I Like to Watch

HBO's fourth season of "The Wire" gets inside the weary reality of Baltimore's neglected schools, while CBS's "Jericho" brings us the sweet nectar of apocalypse, at long last!

Published September 17, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

It's been a cruel, cruel summer for the TV enthusiasts out there. Sure, there were some cheap thrills: Ryan Star's gloriously stupid "rocker" antics were the highlight of "Rock Star: Supernova," with the alarmingly dorky comments of Jason Newsted coming in a close second. "Hell's Kitchen" featured one of the most repugnant lineups of street toughs, sniping babies and blatant morons ever to appear on any reality show, topped off by Gordon Ramsay's closing comments (while laughing) that everyone out there could go f*** themselves. The second season of "So You Think You Can Dance" provided several hours of entertainment, before the judges' and dancers' mutual stroke-fest got a little repetitive. And when you throw in a great third season of "Deadwood" and an undeniably entertaining third-season "Project Runway," the summer's offerings were sparse, maybe, but not entirely disappointing. Besides, without a little elbow room in the schedule, how else would you have found the time to reorganize all of your closets, learn conversational Portuguese and take that three-week Italian vacation you've always dreamed of?

Wait, you didn't do all that stuff? You rented the first three seasons of "The Wire" and watched them back to back instead? Well, then, even better! Because now that the hearty fare of the fall is upon us, what could satisfy the rapacious palate better than the fourth season of "The Wire"? And if you have any energy left after devouring that multilayered microcosm of life in Baltimore, there are a bunch of new dramas that you really won't want to miss. Some of them look promising; others, you just need to see before they die. You know, sort of like the Pyramids in Egypt, except they'll only be around for a few weeks and you won't get your wallet stolen while you're checking them out.

Let me stand next to your wire
But first things first: Damn, it's good to have "The Wire" back! Even if it means we get a smaller serving of Detective McNulty (Dominic West) than usual, this season's focus on kids and the Baltimore school system more than makes up for it. ("The Wire" airs 10 p.m. EDT Sundays on HBO.)

David Simon and the other writers have always had a knack for putting sometimes clever, sometimes shortsighted but always genuine-sounding words in kids' mouths. Remember the first season of the show, when Barksdale cronies Wallace, Bodie and D'Angelo talk about how good Chicken McNuggets are, then wonder if the guy who invented them is rich now? When Wallace guesses that the guy is loaded, D'Angelo sets him straight, scoffing at the notion that Ronald McDonald rewarded some guy in the basement for dreaming up the McNugget. "You think Ronald McDonald go down to that basement and say, 'Hey, Mr. Nugget, you the bomb. We selling chicken faster than you can tear the bone out. So I'm gonna write my clowny-ass name on this fat-ass check for you!'?"

These are the juicy little moments that make "The Wire" so appealing. The dialogue may seem like a digression, until you recognize the brutal logic of the Barksdale drug empire. Like D'Angelo says, it's about money. People have to die, sure, but it's not personal. For Stringer Bell, the business manager of the operation, laws of supply and demand are king -- nothing is personal. Avon Barksdale, on the other hand, gets a kick out of the ego rewards of ruling over his territory and standing up to those who'd threaten it. As we witnessed in the third season, though, even when the two major players and lifelong friends start to feel suspicious of each other, they coldly set about undermining each other's power, while keeping their game faces intact to the very end.

For those who've watched since the first season, it's been tough to imagine getting into a season of "The Wire" that didn't focus on the charismatic yet loathsome characters at the center of the Barksdale clan. But with the demise of Stringer Bell and incarceration of much of Barksdale's crew, the show's writers had to look elsewhere for inspiration, and they found it in the Baltimore education system.

One of the show's creators, Ed Burns, is a former cop who spent seven years teaching middle school in Baltimore, and it shows. "The Wire" doesn't bring us the same old chirpy, cotton-candy school setting of "Beverly Hills 90210," or even "Buffy" or "Veronica Mars." Like the cynical, opportunistic Baltimore police department, the school depicted here is inhabited by those exhausted, world-weary faces anyone who went to public high school will find hauntingly familiar. The main players here -- the principal and assistant principal -- are fallen idealists who've given up on making big changes but try their best to work within the boundaries of a crumbling, neglected institution. What's the most disconcerting about this setting is how blasé the teachers are in the face of the most shocking developments: After years of trying to teach uninspired kids, many of whom are from broken or unhappy homes, they develop a diminished sense of what's possible and merely want to prevent violence and chaos in the classrooms.

