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TV in the 2000s: The Shows that Defined the Decade

A recent issue of Time magazine has the phrase “The Decade from Hell” emblazoned across its front cover. It’s referring to everything America has gone through in the past ten years, and it’s difficult to argue such an assertion: it’s been a shitty decade on a national level. During such times of stress, people inevitably turn to entertainment as a form of release, and although the methods in which we’ve distracted ourselves over the last ten years have unquestionably diversified, television remains the most easily accessible outlet for most Americans.

Within the format itself, the whole concept of reality TV must surely have been the biggest revolution of the decade. It’s really easy to bag on reality TV – mostly because the bulk of it is so damned unreal – but anybody who spends any time in front of the tube has surely had at least a couple of reality series they consider appointment TV. The two concepts that paved the way for everything else are undoubtedly “Survivor” and “American Idol.” The former, of course, opened the floodgates for the genre, and while it’s seen a considerable dip in the ratings department over the years, 12 million viewers isn’t a viewing figure to sneeze at. The latter, despite all the bitching and moaning and cries of “it’s not as good as it used to be” that accompany each new season, remains one of the most watched shows on the tube, likely due to the fact that it’s strictly a talent competition.

On “American Idol,” the only backstabbers are the judges, and since they aren’t part of the competition, their amusing duplicity is championed. The contestants, on the other hand, are innocents, and once the competition is underway, we’re given no peek into any possible backstage drama, which is a good thing, because by the time the audition rounds are over, we’ve had enough drama to last the whole season. Everything that comes after is all about who can best transfix us for three minutes a week via one pop ditty. It actually says something positive about the U.S. that “American Idol” remains our #1 form of reality entertainment, even if the actual reality is that the vast majority of Americans couldn’t care less about buying the winner’s album six months after they’re crowned.

You might think reality TV is a bunch of crap, and in most cases you’d be right, but the whole idea of it, to my mind, led to an important revolution, and that is serialized nighttime television (the classic “soap” formula notwithstanding). Reality shows taught viewers how to become invested in characters, how to be concerned for their eventual fate, and, most importantly, how to pay attention to an ongoing storyline, and the need to tune in every week. It didn’t take long for the networks to figure out that there was an audience for shows that didn’t continually hit the reset button. “24” must have been the first successful show of the decade to embrace the serial formula, and it embraced it whole hog. It required you to tune in for every episode, because each installment was another hour of a single day in the life of Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. That “24” premiered less than two months after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 was pure happenstance. That it became enormously popular with viewers? Probably not so much. America needed some fictitious reassurance that there were folks on the job who could get shit done, and “24” filled the prescription.

Strangely, “24” didn’t open the network floodgates for more such programming right away. It took a few years, and then “Lost” made its mark. The number of “Lost” episodes I’ve seen could be counted on two hands, but that’s not because I didn’t like it, but because real life got in the way of it being appointment TV. Yet I viewed the pilot for “Lost” several months before its 2004 premiere, and when it ended I was convinced that I’d seen the second best TV pilot ever made. (“Twin Peaks” stills sits at #1.) The fact that a show as intricate as “Lost” still has a hardcore, central audience is perhaps a testament to that pilot. “24” started a new story with each new season; “Lost” required that you tune in for every episode of every season.

Another sci-fi series that did just that was “Battlestar Galactica,” a show that, due it being on a niche network (Syfy), never amassed a huge audience yet snagged boatloads of publicity and awareness nonetheless. It was no small feat to take an utterly laughable short-lived series from the late ‘70s and re-envision it for modern audiences, but Ron Moore and company did just that…and they did it far more successfully that anyone ever guessed possible. Most amazingly, the show taught us a lot about ourselves, by thoroughly defining what it means to be human, and as the damaged ‘00s dragged on, there may not have been a more important lesson to be learned.

