Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Wire 

"Jacob Weisberg of Slate called it “the best TV show ever broadcast in America.” The New York Times, in an editorial (not a review, mind you) called the show Dickensian.

The argument over whether "The Wire" is the best show on television needs only two other participants -- also from HBO -- in the form of "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood." Rather than split hairs, let's just say that the breadth and ambition of "The Wire" are unrivaled and that taken cumulatively over the course of a season -- any season -- it's an astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and filmmaking in the modern era.

If you're not interested in "The Wire" after that, Godspeed to your unexamined life. That said, expecting the series to be simple, easy or unchallenging is a ridiculous notion. And we speak of it no more."

SF Gate

This is all spoiler-free.

If only one of you picks up Season One DVD of The Wire and begins the journey, I'll have done my duty.

Take a chance on one of the most important TV shows ever made.
And by important, I mean awesome.

Snippets of reviews follow:


It's a piece of angry social criticism built for a time when order and happy endings are just another form of denial.

This unwillingness to soothe and pander to viewers is visible at every level of "The Wire," from its jagged and dense narrative style to the coded language that its street characters use. The show fights against TV's habit of making the viewer's experience easy, so that we can track a story line without concentrating, or so that we can go to bed feeling that the war against hard drugs is gaining ground.

This is a show that is so very good - and so very real at a time when reality TV is fake - precisely because it runs completely contrary to viewers' taste for escapism. "The Wire" takes the hard road into American urbania. We can follow it if we want, although most of us won't.



It's not Simon who should worry that people won't watch his show because it's difficult. It's viewers who should worry that they are missing the absolute best of what television has to offer merely because it requires effort.

Over the course of its first three seasons, "The Wire" on HBO has been one of the great achievements in television artistry, a novelistic approach to storytelling in a medium that rewards quick, decisive and clear storytelling. It has never flinched from ambition -- dissecting a troubled American city, Baltimore, as well as and certainly more truly than any history book could have. It has tackled the drug war in this country as it simultaneously explores race, poverty and "the death of the American working class," the failure of political systems to help the people they serve and the tyranny of lost hope. Few series in the history of television have explored the plight of inner-city African Americans and none -- not one -- has done it as well.

On the off chance that you need to be reminded, this is not "Desperate Housewives."

And yet, the curse of "The Wire" and the thing that makes its creator, David Simon, nearly apoplectic, is the notion that "The Wire" is difficult and dense and hard to follow if you haven't been there from the start. Simon, perhaps the best writer in all of television -- a label one should not toss around lightly -- has a point when he jokingly suggests that critics who love the series should temper the part about it being difficult to jump into. That scares away viewers. It makes people believe he's forcing them to eat their vegetables on a cable channel that offers brilliance in other packages, some of them a whole lot easier to swallow -- like "Entourage," for example.

And yet the hard truth about "The Wire" is it isn't easy. You really must start from the very beginning to understand this work of art.


But then, "The Wire" is a show that's always a few steps ahead of your expectations. There are so many characters involved that you haven't always watched the dynamic play out between the same few characters a million times before. Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, mines his experiences in mapping out a vivid, interconnected world that feels so realistic yet so unfamiliar, it makes most cops-and-mobbers programs look like cartoons by comparison.

Simon can push the envelope with his characters because, with all their flaws, they feel as real as the environment they inhabit. While most procedural dramas feature a different case each week, "The Wire" focuses on just one criminal case over the course of 12 episodes, widening its scope to include a multitude of characters and story lines so the net result feels like a novel or a symphony. In each episode, the population of "The Wire" seems to move in harmony like a beehive, hustling, chitchatting, intimidating each other, giving each other shit, cracking eggs into beers and calling it breakfast, avoiding work or looking for work, pulling scams and pulling strings. These aren't good people or bad people, and they're no more charismatic or funny or special than anyone you know. They're believable. The dialogue is strange, snappy, anecdotal and sometimes (often, actually) pretty tough to follow, but it all feels organic.

Even after the great storytelling and amazing performances, there are so many other things to like about this show, it's tough to know where to begin. I like that the female cops on the show have such an understated rapport with their male co-workers. Even on shows as good as "NYPD Blue," the female cops tend to be coy and dolled up. Simon's female characters hold their ground, joke around without being cute and command real respect and friendship from their peers.

