Friday, January 04, 2008

The Wire

People just go on and on about what makes The Wire one of the best television shows ever, or the best crime story in any medium, or what have you. Realism is cited often, but I do not care that much about realism. What I love about The Wire is that at the beginning of every episode, there is this implied voice speaking to you, one that says “You are smart. This is going to be a complicated story, with a lot of characters, characters with names, and nicknames that are going to be hard to keep track of, characters that are not good guys or bad guys but just guys, so you do not know who to root for. But we know you are smart. So we are not going to provide you with absurd exposition every fifteen minutes – no one, at any point, is going to just going to summarize what the show is about to a character who already knows, just so we can be sure you are keeping up. Because that is stupid, and we are all working too hard on this story to waste time being redundant, and making ourselves clear to addle-minded viewers who just came back from the bathroom. You are smart. TV is NOT for stupid people, potentially.”

Plus characters change in a way that is more persuasive and satisfying than any show I have ever seen, and that is one of the main reasons we tell stories -- to watch people change. But that is maybe another post.

I have only just finished the first season of The Wire, but this is why I have decided that the WGA strike is good – because I have not seen every episode of The Wire, The Unit, 24, Battlestar Galactica, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Flight of the Concords, and Ugly Betty. And I have a Netflix account. Expect more in my series Vaguely Anachronistic Comments on Stuff from the Recent Past.


Christian said...

"And I have a Netflix account."

Hah. That almost sounds like a vague threat.

And I Am Legend, Geoff! I needz to knowz if it's worse enough to just skip in the cinema and wait for the DVD. Aside from the Jesus angle.

Geoff Klock said...

I don't want it to be a threat, but it is supposed to be aggressive. I LOVE TV. This strike is HARD ON ME. :)

I have not yet seen I am Legend. It is on the list, but it is at the bottom, so it might be awhile. I am seeing There Will Be Blood tonight. Then Juno. Then several other things I don't remember right now. Sorry.

Jeremy said...

As good as the Wire Season 1 is, it only gets better and better.

As my wife and I say of the show, it's not one that you can multitask while watching. It pretty much requires 100% attention, which is a challenge in itself, albeit a delicious one.

Darius Kazemi said...

That "you are smart" bit is also the main reason I liked West Wing and Deadwood so much.

Stephen said...

What's great about The Wire is that it's great in lots of different ways. Thus, you may not care about realism -- but a lot of people do, and it's the most realistic show out there.

Or, for those who care about realism but don't care about smart TV... well, it's realistic, but it's also smart.

It's a bit hard to recommend -- or, rather, it's easy to recommend but I think it has to be done with the caveat that Jeremy added: you can't multitask with this one. You can't watch it with your brain half-off at the end of the day. You have to actually pay attention. (You didn't even mention the difficult corner-slang, which a lot of people I've talked to find hard to parse, at least at first; my suggestion (if you're using the DVDs) is to turn on the English subtitles and use them too.)

And these are only two of many ways in which The Wire is amazing. The best dialogue on TV (tied with Whedon) Thematic and imagistic complexities to accompany its complexities of plot and character. Moral complexities. Sheer narrative power. And the humor! People don't note often enough how funny it is.

And the pleasures of its own narrative conventions: no music except from actual, on-screen sources (e.g. a radio in a car) -- with the single, regular exception of the season-closing monologue. Almost no flash-backs or time-twists: just straight, bare narrative... in a thousand strands, braided together.

So yeah, Geoff, what you said, totally. But there's a lot of other angles there too -- and it's good in all of them.

And yeah, Seasons Two through Four rock at least as much as Season One, if not more.


PS: This is another topic... but it seems to me that this whole "watching people change" is one of the thing that well-done serial TV has going for it: showing convincing change because there is time and space and context to do it. It's our cultural equivalent of those long 19th-Century novels; and it fundamentally can show character change in a way extremely difficult to do in the more compressed space of a film, a shorter novel or a graphic novel.

(Comics, as a serial medium, ought to be good at this... but I can't think of any examples that have been; partly because the best comics tend to be shorter runs or unified graphic novels, and long runs just don't sustain their quality long enough. But I'd love counter-examples.)

Dr. K said...

Geoff--I like the way you articulate how The Wire encourages and rewards viewer intelligence. It's definitely a series one has to watch from the beginning--anyone just starting with season 5 would probably be turned off (though the new season's focus on the media through The Baltimore Sun introduces a whole bunch of new characters that have their own collective hook).

Another factor of the show's intelligence, and its respect for its audience, is the way its creators treat its characters. Characters you like and care about will die, or have horrible things happen to them, and the show respects the audience enough not to cheapen the emotional impact with unrealistic twists or easy outs. David Simon, along with Tom Fontana, used a similar approach to characters on Homicide, and this is a mark of all Fontana's TV work (especially Oz, but also going back to St. Elsewhere).

In addition, characters you like may shift to minor roles on one season while previously minor characters move to the center (as was definitely the case with season 4), and yet the show never loses its strength and quality. I can't think of another show that's managed such a large cast so well.

I don't want to say much more, but the first episode of season 5 is fantastic.

Also, Geoff, I'll be curious to hear your take on the treatment of academia in season 4.

Ping33 said...

Season 4 of The Wire is the best 13+ hours of TV ever produced.

ME said...

The Wire is a television masterpiece. Like Ping said, Season 4 is simply amazing.

I can't wait for #59 tonight & the finale next week.

I hope you get caught up soon!