On the same day I saw the “Lost” pilot, I saw another pilot for a completely different kind of series. While I didn’t rank it as one of the greats, there was one thing I was sure of: it would be a massive hit…and it was. “Desperate Housewives” was precisely the sort of vapid, soapy fare that had been absent for far too long on American TV. It clued into the seemingly bland suburban construct which surrounds so many Americans, via the Lynchian notion that “all is not what it seems.” Most anyone who lives a suburban life can no doubt relate to that idea, because wherever there are groups of people, there are bound to be some of them that are fucked up. “Housewives” is littered with fucked up suburbanites of all shapes, sizes and types, but they’re kooky and funny and there’s always some twinkly music playing in the background that in the end makes everything OK. It is not great television, but over the years it has, for the most part, been immensely watchable in the most disposable sort of way.

Around the same time period as “Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” made some major waves. It’s a series I have never watched and never plan to, but I’d be foolish to omit it from discussion since it brought two annoyingly obnoxious terms to the TV table: McDreamy and McSteamy. I haven’t heard either in a few years, but there was a time when they seemed to define everything that was wrong with television. I assume “Grey’s” fans have grown out of it…or maybe the show killed one of those guys off? I’ve no idea and can’t be motivated to investigate. Presently, there’s a brand new version of it going around, through cinema, via Camp Edward and Camp Nimrod. People can be so easily distracted it makes you wonder why some shows actually try harder.

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Producers of “The Wire” focus on New Orleans

HBO is ironing out the details on a deal for “Treme,” the latest project by “The Wire” producers David Simon and Eric Overmyer.

“Treme” centers on New Orleans residents – including musicians and a restauranteur – living in the city’s Treme district. Show follows the characters as they look to reclaim their lives as the city continues to rebuild.

Simon said he and Overmyer, who lives in New Orleans, had been in love with the city long before the storm — but post-Katrina, knew there was a story to be told.

But, he warned, “Treme” is not “The Wire: New Orleans.”

“We don’t intend to make ‘The Wire’ twice,” Simon said. “This is about people reconstituting their lives after their town was mostly, effectively destroyed… It’s not entirely a political show. We’re trying to be very intimate with people. And New Orleans is completely unique, there’s nothing in the world like it.”

While I’d love to see “The Wire: New Orleans,” I’d be almost as excited about anything this duo produces, especially if it’s on HBO. Production won’t begin until fall, so the network is targeting a spring premiere.

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Seven shows that just don’t get enough love

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to put together a list of my favorite television moments before the end of 2008, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the tube. (Come to think of it, maybe my television addiction was the reason I didn’t have the free time to write about the best of 2008. Hmm.)

Anyway, here is a list of seven terrific shows that seem to be flying under the proverbial radar.

1. “True Blood” (HBO)
Alan Ball, the writer of “American Beauty” and the creator of “Six Feet Under,” brings us a series based on vampires in the Deep South. The series is based on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series of books and stars Anna Paquin — whom I argued, under the moniker of Eli Cash a few years back, would have made a better Penny Lane than Kate Hudson — as a mind-reading waitress in a small town in Louisiana. The first season was excellent, though it got off to a bit of a slow start. Paquin is the key, but her best friend Tara (played by Rutina Wesley) often steals the show.


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2008: The Year in TV – Jeff Giles

TOP 3 SHOWS

1. “Lost,” ABC

After two seasons of listening to viewers bitch about everything from too many characters to plots not moving fast enough, the “Lost” writers whomped us all over the head with a run of episodes that was better than anything fans had seen since Season One. Many of the show’s most important riddles were answered – or at least what we thought were its most important riddles, because now there’s a whole new list of them to answer. Not even that damn writers’ strike was enough to put much of a dent in this season of “Lost” — and not even the new Fray single playing in the background is enough to keep us from geeking out over the Season Five promos that ABC recently started airing.

2. “The Office,” NBC
Few network shows – and zero sitcoms – have played as fast and loose with their casts as “The Office”; whether it’s Oscar going on “gaycation,” Andy entering anger management counseling, Jim transferring to Stamford, Toby fleeing to Costa Rica, or Pam wandering off to art school in New York, you never know who’s going to move off-canvas for a spell – kind of like your actual workplace environment. It’s this grounding – along with one of the best casts and some of the strongest comedy writing on television – that helps keep “The Office” from getting stale, and allows it to transcend such stereotypically show-killing plot devices as the star-crossed couple (in this case, Jim and Pam) that finally gets together. Of course, it helps when said couple isn’t even the hottest pairing on the show: this season, Dwight and Angela’s secret warehouse liaisons have proven that even a Second Life-playing, beet-farming paper salesman can get his mojo rising every once in awhile.

