Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Time of the Season: S1 of The Wire (’02)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 30, 2007

“It’s all in the game…”

Why it took me so long to start up with the show that’s been hailed as the best on TV for nearly a half-decade now is not really the issue right now. The answer to that one is obvious–I’m an idiot that was probably too busy watching Law & Order: SVU reruns. The more pressing question at this point would have to be why oh why did I decide to pick the last two weeks of school, the time I should be spending studying for finals, looking up job opportunities, or at the very least being ass-drunk 85% of the time, to start watching it? I’ve got a million things I should be doing, and all I wanna do is watch this fucking show (don’t worry though, Mom, I’ll find a half-hour or so a day to squeeze in all that other stuff)

Needless to say, as usual, everyone was right on the money. The Wire may or may not be the best show on TV right now (and given its tendency to change up every season, I should really only say it may or may not have been the best show on TV in 2002), but it’s definitely a top ranker. And it also somewhat inadvertently proves that I was probably smart to hold off on getting into it, since back when it debuted I don’t think I was a patient enough TV watcher to keep up with The Wire‘s enormous, starless ensemble cast, its labyrinthine story arcs and slow, meticulous pacing.

There are two immediate reference points that jumped out at me when watching The Wire. The first is the obvious and probably facile comparison to HBO’s other morally ambiguous, ambitiously structured and obsessively pawed over crime epic, The Sopranos. The main difference between the two as I see it, aside from the change in setting (Baltimore, which like Jersey, makes for a surprisingly rich backdrop) and the focus on both cops and robbers, is that I feel like The Sopranos has aspirations to grand drama, even tragedy, that the relatively humble Wire lacks.

The Wire has a feeling of near-objectivity to it, achieved through the lack of non-diagetic background music, self-conscious camera work or disproportionate character focus. Though The Sopranos will sometimes spend most of a whole episode tracing a minor character’s personal arc, often propelling the show’s main plot little if at all, The Wire keeps things incredibly taut, allowing even the greatest of digressions to make up a fraction of an episode. Which isn’t to say that the personal lives and struggles of these characters isn’t important to the show, but creator David Simon never loses track of the plot for too long, and as a consequence, episodes only really make sense in their function as part of the whole season–like chapters in a book, as Simon has put it.

The other main point of comparison is with the Michael Mann-penned ’95 action classic Heat, the first major work I can think of in film or TV to focus with equal attention and care on both the good guys and the bad guys (and to show us that, yeah, deep down the two groups might not be so different). Like Heat, The Wire sets out to prove that concepts like “good” and “evil” don’t exist in their purest forms, as the good guys are often shown to be self-serving, incompetent and lazy (often very, very fucking lazy) and even the worst dudes are shown to have soft spots, some of which end up costing them dearly.

This idea is hardly much of a revelation (it wasn’t even before Heat), and the reason The Wire‘s first season works is because it doesn’t simply rely on these tropes to give their characters scope and humanity–instead, we get some of the richest characterization ever seen in the crime drama form. Take Omar (played by Michael K. Williams), unquestionably the show’s most memorable character. Omar is the so-called Robin Hood of the projects, sticking up drug dealers for the stash and the cash, and distributing the goods to people in his neighborhood. Omar is also gay, and openly so, a characteristic which most lesser shows would use to define the character, making him either hopelessly flamboyant or comically macho in compensation. The Wire (and Williams) does neither, crafting a believably homosexual character that’s also intelligent, charismatic, and downright badass (so much that the cops barely try to stop or reprimand his vigilante efforts, Officer McNulty even harboring an extremely obvious non-sexual crush on the thug).


“Lesson learned, B. You come at the king, you best not miss.”

Or take what is probably the show’s second best character, drug ring second-in-command Stringer Bell, played by Idris Elba. Stringer shows business and management capabilities beyond the garden variety criminal far before halfway through the first season, when the cops trail him to a class he’s taking at the Baltimore Community College. Once again, most shows would use this aspiration to higher education in one of two ways–to posit Stringer as a nerdy intellectual, in opposition to his position, as well as his intimidating voice and physical build, or to show him as being intellectually way out of his league, constantly dispensing misinterpreted, unwanted advice to his cohorts and unknowingly dropping malapropisms left and right, a technique on which The Sopranos has become uncomfortably reliant. Rather, Stringer is just shown as being a smart dude, giving good advice to his boss and much-needed mentoring to his underlings, and occasionally dropping his college vocab when the situation warrants.

Or you could even take the closest character the show has to a protagonist, hard-luck Irish cop Jimmy McNulty. Played by Dominic West, McNulty is mostly the kind of Cop you’d expect to anchor a show like The Wire–tough and smart, but too reckless and insubordinate for his own good. But rather than leave the character as the lovable anti-hero, The Wire shows the man to actually be a pretty huge asshole, especially in his personal life. Estranged from his wife, he often neglects his kids and even uses them to help follow and tag Bell in one episode, actually losing them in the pursuit. Meanwhile he still sleeps around with DA Rhonda Pearlman, who he essentially treats as his whore, showing up drunk at her place to fuck and insulting and tossing her aside in the morning. It’s subtle enough that the character is still likable, but it’s clear that even though he might be the best, most honest cop in Baltimore, he’s still no innocent.

And it’s that kind of believability that propels The Wire through its first season. When shit goes down–lesbian undercover cop Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) getting gunned down in a sting op gone wrong probably being the biggest “oh shit” moment of the season–it feels like the show’s really earned it, as if they wouldn’t dare present it were it not a totally plausible and possible occurrence. It makes you really want to learn what happens to these characters, because it makes you think that it’s exactly what would happen in real life.

And it makes it really fucking hard for me to start gearing up for my Lit final when I’ve got season two on the backburner. Dammit, dammit, dammit.

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4 Responses to “Time of the Season: S1 of The Wire (’02)”

  1. Justin said

    I’m glad people are finally catching on before it’s cancelled

  2. Andrew, how do you think it compares to Homicide? Or have you not seen the other great cops-in-Baltimore show?

    (I’m willing to bet from word of mouth I’ll like The Wire more, but Homicide is still pretty great)

  3. Andrew Unterberger said

    Haven’t seen Homicide yet, Ian. One of my many TV-related projects for the summer.

  4. David B said

    Ouch, way to put in the spoiler about Kima.

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