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Though The Wire does appeal to that part of me that reviewed a few movies in the John Singleton canon a few years back and generally enjoys that odd subgenre of crime dramas, that of the ‘hood film,’ which isn’t as popular as Mafia movies or as prolific as yakuza/triads-thank-you-no-thank-you-Mr. Miike, it’s also important in this trying time where Dreck Fiction attempts to gratefully slide toward mostly science-fiction discussion, because it has what a lot of science-fiction in film and television lacks: great storytelling. I haven’t lived for very long, but The Wire is by this point the best told story I’ve ever experienced. Maybe it isn’t my favorite story, but its storytelling is so complex, so satisfying, that it warrants analysis on this sci-fi site.

There isn’t much to connect The Wire to the genre of science-fiction, but it could have been anything, so long as it was “the best told story I’ve ever experienced.” Again, I was inclined to like it from the start and feel a compulsion to blabla about it on this blog, but figuring what makes The Wire tick and how it comes together to say something real could benefit the critical eye toward any genre.

Christ, if we had anything close to The Wire in science-fiction… I’d be a pretty happy guy.

Check out this awesome video if you need a quick recap of the series’s events…

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This show was canceled due to poor ratings. While it started strong, it lost many viewers immediately, and never quite made them up across its thirteen week run. As much as I thought the show didn’t fully live up to its pilot episode, it’s still unfortunate that we won’t have any more. It’s a good thing then, that it ended so strongly.

By the end, Awake worked and didn’t work. It did round out its series premise pretty well, creating a whole narrative that is satisfying as science-fiction drama, but in the moment was clunky and awkward. The show didn’t need to be thirteen hours long, and would’ve worked better as a movie, as the best moments were those pertinent to the over-arching story — those in the first episode and the last two or three.

These moments, especially those in the series finale, are pretty intense and actually unpredictable. It’s good to see Michael Britten take risks and do things we don’t agree with, or put himself into dangerous situations — and lose at times. In this episode, he’s getting closer to the truth we already know, which puts his red reality in jeopardy.

*Spoilers to follow*

The big question throughout the series is ‘which reality is the real reality,’ and I did have a feeling that neither were, but with a title like Awake, I should’ve realized it was all a dream. So by the end the show becomes an interesting meditation on grief; it’s the story of a man grappling with the loss of loved ones and the journey toward acceptance. Accepting that one of his family members is dead runs parallel to accepting one reality, and in the show’s final scene we see that he’s finally awake, and his family is alive.

To reach this happy ending he must do as he always does, investigate, and it’s a great test to a seasoned detective. It’s a good story and when the ending revealed what was what the whole time, my first reaction was “lame,” but then the full weight of the situation caught up to it and the scene became a touching, satisfying moment that left me feeling pretty good about the series.

But then I thought back to those episodes in the middle, and on the whole, Awake was not a great show. It’s a narrative tugged back and forth by the realities of the television industry, which makes it a miracle that the story ended with an ending. There remain some loose threads, but it’s all good. Because when it’s over, we had in fact spent a whole lot of time following Jason Isaacs go around and solve cases by using parallel worlds, and that was pretty good.

And when time came to uncover the truth behind those worlds, we see the truth behind the series, that it was about a man struggling to overcome a fractured mind after a traumatic incident,who could know grief and accept it before everything returned to normal. Now that the show is over, sitcoms continue on, and we’ll wait for the next good, thought-provoking scifi show — just as it always is.

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The season is winding down as tension and story ramps up in this, penultimate episode. Britten becomes more obsessed with Hawkin, the detective he suspects — or rather, is certain — killed his wife/son by running him off the road, the incident that started everything. Through trial and error between the two worlds, he slowly works his way up the mystery chain, jumping through hoops and endless second guessing (sometimes from those attempting to cover it all up), while getting into dangerous, sometimes deadly situations.

This is like, the perfect season finale’s eve episode, setting up what could be a solid, slam-bang ending. The over-arc of Awake is without a doubt its strongest element, as it uses the dream thing (the show’s premise) to its best effect. Britten learns something in one world and is able to use it in the other, while we keep his status in either in the backs of our minds.