3. “Friday Night Lights,” DirecTV
Unless you have DirecTV, you haven’t seen any of “FNL’s” third season – and you won’t until early 2009, under the terms of a unique cost-sharing deal that saved the show from cancellation…for now, anyway. It certainly remains to be seen how non-DTV fans of the show will deal with this arrangement – if, for instance, they’ve managed to keep from spoiling the entire season in advance with recaps posted on the Web – or whether NBC will deign to promote content that’s already aired elsewhere. In the meantime, however, here’s what we can tell you: the third season of “Friday Night Lights” packs all of the addictive small-town drama and pulse-pounding gridiron action of Season One, minus the unwelcome addition of stupidly soapy ingredients that weakened Season Two (in other words, nobody’s throwing any bodies off bridges). We’ll be very surprised if “FNL” returns for a fourth season – on any network – but we’ve still got our fingers crossed.

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The Wire 5.10 – 30 – Series Finale

Fans of “The Wire” are no doubt smiling right now. Even though tonight’s episode marks the last time we’ll ever see McNulty in the doghouse, listen to Landsman berate his fellow officers, or even hear Clay Davis say “Shiiit,” I’m more than content with the way things ended. In fact, you could even say David Simon and Co. hit a homerun with the 95-minute finale, addressing all the loose ends and delivering a gift-wrapped ending that you just don’t see in season finales these days.

With news of McNulty and Lester’s shenanigans finally reaching Carcetti at city hall, the governor hopeful is absolutely livid. It’s a lose-lose situation from where he’s standing, and in order to protect himself during the upcoming election, he agrees that burying the dirt is best. Daniels doesn’t necessarily agree, but he doesn’t really have a choice. Pearlman is tied to the wiretap, and if McNulty and Lestor go down, so does she. Of course, that doesn’t mean Pearlman is necessarily accepting of her position, and she makes sure Lester knows about it when they run into one another downtown.

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Lester relays the info to McNulty, who’s busy trying to wrap up his Red Ribbon Killer investigation, and together they map out a gameplan for the future. As it stands, the two aren’t exactly in trouble, and aside from being forced out of actual police work for the rest of their careers, they probably won’t even face a grand jury hearing either. Still, that doesn’t exactly help with McNulty’s guilt when he discovers that a copycat killer is on the prowl, murdering homeless men and tying white (not red) ribbons to their wrists. Surprisingly, McNulty is quick to solve the crime, and though Rawls would love to pin all of the homeless killings on the culprit (a delusional homeless man himself), McNulty is adamant that he only be charged for the last two murders.

Though none of the higher-ups are especially pleased with McNulty and Lester, you’ve got to credit the latter for digging up dirt on Marlo’s lawyer, Levy. Without it, it looked like Marlo would not only be dismissed from his charges, but that Carcetti and the entire BPD would be exposed for McNulty’s big white (or is it red?) lie. Instead, Pearlman uses the information against Levy, scoring Chris a life sentence for all of the vacant murders, and Monk and Cheese up to 20 years for possession/intent to sell. Marlo, on the other hand, is given a slap on the wrist and a warning that if he ever traffics drugs again, he’ll be right back in jail.

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The Wire 5.9 – Late Editions

Ever since the Barksdale bust at the end of season three, there hasn’t been a whole lot of police work being done on “The Wire,” so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the opening minutes of tonight’s episode featured the long-awaited takedown of the Stanfield crew. After the latest cell phone image shows an upcoming meet in one of the city’s most unpopulated areas, Lester is positive that this isn’t just a regular re-up, but rather the monthly re-supply between Marlo and his connect.

