July 15th, 2008


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?