The Wire

Posted on May 17, 2010 by psu

People have been telling me to watch The Wire for years. I have resisted because in general I am suspicious of what television enthusiasts tell me. I finally relented because I never heard or read a single negative review of the show. I still had lingering doubts that I would be able to deal with the somewhat grim subject matter, but it only took a few minutes for these doubts to evaporate. Note: There are a few minor spoilers about the subject matter and structure of the last season of the show near the end of this article. If you have not watched the show and do not want to be influenced before you do, beware.

Many television series take a while to grow into themselves and establish their style and voice. Not The Wire. This show comes out of the gate with a confidence that can only be explained by the fact that its creators already knew exactly what they wanted to do and exactly how to achieve it. From the first ten minutes, the characters all feel fully conceived and developed, their voices pitch perfect and their personalities fully drawn. Even before the show has them do anything, they feel like real and natural people standing there in your living room (or at least inside your iPad).

It is a pleasure just to sit and listen to them talk. And this happens immediately, from the very first scene. The first five minutes. I can’t remember a show doing this to me before.

The second five minutes were filled with the music over the opening credits. I also enjoyed this immensely. Each season used a different performance of the same song, but to my mind the one used in the first season was by far the best. To summarize: the show hooked me in ten minutes. Over the next few weeks the show kept me hooked as I methodically plowed through the entire series (thanks iTunes). As you probably know, each season concerns itself with another dysfunctional institution in the city of Baltimore. There is the drug trade and police, the port and dock workers, the city government, the schools and finally the media.

After a few episodes, one thing you realize about the show is that it was clearly made to be consumed on DVD. There is little or no filler material. Every minute of every episode moves something in the series forward. As in the first ten minutes, the key is the characters. This may sound obvious and almost trite, but let me explain. The television industry pays a lot of lip service to the idea of a “character driven” series. However, the truth is that almost all drama on TV is populated by characters that are either clichéd copies of predictable prototypes (Star Trek, the later seasons of The Sopranos) or dark, unlikeable, mysterious assholes (Mad Men). Shows will try and convince you that they are being dramatic, when really their supposedly intelligent leading men and women are actually acting stupidly. Or they will try and convince you that they are plumbing the depths of the human condition when in fact their characters are just wallowing in their own filth and self-pity.

To my mind, The Wire is different. It is different because all the show does is tell the story of the characters. It does not construct contrived situations and it does not have people acting in a completely strange and irrational manner in order to drum up “drama”. Instead, the show presents the characters and their world, and shows you what happens to them day to day. What makes it work is that the show so consistently establishes its sense of place and your sense of its characters in a way that feels completely organic and believable, even if the reality is that you are being manipulated by a television show. The show makes you care about the characters because for once they are worth caring about. For lack of a better way to put it, they seem self aware in a way that most of the people in television and films do not.

Many have suggested that The Wire is a “visual novel”, but I think that it is more like a long form symphony. The characters and themes in the show are like the core melodic and harmonic figures in symphonic music. The show progresses in way not unlike the classic sonata form. Each time we are introduced to a new part of Baltimore, new characters are introduced, the regular characters are further developed along their individual arcs and the same core themes of the show are reintroduced. The show even culminates in a grand climax that is full of self-reference and a bit of gratuitous meta-circularity.

In any case, by the end of the series, we have been treated multiple times to the larger social themes that David Simon, the show’s creator, is concerned about. There is the inherent dysfunction of large institutions, how money destroys any and all ethical behavior, the oppression of the individual by large bureaucracy and the general evil of unfettered capitalism. While these core themes are essentially grim and depressing somehow I never found the tone of the show to be oppressively bleak. Instead, Simon and his writers always manage to balance the desolation of the city with occasional humor and a few stories of individual survival.

So, what is there to complain about? Since it’s me writing there must be something, and that something is the fifth season. I would say that about half of the fifth season is as good as anything else in the series. In particular, the way the show pulls several secondary story arcs to their final conclusion is really enjoyable. Unfortunately, there are two uncharacteristic failures in the fifth season:

  1. The main narrative requires two of the regular characters to make decisions that while plausible, seemed to me to be extremely unlikely, even for them. This made at least a third of the season feel uncomfortably artificial.

  2. The portrayal of the fictional Baltimore Sun is ironically shallow, given that David Simon worked as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun before he got into TV. Unlike in the rest of the series the characters at the Sun are drawn mostly in absolutes. The “good guys” who are all smart, ethical and stand for truth and motherhood and pie. The “bad guys”, on the other hand, are stupid, self-serving, and generally built of unmitigated evil. What you realize by the middle of the season is that while Simon can make you believe that a drug dealer is intelligent and likable, he cannot do the same for the head of a large media corporation.

I didn’t really notice this at first, because the usual excellent execution and production values distracted me from the truth. But the more I think about it the less I like the setup for the big climax at the end of the season. On the other hand, the final episode was still great, and that fantastic music from the first credit sequence reappears, which was enough for me to forgive the season of its various failings.

Overall, I have to echo everyone else in the world in saying that this series is as good as anything I have ever watched. For me, it is unprecedented that a show could go more than four seasons without any noticeable drop in quality. There isn’t much more to say than that. Go get the DVDs or the seasons on iTunes.