Some words before the book closes on 'The Wire'

February 25, 2008

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In the fifth and final season of "The Wire," the series goes into the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun and brings the role of the media into the spotlight. (AP photo)

Note: This posting is safely spoiler-free. If you've seen all, some, or none of "The Wire," read on.

It's been several years since I wrote more than a paragraph about "The Wire." Despite my unlimited adoration for the show — which is one of the best shows in the history of the medium — my mention of it has been mostly limited to occasional name-dropping.

This post is to rectify that fact, even though anything I have to say about "The Wire" has already been said over and over again by critics. The show may not have a lot of viewers, but it certainly gets plenty of ink. Critics never tire of lauding it. And nor do I.

There's a reason for that: "The Wire" is a TV show that transcends television. More specifically, it transcends the typical show's tendency to assume less of viewers. Most TV shows — even the good ones — are based on the fundamental assumption that the audience has limitations. "The Wire" couldn't care less about that perception. It assumes the opposite. It assumes you are paying attention, that you remember characters and minor events from years-ago episodes without having them re-explained to you, and that you are patient to wait weeks or even seasons for some events to pay off.

"The Sopranos," another great HBO series, has a lot in common with "The Wire" in terms of its storytelling rhythms and moral gray areas, but the shows are of course very different. I was rewatching the final season of "Sopranos" on DVD a few weeks ago, and one subtle difference revealed itself: There's a scene where Tony takes Paulie out on a fishing boat in Miami, and Paulie thinks he is about to be killed. We get a flashback to the scene from season two where Pussy was whacked in a similar situation. "The Sopranos" gives you that flashback. "The Wire" would not have bothered, because it would've assumed you had already made the connection and knew what was going through Paulie's mind. If not, well, too bad.

In the show's fifth and final season, which ends Sunday, March 8, we've seen yet another element added to the show with the addition of the Baltimore Sun newsroom. In its absolute broadest terms, I suppose you could break each of the season themes down like this:

  • Season 1: The Drug War
  • Season 2: Unions and the Blue Collar Decline
  • Season 3: Governmental Politics
  • Season 4: Education
  • Season 5: The Media

Every season adds key new characters and a key new institution under scrutiny. The brilliance of "The Wire" is that even though every season has a theme you can point to, the show's seasons are NOT self-contained. Threads from each season go forward (with perhaps the exception of the union stuff in season two) and continue to grow and develop in future seasons. For example, politics may have ostensibly been the theme of season three, but the season three characters and stories continue on with great consequences in seasons four and five.

"The Wire" may be one of the few shows that I can think of that is completely entertaining while also surprisingly educational about the workings of a big city with drug and money problems. Watching it, you feel like a fly on the wall, privy to seemingly unfiltered information about city law enforcement, race, poverty, drug addiction, gangbangers, drug operations, bureaucratic shuffling, scapegoating, political corruption, spin control, and, of course, the inner workings of forensic investigation and elaborate wiretap operations (hence the title).

Also the apparently unlimited corruptive influence of money, money, money, and what happens when people have too much of it or not enough. One of the lines I will remember most about "The Wire" came in season two when union man Frank Sobotka — who had filtered an obscene amount of dirty money into a political lobby fund just to persuade the legislature to dredge the port canal, which would maybe lure some jobs back to his docks — said: "We used to make shit in this country. Now we just reach into the next guy's pocket." The show has a message, but it rarely preaches. "The Wire" is more interested in observing and showing consequences.

Showrunner David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun crime reporter, spent a year on the streets of Baltimore in 1988 following the Baltimore homicide unit. From that experience he wrote the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which was adapted to the NBC series "Homicide: Life on the Street" (1993-1999). He also wrote, along with former Baltimore cop and schoolteacher Ed Burns, The Corner, about a year in the lives of Baltimore drug addicts and dealers. The Corner was adapted into a six-part HBO miniseries in 2000. It remains one of the most harrowing dramatizations of addiction I've seen.

"The Wire" is most certainly fiction, but its broad strokes are based at least loosely on actual people and attitudes. In some cases, specific events are recycled from fact to fiction. Names of real cops like Jay Landsman (featured in Homicide the book), became characters in "The Wire," played by actors. But then the real Landsman himself pops up, playing a different cop in Baltimore's western district. Actors become cops, and cops become actors. Watching all the connections — a woven tapestry of fact and fiction — is fascinating. If you've read both of Simon's books and watched all of "Homicide" and "The Corner," it all further informs the sense that Baltimore in "The Wire" is a real place: a fictional world based on a real one. This year, they even worked in a Richard Belzer cameo, which is like a crossing of alternate-universe Baltimores. Or take the opening scene of season five involving the copy machine as a lie detector, which is straight out of Homicide the book and was also used early in "Homicide" the TV series.