I like that a kaleidoscope of different cultures and attitudes is reflected, from union laborers to Greek criminals to Catholic priests to gay drug dealers, but the writers don't sugarcoat or hand-hold -- the characters talk about each other in openly racist terms. Anyone who's familiar with hard-bitten industrial towns of the Northeast, where there are five different Catholic churches, two Jewish temples, a Pentecostal storefront and, these days, a mosque within a few blocks of each other, knows that this is how many immigrants explain their differences. I like that the cops openly dislike and harass each other in a less than good-natured way, that the show is set in Baltimore and not L.A. or New York, that there's so much humor laced into even the heaviest scenes.

Most of all, it's exciting that TV dramas are getting this good. "The Wire" might be too slow-paced and complicated for a lot of viewers -- it's no "24," after all. But it's gratifying to watch this series captain a whole new exploration of the form, leaving the standard conventions of episodic television flailing in its wake. If, after watching this series, a TV drama starts to look like a haiku, it's because "The Wire" is, by comparison, an epic poem. Like "The Odyssey," "The Wire" invites us into a world that's complex yet harmonious, darkly imaginative and, above all, deeply human.


When television history is written, little else will rival "The Wire," a series of such extraordinary depth and ambition that it is, perhaps inevitably, savored only by an appreciative few. Layering each season upon the previous ones, creator David Simon conveys the decaying infrastructure of his hometown Baltimore in searing and sobering fashion -- constructing a show that's surely as impenetrable to the uninitiated as it is intoxicating to the faithful. In its fourth year, the program adds the school system to cops, drugs, unions, the ailing middle class, and big-city politics.

Prepare to be depressed and dazzled.


The Wire revels in its realistic portrayal of police, criminals, unions, the education system, and politics and how the dividing line between all these aforementioned elements a thin and vague thing, subject to ebb and flow. It is unique to find a show take such fierce pride in being complex and realistic, even at the cost of its viewing audience. Critical acclimation is all well and good, but it does not always translate into strong ratings.

The fan base the show does have is voracious and passionate, but small in number due in large part to the show's complex presentation and the creator's refusal to dumb down its subject for the sake of ratings. Here is a show that, unless you have seen every single episode three or four times over the subtle nuances of character development, story arcs, and political machinations will elude you. Step up to go to the washroom for thirty seconds, and wham—you're out of the loop. The show pulls no punches, takes no easy roads, and never wavers from its dedication to show Baltimore in all its forms, good and bad, glamorous and horrifying, and the rotting dystopia that creeps up from the cracks of its institutions.


The character development and plot lines in The Wire put conventional programs to shame. The massive, multicultural ensemble cast of characters here is more lifelike, more sincere and flawed and messed up and perpetually unscrupulous than any others on television. Nothing they say or do is contrived or contrary to their nature. Rather than having a script of events laid out and writing the characters to fit within the story, The Wire succeeds at creating organic, flawed characters, lovable and loathsome in equal quantities and crafts story arcs that fit within their experiences and decisions. Every decision, every course of events is perfectly in line with the characters involved.


This show takes investment in both time, money, and brainpower. It is not a casual show, in the worst sense of the word. You can forget about trying to get into the show at some arbitrary point, like catching a rerun on television. It might as well be in Hungarian for all your ability to appreciate its plot twists and character pitfalls on the fly. Do not even try.

No, the only way is to sit down with The Wire: The Complete First Season on DVD, followed in rapid succession by The Wire: The Complete Second Season and The Wire: The Complete Third Season, and then to re-watch the entire affair again a second time to pick up all you missed. Seventy-two hours and $180 later, you'll be ready for this set.


"It is the most natural and realistic feeling show on television today, and embarrasses the hell out of everything else in its genre. Trying to watch a similarly themed show like Law & Order after spending some time in Baltimore with The Wire is like getting a root canal in your brain."


My point is this: while Hollywood has bravely set about the business of making the finest movies based on breakfast cereals ever made, Simon and his collaborators have hoisted the medium of film onto their backs and marched it into the territory previously inhabited by Tolstoy, Melville and Dickens, the greatest of the long-form storytellers.


It's not an easy show. Don't blame me if you don't get it.

All Content Copyright Iggy 2003-2007
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