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Looks like they’re headed for a season ender, a nice three episode arc. General consenus is that this is the best episode since the pilot, and that’s true, without a doubt. It kind of reminds me of Dexter — if Dexter was a network TV show. It’d still have that ramp-up at the end that hooks you, but since Awake is a little watered down in terms of drama and most things, the hook doesn’t penetrate that deeply. I’ll hope for a second season, unless the conclusion is something real dumb, but this didn’t become the major science-fiction show I hoped it might.

Still, it is entertaining, and the areas it does explore offer some interesting dialogues. In this episode Michael’s fallen out of one of his reality, and must finally grieve the loss of his son. He’s also haunted by hallucinations, and this leads him on a spiraling journey of seeming self-destruction that ends with a discovery — the accident that created two worlds was no accident.

Now he’s thinking the Lord of the Rings fan from Clerks II is responsible, and we’ll see where that goes. I really liked that guy (Mr. Blonde, according to Wikipedia), he did a good job acting out Michael’s self-talk.

What starts out as intriguing, reopening the question of which world is true, and pushing BD Wong to affirm his theory with more aggression, follows through with healthy human drama. At the center is a man grappling with the confusing loss of a loved one — the dream worlds shattering becomes an interesting expression of his loneliness and frustration. It’s a good episode, and a good show.

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So they end this episode with the new gang watching The X-Files. Funny, because that’s like what this show’s like.

Anyway I’ve been realizing that I really like Jason Isaacs. He’s been one of those false-ubiquitous faces, like Colin Salmon or Ron Perlman, maybe Danny Trejo — people who show up in genre fare as secondary characters but you’re always like… damn I like that guy. Hard to explain. Talented actors, but rarely do they have their day in the sun. Hellboy was good, but that was like, one time. One time*.

This episode was okay but the next one looks better — glad I could see the preview — looks like they’re going to mess around with the mythology, or better… begin the mythology. But they introduce a new dramatic element, and it’ll be interesting to see where that goes. As these reviews grow progressively lazy and less enthusiastic, the show begins to pick up speed…

*Hellboy II was bad. Only good part was Trollcart, a half-troll half-cart character rolling along in the third act

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I know these last few reviews have felt negative, and that’s because Awake‘s started to fall into a formula, one where the twists are predictable — not necessarily like I can call the murderer in Act I (though usually it’s the other guy), but in a post-Signs M. Night Shyamalan way. We know the twists are coming, and we wish the unpredictable nature of the show and its universe were offering the surprises, not an old tradition of police procedural structure.

Possibly it tries to do too much, balancing the week to week plot line, which is complex but doesn’t feel complex, and the over-arching family drama (both with that key twist, and by-the-numbers). Characters develop around the plot, not in it, which I’ve seen before in network, broad-appeal television shows. Not much is known about Michael Britten other than he seems to be a pretty pleasant guy.

The episode ends strongly though, which says a lot because it somewhat cliffhangers you. It did what I had hoped it’d do from the start, which is introduce a universe-specific what-if idea, and explore what effects that would have on the cast of [established] characters. I’m excited to see the next episode, which I don’t think I’ve been since the pilot.

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5. Howard “Bunny” Colvin

Colvin is the avatar for Simon and Ed Burns and all the writers — he’s a good cop who wants to see change, and is victimized by institutions. In Season 3 he attempts to create a controlled environment where drugdealers can operate, various zones around the city to keep the violence away from other citizens. It works, until it gets out that Colvin’s legalized drugs. He’s shit on by his superiors in their attempts to save themselves, and takes a job as a security chief for a hotel. In Season 4 he returns as a major element, this time joining forces with another ambitious fellow, who attempt to institute a tracking system in the middle school in order to socialize problem students and keep others on course. It works, until the school gets under pressure to perform for a standardized test, and things change.

He’s the show’s greatest hero, and fascinating to watch. Robert Wisdom is appropriately contemplative and patient — when he talks with that low, deep voice, you want to listen.

