It’s easy to see why The Wire, while generally well-reviewed, hasn’t garnered the copious raves for its writing and visual flair that other HBO shows like ”The Sopranos” and ”Six Feet Under” snagged upon their arrivals. ”The Wire” — a 13-episode fictional investigation of an African-American Baltimore drug lord as conducted by cops, most prominently an Irish American — has an utterly different rhythm than those other shows. It’s loose and rambling; its dramatic climaxes don’t coincide neatly with the conclusion of any given episode. Its dialogue, overseen by creator David Simon (”The Corner,” ”Homicide: Life on the Street”), is so good it often sounds improvised. One criticism of the show I’ve read is that it’s repetitive (in showing the slow process of how the police bring down bad guys). But what those critics don’t get is that those qualities are exactly what make ”The Wire” the funkiest cop show on TV.
Funk is embodied by performers who can make scripted material sound spontaneous, who push past preconceived ideas of how certain stock figures in sitcoms or dramas are supposed to behave. Thus, Bernie Mac, playing a version of himself on ”The Bernie Mac Show,” is funky; Damon Wayans, playing an uptight suburban dad in ”My Wife and Kids,” is not. (The fact that these two shows will be pitted against each other in the new fall schedule is a choice irony.)
Do you get what I mean by funk in these contexts? In music, funk is characterized by the loose, repetitive, yet tightly rhythmic and surprising grooves hit by James Brown and his great successor, George Clinton, who, along with his bassist Bootsy Collins, is currently featured in those retro-’70s Nike spots. The commercials, with a purple-suited Bootsy, a hirsute Clinton, and a gaggle of Parliament-Funkadelic characters like Sir Nose, lay out an expansive rhythm that seems as genially anarchic today as it did 30 years ago.
Funk in any medium isn’t necessarily limited to race. While Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz in ”NYPD Blue” is a good character, he’s most certainly not funky — and proud of it. Michael Chiklis, reborn as a skinhead thug-cop on ”The Shield,” is trying so hard to be funky, he’s unfunky. (Funk is all about avoiding the frenetic, and just getting up in the morning throws Chiklis’ character into a lather.) But ”The Wire”’s police detective James McNulty, played by British actor Dominic West, is a funkster. McNulty’s scratchy voice has an insinuating lilt, a breezy assurance of his own power (this is a hallmark of the attitude — note James Brown’s funk epic ”Soul Power”), and McNulty has an easy rapport with his African-American work partners, the languidly cool Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and the breezy but shrewd Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce).
”The Wire”’s fifth episode is, well, funkin’ amazing. McNulty’s unit has been trying to get the goods on kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), a figure as elusive as a phantom. The cops crack the code that Barksdale’s scattered minions use on their pagers — a key to tying Barksdale to large-scale drug running. Many of the established story lines converge here. The best of them involve the moral struggles of Barksdale’s young nephew D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard Jr.) — a natural lieutenant in the enemy army, who’s deciding if he has the stomach for pushing death on the streets — and the office politics McNulty must endure to combat that army. The latter affords ”The Wire” an opportunity to dissect the multilayered bureaucracy, and episode directors such as Clark Johnson (Boycott) get beautifully detailed performances from ”Oz”’s Lance Reddick as McNulty’s promotion-minded superior, ”Homicide”’s Peter Gerety as a pushy judge, and Clarke Peters as a brilliant detective consigned to a desk job for a forgivable sin committed years ago. (The series may be about cops and criminals, but you’ll recognize ”The Wire”’s workday tensions in your own life.)
With each week, the meticulously logical yet demon-haunted McNulty gets closer to disrupting the equally careful yet increasingly paranoid Avon Barksdale’s lethal business model. I don’t know where ”The Wire” is heading, but I’m guessing that sooner or later, McNulty is going to (as George Clinton has sung) tear the roof off the sucker.