June 26, 2010

Way down in the hole.

After what seems like a lifetime of hemming and hawing, I started The Wire about a month ago. I'd heard all the talk about it being the greatest television show of all time, and I'd actually gone through Season One a few years back. For whatever reason, though, the switch from the streets to the ports in Season Two threw me off, and I never kept going. (Honestly, the change in theme might be what did it. I know now, obviously, that there's a new theme for every season, but I love the Season One theme so much, especially its return for the final, series-ending montage.)

But I came back, and I finally finished this week. While I can't say that The Wire is definitively better than, say, The Shield or Battlestar Galactica (probably my two favorite shows ever), it's absolutely in the conversation. And I'm mostly speaking from an entertainment perspective; if you're talking about the smartest, best put-together show on TV, then there's no question. It's The Wire.

(Note: Spoilers galore from this point on. Sorry.)

No show is as ambitious as David Simon's creation. While occasionally a little heavy-handed with foreshadowing, the way The Wire follows a case from start to finish, from the (often) minor incident that draws the notice of police or the courts to the investigative aspects to the eventual conclusion is true genius. You kind of take it for granted by the end, because you know how the show operates and you just want to see where it's headed, but in Season One, I don't think you can help being blown away. There's so much going on and so many characters, and you are able to see them grow and evolve with the show. From Lieutenant to Major to Commissioner, you're with them the whole way; not many shows can say that.

On 24, Jack Bauer is Jack Bauer. He's not growing or changing. And it's usually in the best interest of shows to keep characters where there are; keep them where it works, where viewers want them to be. But I read an interview with Simon recently, and he pointed out that the writing staff on The Wire is not based in television. They're novelists and journalists, and they have an eye for telling a story from start to finish. Most stories aren't interesting if the same thing keeps happening over and over, and The Wire realized that. It made the show feel important, storytelling on a much grander scale than you expect when you pop on the TV. This isn't saying that other shows need to operate in the same fashion; it just worked here.

This basis in storytelling also helped ground the show in reality; you were following characters through their lives, not just through a season of TV. Their ups, downs, flaws and talents were accentuated. When you saw McNulty fucking a strange woman on the hood of a car, it was funny, but it was also poignant and a little heartbreaking. You started to invest in his relationship with Beadie; it felt right and natural. You wanted McNulty to keep maturing as a person, not revert back to fun-loving, drunk McNulty, even though drunk McNulty was considerably more entertaining as a character.

Simon also wasn't afraid to kill characters, and to kill them in the right way (something could have learned from Heroes could have learned from The Wire, if it wasn't already canceled for being so very shitty). I loved the way they killed off Omar, how there was no fanfare. Bunk was the only one who cared; McNulty hadn't dealt with Omar in ages, and Lester seemed like he barely knew who he was. There was no dramatic shootout; it was a stroke of bad luck, which is probably how most gangsters go. Wrong place, wrong time; that sort of thing. The Wire takes a truly great balance between understanding how important characters are to the audience and presenting them in the (relatively) real world the show inhabits. No matter how much we love Omar, he's just a guy caught up in the game, and eventually, he's gonna get got. Even if it is by a little punk kid.

And I loved the sense of foreboding I got whenever the ending theme would play. It worked perfectly with the whole theme of the show, the idea that the war against drugs is unwinnable. Even the big victories they scored, against Avon and Marlo's crew, were more strokes of good luck then solid, start-to-finish police work. If Bunny doesn't tip off McNulty to the warehouse or if Herc doesn't steal Marlo's cell number, they've got nothing. Every other time they closed in on a criminal, something would screw it up. That's probably how it works more often than not; it's the nature of the beast. Just not something we're used to seeing on TV.

But there were a few things I didn't buy. Although the serial killer thing makes a lot more sense as the season goes on, it's really jarring at first. I refused to accept that McNulty would a) become a drunk again so fast, b) give up on Beadie so easily and c) really put this serial killer story to effect. By the end of Season Five, you accept it, but mostly because the show's been cramming it down your throat for 10 episodes and you have no choice. The show definitely still had something to say at the end; I loved the whole journalism theme, and we had to see Marlo's crew go down. But I think certain characters, like McNulty and Bubbles (the Sherrod stuff was absolutely awful, I'm glad the lit tle fucker is dead), didn't really have any other place to go. They either went around in circles or moved into areas that didn't feel right. There's no shame in running out of steam a bit near the end, as no show is perfect forever (see Simpsons, The). I just wish they had thought of a better way to tie Season Five together.

That being said, the scene where the FBI profiles the "serial killer" and describes McNulty was pure genius.

I've already moved onto Breaking Bad, and I'm hoping for the same level of excellence in that critically renowned show. But I can't recommend The Wire enough to pretty much everyone. We're in the golden age of television, people, and you're a fool if you don't take advantage of that fact. If you've got 50 or so hours to kill (and who doesn't!), give the show a shot. You shan't regret it.

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