4. Omar Little

You know when Omar’s coming down the block because everyone starts running and shouting “Omar! Omar coming yo!” even when he’s in his robe and out getting more Honey Nut Cheerios. He’s a stick-up boy, the only person crazier than the drugdealers he steals from. He’s perhaps more famous though for living by a code, and not a weird one like Dexter’s, but a moral one. This is everyone’s favorite character, because at the end of the day, Omar is a badass. But he’s also got charisma, and it’s a great joy to watch him on screen doing anything. It’s cool to see him smoking, watching Barksdale or Stanfield targets in the distance, or talking with Bunk or McNulty, so it’s a special treat when he takes up his shotgun to do something cool. All in the game, yo.

3. Jimmy McNulty

Jimmy isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He takes the direct path to everything, even when that path is complicated by wiretaps and red tape. Even though he’s a dedicated officer who looks good on paper, he’s got a nasty habit of self-destruction and alienating everyone he meets. He even had a brush against Lester Freamon in Season 3, which got mended (as they all do), but still. McNulty is a flawed hero, one who’s alcoholism may seem cliched, but is true to life, and performed in turns comedic and poigniant by Dominic West.

(Spoilers to follow)

2. Russell “Stringer” Bell

What a cool name. Stringer will be elaborated on later, but I’ll say now that he’s an updated version of Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West. His deal is bringing business sense to the drug trade, and attempting to go legitimate in the midst of chaos and war. He doesn’t shoot up a block indiscriminately, but he’ll take a life if it “had to be snatched,” making him one hell of a cold and calculated businessman, but a businessman nonetheless. While Avon Barksdale was away for Season 2, he had to take over and deal with the proposition of merging with Proposition Joe and the East Side dealers. He had no other option — his product was inferior, though he had the territories — but Avon wouldn’t relent, going so far as to hire a New York hit man to drive East dealers out of their territory. Stringer’s attempts to deal with this and other street problems are what get him killed, after he’d already found he wasn’t ready for the big league with Clay Davis and co.

1. Preston “Bodie” Broadus

He’s not much of a presence throughout The Wire, but when he’s on, it’s always entertaining, and he shares a moment with Poot and Wallace that is one of my favorite moments on television. In it, he and Poot are forced to kill the boy, which shows us the birth of a gangster, one that’s hesitant and confused, but ultimately resolute. In Season 4 he stands by his action, but is faced with a greater moral problem — Marlo’s killing of low-level dealers out of paranoia. Bodie may not be a saint — he’s a killer — but he also has a moral code. It might just be the best someone born and killed on the street can do, if it’s all they know.

David Simon recently apologized for some comments he made about the current state of Wire fandom, where he criticized the general attitude of current viewers. Note that The Wire‘s been off the air for four years now, but DVD sales have been better than ever. This is my general experience — I bought the first season a while back and watched the first few episodes before taking a long break. In college I finished it, somewhat reluctant to return to something with too many characters to keep track off and a headaching mix of street talk and police jargon, but I was so moved by the ending, and one scene in particular, that I had to watch the rest as fast as possible. So I can’t help but feel like I fall under this umbrella of those who “[walked] sideways into the thing and act like they were there all along,” and that a future endeavor to offer what so many have already, a fan’s analytical perspective, would be “picking it apart now like it’s a deck of cards or like [I’ve been] there the whole time or … understood it the whole time.”

Well, I’m no stranger to coming into series sideways. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dexter, and Breaking Bad are my only favorite shows on right now, but I don’t get Showtime up in this dorm, and I only watch It’s Always Sunny when it’s on, not when it’s new. They’re rare — I found Firefly, Arrested Development, and Party Down after they’d been cancel, and I felt that guilt of ‘I should have been there to ‘support’ it,’ because they all ended before their time. Mitchell Hurwitz doesn’t harbor any resentment (publicly) that nobody saw Arrested Development despite all those Emmys, but I think Simon’s got more reason for his statements (which he’s seen apologized for).

Arrested Development may be extremely funny, but The Wire, especially from a creator’s statement, is important on a social level. David Simon was a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun before making it on TV through his books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, and experienced the collapse of relevance in his beloved medium — the Internet was running papers out of town, but didn’t itself maintain the same journalistic integrity. He moved to fiction with The Wire, where a message or two could be brought across in a powerful medium, that of popular entertainment.

It got across to many, but not that many. The Wire was at the time and now widely hailed by critics, some of which considered it to be among the greatest shows ever made, but it got no Emmy attention, and consistently pulled poor ratings. It seems a pattern was showing, and for a man with a lot to say, this is frustrating.

