Not shipwrecked, but still trapped

Special to The Times

A couple of weeks ago on "The Wire," genial and bumbling Baltimore shopkeeper Andre (Alfonso Christian) found himself the recipient of some unwanted attention from the drug crew that supplies him with the means to generate his supplementary income. Distressed, he turned to Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), respected problem-solver of the city's underworld, for advice on how to disappear for a spell. Smugly, Joe chastised Andre, telling him it takes more than "crossing downtown," from West Side to East, to run away. Replied Andre, with a shrug and a sweaty, sad face, "It's just that ... I don't know no one outside of B-more."

Place is everything in "The Wire." More specifically, the sensation that place is destiny, and that to pretend otherwise is nothing more than shortsighted foolishness. It also makes for fascinating, immersive television. On the HBO drama, which airs at 10 tonight and finishes its fourth season next Sunday, and the like-minded "Friday Night Lights," which debuted on NBC this fall, characters move around but never break free. Not least because no one expects them to or has ever taught them how.

Unlike "Lost" or "Jericho," where people are stuck together by circumstances beyond their control, the residents of the West Baltimore of "The Wire" and the Dillon, Texas, of "Friday Night Lights" could conceivably buy a bus ticket to see what's happening in some other nabe, town or state. Instead, they stay put, bound by nothing but the limited expectations subconsciously imposed by years of inertia.

Geographical claustrophobia is a recurring theme on "The Wire," in which each season a different Baltimore community and its inhabitants (drug dealers, cops, school kids) are put under the microscope. Throughout this season, Marlo Stanfield's (Jamie Hector) murderous drug organization has taken to hiding the corpses of their victims in the vacant row houses that dominate the city's poorest neighborhoods. Even in death, people can't move on. In next week's finale, when some of those bodies are discovered on the city's East Side, the investigating police express surprise, as if even moving across town were something of a slight to the order of things.

And when a New York crew tries to muscle in on some of Stanfield's West Side corners, they're summarily dispatched with bullets -- as much, it seems, a move driven by distaste for out-of-towners as a business strategy. Even in less fraught times, the city suffocates. Cops and the corner boys they harass end up at the same restaurants and movie theaters. The city is a closed unit, endlessly circling in on itself.

The same is true of Dillon, which, through the jittery, up-close cameras of "Friday Night Lights" (8 p.m. Tuesdays), feels both small and tense, an environment so absorptive that commercial breaks seem like a particular affront. ("The Wire," on commercial-free HBO, is spared that problem). Here, between the fast-food joints and the endless football practices, there's not much time to look outward, and those that do are punished. Wide-eyed Tyra (Adrienne Palicki) entertains visions of Hollywood after sleeping with a visiting businessman but is snapped back to normal when he spurns her. When a football scout swings through town to assess the Dillon team's prospects, star running back "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) bangs on his hotel door, all but begging for a ticket out, but is met only with sternness. Finally, a former Dillon football star, ostensibly a successful businessman in Dallas, is revealed to be a fraud, seeming proof that leaving the nest can only be detrimental.

These places exact severe emotional tolls. To sustain themselves, they cultivate a sort of twist on the Stockholm syndrome in their denizens, making them sympathetic to, even supportive of, the psychologies of imprisonment, even though to outsiders looking in, such loyalty seems absurd.

It takes a grand shock to awaken those who've been hypnotized so. On "Friday Night Lights," star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) is paralyzed during a tackle in the first episode.

As the season has progressed, his formerly tight circle has frayed at the edges, and by the end of this week's episode, he's shed his best friend and girlfriend, who'd been having an affair. Street's bubble has popped, and it seems almost like a reprimand -- as if flying too close to the sun, or just hoping for a trip out of Dillon to play college ball, were too much to ask.

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