"The Wire" has built on its themes with every passing season. In a sense, Simon's and Burns' past coverage and intimate knowledge of Baltimore became fodder for a scathing commentary on the bureaucracy of city institutions and a failed drug war. What's amazing is the way they've managed to filter this message through subtlety, with few characters who are simply good or evil, but rather placeholders in juggernaut-like societal institutions that overpower individual effort.

This all happens in a rock-solid fictional universe with performances and storytelling that thrive on patience and nuance, with characters whose fates intersect in intirguing ways, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes inevitably, sometimes tragically. The story is always paramount. Simon clearly loves his characters for all their virtues and/or faults (as do we), but what happens to them is based on their role in the story, not what might be just or right. The way stories collide and pile unexpected chain reactions upon one another on "The Wire" is similar to the way stories intersect in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts." Only we are aware of the whole bigger picture, while characters are doled out their destinies in a laboratory of the butterfly effect.

Let's not forget the show's humor. "The Wire" is funny, sometimes darkly and savagely so. The humor grows from its characters and its sometimes absurd situations. Whether it's Bunk's pricelessly disapproving glances, or McNulty drunkenly crashing his car (and then crashing it again because he wanted a do-over), or the very notion of trying to build a case completely on brilliant bullshit, or having the FBI read a criminal profile that perfectly describes the detective rather than the killer — "The Wire" knows that bucking the system is its own absurd joke. Call it angry humor, and call Simon an angry cynic.

And let's also not overlook the show's humanity. "The Wire" is cynical about institutions, but it still believes in individual effort and has a great empathy for people and hardship. Consider, for one, the journey of Bubbles, whose plight becomes especially moving as it moves in a new direction in the fifth season.

The truth is, I could go on and on about "The Wire," its characters, its stories, and its value as some of the best storytelling ever put on television. But the show is too complex for me to do that. There are dozens of characters, and they exist in a universe that every season has gotten bigger and bigger. Few shows truly create a universe that feels so real, so lived-in, so vast. The thing about "The Wire" is that the longer it goes on, the more you have. Some shows run out of energy and storylines. "The Wire's" universe builds on itself, becoming a sprawling place where a million things are happening all the time. And yet it maintains a clarity that is second to none; you are surrounded by the story without the risk of becoming lost in it.

Writing or reading about "The Wire" is far less enjoyable or useful than actually experiencing it. For those of you who haven't seen it, you should. I've left spoilers out so you can watch the DVDs fresh. Start at the beginning.

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22 comments on this post

    Interesting Jammer.. you've certainly made me wanna watch The Wire.. but I wonder would you say most of what you say about the Wire is also true about BSG?.. a lot of what you said about the stories and focus on the characters reminded me of BSG...

    BSG is a very good show. But "The Wire" is easily greater. It may be a matter of personal taste, but in my book it's not even a close call.

    I agree 100% with everything you've said. Not just is it the drama that is astoundingly powerful, but in what it reveals about society too. Never has it felt hamfisted and it has always been presented logically and intelligently. BSG is an excellent show (the sci-fi fan in me often prefers BSG over The Wire) but you're right in that it doesn't stand up to the just about fully-realized perfection of The Wire. In my opinion it's probably one of the greatest things ever put to film.

    Also (not to flood your comment page here) I'd like to say that as a student getting a degree in Literature, this show is just about the biggest breath of fresh air I've ever had in terms of TV or movies. I really am one that appreciates story structure, well-written and perfectly placed dialogue, small thematic details that otherwise go unnoticed on single views, and everything else The Wire is able to pull off like a visual version of my favourite novels. Any student (or lover) of literature would love this show. Which is not to say that others can't, because they certainly can. But I really enjoy being able to dissect a story piece by piece and figure out what it all means and The Wire allows me to do just that.

    I really love BSG, but The Wire is the better show, easily. I've only seen the first season but it is so well written that I envisage seeing more.

    Watch out for Martin O'Malley. He once had gubernatorial aspirations like that certain white character on the Wire, but soon those aspirations will become presidential.

