Reviews

The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season

Bruce Dancis
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The 4th season DVD shows why The Wire is the best show on TV.


The Wire

Distributor: HBO Home Video
Cast: Michael Stone Forrest, Steve Staiger, Stephen Zaleski
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: HBO
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2007-12-04
Amazon

Wishful thinking: There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the voters of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will collectively look back at The Wire and say with regret, "Oh, my God. The best show in American television history has ended and we never once gave it an Emmy Award. What were we thinking?"

To be sure, The Wire has had some serious competition during its four years on HBO (a fifth and final season will begin January 6). Certainly its cable network-mate, The Sopranos, represented rare excellence on TV, but no other series has matched The Wire's broad, complex and sensitive depiction of life in a decaying American city (Baltimore), the perfect tone of its writing or the remarkable expressiveness of its ensemble cast.

The release on DVD of The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season (four discs, HBO Video, $59.99), a collection of 13 episodes filled with one unforgettable scene after another, gives viewers -- and even latecoming Emmy voters -- another chance to catch up on the series. The Wire was created by former Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon (the man previously behind NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO's The Corner) with the major assistance of producer and co-writer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police detective and middle-school teacher. In addition to the writing of Simon and Burns, top-ranking novelists such as Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane contributed teleplays this season.

Season 4 takes on the issue of Baltimore's failing public education system, but like every season of The Wire, it's about much more than one topic.

While the focus is indeed on four boys of middle-school age -- Michael (Tristan Wilds), Namond (Julito McCullum), Randy (Maestro Harrell) and Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) -- and what they encounter at school, at home and on the mean streets of the city, the plot lines weave through many different areas.

So, in the course of Season 4, The Wire explores a heated mayoral election, struggles between rival gangs of drug dealers, the work of police detectives to bring down the dealers, political machinations among the police department hierarchy, the efforts of well-meaning teachers and educators to reach their students despite facing many obstacles, the long-running case of disappearing bodies of murder victims, and various intriguing characters whose own stories are developed.

This latter group includes a homeless drug addict and snitch named Bubbles (brilliantly portrayed by Andre Royo), an ex-convict running a boxing gym for kids (Chad L. Coleman) and a renegade outlaw named Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams) who's gay, a devout Christian and prone to rip off the gang leaders.

Simon has said on various occasions, including here on the DVD documentary The Game Is Real, that he views each season of The Wire as a novel told in 13 episodes, with a beginning, a middle and an end, which allows him and his creative crew to develop stories and characters over time.

And if the story calls for a central character to meet an untimely death, so be it. That was case during Season 3, when Simon and Co. killed off Russell "Stringer" Bell (played by the charismatic Idris Elba), a leader of the Barksdale Gang who was attempting to move his gang's criminal activities from drugs to construction and redevelopment.

Although many critics have hailed The Wire the series has, unforgivably, received a cold shoulder from Emmy voters.

In the DVD documentaries and in his audio commentaries, Simon doesn't hide his exasperation with the Emmys. He seems particularly bitter, for instance, that the gifted Royo failed to get even a supporting actor nomination for his amazing portrayal of a drugged-out street person. But he does offer some explanations.

"We have to remember we're in Baltimore, Md. It's a long way away (from Hollywood)," Simon says in his commentary on the season-ending Episode 13, along with co-executive producer Nina Noble.

And to this one can add that not only is The Wire made by non-Hollywood people, but its cast is perhaps 70 percent African American and its stories confront issues of societal neglect that many Americans -- including those in the TV industry -- would prefer not to think about.

The Wire also doesn't fit into the cookie-cutter pattern of network TV. Although some have criticized the series for showing the seamy side of Baltimore, from vicious drug barons to callous cops to corrupt politicians, the series actually attempts to present characters as complex individuals.

As Simon puts it, "The Wire is really not interested in good and evil. It's interested in economics, in sociology and in politics."

But the series is hardly academic or dry. The stories and settings have so much power because they're largely based on real people and real events, and they're filmed in real locations. Credit for this goes to Simon and Burns, but also to the many Baltimore insiders they've recruited in advisory capacities and for cameo appearances, including a former mayor, a former police commissioner, a former drug dealer and a bunch of onetime cops and teachers. These amateur actors are part of the finest large ensemble cast we've ever seen on television.

Above all, The Wire is a dramatic attempt to raise awareness of what is going on in every major US city but is out of view for most of us. And while that of course means that the series explores the brutality, even the barbarism, of life in the city, it never is hopeless or overly cynical.

As Wendell Pierce, the fine actor who portrays police detective William "Bunk" Moreland, says in the DVD documentary It's All Connected, "Our show reflects on the humanity of the people who are struggling to deal with the neighborhood they live in."

Now if only Emmy voters would open their eyes and take a look at the neighborhood, as well.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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