*For Your (Re)Consideration is periodic feature in which I/we re-visit some piece of art that is universally adored or hated or forgotten or some mix thereof to look at the hype versus the reality.*
There are basically two kinds of people when it comes to the HBO series The Wire: There are the people who get all moonie-eyed when you mention it, and swear that it is quite possibly the greatest TV series of all time, and then there are the people who haven’t watched it. (and if you only watched some of it, you’re in the “Haven’t watched it” camp)
First off, this post has been edited down from about 4 times its current length. I just went on and on about characters and themes and scene and story arcs and culture… but figured I’d rein it in a little and stick to the overview, the central question of what makes it as great as they say (maybe I’ll add addendum’s later…?)
So, to begin: It is a series that had a 5 season run. It’s set in Baltimore and while, superficially, it’s the story of police and drug gangs, its real function is as a dissection of American culture itself – our ideals, our failures, our corruptions and our redemptions. Each season focuses on a different facet of our society. It is a series that famously refused to hurry – there’s little to grab you and force you to pay attention in the short term. There are few big crimes, big stand-offs, big scene-chewing. But the long term payoff? Is overwhelming. Find me a Wire fan, and I’ll find you someone whose had nights of not enough sleep because they needed to see “just one more episode.”
There was a little-seen, but landmark series in the 90’s called Homicide: Life On The Street – made by the same producer – which often began as a ‘crime of the week,’ but would often all but discard the crime to focus on its impact on the characters. An episode might focus on a detective getting the confession, but really be about compromises to our character – a detective might coerce a confession because of department pressure, despite being confident that the suspect is not guilty. The Wire is a more complex extension of Homicide. It can be brutal, but it can be a lot of fun. Consider this, the opening scene from season 5, in which detectives trick a suspect using a copy machine. (fair warning: there is a lot of foul language in all of the clips here):
“The bigger the lie, the more they believe.” That line becomes the underscore for the entire season.
You gradually get to know these characters so well that I don’t know anyone who didn’t cry at the death of several characters – there is a scene in season 4 in which two gang-bangers try to shoot each other, and you’ve gotten to know their pasts so well that you’re heartbroken that no matter how this ends, one of them is going to die. And that’s where its greatness comes in: in its depiction of every character as a complex person, however tragic or twisted. The plot exists as a framework to let the characters’ lives unfold.
Throughout its 5 season, the show winds through the streets of Baltimore, moving up the chain from street-level drug-dealers, to senators, mayors and police chiefs. It goes through the docks, the schools and the newspapers, taking apart our world in ways that show how life is the product of our upbringing – regardless of the world we dwell in, it’s ultimately, as they say, all in the game. Consider this scene, from season 1, in which two kids are explained the rules of chess – within the show, it becomes difficult to tell which characters the rules aren’t a metaphor for:
The Wire foregoes much of the plot-driven oomph of The Sopranos (for better or worse), but has more of the elements that kept Sopranos fans hooked. In other words, it refuses to ever let you categorize the characters into simple archetypes. It refuses to cash in a quick plot, instead weaving each story as part of something larger. I suspect I may have made it sound overly somber – and it can get pretty serious – but it’s also tremendously engaging, and even fun.
The Wire is a program that is every bit as good as the hype. As good as they people in the Cult say it is. There aren’t quick rewards for watching, you won’t be blown through the back of the room, but it is a testimony to what it possible to do with television. That it can be a vehicle for a level of storytelling on par with a novel. Obviously, I’m only giving it a quick overview here, but give it a chance. Give it two chances.
Finally, a couple links to other scenes, if you’re interested. They’re some of the best that can still have some semblance of meaning out of context.
Bunk & McNulty at the apartment in season 1 (this season has photos of a nude murder victim and profanity… only profanity…)
Snoop buys a nail gun. Opening scene to season 4, which focuses on education, and the ways in which we become products of the system that teaches us.
Omar and Brother Mouzone meet in the alley, season 3. In a show about humans, these two are the most titan-like. And their meeting in the alley? Awesome