For years, people have been telling me to watch HBO’s The Wire. Having finally knocked Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones off my list, I’ve recently found the time to take them up on it. I’m almost done w/ Season 3 (I’ll probably finish tonight), and so far, I haven’t been disappointed. Except by Season 2.
Since then, I’ve had that weird thing that happens where you see something for the first time and then see it again everywhere with Season 2 of The Wire, and in particular with how underrated it is. My brother, who defends Season 2 (or should I say, “Season poo”… amiright? I’m so right) as “the quintessential modern Greek tragedy,” recently retweeted this for my benefit:
And just this morning in my weekly drive to keep up with the ever-changing, highly-varied Cracked.com, there was a reference to Season 2’s underratedness (to quote, “…every episode of the underrated second season”) on the most recent episode of The Spit Take (if you really care, it happens around 5:15).
Here’s the thing though — I haven’t talked to anyone who’s watched the second season recently. And, looking back on it from a distance of almost two weeks, there were some really good things about it; I can honestly imagine thinking, “It wasn’t so bad as everyone says. The story was compelling, and the characters were well-developed. The callousness and understated professionalism of The Greek and company played well against the tragically-flawed Frank Sobotka, and the close of the second-to-last episode in the season is destined to become a classic moment in TV history.”
But every time I think that, I remember how much I hated actually watching that season — it’s easy to pull back and see the good story but forget about the terrible execution. And we must never forgive the creators for bungling what could have been fantastic television. Here’s what went wrong — may we never forget.
It starts right at the beginning — actually, at the beginning of every episode. The theme song for season two is terrible. In fact, the above linked Cracked video even refers to it as “almost confrontationally bad.” The first season’s theme is a darkly upbeat, bluesy masterpiece that uses the historically black roots of blues music to highlight the racial tensions of policing drug crime in Baltimore. The second season’s intro is at best boring and at worst unlistenable — the upbeat bluesy aspect is gone, and in its place is a slow, static background track that never seems to lead anywhere. Of course, that doesn’t bring up the obvious aspect of the vocals, which sound like they caused the singer almost as much physical pain as they were erupting from his throat as the listener incurs by hearing them.
But let us not judge a show by its intro. Let’s instead look at the stuff that the show did right, and then remember how in execution it actually went wrong. We’ve established that the overarching story was pretty good, so let’s start with that. I have two major complaints about the story:
- The story has little-to-nothing to do with Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell until the very end, and even that tie-in is weak and contrived.
- The “getting the band back together” storyline is so contrived as to be laughable.
Here’s the thing — you can fix both of these in one shot. Establish that Stringer has to start going through Prop Joe for his stuff at the beginning of the season; give Lt. Daniels a motive for looking into it (unfinished business or some such), and make that the focus of the investigation from the get-go. Don’t give the shrew-faced wrinkly Major some BS story about wanting to put stained glass in a church and creating a 12-person task force to pursue a petty personal vendetta against some no-name Pole down at the docks just so Lt. Daniels can come in and say, “If I’m going to do this, I’ll need all of the people from last season who signed on for this one.”
There are of course other executional mis-steps in the story — for instance, I would point to the amount of Dunkin Donuts in each episode as somewhat distracting, and the technology used to track the shipping containers, with the little truck graphic and the disappearing boxes, as frankly hilarious — but the fact that my two complaints above cover basically the entire first two-thirds of the season speaks for itself.
Another aspect of the show that went really well was the characters — we’ve already covered the tragic hero Sobotka and the villainous Greek and his henchmen, but in doing so we’ve completely overlooked two of the worst, most useless, least sympathetic and watchable characters of our generation: Mousey Docks Police Lady (I can’t be bothered to look up her real name because I just don’t care about her enough) and, of course, Ziggy.
My problem with Mousey Docks Police Lady is quite simply that she’s boring. She doesn’t really do anything or add anything to the show; occasionally, something interesting looks like it might happen (OMG she’ll hook up with McNulty! Nope. OMG she gave away that they were under investigation! Doesn’t matter), but then it doesn’t. At one point at the beginning of the season they literally talk about how she’s not real po-lice, which seems like it’ll be a source of at least some tension (can she come up to speed and deal with life … on the street?) and then … she never really grows or progresses as a character, despite being a main focal character in several episodes. To the point, she’s so useless to the season that I don’t even know her name.
Meanwhile, the problem with Ziggy seems obvious; every Season 2 defender I’ve talked to so far has even had to admit that none of Ziggy’s actions can be explained by any sort of thought process or motivation. He’s a completely unlovable, whiney, irresponsible fool who does things like celebrate being able to pay off his drug connections by lighting a $100 on fire in front of his notably poor friends and coworkers at a bar and just straight up murdering a dude, then sitting there like an idiot.
But the real problem with Ziggy isn’t Ziggy himself, it’s the other characters’ — particularly, his family’s — interactions with him that just make no sense whatsoever. His dad basically talks to him twice throughout the show, once to tell him off for the aforementioned $100-bill incident, a conversation that ends in a Lion King, Mufasa-teaching-a-hard-lesson-after-rescuing-Simba-from-the-elephant-graveyard-that-ultimately-reinforces-their-relationship type moment, and … probably another time? I would guess? They’d have to, since they’re family, right? And then you have the cousin, whom the elder Sobotka treats basically as his son, who for no apparent reason puts up with Ziggy’s garbage and continues to invite him along to deal with those who are infinitely his superior.
Also, his name is Ziggy. Can we talk about what a dumb name that is? It’s a really dumb name.
Anyway, the kicker on all of this is that the acting — in particular, of these two characters — is pretty bad. To be fair, I don’t really know how one could act the part of Ziggy, since it’s almost impossible to take that character and put yourself in his place, but even Mousey Lady Cop seems to basically have no emotions; it’s like her character was described to her as “earnest professional” and she got no further instructions. Also, and I can’t really make this a knock against the show, since there was no way they could have known when they cast him, but the fact that the cousin is Pornstache from OITNB is also really distracting.
It’s sad, but all of these mis-steps really detract from the experience of what could have been top-notch television. I understand why people think it’s underrated, but I challenge those people to remember that, even though they like the story and remember the aspects that really went well, when they actually watched it, they didn’t enjoy it because of all the little stuff that got in the way.