him for them.  There are dozens of instances in their investigations like this, they have everything wrapped up when something happens to unravel everything.

One of the most frustrating missed connections occurs in Season 4, when Herc (Domenik Lombardozzi), trying to find a camera that he lost investigating Marlo, destroys the life of  promising middle-schooler Randy (Maestro Harrell) by mishandling him as a source of information.  The mistake would have been avoided but for a homicide detective failing to pass along a message to Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) out of spite.

Conclusion

The richness of themes, high production quality, and even its frustrating plotlines make The Wire one of the finest shows in television history.  It is not a perfect series (the newspaper sub-plot in Season 5 never really connects and most of the events of Season 2 exist in isolation from the rest of the series) but it may be the closest thing television has produced thus far to the thematic density of the novels of Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe