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The Wire? More Like Baltimore Confidential! - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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July 15th, 2008


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01:33 am - The Wire? More Like Baltimore Confidential!
Before I started watching this show, all I really knew was that it was THE GREATEST SHOW EVER IN THE HISTORY OF TELEVISION OMG. Never knew such unanimity on a point of television in my life!

After watching this show, I can completely understand why people feel that way. It is truly an amazing fucking television show. I did not expect to love it nearly as much as I do. I didn't even think it was the kind of show you could love. But I love it, and it's awesome, and I don't think people know why they should watch it. I certainly didn't.

The Wire is what might happen if Law and Order and Oz made sweet love...and then let their baby grow up on the streets of Baltimore. In an attempt to be concise, one might say the show is about the drug trade in Baltimore, but it's about much, much more than that. But the drug trade in Baltimore is sort of what ties it all together. Because the show focuses on both the cops and the drug dealers, giving them equal weight, telling both their stories. What the show is really interested in, however, is institutions. And, more importantly, what's wrong with them. Each season has a different focus: the drug trade, the working class/unions, city government, education, and the media. As the show progresses, the scope expands. You get to see all these interconnected organizations and parallel bureuacracies and how they change and evolve and how they work against themselves. That probably sounds completely boring on paper, but it's actually both fascinating and infuriating to watch.

Because, see, the theme of the show is this: America is broken. This isn't just some fictional story about fictional people in a fictional town. A great deal of the stories and many of the characters are based on real-life events and real people. David Simon describes it as a "somewhat angry show." Hell, it made me angry, and that doesn't even happen. But sometimes it takes a powerful narrative to show you why things are going wrong and how they could be better. It opens your eyes and gives you a new perspective. But this is all hoity-toity bullshit: if you were really into social commentary, you'd already want to watch The Wire. The social commentary is just a bonus. What you care about is a show with great characters.

Let's start with our heroes: the cops. We've got Detective Jimmy McNulty, an idealist with little respect for authority but great murder police all the same. His partner, Bunk Moreland, is a lovable galoot who can't hold his liquor or keep from chasing women. Kima Greggs, narcotics, is a good detective but takes a little flack for being both a woman and a lesbian. Herc and Carver form a kind of white/black comic-relief duo in the beginning, but each character has a separate arc over the course of the series, and one of them has, for my money, the best arc in the series. Lester Freamon is essentially made of awesome, and he drips a little bit of awesome onto Prez to keep him from being a complete fuck-up. Lt. Daniels is a by-the-book kind of guy who is nonetheless a dedicated and skilled supervisor to his team. And let's throw in Ronnie Pearlman, assistant state's attorney, to handle all the legal mumbo-jumbo that you need for the titular wire. I haven't even mentioned Landsman, Rawls, and Burrell.

And on the other side of the coin, we have the drug trade, run by one Avon Barksdale, a man our heroes don't even have a picture of. His lieutenant is the cold, calculating Stringer Bell. His muscle is Wee-Bey Brice, who has an amusing hobby. Our entryway into the drug trade, however, is the Pit, where the drugs actually get sold. D'Angelo, Avon's nephew, runs the Pit, but he's beginning to have a few doubts about his line of work. His compatriots are the confident Bodie, the sex-obsessed Poot, and the completely adorable Wallace. I haven't even mentioned Prop Joe, Levy, and a host of other characters introduced in later seasons.

Then there are the ones who are on nobody's side. Bubbles, a charming junkie who's also an informant for Kima, could be the moral center of the show despite his habit of stealing copper pipes. And Omar, a stick-up boy who robs drug dealers, could be the amoral center of the show despite his strong adherence to his own code.

Guys, these are just a few of the main characters. A season premiere can introduce as many as a dozen new characters. In five seasons and 60 episodes, The Wire has approximately 200 major and recurring characters. I am not even shitting you. And you'd better have impeccable facial recognition because the show expects you to know who someone is when you see them again. And on top of that, characters rarely address each other by name onscreen. I spent entire seasons not knowing some character's names.

I am convinced no mortal man can follow this show on his own. Even if you were able to recognize all the characters all the time, you still might not be able to follow everything that's going on because the show does not lead you by the hand at all. The pilot episode feels like you're already in the third season of an established show. Scenes are presented almost like a documentary, as if the camera is simply there, and people are talking and doing things, but it doesn't feel the need to explain to you the subtext. It just gives you the events and asks you to put the story together, read between the lines. This show asks a lot from its audience. I was never completely lost, but there were definitely a lot of a things that went over my head at first. I found the Wikipedia episode recaps to be great resources.

What helps is watching more episodes. I found that each season takes about four episodes before it really kicks off, four episodes of setting up all the pieces before it can start moving them around satisfactorily. But episodes of The Wire aren't constructed like normal episodes; it's not like there's an episodic plot that is set up and resolved in one episode. It's a season-long story presented in episode-size chunks. You move between multiple plotlines constantly. A scene in one episode will pay off five episodes later. A minor character in one season will play a major role in a subsequent season. It's One Long Story, with each season building on the ones previous despite having their own identities. And it's because of this structure that The Wire can't afford to have a single bad episode, so it...doesn't. The only other show I can think of with such a consistently high quality episode to episode, season to season is Arrested Development.

The Wire doesn't even feel like television. You know how they say "It's not TV, it's HBO"? Well...it's kind of true. As I said above, scenes are presented objectively, and there are no flashbacks (except for one network-mandated one in the pilot). Characters aren't judged. Although I kind of sorted the characters into "good" and "bad," everyone's really a bit grey: the members of the drug trade are shown to be just as human and well-rounded as any of the members of the police department. There are no dramatic stings to highlight major reveals. In fact, with the exception of the season-ending montages, the show uses exclusively diegetic music. All of these factors, combined with the superb, naturalistic acting of all the cast, give the show a great deal of realism.

Which is why I think The Wire is the most emotionally affecting show I have ever watched. I don't think I've ever felt so much pain and joy for television characters before. I get the biggest grin on my face when something good happens to them, and I'm near tears when something bad happens to them. Which, um, is often. Sometimes they die. And, again, I don't think I've ever been affected by character deaths as much as I was for this show. Even though every character's death has a certain inevitability to it, you still don't want it to actually happen. Characters aren't killed off for cheap shock value; they're killed because that's where the story has been going all this time. You're just not used to shows so willing to off people in the credits if the story demands it. People say this is a show you can't be spoiled for, and that's bullshit. The Wire has its share of surprises and unexpected developments, and because it makes you work so hard for the story, you become even more engaged in it, and if the characters don't know what's coming, why should you?

One thing that most reviews of The Wire fail to mention is how goddamn funny the show is. Because, well, life is funny. People are funny. Sometimes they don't even know they're being funny, and we call that irony. The show rips your damn heart out so much, the least it can do is make you laugh to make up for it.

I don't think I've sold the show as well I want to. I could talk about The Wire for hours; as you may have noticed in previous posts, I've been pimping it to high heaven everywhere I go. And I seriously didn't expect to love it; I thought it would be way too confusing and boring. But it turned out to be incredibly rewarding, and I loved following these characters over five years. I loved the investigations; I loved watching them crack codes. I loved seeing some characters get happy endings. I hated seeing some characters get unhappy endings but loved that I could feel so much for these fictional characters but then hated that there were real people out there meeting these same unhappy endings. I loved the city of Baltimore, so rich and alive and populated. I loved the idealists striving for better, and I hated the system that resisted change. I loved the peek into the inner workings of the world, and I hated what I saw there. I loved the parallel thematics that I didn't even notice for a while. I loved to hate Clay Davis. I loved the cops, I loved the corner boys, I loved the muscle, I loved the kids. I loved the dialogue and the storytelling and the moral dilemmas and the changing credits every season.

So I love The Wire. You happy now, bitch?
Current Mood: sadsad
Current Music: Nine Inch Nails - The Four of Us Are Dying

(41 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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[User Picture]
From:cerulgalactus
Date:July 15th, 2008 09:07 am (UTC)
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I got up to season 4 in China, and I think I hit a wall when it came to mainlinging it. I may well revisit sometime soon.
From:babsonite
Date:July 15th, 2008 12:00 pm (UTC)
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woohoo, go Baltimore!
[User Picture]
From:sdwolfpup
Date:July 15th, 2008 12:28 pm (UTC)
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I want to go around shoving The Wire into every single person's DVD player and making them watch it, yet even though I'm entirely confident of how awesome the show is, every time someone tries the show I get nervous that they'll hate it. Even though it doesn't affect me personally in any way whether they like it or not. But you've covered why - it's the most emotionally affecting show I've ever seen. The characters felt more like actual people than characters, and so their struggles and triumphs meant more. Season 4 is one of the greatest pieces of art I've ever seen.

And it's so funny! I can't believe how often people forget to say how freaking funny it is. Consistently funny, too, and in surprising ways. And, yes, it takes awhile to get used to it. The language alone took me two episodes, and the characters! I love them but it takes me a couple of episodes to remember a lot of their names. Heh. It's like a really thick book.

I don't think I've sold the show as well I want to.

I completely get that. I don't want to hard sell it and turn people off, but I want everyone I know to see it. It's a dilemma. When I pimped the show, I had trouble keeping myself just to the two posts, and still feel like I did almost nothing to attract people.

Anyway, I am extremely glad to see you liked it! I really enjoyed this post - it was like reading my own thoughts about the show.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:July 15th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
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Bunny! Carver! In the middle of a moral dilemma, if I place that 'cap correctly.

every time someone tries the show I get nervous that they'll hate it.
Right? But I don't think I've seen anyone who hates it. Once you get into it, you fall hard.

The characters felt more like actual people than characters, and so their struggles and triumphs meant more.
Exactly.

And it's so funny! I can't believe how often people forget to say how freaking funny it is. Consistently funny, too, and in surprising ways.
I know! I never would have expected it to be funny! Unlike BSG, it has a healthy sense of humor. The season four and five teasers are especially hilarious.

The language alone took me two episodes, and the characters! I love them but it takes me a couple of episodes to remember a lot of their names. Heh. It's like a really thick book.
With no footnotes! Except for Wikipedia. And fellow fans.

When I pimped the show, I had trouble keeping myself just to the two posts, and still feel like I did almost nothing to attract people.
Ooh, I liked your posts. They got to the damn point. HELLO POTENTIAL VIEWERS. GO CHECK OUT HER POSTS.

(Also, dude, Lance Reddick is hot. And Stringer! And McNulty! And Bunk! And Kima! And everyone! Pictures!)

I completely get that. I don't want to hard sell it and turn people off, but I want everyone I know to see it. It's a dilemma.
I know! And this is a show that EVERYONE has been pushing for ages; what could I do to convince anyone further?

Anyway, I am extremely glad to see you liked it! I really enjoyed this post - it was like reading my own thoughts about the show.
Thanks! That's good to hear.
[User Picture]
From:punzerel
Date:July 15th, 2008 01:32 pm (UTC)
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I'm scared to read this post because I know I want to watch this show, but the library doesn't have season 1 and on my measly intern salary I definitely can't afford another DVD set. And if I read this, I'll want to watch it even more, and I'll end up spending more money. Oh dear. You should set up referral discount deals with Amazon.

(They have season 2! And 3! But I can't start in the middle.)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:July 15th, 2008 03:51 pm (UTC)
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You can't!! You really can't. It's a story from beginning to end.

You should set up referral discount deals with Amazon.
Hee.

