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Even superlatives aren't enough
on October 26, 2006
Over the last two decades I've watched a great deal of television, maybe even more than the average for my generation, and out of all of it The Wire is doubtless the most challenging and important show I've ever seen, leaving even other classics like The Shield and The Sopranos in its dust, and this first season remains its defining document. All thirteen of these episdoes are filled with amazingly detailed and complex storytelling, sharp characterization, and endless insights into the nature of modern crime and punishment--and they're mighty exciting to watch, to boot. The whole season covers the participants in a single case, as an impromptu squad of cops is assembled to bring down the housing-project drug empire of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, but the implications of the investigation, and the show's ambitions, stretch far beyond one tiny front in the interminable drug war. We watch the case, built almost entirely on electronic surveillance (hence the title) come together piece by piece from the ground up, with the emotional stakes and social relevance being ratcheted up consistently along the way, right up until a harrowing conclusion that takes up the last two episodes. Watching the Wire, one thing is certain: Law and Order this ain't; you'll be thinking about it a lot longer afterward.
Even if nothing else, season one of The Wire would be notable for its narrative structure, which represents a new twist of the serialized TV format-the visual novel, with everything connected, so an event that happens in one episode can be referenced seven or eight episodes later and the viewer had better know what's going on. The season is deliberately structured in a novelistic format, with individual episodes making up the chapters, so watching, say, the ninth episdoe of this season will get you nowhere except a state of abject confusion. Thanks to its narrative flow, the Wire is easily the most naturalistic show I've ever watched, as the progression of events from the season's beginning to its end never feels forced or contrived. This format demands a lot of the viewer, as it practically requires you to watch nonstop without blinking or looking away from the screen, but it proves so rewarding you'll probably want to anyway.
That having been said, I can actually understand why this show's viewership is so limited (and it is REALLY limited; check the numbers). For many, The Wire will probably be so lifelike and believable that it doesn't even function as entertainment. In that sense, the show's greatest strength is also its (only) weakness, as there's nothing remotely sensationalistic or cliched about it, no reliance on overdirected action scenes, contrived cliffhanger endings, or improbable plot twists, which right away separates it from pretty much everything on network TV. For all involved, the season is filled with setbacks, frustrations, and long periods of waiting for something to happen, just like real life. The action quotient is also a lot lower than you'll find on a show like The Shield, and what violence there is is frequently disturbing, but it's always employed with a purpose, rather than just for the sake of mindless entertainment (make no mistake, I'm not opposed to a little mindless violence from time to time, but The Wire makes far more effective use of it). The world is made to look as and feel as real as possible, as though you're actually there-no dream sequences, no haunting visions, only one extremely brief flashback-an emphasis on realism that extends to the most seemingly insignificant bits of setting and dialogue. It all adds up to a show that's unfailingly convincing and authentic, but definitely not for those looking for an escape.
Hmmm, how else can I count the ways in which The Wire wipes the floor with its competition? Well, for another thing, the scope is just so much wider than any other crime show's, going far beyond even The Shield (a great show, but still an also-ran in comparison to The Wire) in capturing the workings of an American city in the early 21st century. David Simon himself has said the show's principal focus is on how institutions affect (and are affected by) individuals, and The Wire casts a decidely unflinching light on the functions and dysfunctions of the groups it examines. Anyone who's part of an institution-in this case a police force, a court system or a large-scale drug organization-has to compromise his individuality to a certain extent, and the show perfectly captures the conflicts that come with the tough decisions the real world requires of its characters. The only truly independent character on the show is Omar Little, the freelance street operator who makes his living robbing drug dealers, and he has to make the tradeoff of constant threats on his life. The world of The Wire is a difficult and unforgiving one, where having a conscience can get you killed while someone infinitely more vicious walks, and where conscientious cops can lose out to those who know how to play the game.
In yet another break with convention, there's no Tony Soprano/Vic Mackey/Greg House-style main character here around whom everything is required to revolve, at least to some extent-The Wire is about the story, and while the characters are hardly interchangeable or inconsequential, the emphasis is on fitting them all into the whole universe the show inhabits. That said, everyone depicted in this season, from the junkies and street dealers to high-ranking cops and politicians inhabiting halls of power, is played brilliantly. Although there isn't really a main character per se, Dominic West is sort of a first among equals as Jimmy McNulty, the self-righteous, insubordinate, irresponsible detective who turns the case into a personal crusade to prove his superior intelligence and frequently succeeds. For all his flaws, Jimmy's a man's man, the kind of guy you can't help but like, especially since he really is smarter than pretty much everyone else around him. After West, the biggest impression among the wire team is probably made by Lance Reddick as Cedric Daniels, the almost impossibly intense, glaring leader whose initially suspect dedication steadily grows over the course of the season. Backing them is a whole crew of memorable characters, from the odd-couple pairing of loutish white detective Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) and his smooth black partner Carver (Seth Gilliam); to Jimmy's trash-talking, cigar-chomping partner Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce); to paternal, wisdom-dispensing ex-homicide detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters); and of course abrasive, venal Major Bill Rawls (John Doman), who manages to save his best vitriol for Jimmy.
Unlike the typical crime drama, though, The Wire's focus doesn't stop with the cops, providing a ground-up view of the inner workings of the Bell-Barksdale drug operation, from the lowest street dealers to the two leaders. The wire team's targets aren't just plot devices, nor are they slobbering, inhuman evildoers; rather; the Barksdale-Bell Crew are just as sharply drawn and fleshed out as anyone else, with an operation whose corporate structure and intricate business practices are just as pure a distillation of American capitalism as any legitimate company's. The incredible Idris Elba, especially, leaves an impression as Stringer, the smooth, highly intelligent, and icily calculating lieutenant who oversees Avon's operations, but he's hardly alone. Wood Harris is all intensity all the time as Avon, while Larry Gilliard Jr. as Avon's conscience-stricken nephew D'Angelo captures all of his character's emotional conflicts without any undue melodrama. As a whole, the experiences of the Bell-Barksdale crew provide a sad commentary on the lives of unwanted blacks in housing projects nationwide-many of them have the intelligence and motivation to be doing other things, but isolated from the mainstream of society there's nothing else for them to do. The game is all they have, whether they want to be involved or not.
So, yeah, that's pretty much it. The emergence of TV as a respectable medium (especially in comparison to the movies) over the past decade or so has been well documented, and The Wire is definitely one of the shows leading the charge. The show's subsequent seasons, while indisputably brilliant and still better than pretty much anything else out there, have watered down the show's formula just a little bit as they branch out in all sorts of directions, but no matter. This season stands alone as one of the decade's crowning visual achievements. Easily worth the time and money you'll invest in it, especially for how much time you'll spend thinking about it afterwards.