For Your (Re)Consideration: The Wire

June 22, 2012

Film

*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)

So why?  What’s the big whoop?  Is it that great?  Yes.  Let’s get that out of the way.  Yes, it is.  The question is why it’s so great.

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.

This is Omar. You will love Omar. Trust me on this.

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.

This is Bubbles. You will want to climb inside your TV set and help him.

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…)

McNulty confronts D’Angelo’s mother about the murder of her son in prison, season 3

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

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About The Byronic Man

Recently voted "The Best Humor Blog in America That I, Personally, Write," The Byronic Man is sometimes fiction, sometimes autobiography. And sometimes cultural criticism. Oh, and occasionally reviews. Okay, it's all those different things, but always humorous. Except on the occasions that it's not. Ah, geez. Look, it's a lot of things, okay? You might like it, is the point.

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52 Comments on “For Your (Re)Consideration: The Wire”

  1. Life With The Top Down Says:

    I always wanted HBO (but it cost a million dollars more from Comcast), now I know why…duct tape and a copy machine lie detector…freaking genius! “The bigger the lie, the more they’ll believe”…. word! That can be applied on so many levels..especially in the political arena.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      There are so many moments in the series – particularly as it evolves and you see the same themes and motivations and deceptions circulating in different arenas – that are genuinely profound, not the sort of “bumper sticker profound” that TV is usually so good at.

      Reply

  2. Hippie Cahier Says:

    Can you guess which camp I’m in? Whether written or spoken, the term The Wire elicits this Pavlovian response from me: “Is that the one that’s set in Baltimore?” Every. Time.

    I am glad you covered that; otherwise I’d be unable to move forward in my day.

    Also, I just love that you know it’s “rein.” I can’t believe I just said that out loud.

    Reply

  3. andy logan Says:

    Thanks for this. I’m going to start watching The Wire this weekend.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      We tried to watch it with a couple of friends, but it didn’t go very well because I just wanted to stare at them the whole time and say, “Wasn’t that AWESOME? Isn’t this AMAZING?”

      Just remember that it takes a bit. It’s enjoyable, but almost universally after a few episodes, the response is, “Yeah, I mean, it’s good, but…” but just keep with it.

      Reply

      • andy logan Says:

        I’ll have to watch it alone. Oh, and something nobody does anymore [it seems] that is good for retention and understanding: think/discuss what has happened and what you foresee happening in the next episode. This method of review is also good for reading a book, and if you utilize it every time you pick the book up or put it down you will remember way more after finishing it. It enriches the experience.

        Reply

  4. hecallsmescroogy Says:

    One of the best series I’ve seen…. and you included a clip to one of it’s best scenes… Fuuuuuuucccck… I love Bunk & McNulty together. Best bromance ever. Oh, and I’m from Baltimore and live here still. I swear I saw Snoop the other day, but it probably wasn’t her.

    Reply

  5. Go Jules Go Says:

    Wow. I want to start watching this show right now; I’m sorry to say I’ve never seen it! I am all about the character development over high octane stuff. I actually stopped watching this movie with Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington over the weekend, “Safe House,” because it seemed like the same chase happening over and over again.

    Reply

  6. susielindau Says:

    I have never heard of it! Was it on HBO13?

    Reply

  7. Ryan Clifford Says:

    I absolutely agree with you on this. For months, I’ve been telling everyone I know, nearly everything you wrote in your post. I really do think it’s the best show ever made. The writing, the characters, the depth, the message… Amazing!

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      What got me to watch it, ultimately, was my best friend saying, “Buy all 5 seasons. If you can watch the whole thing, and tell me it’s not the best TV show you’ve ever seen, I’ll pay for it.”

      Reply

  8. Off the Wall Says:

    Love the wire. and breaking bad. what does that say about me?

    Reply

  9. jahks. Says:

    love this show, love how this post is written – you’ve told us what makes the series so great without revealing too much. i’m only on season 2, and i’m hooked. and for real,this show makes you think, from the very first scene. and yes, i LOVE omar.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      Has Omar testified yet? I couldn’t include that clip because it wouldn’t make sense out of context, and also because it’d be a shame to spoil that scene for anyone.

      Reply

  10. Erynn Elizabeth Says:

    You know, I’ve not really given The Wire a fair chance. I have started watching it a few times and then sort of meandered off- but it kind of sounds like maybe it’s a slow burn like Mad Men- which I LURVE.
    You have convinced me to reconsider this. Well played.

    Reply

  11. freethinkingparent Says:

    Loved your commentary about The Wire. As a school teacher, the Education season (that was season 3, right?) was hard to watch only because it was the most real depection of urban schools that I have ever seen on film.

    I know it had to end when it did, but I miss it. It’s one I could rewatch from the beginning again and again because it’s so nuanced.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      The education season is absolutely heart-breaking. It’s hard enough watching the system roll over people, but seeing kids in a system that first mulches them, then condemns or discards them for being “bad”…

      Oh, and it was season 4.

      Reply

      • freethinkingparent Says:

        I freely admit, I cried a lot through that season. I cried for the characters, yes, but more so for the fact that they were representing the thousands of children we lose every year. Mulches is a very precise term for it–sadly so.

        It’s a sad commentary on our society that the representation was so accurate.