    Well said, Jammer. You have a unique way with words... and you are dead-on true about Wire. Like Homicide: Life... and, in a way, DS9 and BSG, one cannot watch Wire like standard tv. Not with your girl, not with family. Not on a friday night, not as a whim. Wire demands attention and commitment to enjoy; it's like a thick, serious, gripping novel that you absolutely have to endure the whole of to appreciate. In the end, you actually want to plan out your rewatching in advance, and pity those that don't have the oportunity to enjoy. Kudo's to all involved, across the board, in creating this production!

    Like Greg, I don't want to flood yer page here, but Wire can be summed up in a scene I just watched for the first time: Season 1, episode 4, where McNulty and Bunk rehash an old crime scene and all they say to each other is "F**k."...clocked in 28 times with that expletive, yet they say so much more to each other with every utterance of the word. That's not only bold writing, but directing and acting to boot.

    I have to disagree. You are right that the show doesn't rely on "dumb" viewers for flashbacks and reminders, but that is one reason why the critics are mainly fond of it. That, and that it is different to all the network shows out there that we all know are mediocre for the most part. That does not mean The Wire is for everyone, most people I know have mainly tried to watch it because the critics laud it so massively, but nearly 90% of them have not bothered to continue. So the critics fall into the 10%? Looks like it.

    You disagree with what? That the show is great? Or that they shouldn't eschew "mass appeal"? I never argued that "The Wire" should have mainstream audiences. I admit it's not for everyone. Few things that are truly great are for everyone.

    I thought that I should mention that there is also a SciFi series that "transcends the typical show’s tendency to assume less of viewers." Babylon 5 "also assumes you are paying attention, that you remember characters and minor events from years-ago episodes without having them re-explained to you, and that you are patient to wait weeks or even seasons for some events to pay off." I hope you find the time to watch it someday!

    Well I would hope (and I do think) that is generally true of Star Trek (especially DS9 and some parts of TNG)

    The point is, to me, while there are several good to almost excellent shows on tv both past and present, The Wire is the greatest drama every broadcast on American television. We can only hope the there will be other shows in the future of equal or greater quality. By the way I love BSG, Lost, Babylon 5, Frank's Place, The Original Outer Limits, Homicide: Life on the Street, Max Headroom all wonderful but not as superb as "The Wire."

    I agree with Michael. I won't go so far as to say greatest drama ever broadcast on television, but only because I haven't seen every drama ever made. But it's certainly the best that I myself have seen.

    I have seen an ep or so and that is all but I think there is a difference between appealing and good. The wire is the latter not the former, I'd rather watch things that are both! (sick of crime shows) Also another show that is increasingly complex is LOST. But yeah, B5 for sure too. as well as the others already mentioned.

    Lost is a good show, but it can be slow-paced as hell...almost spitefully so. I prefer shows like BSG and B5 that, although they don't succeed each time, attempt to aim for greatness in each episode they produce.

    I almost thought I read a description of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's also always described as a show that "transcends television" and "doesn't treat their audience as stupid people" and with "actual character development". I haven't seen the Wire yet, but as a fan of Buffy, it seems like a match. ;)

    Remco, I adored Buffy and Angel, as much as I did DS9, which I loved more than almost any show I can remember (and I can add to those lists the original Trek, Twilight Zone, Homicide: Life on the Streets, BSG and the Muppet Show). While the Wire is not and never will be as dear to my heart as those, there is no question in my mind that it is superior in almost every other way. I have never seen anything quite like it on American television, and I know I am very hard to please when it comes to television shows. When Buffy, Angel and DS9 were on the air, I could be absolutely brutal in my criticisms when they'd faltered. And while I have some gripes with The Wire, the list is far, far shorter than any show in my memory.

    As much as I like both shows, it's painful to compare The Wire to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They can't be graded on the same scale. It would be like comparing Paradise Lost to Star Wars. Star Wars, like Buffy, is head and shoulders above most entertainment. But, at least for me, The Wire reaches a level beyond entertainment, however complex and layered that might be, and helps us understand the world in which we live. This doesn't mean you ought to enjoy one more than the other -- The Wire can be difficult, at times uneven -- but understand that they aspire to different things.

    I love the Wire. It's a great show, and definitely one of the best on television. I do think, however, that BSG is superior (personal taste). Course, they're also very different shows (even if they share plenty of similarities), so really I guess I can't actually say which one is *better*. Both great shows though.

    Jammer, I finally started watching the show and it's fabulous. I'm sure I would never have bothered if I hadn't read your comments right here.

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