Sending Sydnor and every other available detective to stake it out, Lester then goes to Daniels to fess up (sort of), claiming that they used hours from the Clay Davis case to work a tip about Marlo. Daniels greenlights the operation, and within minutes, Marlo is sitting in lockdown along with Chris (who’s also been served his murder warrant), Monk and Cheese – all of whom can’t seem to figure out who could have snitched. Marlo suggests Michael, but while on the way to a purported hit with Snoop, Michael realizes that he’s being set up, and quickly improvises – killing Snoop and getting the hell out of Dodge. On a related note, didn’t you love watching Lester dangle the phone and clock in Marlo’s face, almost as if to say “I’m smarter than you”? Classic.

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Meanwhile, as Lester’s $16 million drug bust gives new hope to Carcetti’s run for governor, McNulty is on the opposite side of all the congratulations. Not feeling like celebrating after being mocked by Landsman for his inability to catch the Red Ribbon Killer, McNulty continues to work on slowly letting the case go. Unfortunately, Greggs isn’t so forgiving, and after consulting with Carver, she heads to Daniels to narc on McNulty and Lester. Even Daniels is mildly surprised that McNulty would go so far to catch Marlo in the act, but it looks like he isn’t quite ready to let him back on the street either. And so he heads to the Evidence Room with Asst. D.A. Pearlman to conduct “evidence control” – which may or may not mean getting rid of the one thing that links McNulty’s serial killer to Lester’s wiretap.

Of course, it may not matter now that Herc knows what really happened. After taking the risk to steal Marlo’s cell number from his boss’ rolodex, and then giving Carver that bullshit monologue about catching the bad guy, he’s now decided to go directly to his boss about how Lester really found out about Marlo’s operation. Doesn’t he realize the trouble he got into the last time he tried to take the fast track up the career ladder?

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The Wire 5.8 – Clarifications

Let’s not beat around the bush: Omar Little is dead. Understandably, that’s going to piss off a large percentage of fans, but not exactly how you might think. You see, David Simon has already stated that Omar was never meant to play a major part in the series (in fact, he was only supposed to appear in a handful of episodes), and as such, I was wholly expecting his eventual demise. But at the hands of a three-foot corner boy? To use the term anti-climactic wouldn’t do it justice. Sure, the shot to the back of the head was pretty cool, but to see a badass like Omar taken down by some random pre-teen ranks right up there with the senseless drowning of Charlie in last year’s season finale of “Lost.” Still, it was bound to happen – just like Clay Davis’ acquittal the week before – and if nothing else, Omar’s death may just be the break McNulty needs to catch Marlo.

After helping Bunk fast track some lab work on his murder investigation (which, by the way, resulted in a warrant for Chris Parlo), Bunk decides to repay the favor by gifting McNulty a piece of paper he found on Omar’s body. The information doesn’t seem to be anything new (it’s mostly just names and designated hangouts for all of Marlo’s major players), but every little bit helps, right? Maybe not.

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Following a trip with McNulty to the FBI in order to retrieve a criminal profile for the homeless serial killer, Greggs gets to work on paring through all the potential suspects. Embarrassed that Greggs would even be willing to waste so much time on a bullshit case, McNulty pulls her aside to tell her the truth. As you can imagine, Greggs doesn’t take the news very well, but McNulty is willing to stick it out for a couple more days – especially now that the mayor has granted him unlimited resources, including surveillance teams and rental cars with GPS.

With Carver personally assigned to run point, the surveillance teams are working like a well-oiled machine. Unfortunately, they haven’t really resulted in any big breakthroughs. That is, until Sydnor makes one hell of an accidental discovery. While following one of Marlo’s men through an unfamiliar part of the city, he stops by the side of the road to check out his map. By pure luck and pure luck alone, he happens to realize that the clock images Marlo and Co. have been using for communication directly correlate to a book of Baltimore maps. Having officially cracked the code, Lester has not only made his first giant step towards building a case against Marlo, but has also uncovered the citywide monopoly he’s built between Monk on the Westside and Cheese on the Eastside. How exactly this will be used against Marlo is still uncertain, but with only two episodes left, we won’t have to wait very long to find out.