Flash-forward to 2012, and like all cult hits, The Wire‘s popular. On every Breaking Bad video I’ve seen on YouTube the top comments are typically “breaking Bad > The Wire” or “Breaking Bad and the wire are best shows evar” — it’s unsettling the difference four years can make, but for whatever reason there’s a better audience now than there was back then, but how can one know that?

I suppose The Wire didn’t have a high concept story premise, or a lauded lead performance (I mean Christ, Dominic West wasn’t even around for Season 4 — that doesn’t happen), and like Arrested Development, actually required watching, so it was perhaps doomed from the start. But now people can go back and pick up all the DVDs and appreciate it as I’ve done, but that’s obviously not the way it should be. We should’ve been there from the start, but we weren’t. The team struggled through five seasons — it’s a miracle they even got that far.

So after David Simon’s acknowledged this reality, it’s become a little uncomfortable to be a fan, even after rationalizing his issue. Everyone needs to bitch after a while, and Simon’s got a reason.

But it’s hard to watch The Wire and not want to talk about it. Because it’s not a show I can easily recommend to people (another problem with ratings I’d imagine), whether because it’s not as fun as Dexter (my roommate), or it’s too grim and violent (my mom), or it’s too police procedural and not straight gangsta shoot em up (my buddy), I’ll use this site to examine it in a range of ‘fannish fan’ to ‘aspirationally literary,’ which isn’t too far off the subject matter of Dreck Fiction. This may be a predominantly science-fiction-related site, it’s also discussed movies like Menace II Society and Baby Boy, because universal themes and ideas exist there, and in the case of The Wire it’s taught me a lot about effective longform storytelling, which will be the overarching theme of this Dreck Feature.

But in the Prelude segments, I figure I’ll try to exorcise all the fannish impulses first…

Expanding on what I was talking about last time, Awake almost seems more concerned with its special guest characters than secondary or even main. We spend 90% of the episode on the accountant’s wife and the accountant, and a little bit with Michael, his CI, and then his wife, which were the best moments. I don’t watch a lot of police shows, but this one feels more character-driven and personal, which makes me wonder why it feels like those episodes of SVU I have seen.

It’s almost like it’s already in a later season — early on its established who the characters are and a little of what they do, but doesn’t care too much to investigate or drive them in any direction. They still feel like archetypes, and I’m starting to feel the show settle on a formula. The formula is fine, the show’s entertaining enough, and Jason Isaacs is always awesome, but good performances and a good premise may not be enough in this case.

I’d imagine this season is a 13-episode run, so we should start building towards an end. We’ve been getting hints at a larger story-arc, so hopefully this will be one of the last ‘stand alone’ or ‘case of the week’ episodes.

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Awake would benefit from fleshing out its secondary characters. This show in particular is at a disadvantage because it’s science-fiction, or science-fictiony-feeling fantasy, so there’s an obligation to world-building that when neglected leaves viewers in the lurch, but all shows create worlds, and therefore all must populate them reasonably. Some shows that’s sort of the premise, like with The Wire. Every minor character has depth, even this hardcore killer Chris — it’s all in the eyes, and the dramatic looks — is more than an archetype, and the show’s lead can take pretty much an entire season off. I think Dexter is a better example because, well that show’s called Dexter, it’s about this guy Dexter. And yet it’s filled with memorable characters who are all given their due.

But Dexter is nearly an hour long, ten to fifteen minutes longer than Awake, and without worrying about commercial breaks and content. But it’s similarly high-premise, and both shows are good. So why aren’t Britten’s wife or various detective partners as interesting as Mesuka, Angel, and even LaGuerta? Awake is also similarly plot-heavy, and it doesn’t have the time to breathe.

I guess it’s all about structure. And… networks. I give credit to a station like AMC, who evidently (well, clearly) has more balls than something like TNT: We Know Drama. Vince Gilligan’ll tell you that he had a great pitch with the folks at TNT for Breaking Bad, and the execs loved it, but knew they’d be fired if they greenlit this show about a man’s spiral into the drug trade. It’s not the direction the network’s going, and as long as there are other networks around, it’s not a big deal.

But NBC? They gotta keep moving, because all eyes are watching.

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