I'm...sorry I have a history of being so convincing you are afraid to read my post!
[User Picture]
From:electricmonk
Date:July 15th, 2008 01:54 pm (UTC)
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Ha! I just started watching this yesterday. I'm halfway through season 1, episode 2. And I really appreciated that flashback in the pilot. Shoot.

the show uses exclusively diegetic music.

Whoa! I sensed that something was different, but I hadn't picked up on that. Very cool.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:July 15th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
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And I really appreciated that flashback in the pilot. Shoot.
Ha, I was baffled because of all the things I could have forgotten, that was not one of them. And in future episodes, you get scenes just like that with no flashback. But it's the pilot, and you're still learning how much attention you have to pay.

Whoa! I sensed that something was different, but I hadn't picked up on that. Very cool.
Yeah, it took me a while to realize that too. It's all part of the objectivity, not telling you how to feel, letting the events and characters speak for themselves. Alan Sepinwall identified one scene in the first season where they break the rule, but that's it.

And yay for starting to watch! Let me know how it goes.
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From:evilstmars
Date:July 15th, 2008 04:09 pm (UTC)
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Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and double-plus-agreement on 'it's really funny'. Every episode has a few moments that make me burst out laughing, out loud.

The Wire is what might happen if Law and Order and Oz made sweet love...and then let their baby grow up on the streets of Baltimore.

Best, most inappropriate summary!
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:July 15th, 2008 04:23 pm (UTC)
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double-plus-agreement on 'it's really funny'. Every episode has a few moments that make me burst out laughing, out loud.
I couldn't really be specific or explain WHY it's funny, but it just needed to be mentioned, you know? Because no one mentions it.

Best, most inappropriate summary!
I think I could have done better, but it'll work!
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[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:July 15th, 2008 06:10 pm (UTC)
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I loved both Oz and Six Feet Under, and one day, I will watch The Sopranos. You're right that The Wire has great depth of humanity. It shows it all.
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From:soundingsea
Date:July 15th, 2008 05:55 pm (UTC)
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I watched half of the first episode and was so confused I didn't even finish it. It's like watching into a conversation where everyone knows everyone and you're just lost.

I believe you that it's great! I do! But the learning curve might be a bit too much for me. Curse you for making everything sound so good. :P
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From:spectralbovine
Date:July 15th, 2008 06:15 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I completely understand not making it through the first episode. You need to sort of have the willpower and dedication and trust that it's worth it. And it is. I promise you that if you keep going, it will make more sense and you won't feel quite so lost. You're not stupid! The learning curve is fine! I made it through.

And, honestly, if you could make it through Deadwood, you can make it through The Wire. At least with The Wire, there aren't entire groups of characters and plotlines that I don't give a shit about.

Read sdwolfpup's pimpings posts. She might be more convincing than I am.
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From:mycenae
Date:July 15th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
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I think I've been saving The Wire. It's always been something I meant to watch, but just haven't yet. I kinda like that it's out there in the ether, amorphously awesome. However, your review has pushed me over the edge into "ok, now I REALLY want to see it for myself." And now I'm going to at least watch the first episode today.

Thanks!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:July 15th, 2008 06:18 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it. Don't get scared by the first episode; you have to keep going. Once you get more accustomed to the world and the characters, the show is easier to follow. But it's really hard in the beginning. Let me know how it goes!
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From:scripted22
Date:July 15th, 2008 06:22 pm (UTC)
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Wonderful post!

The Wire is what might happen if Law and Order and Oz made sweet love...and then let their baby grow up on the streets of Baltimore.

Ha! I usually say it's the way Homicide would have been if it hadn't been on network TV.