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The Wire 5.7 – Took

Most hour-long dramas can cram an awful lot into 60 minutes (or even 44, with commercials), but no one does it better than “The Wire.” I only mention this because tonight’s episode was overwhelmingly unproductive. Sure, the major story arc inched a little closer to the finish line, but most of the other subplots seem to be stuck at a standstill. Bunk has come no closer to solving his vacant murders, Omar continues to kill/beat up Marlo’s crew (only to let some live in order to pass along a message to their boss), and despite a promise that the media would play an integral part in this season, we’ve seen very little development from within The Sun other than in Templeton’s involvement with McNulty’s case.

For the time being, however, it looks like that case will continue to dominate most of the season, with the only positive I could possibly draw being that when Marlo’s comeuppance finally does arrive (and it better), it’s going to be one hell of an episode. After faking a call to Templeton as the homeless serial killer, Lester and McNulty have finally gained the Mayor’s approval in all the overtime and surveillance they need. It was great to see how truly spooked Templeton was after realizing that all of his shady journalism tactics might have actually turned him into a real target, but I doubt McNulty appreciates the humor in the situation, since everyone (and I mean everyone, save for Bunk) in the BPD has been reassigned to a citywide search for the killer.

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True, it was a genius move on Lester and McNulty’s part, but with mounting pressure from Landsman, and every other cop in the district looking for OT approval to work other cases, McNulty definitely wants this to be over sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, Lester isn’t any closer to cracking Marlo’s code after receiving the first image as he is after receiving the 50th. They’re all just pictures of clocks, and while each photo shows a different time, there doesn’t seem to be any method to the madness. Of course, if I were Lester , I’d make a quick trip to the local junior high and see what Prez thought. After all, wasn’t he the one who was at the center of cracking the Barksdale wiretap?

It seems like a distinct possibility to me, and I can’t imagine that after acquitting Senator Clay Davis in what will surely go down as one of the most surprising (yet entertaining) developments of the show’s five-year run, that David Simon and Co. will let the other villain off the hook as well. Regrettably, history seems to indicate that Simon will deliver the more realistic ending, but if there was ever a time to ignore one’s values and reward your fanbase, this would be it. Mr. Simon, I truly hope you’re listening.

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The Wire 5.6 – Dickensian Aspect

It’s hard to imagine this season of “The Wire” becoming any more twisted, but alas, tonight’s episode upped the ante on the homeless serial killer case to the point where even McNulty is beginning to rethink the predicament he’s gotten himself into. With Carcetti’s harbor-side shopping mall getting little media coverage, the governor hopeful directed his attention to the ongoing investigation with a press conference that assured the local and national news affiliates that the city police would do whatever he takes to stop the murders. It was quite the speech, but as we know all too well, it meant very little in regards to getting anything done.

McNulty’s still only getting one detective to help, and Landsman has squashed his request for a surveillance crew yet again. Heck, he can’t even get a wire tap on Scott’s cell phone, since doing so would likely put his judge friend in hot water with The Sun. So, it seems like McNulty and Lester are back to square one – despite the fact that Sydnor has begrudgingly come onboard, if only to put Marlo away for good. McNulty can’t even dig up a fresh body anymore, since every homeless person that kicks the bucket is immediately bum rushed (no pun intended) by every cop in the city.

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Leave it to Lester, then, to discover Marlo’s method of dealing over the cell phone just before hearing the bad news. As it goes, Marlo is using his phone for drug-related business, but instead of actually talking to his middlemen, he’s sending them photos. In order to catch him in the act, Lester needs access to a different kind of wiretap (one that would allow the interception of files), and believe it or not, McNulty actually has a plan. Thanks to Scott’s dumbass decision to begin making shit up in his articles (which McNulty is more than happy to brag about to Bunk), McNulty devises a new strategy that has the killer contacting The Sun with a text message stating how displeased he is with Scott’s depiction of him. Instead of leaving dead homeless around the city, he’s going to kill them, send a photo of their dead body to his cell phone, and then get rid of the body. McNulty jumpstarts the whole operation by “kidnapping” a homeless man and shuttling him out to D.C., but when he begins to realize just exactly what he’s doing, you can disgust on his face. It’s a brilliant scene that shows McNulty for who he really is, and I completely expect him to fess up as early as next week.

