A Baltimore drug kingpin on The Wire, HBO’s latest telenovel, explains to one of his lieutenants that their dangerously low inventory actually represents an opportunity to improve business. If they sell weaker drugs, after all, the addicts will have to buy twice as much. This marketing genius, a man with little patience and even less humor, is named Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), in a menacing twist on that old slogan of door-to-door cosmetics sales, " Avon calling! " In what has become a cliché of HBO’s cynical drama series, one of Barksdale’s lieutenants also undermines America’s self-improvement industry, attending economics classes at a community college not to pull himself out of the criminal class but to become a better player in it. He’s just emulating Tony Soprano’s use of psychotherapy to become a more effective mob boss, or any prisoner’s participation in any rehabilitation program on Oz.
The Wire (Sundays at 10 p.m.; it premiered on June 2 and runs through September 1) is itself an example of stretching out resources. Much of the talent, both on and off screen, is carried over from previous crime dramas, notably NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s own mini-series The Corner. All three programs were created or co-created by former Baltimore crime reporter David Simon, who clearly knows how to get the most out of a second career. But The Wire is distinguished by a slower tempo, as though Simon — and, by extension, HBO and the pay-cable industry — were testing the attention span of what I presume is a predominantly young, male audience. The title of the series comes from a surveillance operation against a drug ring in a public-housing project, but five or six episodes go by before the wire-tapping begins, and it takes just as long to get to the first killing of a major character (off camera!). In the meantime, we get a wealth of detail about the management styles of drug kingpins and police supervisors (guess who’s more nimble?), frequent stabs at character development, and uneven attempts at comic relief. The first episode’s banter about cops not being able to type would have seemed stale 30 years ago, but I did get a kick out of two detectives at a murder scene saying nothing but " fuck! " as they discover one clue after another — possibly a middle finger extended to the mainstream and profanity-free hit series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
The soap-opera pace of The Wire may seem odd given that Americans are supposed to have shrinking attention spans. A couple of months ago, the new editor of Rolling Stone, in a desperate bid to attract readers younger than Bruce Springsteen, announced that his magazine would be running shorter articles. " I don’t think people have time to sit down and read, " explained Ed Needham. " The gaps in people’s time keep getting smaller and smaller. . . . It’s one of the facts of media life. " Nevertheless, HBO apparently believes it can make subscribers happy by demanding more of their time; having begun life as a " movie channel, " the network is now known for richly textured sagas that can take years to unfold. It’s the video equivalent of Slow Food, a movement whose Web-site manifesto calls for " suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment. "
The Wire is only a modest hit, attracting about 3.3 million viewers in the last week of July (about half the audience of HBO’s fifth-season Sex and the City, or one-third the audience for CBS’s bargain-basement reality series Big Brother). But regardless of whether it’s successful enough to return for a second season, the business philosophy of Avon Barksdale has clearly taken hold among television programmers. The biggest hit of the summer is Fox’s American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, which has taken what would have been a single episode of the old talent show Star Search and dragged it out for three months. (Airing several times per week, American Idol premiered on June 11 and is scheduled to wrap up on September 4.)
An even more daring attempt to sell a diluted product is NBC’s The Rerun Show (Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. and Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., as of this writing), which features a troupe of young comics mugging — and cross-dressing — their way through scripts from terrible sit-coms of the 1970s and ’80s like The Partridge Family and Diff’rent Strokes. This idea has all the inspired desperation of a coke addict getting another high from the white specks he’s picked out of his shag carpet (or a film director using that scene yet again). Almost all the new jokes are visualizations of the dirty thoughts some of us had when we watched the original shows: siblings Keith and Laurie Partridge in bed together, Mr. Drummond hugging his adopted sons for a little too long, etc. The Rerun Show opened with fairly large audiences, and it does have some riotous moments. (The drag version of Mrs. Garrett, from The Facts of Life, was a standout, and one actress had great fun with the bizarre vocal inflections of The Jeffersons’ Isabel Sanford.) NBC must already be thinking of recycling its current sit-coms a few years down the road, but it will be difficult to subvert such blatantly sexual programs as Friends and Will and Grace. I can imagine only the gross-out approach, with characters trading witty barbs while sporting needle tracks and herpes sores. On second thought, there may be more comic potential in the transcripts from Connie Chung Tonight.
Indeed, TV news programs are the most effective example of spreading out already thin content. This summer, almost every news magazine and all-news cable channel has filled hours and hours of airtime rehashing the details about a number of unrelated child kidnappings, even though statistics indicate that such crimes are becoming less frequent. (An implicit message of these stories is that it’s safer to park your kids in front of a TV set than to let them play in their own front yards — despite the frantic news stories from this spring about the rise in obesity among American children.) And when TV gets hold of a big story like this, you have to watch twice as much of it to get any useful information. No dramatic program is as repetitive or as meaningless as an hour with " Headline News. "
Which brings us back to the question of whether The Wire is worth your attention. It does suffer from a bit of bad timing, coming so soon after FX launched its own unexpectedly popular police telenovel, The Shield. And it can’t meet the impossibly high expectations for any HBO series after The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, et al. Still, it’s a treat to see familiar faces from both Homicide (Peter Gerety as an admirably pushy judge) and Oz (Lance Reddick as a police lieutenant who reluctantly throws away his political ambitions to do the right thing). Series creator Simon, who developed the story line with Edward Burns, isn’t the first to express skepticism toward the War on Drugs, but The Wire has a fresh resonance because of its implicit parallels to the new War on Terrorism. ( " You can’t call this shit a war. " " Why not? " " Wars end. " )
The Wire is comfort television for cynics and paranoiacs, who may be able to identify with hard-drinking but good-looking homicide detective James McNulty (Dominic West). McNulty is a contemporary version of a Western hero — the only guy in town who won’t look the other way when the bad guys arrive. (There’s a great scene in which Barksdale’s chief nemesis, another drug dealer, approaches the courtyard of a housing project carrying a shotgun and the residents scatter to hide, warning women and children that " Omar’s coming! " All that’s missing is a spooked horse running down Main Street.) In typical Western fashion, McNulty is forced to organize a posse, a bunch of misfit cops assigned to him by superiors who want to sabotage his operation. With a couple of exceptions, they turn out to be great detectives after all — though since this is a post–NYPD Blue police drama, they lose their cool and stomp the living daylights out of suspects from time to time.
As for the drug dealers and customers, they’re as three-dimensional as any on television. Mid-level dealer D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), who beats a murder rap in the pilot episode, slowly comes to question his uncle’s use of violence to maintain their drug monopoly. D’Angelo represents the wasted potential in Baltimore’s black neighborhoods, as does the young girl who can’t figure out her math homework until someone changes all the word problems so that they’re about drug transactions.
A final observation: The Wire is curiously obsessed with homosexuality. Probably the most sympathetic character on the show is a lesbian cop (Sonja Sohn), and as in Six Feet Under and The Shield, there’s a gay male couple. The light-skinned young boyfriend of Avon Barksdale’s rival looks like an HBO subscriber who got a little too caught up in Oz and The Corner and thought it would be fun to spend a summer with the homeboys. Unfortunately, he doesn’t survive long enough to live out any prison fantasies. Maybe this is a warning: TV dramas can give you a vicarious thrill, but stay away from the hard stuff called real life.