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Notes on The Wire

March 3, 2007

So one of the reasons–although certainly not the biggest one–why I haven’t posted much in the last few weeks is that instead of renting or watching movies on-demand, I’ve been addictively watching The Wire. I watched all of Season 4 late last year, and since late December, I’ve almost made my way through all of Seasons 1-3.

Beyond the observation that this is probably the best TV show ever, it’s also interesting to watch the first three seasons after watching season 4. For those who watched the seasons in order, it probably never seemed that a gang could be more ruthless than the Barksdale crew: killing witnesses, mutilating their enemies, killing off people just because they’re worried they might snitch. But Marlo Stanfield and his attack dogs, Chris and Snoop, the criminals in season 4, blow Barksdale out of the water. They don’t kill for sport, exactly, but they extinguish anyone that could remotely be a leak, even soldiers who’ve shown no indication of disloyalty.

Watching seasons 1-3, then, is colored by this knowledge that a more rapacious king will soon rise to take Barksdale’s crown. It ends up complicating my sympathies. Knowing what horrors awit in season 4, I find myself rooting for Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale to survive, and escape the cops, simply because they are a lesser evil. I find myself making excuses for their actions, the same way we tend not to see World War I as so cataclysmic simply because World War II was so much worse.

Probably my favorite part of the show is its Macchiavellian portrait of police department politics. The scheme by which Daniels persuades Carcetti to open up the abandoned row houses in season 4 is brilliant. While it’s pretty much an open secret that the abandoned rowhouses in West Baltimore are full of murder victims, nobody in the police department is interested in going in, because they know the discovery of bodies will spike the city’s murder rate and probably decrease the department’s clearance rate, the percentage of murders that are solved. But Daniels, who is being groomed to become the next police commissioner, persuades Carcetti, the incoming mayor, that he should open the rowhouses before Jan. 1 so the murders–and the low clearance rate–can be attached to the outgoing mayor. By opening up the rowhouses before his official term starts, he can claim that the outgoing mayor left a city riven by murder, while in a few years he can point to the reduced murder rate during his term–and use that to run for the U.S. Senate.

What makes The Wire even more complex than The Sopranos is that it is not unrelenting in its vision. Even though the “good guys” are endlessly disappointed by leaks, politics and policing mistakes, they occasionally win, as with the arrests of Barksdale and some of his key soldiers in season 1. Unlike The Sopranos, The Wire doesn’t have a message that people are terrible; occasionally, bad people can be rehabilitated–like Cutty, a Barksdale assassin-turned-youth-boxing coach–and good guys can triumph over evil, even if it’s in the most fucked up, unsatisfying way possible. The Wire is less interested in morality than it is in the intricate dynamics of “The Game,” which is a byword for politics, policing, crime, even education–any field that involves complex politicking and competing interests. In other words, “The Game” is life.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2007 10:02 pm

    Although I recognize how brilliantly written and acted THE WIRE is, it doesn’t much matter to me if I ever see it again. Total realism is not what I’m looking for when I go to the movies or watch a TV show.

  2. Brad Glaser permalink
    March 8, 2007 5:11 pm

    I’m in the midst of Season 3 of The Wire, so I have only glanced at your notes. Incredible show. It’s easily the best police drama of all-time. It contends with The Sopranos for my favorite drama ever. So far my comparison would be that The Sopranos may have been better at its absolute peak but that The Wire is more consistent. I haven’t seen an episode yet that I’d deem dissapointing. Of course, it’s more linear than The Sopranos, so it’s open to less risk of down episodes than The Sopranos’ more self-contained plots.

    Just finished the episode where they sing “The Body of an American” for the detective who died. I’m a sucker for any show that features Pogues singalongs.

    My biggest criticism would be that Omar and the assassin that Avon brought in from NYC (Brother something?) are both a little on the unbelievable side, considering the overall realism of the show. Still, I find Omar a fascinating character, so I can’t complain too much. I would have liked to see more of Steve Earle as Waylon, but that’s really just because I love his music.

  3. March 8, 2007 5:43 pm

    Couldn’t agree more on the peak value of The Sopranos vs. the consistency of The Wire, although I wonder if it’s even fair to talk about The Wire in terms of individual episodes. It’s so intricately plotted that major storylines often aren’t resolved in a season let alone an episode.

    I also love the episode where the detective died. Soon enough, you’ll see how that has a long-term impact on McNulty.

    And I also agree on Omar and to a lesser extent, Brother Mouzon (sic?). Brother Mouzon is a little more believable if only because he’s only around for a few episodes; Omar, on the other hand, is pretty much invincible. At any given moment, he has the city’s toughest gangsters after him, and nobody can ever kill him. You could say the same for Bubbles, who people must know is a snitch.