All of which might sound like yet another depressing layer to throw on top of Simon's already dystopian vision of urban life in America. Yet somehow, "The Wire" remains as invigorating as it is disheartening. For all of their flaws, the characters have real, subtle charms that win us over, slowly but surely, until we can't stand to see harm come to any of them. Who could be more lovable than Dukie, the outcast who's being raised by drug addicts, or Randy, the affable entrepreneur?

Of course, these innocent kids, sophisticated beyond their years, are in danger not just of underachieving or falling out of school, but of falling in with drug kingpin Marlo's ranks. And this season, Marlo makes Bell and Barksdale look like a couple of nuns. At least Bell and Barksdale had some principles guiding their decisions -- namely, they did whatever was good for business. But if Bell and Barksdale fell roughly into the category of lawful evil, then Marlo has taken over their territory with the unpredictable grip of chaotic evil, acting on impulse without any overriding logic governing his choices. He sends people to their death without a second thought, and his cronies enact his orders like soulless drones with no discernible redeeming qualities. Making Marlo such a bad guy is a departure from past seasons, when the writers have taken pains to paint equal measures of good and bad in their criminals and their law enforcement and political figures. But it's a departure that makes sense: Burns and Simon and the other writers are suggesting that, powerful and vaguely alluring as Bell and Barksdale may have been by the show's third season -- and indistinguishable as their selfish quest for power was from the selfishness we saw in corrupt politicians and cops working within an inherently corrupt system -- there are still criminals out there who simply have no heart. OK, Marlo does seem to love pigeons a lot, just as Barksdale's man Wee-Bey loved his fish. But so far, that's where his humanity begins and ends.

There's so much to dissect on "The Wire," but don't let that fool you if you don't watch it. All this talk of how complicated and labyrinthine the show is doesn't mean it's difficult or tedious to watch. Yes, it's tough to trace the relationships between various ranks within the police department and the city and state governments, but that doesn't mean this is an incredibly serious drama it takes a degree in literature to understand. "The Wire" is funny and odd and sad and, above all, engrossing. If anyone knows of a good online primer that will get potential viewers up to speed without putting in 39 hours of TV viewing, let me know, because more of you should be tuning in for this incredible series. (And no, it's not a cop show -- it transcends that genre the way "Battlestar Galactica" transcends sci-fi.)

For those with a little time on their hands, I can't recommend renting the first three seasons highly enough. Trust me, by the third DVD, you'll be in so deep, you'll be saying things like "Sure 'nough" and "No doubt" and wishing you were a scar-faced renegade with a big-ass gun. But more on Omar next week -- there's way too much on the schedule to tackle first...

Things to do in Denver when you're dead
The new drama I really want you to catch this week is CBS's "Jericho," (premieres 8 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Sept. 20) not because it's the best new show coming up this fall, but because it's so deliciously ominous that you really have to savor its charms before it disappears.

You know how the best parts of "24" always involve total strangers panicking and bleeding out of every orifice? Well, "Jericho" is just like that, except every single scene includes hefty doses of hysteria and big hearty dollops of impending doom! In fact, between the mushroom clouds in the distance and the shocked, scared masses crouching in drippy fallout shelters, you'll be daydreaming happily about the apocalypse every single night until the world finally ends -- you know, a few months from now.

Now, don't get me wrong: Leading man Skeet Ulrich is no Jack Bauer, although he's suspiciously calm under pressure, and he's a disturbingly accurate sharpshooter to boot. No, Skeet's main purpose is to be efficient, effective, capable -- and to make us wonder what his fine little torso looks like under that shirt. Mission accomplished!

