At some point during the second season of HBO’s The Wire, one of two things will become apparent, depending on the viewer’s connection to the show. If said viewer has never seen it before, they will quickly become impatient with the dense web of plotlines and realize that they should either just give up now, or go back and watch the whole first season as prep work. On the other hand, if the viewer is a series habitué, they’ll be happy enough with what they see but will come to the realization that, as amazing at it remains, The Wire is in the end, just a show.
The central conceit of the first season was a tough little squad of Baltimore cops who worked a single big drug case over the whole 13-episode arc. For the subsequent season, it’s not surprising (given what a crack band of characters they had created) that the writers decided to bring most of the same cops back to work a different case. So although this season takes its sweet time getting there, eventually the old crew is back—crusty homicide dicks Bunk, Lester and McNulty, hard-headed narco cops Herc, Ellis and Kima, and all the rest—are again set up in some grotty office, tapping phones, scuffling with the brass and chasing tangential leads.
Their focus this time is the docks, where a cargo container is found with 13 suffocated Eastern European girls inside. The murder case dovetails nicely with police Major Valchek’s petty beef with the head of the dock workers’ union, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer)—the two of them fighting, insanely enough, over who gets to donate a stained-glass window to their church. Within a few episodes, the cops are parsing out the connections between the dock workers and the criminal ring they’re supplying (a motley international bunch all working for the quiet old man known only as The Greek). Meanwhile, Sobotka’s son Ziggy (James Ransone) and nephew Nicky (Pablo Schreiber, doing a better Ben Affleck than Ben himself can muster these days) are getting into even deeper criminal endeavors than Frank, who simply shifts the occasional container over to The Greek and uses the money to help keep his struggling union afloat. Although the first season had its share of heartbreak (being set against the numbing desolation of Baltimore’s drug-ravaged projects), this time the conclusion weighs even heavier, with its determined gang of working-class guys doing everything they can to get the docks going, as their last vestige of pride; as Frank says, hopelessly, near the end, “We used to make shit in this country.”
That doesn’t mean that the writers aren’t still making a compelling crime show, as evidenced by their bringing back Omar (Michael K. Williams), the wildly charismatic gunslinger who’s still on a crusade against Avon and Stringer (the drug kingpins who were the focus of the first season’s investigation) for brutally murdering his boyfriend, and even giving him a couple of sassy sidekicks who look like they’ve been taking acting and fashion lessons from Pam Grier. In addition, there’s hardly any other show out there which takes as much time and care laying out the methodology by which the crooks enact their capers, an addictive density of detail which can easily frighten off or even bore the casual viewer. (This attention to the small things also explains why The Wire is a favorite among criminals, as evidenced in recent stories about a Queens gang whose members used it as a textbook for evading police wiretaps).
Although The Wire makes for a good weekly TV date—the writers have a way with planting that hook in the last few seconds which leaves you hanging, mouth agape—it’s best experienced with the DVD set, like a book, something you take in over two or three long sessions, which allow you to piece together all the minutiae and appreciate the true immensity of its canvas. Rumors abound that the third season will be the show’s last, due to poor ratings. While that would obviously not be preferred, there’s a limit to what the show could do, given its propensity to add characters—at some point soon the whole enterprise would just become too unwieldy. It’s not to say that The Wire could never jump the shark, it would just be especially painful if it did.
Although conversations drop out too often, the sound is generally fine on these discs. The image is sharp and clear enough (full-screen only), but the colors don’t register as well this season, with the profusion of daytime scenes, where the colors can seem washed out at times.
Again, the only extras on this set are audio commentaries, only two this time, both less illuminating than the first season’s by David Simon and scripter George P. Pelecanos. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t illustrate an amusing gulf between two creative forces: in front of the camera and behind (or, the kids and the grownups). On Episode 19, "All Prologue," Dominic West and Michael K. Williams shoot the shit, telling jokes and stories about cast members and occasionally remembering to talk about what they’re watching. And even that usually comes down to the two of them laughing about how hung over Williams was during the shooting of a particular scene. On Episode 25, "Port in a Storm," however, the grownups show up, with producer Karen Thorson and editor Tom Zimny talking up the grandeur of their creation. It’s all well and good, but a bit too heavy on the technicalities, how shots were put together and the like. Some input from the creative team, writers and/or directors, would have had much more resonance.
A hugely ambitious and hugely successful crime epic whose plot tentacles just keep on spreading, wonderfully so.