    One random note: I don’t know if you’re aware of this but the actors who play McNulty and Stringer Bell are both British. I can’t imagine an American actor pulling off the same trick in an ongoing British series.

  4. Brad Glaser permalink
    March 9, 2007 1:15 pm

    I’m undoubtedly influenced by the fact that I’m watching it in big chunks, but it is hard to think of The Wire in anything less than seasons. In thinking back, I may have found the first couple of episodes of Season 2 slightly dissapointing had I been watching weekly because there was alot of setup time in establishing the stevedores’ culture. But the payoffs were huge, as by midway through we start to get a feel for the levels of the drug trade.

    I didn’t know that Dominic West was British. That makes the setup for the brothel sting and his crappy British accent funnier. One note on him: He does one of the more believable falldown drunks that I’ve ever seen. Actors, even some very good ones, struggle to play drunkeness well.

    Perhaps the most incredible thing about this show is how many characters we get a strong feel for, even as alot of time is devoted to explication of the at-times-complex plot lines. Both terrific writing and acting get credit here, as the writers clearly give the actors good material, and they have a cast that use limited screen time to get their characters accross.

  5. March 9, 2007 1:20 pm

    Good point about West. The same holds for Wendell Pierce, who plays Bunk. He’s by no means the dramatic center of the show, but he is a phenomenal actor, and maybe even better at playing drunk than West. He really shines in Season 4.

  6. Brad Glaser permalink
    March 10, 2007 1:43 am

    I would say Pierce plays a different kind of drunk equally well.

  7. bro permalink
    March 10, 2007 3:09 pm

    so here’s a question for you two. since it seems like both of you didn’t start watching the wire until recently, what was the impetus? Was it the Sports Guy’s raves about the show, or just the general critical acclaim?

  8. Brad Glaser permalink
    March 13, 2007 2:36 am

    Simmons was one of a chorus of voices I heard praising Season 4. I actually had watched the first half of Season 1 when it was on but moved and didn’t have HBO after that. I figured I should catch up before I watched Season 4.

  9. March 15, 2007 1:30 am

    It was a combination of a couple of factors:

    1) I didn’t watch The Wire for a number of years because I limited my Sunday night diet to The Sopranos and Entourage (and occasionally Deadwood). For a while as well, The L Word came on at 10 on Showtime (when I had it), and the former MOWC was a big fan, as was I–who doesn’t love hot lesbians making out? And as we all know, once a season starts, it becomes awfully difficult to just jump into The Wire. I caught bits and pieces here and there and it always looked intriguing, but I could never make heads or tails of what was happening.

    2) The Sports Guy’s raves–calling it the best show ever, which I might agree with–were hard to ignore.

    3) When I started this blog, I made a promise to myself to write about every movie that I see. It’s a promise that I’ve almost kept (minus an Aspen Extreme here, a United 93 there). So watching a movie isn’t necessarily the relaxing activity that it used to be since I know that I’ll eventually have to write something about it. But I never made any kind of promise about TV shows, so watching a few episodes of The Wire on-demand was much more relaxing than dealing with the self-imposed pressure of watching a movie on-demand.

    4) Season 4 was so good that I was absolutely hooked, and I simply devoured Seasons 1 through 3 in about eight weeks.

  10. bren permalink
    March 18, 2007 1:36 pm

    Great to see you guys loving The Wire… I got hooked on the show via On Demand while I had it in Brighton getting 4 episodes a month— and it quickly became me watching 4 hours in a row of it on the first of the month… now waiting for the seasons to come out on dvd is just flat out painful… unfortunately they don’t have methadone clinics for tv addictions yet… Anyhoo I digress, I can’t wait to see season 4, I have only heard that it’s best season yet and McNulty is hardly in it, which boggles my mind. On a different note, another British dude who does a great job playing an American guy is Jason Isaacs, the evil British guy in The Patriot, plays a guy from Providence in Brotherhood, a show on Showtime. I was pretty shocked to realize it was the same guy

  11. Ryan permalink
    June 12, 2007 1:51 am

    Back from an almost year long absence from the conversation….Me. You’ve said it all so far about the greatest show on TV. My eyes will never recover from the epic Wire watching sessions I have put them through…on top of all the masturbating…not to the Wire. One enjoyable twist to watching the show is to turn on your television’s closed captioning. I’m not sure if televisions vary in the closed captioning content that they deliver, but it is hilarious to watch a scene of homeboys standing around laughing about something and television reads, [Men Guffawing]. Or see it describe Omar as, “Whistling a spritely tune.”

    I still think “Hamsterdam” is the funniest thing ever.

    No on to all the other posts. Sorry to track back to the old shit. I’m sure you are busy pounding out your thoughts on Sopranos finale.

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