        Reply

  12. Barbara Backer-Gray Says:

    Thanks for this review. I had heard that The Wire was good, but didn’t know if it was just hype. So now I bought the first two seasons at the half-price bookstore. Can’t wait!

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      Great! I hope you like it. Definitely get through season 3 before making any concrete decisions.

      Reply

      • Barbara Backer-Gray Says:

        Oh, my husband and I started watching it on Saturday evening, and we watched four episodes. It’s wonderful! The drug-dealing guys are fascinating, too. And their work and lives. I knew the projects were bad, but I can;t imagine anyone living there and feeling they can ever get out. It’s quite a window on a completely different world.

        Reply

  13. Angie Z. Says:

    I loathe crime shows like CSI, and I’m a total wimp when it comes to violence other than campy kinds like Pulp Fiction — so I avoided this show. But my husband loved this series so much that for a while I worried he’d divorce me and marry it. He’d hole up in our TV room for hours watching episode after episode, just like you mentioned. “Just one more!” I think he watched the entire series in only two months. Since we usually agree on most TV shows and movies, it hurts him that I’ve never seen the show. It’s driven a wedge between us. I worry that one day he will walk out the door and say, “How can you say you love me when you never watched The Wire?”

    Thank you, Dr. Phil. I’ve seen the light now.

    Reply

  14. Michelle Gillies Says:

    I did try to watch an episode and never made it to the end. OK, I will have to give it two chances.

    Reply

  15. topiclessbar Says:

    Yeah, I’m with you in the cult. I love so many of the characters. Bunny Colvin. Ziggy from Season 2. Cutty. And I really have to say that Lester Freamon is one of the biggest bad ass cop characters of all time. Totally different from anything that’s been done before, he’s smart and quiet and is more of a threat to the system than the crooks are. Oh man, I gotta stop now. Could go on forever. Great post, man!

    Reply

  16. Valentine Logar Says:

    This was one of the best shows ever made. In my mind it could have gone on forever, but then again I suspect it ended when it did and thus achieved the cult following because it never went downhill.

    Reply

  17. Off the Wall Says:

    Mr. Byron (cause you are My Mr. Grey, lol) I wonder if you ever watched The Shield, and if so, if you liked the ending…….I think that show was great, and precursor to The Wire.

    Reply

    • The Byronic Man Says:

      I LOVE The Shield. To me, it provides an interesting counter-version of The Wire. The Wire holds a mirror to reality, while The Shield is this massive parable – exaggerated beyond reality to reflect the central moral questions about safety, and security.

      I thought the final episode was terrific. The scene where Mackey has to finally say out loud what happened to Terry Crowley is extraordinary. And the novel structure of the series is amazing – the way we’re lured in to the “action” in the first couple seasons, then they have to cover their tracks, then they begin betraying the things they claim to uphold, until the final episode, and the complete betrayal of the things they claimed was most dear. Brilliant.

      Reply

  18. skippingstones Says:

    Great post – I can’t get cable or satellite at my house, so I’ve basically never seen anything. At least it feels that way. I buy what I really like on DVD, and now you’ve got me so intrigued that I feel a trip to Target coming soon. You’ve made it sound so compelling! As I was reading, I kept thinking, “Damn, this is gonna cost me money…”

    Reply

  19. kitchenmudge Says:

    The Wire is about as good as tv has ever been. ‘Nuff said.

    Reply

  20. becomingcliche Says:

    I had never heard of this series at all. AT ALL. I think I miss a lot. I might have to see if my library has it.

    Reply

  21. Love & Lunchmeat Says:

    We’ve had this show sitting in a drawer for a couple of years now… As bad I am with movies, I watch very few shows. (My favorites are all gone.) This one does sound good…

    Reply

  22. earthriderjudyberman Says:

    I haven’t seen “The Wire,” but your description and the clips certainly make to it my “must watch” list. “Homicide, Life on the Streets” was one of my favorite cop shows.
    As a former cops reporter, the copy machine confession is convincing. Some cops worry about the Miranda Warning, but others know suspects don’t realize that “the way out(confession) is actually the way in” (into prison). Thanks for introducing me to this show.

    Reply

  23. Lenore Diane Says:

    I look forward to the day Netflix steams The Wire. (Though I don’t think they have a good relationship with HBO, so that day may never come.)

    P.S. The “Photocopier of Truth” works at home, too. Actually, we use a scanner.

    Reply

  24. mistyslaws Says:

    Yep. Great show. Filmed in my city. At the time, I would see film crews all over the place. In fact, in the first season, there was one scene filmed in my building and in a hallway I walk every day. I felt famous when I saw it.

    Sadly, I only watched the first 3 seasons, and it was a very long time ago. Although, oddly, my husband actually just bought the last 2 seasons and has been watching them on his ipad as he has been travelling. He is hooked once again, even about 10 years later. I think I will be stealing that ipad when he’s done.

    Oh, and I definitely LOVE Omar, and want to jump through the screen and give Bubbles a great big hug! 🙂

    Reply

  25. earthriderjudyberman Says:

    I just reposted this on my brother’s Facebook page, which means, I guess, that it’s also on my page. (I know it is.) I was telling him about your post on “The Wire.” I think it’s something he’d enjoy. Thanks again for the recommendation.

    Reply

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