Meanwhile, Bunk continues to play it safe by working real cases. He’s re-opened all of the vacant murders with the hope of stumbling onto something he didn’t notice the first time around. That includes interviewing Randy (who clearly wants nothing to do with the police) and checking into the murder of Bug’s daddy. Suffice it to say that Bunk is one lucky motherfucker, especially after learning that a temp working at the city lab has disorganized all previous blood work on the vacant deaths. Still, when he goes to question Michael’s mother about the guy’s death, it’s clear that he wasn’t expecting the answer he was given. What? Michael was bragging about his mother’s boyfriend’s death and he’s rolling with Marlo, Chris and Snoop? Too good to be true.

Equally so is the fact that Omar survived last week’s shootout, and after hearing of his courageous jump from a third-story (or is it fourth-story) balcony, Marlo says what everybody else was thinking: “That’s some Spider-Man shit there.” Chris is clearly upset that they let Omar go, and despite Marlo offering a $250,000 bounty on his head, Omar has returned to fight on his own terms. He seems intent on calling Marlo out until he can fight him face-to-face, but Marlo isn’t that kind of gangster. Primitive though he may be, he’s still one of the classier, Stringer Bell-type guys on the block. Still, now that most of the co-op know (or will know very soon) about Marlo’s hit on Prop Joe, Omar might not even have to get his hands dirty. Then again, what fun would it be if he didn’t?

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The Wire 5.5 – React Quotes

We’ve already hit the midway point of the season, and as the many subplots continue to creep along, they’ve also finally begun to merge together into one cohesive story. McNulty’s serial killer remains the center of attention, and for good reason. After calling Alma with news about the killer’s most recent victims, the two meet to discuss the case in detail. McNulty is hesitant to disclose any information at first, but when Scott (who tags along) admits that juicier details would give the story better coverage, McNulty lets them in on the fact that his killer has been biting people in very inappropriate places.

That alone is enough to send the story to the front page, and within hours, Daniels is at the mayor’s office to speak with Carcetti about the investigation. It turns out Carcetti is a little bothered by the spotlight a high-profile serial killer could bring to the city, and so he lifts the OT cap for McNulty and one other detective to work the case. Unhappy with the lack of commitment from the mayor’s office, McNulty is left to figure out another way to get surveillance on Marlo and his crew. As it turns out, McNulty left it up to luck.

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After Marlo meets with Vondas to discuss the details of their new business venture, Vondas gives him a cell phone so that he’s easily reachable. Marlo then gives his lawyer the number in case of an emergency, and when Herc steals it from his boss’ rolodex, it winds up in Lester’s hands. Unfortunately, Lester ‘s bid for a wiretap doesn’t go well, so instead of calling it quits, he and McNulty plot a way to fudge the paperwork on a wiretap for the serial killer case, and instead use it for Marlo’s cell phone.

The case gets additional help when a disgruntled Scott (who’s sent out to get react quotes from the homeless community) ends up faking a call from the serial killer to his cell phone. When combined with McNulty’s “call” (which just so happened to be dialed from the same location), the bid for that wiretap is a slam-dunk. Of course, now we know that Scott really is the sleazy scumbag that he appeared, but if his selfish motives end up helping McNulty and Lestor’s case, then so be it.

Meanwhile, Omar is back in town and staking out one of Marlo’s lieutenants. Being patient so as to not walk into a set-up, Omar waits for the best moment to strike. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that Marlo has remained one step ahead, and when Omar busts through the door to take out a few of his men, he’s ambushed by Chris, Snoop and Michael. Cornered behind a sofa, Omar makes a run for it and jumps out of the third-story window. When the three shooters run to the balcony to see where he landed, Omar has already disappeared. I was actually a bit surprised to discover that Omar made it out of the shootout unscathed, but the guy has shown in past seasons that he’s virtually indestructible, and while he still might not make it out of this season alive, he certainly won’t go down without a fight. And personally, I can’t wait.

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