Speaking of which, have you watched Homicide? It's one of my all-time favorite TV shows (even though The Wire ranks a little higher on that list now).
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:July 15th, 2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
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I haven't seen any Homicide, so I didn't feel like I could properly use it an analogy. Whereas I loved Oz and anyone who's stayed in a hotel has seen Law and Order.
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From:porpentine
Date:July 15th, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC)
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You, sir, are the man. As I've been slowly but surely pimping The Wire around here at work (or HAD been, before boss' boss lost my damn Season One DVDs with so-far-unfulfilled promises to replace), I add my name to the chorus of "Hell yeah it's that good" for those who may remain on the fence.
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From:nolivingman
Date:July 15th, 2008 11:34 pm (UTC)
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YES. I thought that it had to be overrated, that I would watch it and be underwhelmed. And then I fell in love, over and over and over again. And had my heart broken. And laughed till I cried. And laid awake at night unable to sleep thinking about the show. And had to take a break in my viewing after S4, because that was too much to bear, really.

I could talk about it for hours, too, and still not explain well why it worked like it did.

Edited at 2008-07-15 11:37 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:July 15th, 2008 11:50 pm (UTC)
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I KNOW! I was so prepared to be underwhelmed after all the hype, and then...it was just so awesome.

Oh! And I had multiple Wire dreams! I forgot to mention that. It just gets in your head like that.

I took a break after S4 too, for scheduling reasons, but also because I didn't want the show to end and I was afraid for what would happen to the poor kids in S5. Unfortunately, I was right to worry. *snuggles them all*

Another Bunny icon! I loved Hamsterdam so much. That was so fucking fascinating. And, now that I think about it, it's similar to the main plot of S5 in a way. Bending the rules a bit works at first, but then it gets out of control. The rules are there for a reason, but...the rules kind of suck at the same time! Aargh, The Wire.
[User Picture]
From:ethanvahlere
Date:July 16th, 2008 12:56 am (UTC)
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What the fuck did I do?

But seriously, I'm very glad you liked the show. I was late coming to it as well, not because of the praise, but because I was tired of cop shows, and even David Simon's name wasn't enough (I was a fan of Homicide to the bitter end, and by the last season, I do mean bitter). It wasn't until my co-workers convinced me it was more than a cop show that I gave it a try, and like everyone else, fell in love with it, right from the opening scene of the first ep (which, btw, is taken from Simon's book that was the basis for Homicide, as are many other incidents: the opening scene in Season 5, for example).

And yeah, you're right to mention how funny the show is. I get a lot of customers tell me they were afraid of the show because they heard it was so much work, but then stayed because it was so entertaining and funny. The famous "fuck" scene, Omar testifying in court, Stringer running meetings according to Roberts Rules of Order, Randy using what he learns in class to win at dice - the list goes on. Yes, the show is heartbreaking (particularly the end of the next to last episode - I was crying for minutes afterwards), epic in scope, rich in character detail, an indictment of our country, and is the rare show that provides numerous three-dimensional roles for African-American actors, but it's also hilarious and entertaining.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:July 16th, 2008 01:17 am (UTC)
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as are many other incidents: the opening scene in Season 5, for example
That was real? I mean, it almost has to be; you can't make that shit up. It's too ridiculous.

Stringer running meetings according to Roberts Rules of Order
Ha, I loved that.
[User Picture]
From:emmiegray
Date:July 16th, 2008 04:30 am (UTC)
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Here's a funny moment from S5 - McNulty's discomfort as the FBI profiles the serial killer. lol

I think my fave scene is Omar in court, pointing out that he's not the only one profiting from the drug trade. Bam!


I am happy to say that I lent S1 to my co-worker and her boyfiend, and they are loving it. I'm always trolling Best Buy for a sale. Netflix is a good way to watch it as well.

I've got assorted icons here if anyone needs any.
http://community.livejournal.com/elf_coloring/4299.html
My favorite character is Bodie, although I cannot say why.

I would love it if you talked about it more, because I will inhale every word and breathe amen!
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:July 16th, 2008 04:35 am (UTC)
(Link)
Snoop!

Those are both really funny scenes, I agree. Had me cracking up.

It took me a while to warm up to Bodie because the actor played Wangler on Oz, and Wangler was...his name was Wangler. And he sucked (the character, not the actor). But I grew to like Bodie.

Those are some nice icons! Thanks for the link.
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