Ulrich plays Jake, a small-town Johnny Depp who, instead of appearing in a series of indie flicks and then escaping to Paris because he's too sexy for the States, wanders back to his hometown to tie up some loose ends before his next big adventure. Good thing he stops by Jericho, Kansas, at that exact moment, though, because just as he's driving out of town, kablooey! Denver blows sky high in the distance! Muahahaha!

You really have to keep in mind, when you're watching, that Denver is about to blow up, because the small-town dramas that unfold in the first few minutes of the show are less than thrilling: We've got Hearst from "Deadwood" (Gerald McRaney) as the town's stodgy mayor and Jake's dad, Pamela Reed as the mayor's devoted but slightly jumpy wife, and Lennie James as the mysterious stranger who knows too much -- you know, sort of like the sheriff on "Invasion," but a little more helpful and less reptilian.

Is this a terrorist attack? Why have all the attempts to contact anyone outside of Jericho failed? What the hell is going on out there? One answer comes in the delicious phone call from the resident weirdo's mother, who was out of town at the time of the disaster. The message goes something like this, "Hi, honey, just calling to check in. I love you and..." [Man's voice] "Hey, come over here, you gotta see this!" [Mom] "Oh my god, what is that? Oh my god! Aaaaiieeee!" [Sound of breaking glass, buildings crumbling, mountains falling into the sea, God's big footsteps coming back to judge the living and the dead, etc., and then the line goes silent.] Yeah, I know. Sweet, delicious apocalypse, how we've ached for you these long years!

But it gets better. The kid brings his answering machine over to the mayor's house and plays it for a big crowd gathered there. They all cover their mouths and shake their heads. Oh my god! How awful! Jake's mom, Gail, says, "I'm sorry, honey, I didn't know your mom was in Denver." The kid replies, "She wasn't in Denver. She was in... Atlanta!" Gasp! The entire room does their best impression of Edvard Munch's "The Scream," and tragedy fetishists across the nation are instantly hooked.

Yes, just when we thought Lukas Rossi's victory as the creepy lead singer of dorky Supernova mattered, "Jericho" rolls in and puts it all in perspective: screaming, hysterical masses, a nationwide catastrophe, and a small town having to fend for itself while the nuclear fallout rolls in. Now that's entertainment, folks!

Will "Jericho" stay this good? Probably not. The second episode is much cheesier and less suspenseful than the pilot -- nothing quite beats those mushroom clouds in the distance, let's face it. Plus, what are they going to do, crouch in the basement for 20 weeks straight? This one might go the way of CBS's last big bang to end in a fizzle, "Threshold." That show was delightfully horrifying for about three episodes; then they started replacing corpses and supernatural freakiness with bad dialogue and close-ups of broken watches, and it all went downhill from there.

Why can't Carla Gugino (lead of "Threshold") buy a break, anyway? Shouldn't she be Ulrich's small-town love interest? I know what you're thinking, too: "Isn't he much younger than her?" See, that's what Hollywood's twisted logic does to your brain. In fact, Gugino is 35 and Ulrich is 36, and they both incite so much speculation about their bare upper bodies that it's obvious -- they're perfect for each other. Instead, we get boring Ashley Scott (who's 29) playing Jake's bland love interest.

Whatever, just give us more big explosions, or maybe some beloved townspeople with disfiguring radiation sickness, and we'll forgive you.

A world of televised wonders, coming your way
Looks like, between urban blight and nuclear holocaust, we've run out of time for this week. Let's just rejoice that there are so many new shows on the horizon, billowing like mushroom clouds, threatening to lay waste to our conversational Portuguese lessons and our three-week vacations in the Italian countryside. This past week, the Anne Heche-led pilot "Men in Trees" (think "Northern Exposure" meets "Sex and the City") premiered, as did "Survivor's" race relations-themed season, amid continued controversy and criticism. Tonight, "The Amazing Race" premieres; on Monday, "Scrubs" returns and Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" premieres (I know you won't skip that one); on Tuesday, "Dancing With the Stars" and "The Unit" return; on Wednesday, "America's Next Top Model" returns and "Jericho" premieres; and on Thursday, "My Name Is Earl," "The Office" and "Grey's Anatomy" come back. So check your schedules and program your TiVos, my little pretties, and we'll review all we've learned next week!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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