The Wire

[Screenshot]Once upon a time, a former Baltimore Sun reporter named David Simon decided to bring his experience of Baltimore, and in particular of the criminal and police interactions, into every home in America on the small screen. Thus was born one of the primary bar-raisers in police procedurals, Homicide: Life on the Street. Today, Homicide is still quite respectable, but it lacks the punch it did back in the 90s, because several other shows have adopted its realistic style. So it was high time when Simon returned to the Baltimore crime drama in the 21st century with The Wire. Except, this time, it was on HBO, which let him get away with a lot of crap which you can’t do on a broadcast network.

Some of what he was free to do was the usual broadcast/non-broadcast difference in decency laws: he was now free to write a scene consisting of nothing but people saying “fuck” (gimmicky but OK once), pepper the street slang with uses of the word “nigger” (appropriate realism), and include occasional onscreen simulated copulation (acceptable but rarely actually necessary). But where he really had a free hand was in pacing, plotting, and explanation to the viewer. The first episode does little to draw you in: it spends a lot of time on bureaucrats and gangsters shouting at each other in jargon and very little explanation of what’s going on. On a network, that would be an unmitigated disaster. On HBO, it’s just 1/13 of the intended first-season story arc. And by the end, a viewer who’s been paying attention will understand a lot of what’s going on (just in time for the second season and a return to complete ignorance of what a ‘RO/RO’ is or how the docking seniority system works). It
s compelling and gritty, and full of lots of characters. It’s not patronising (but one sometimes wishes it would be, just a little), and it doesn’t pull its punches. It has a (seemingly appropriate) cynicism about politics, bureaucracy, and race relations in the city. Other, better reviewers than myself have enumerated the series’ best points, so I figure I’ll just present my (extremely subjective) rundown of the seasons from best to worst.

Third season: There are about a hundred plots in this one, all of them interesting and none of them underdeveloped. The breakout from the level of the street to the upper echelons of the police force and city government is well-handled, and there’s astonishing long-term plot progression and character development. The series could even have ended with this one and it would be strong.

First season: Where it all started. There’s one plot and it’s hammered hard. The multiple facets of the principal characters of the next several seasons are exposed with subtlety and skill. The street-level realism and interpolice bickering are developed to just the right level to not feel gimmicky, and the end of the arc provides effective partial closure.

Second season: Neck-and-neck with the fourth season; the prison subplot’s more absorbing than the elecvtion issues, but the dock is a marginally less interesting environment, and more removed from the main focus, than the inner-city schools. It’s a nice contrast to see some white people on the criminal end of things, but this season has the disadvantage of having fewer characters who tie into the long-term story.

Fourth season: See above with respect to plotting. On other points, the school plot is a bit darkened by hobby-horse cynicism, but even with such imbalance, this remains an enjoyable and enlightening set of episodes. The political elements drag a bit, thoguh, especially on the points which are far removed from the police-hierarchy issues.

Fifth season: Where David Simon gets really cynical, I’m afraid. He’s a bit too close to the Baltimore Sun to be objective here, and he spends a lot of time developing “good guys” and “bad guys” in the newsroom. He can see shades of gray everywhere but at home, I guess.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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