The Wire: series two

cast: Dominic West, Jorn Doman, Idris Elba, Frankie R. Faison, and Larry Gilliard Jr

creator: David Simon

720 minutes (ukn) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
HBO NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

Given that the first series of The Wire was so tightly structured around one case, it was always going to be an issue how a second series would work. Do they keep the police characters and change the case? Do they keep the drug-dealers but change the police? Or have a completely new cast with a completely new case? In the end the producers seem to have tried to kill several birds with one stone by keeping the police team together but having them work a different case while still keeping an eye on things inside the Barksdale criminal empire.

The second series centres on a community of longshoremen working the Baltimore port. Changes in the economy mean that there’s not much work going around and not many ships choose to unload in Baltimore anymore. Despite this, the longshoremen union seems to have a lot of money to splash around, resulting in them getting the back up of a police major when the dockers rather than the police get the chance to put a new window in the local Polish church. Enraged, the major smells a rat and starts pulling strings to get a detail setup to look into the head of the union. After being given drunks and losers, the major uses his political ‘suction’ to get Lieutenant Michaels on the case who quickly reconstructs the detail from Season One around himself and gets to work. The problem is that the money the dockers are spending doesn’t just come from the odd stolen container; it also dips into the white slave trade and drugs. Meanwhile, the Barksdale empire is in the hands of ‘Stringer’ Bell and it’s falling apart in front of his eyes. They lack product to sell and Bell is forced into an uneasy alliance with a rival gang that even his boss doesn’t know about.

The new formula tries to recapture the procedural brilliance of the first season by moving the detail on to a new case but the producers also seem unwilling to leave the plotlines from season one alone. The result is that the formula is weakened, as we’re now juggling the lives of the police, the drug-dealers, and the longshoremen as well as the criminal elements the dockers work with. The result is that far less time is spent on the case and much more time is spent checking in on various characters. The actual building of the case doesn’t begin until well into this series, and when it does it is handled in a good deal less detail and it is finished off a little too quickly too. This highlights one of the intriguing aspects of the HBO phenomenon.

Traditionally, American series worked on an episodic structure, it is only in the last 10-15 years that series-long plot arcs have started to become more and more common. The Wire is very much like The Sopranos in that its first series was one long arc telling what is basically one story. For both of these series the second season comes across as less focussed and more piecemeal. Compare this to series such as Buffy where the first series is not the strongest and the writers actually seem to settle into the writing progress allowing the series to mature and evolve. HBO shows frequently aren’t as good in their second season than in their first. This is presumably because the makers have all the time in the world to work on the idea for the first season but then only have, at most, a year to work on the story for the second season. In the case of The Sopranos, this resulted in the first series being unlike the others and the settling-in period really lasting from the second series onwards. Evidently, The Wire suffers from the same phenomenon as The Sopranos did. However, it would be unfair to put down the second season of The Wire because it still has a hell of a lot going for it.

The Wire is still written with an incredible sense of humour. There are a few incredibly funny moments such as the brutish white cop trying to blend in with white drug-dealers through the use of props, there’s also McNulty’s attempts to pretend to be English in order to infiltrate a brothel, resulting in an utterly atrocious English accent (ironic seeing as the actor that plays McNulty is actually of British origin) and a failed attempt to fight off a couple of overly-attentive prostitutes.

The characterisation is still excellent on the whole. Most of the detail have moved on and learned from their experiences in the first season; revisiting the theme of power corrupting, a member of the detail resists his father-in-law mapping out his future career as an officer, pointing out that he wants to work cases. The new characters are a slightly mixed bunch. The dockers are wonderfully drawn portraits of blue collar Americans pushed too far but their criminal contacts are slightly less intriguing in that they’re composed of characters that seem to simply be their nationalities and nothing else. Particularly noteworthy though, is the infamous assassin who dresses, looks and acts like a member of the Nation of Islam, complete with Malcolm X-style spectacles.

On the whole, this second series is a bit of a disappointment. The structure that made the first series so compelling and original has been watered down and too much effort is put into exploring the idea of differences within and without communities and what people are ready to do for their friends and family. The first season balanced police work with social drama so effectively that both sides complemented each other. Sadly, the second series has a lack of focus that results in the balance being lost. The Wire still has moments of brilliance and it’s still a cut above the vast majority of police TV, but I’m hoping the writers have ‘settled in’ by the third season.