Word on The Wire

The WireThanks to the miracle of 21st Century television distribution — doorstep DVD delivery via Netflix and the more limited but also more instantaneous phenomenon of on-demand cable television — I’ve now fully caught up on the first four amazing seasons of “The Wire.” Narratively, this level-sets me just in time for the fifth and final season, which began airing yesterday evening on HBO. But having watched the prior fifty episodes in their post-broadcast state — allowing me to devour them two, three, sometimes four at a time — I’m not sure I’ll be able to content myself with a measly single episode a week. Wah!

It’s going to be a long season, to be sure, but it’s probably for the better that I’ll have to enjoy the remaining episodes over the course of several months. That will give me time to really savor these final installments before the show shuts down forever. I’ll say it again: “The Wire” is the best television show ever. Ever.

In the Details

For friends unfamiliar with the show, I usually try to explain why I feel this way by describing its remarkable sense of meticulousness, a characteristic that I value highly in dramatic television. Every line of every scene of every episode seems planned with great care and foresight. Though its plots are often lengthy and labyrinthine, not a line of dialogue is wasted and every moment counts, as if executive producer David Simon and his creative team have a specific purpose intended for each component, from the first to the last.

In fact, the show truly feels as if its creators fully understand their characters, plots and milieu with an incredible intimacy rare on telelvision, and that its world is a real and believable one. Contrast that with even David Chase’s “The Sopranos,” a series about which I used to believe the very same things, and the results are favorable.

Compare and Contrast

Looking back at that earlier critical favorite, its New Jersey gangland seems a fantasy-land in comparison with the vividly human Baltimore of “The Wire.” Simon’s central characters are not romanticized untouchables, immune to the vulgarities that beset supporting characters, the way that Tony Soprano was; for all of the imperfections written into that character, he was always slightly better dressed, marginally but inexplicably more refined, and implausibly more redeemable than his mafia cohorts (conceits that have no better exhibit than in Chase’s unwillingness to properly kill the character in the final episode, resorting instead to cheap artfulness).

When a character dies on “The Wire,” it’s startling and emotionally affecting — I’ve jumped out of my chair a few times in disbelief watching such plot twists, and felt the lasting sting for days. In fact, death means something on this show in a way it never did on “The Sopranos.” Beyond its emotional toll on viewers, a death is not quickly forgotten; its ramifications play out over long story arcs and impacts others in unexpected, often distorted ways. Death is never used as a temporary caffeine jolt to spike an otherwise slack episode, as a throwaway punch line to end a comical character’s life, as obligatory satisfaction for viewer bloodlust, or even as a timely method of ending a season — all things that I witnessed while watching “The Sopranos.”

What’s more, I’m endlessly grateful that, thus far anyway, “The Wire” has yet to resort to loopy dream sequences, ham-fisted symbolism or psychedelic interludes — long-time “Sopranos” viewers know what I’m talkin’. And, aside from the inclusion of Method Man as a minor character, the show is also notable for a refreshing absence of stunt-casting: the cast is full of talented thespians and unexpectedly gifted non-actors, not refugees from the world of music flattering themselves temporarily as wiseguys.

Been in Love Before

Granted, it’s a bit disingenuous of me to put down “The Sopranos” so flatly. I honestly enjoyed the show a great deal during its run and still look at it as an incredible feat of televised drama that broke new ground. It’s not below me, either, to become enamored of the narrative virtuosity of a television show only to later reject it for its imperfections when a newer, better show comes along.

You could write that down to my fickle nature, in part. But I think it’s also got something to do with what’s happening in the medium right now. I’m continually amazed by the ambition of television as a whole these days; as an art form, it has, over the past decade and a half, continually shown an unlikely capacity for renewing its artistic potential. Though the writers’ strike may be an unpleasant milestone during this progression, I’m convinced we’re living through an unacknowledged golden age for television at the moment. Enjoy it while it lasts.

  1. The details matter.

    In all great productions, the details matter. From the greatest music and movies, the best shows on television and in theaters, god (or the devil!) is in the details.

    And it matters like like never before… in a time when technology is cheap and so many people make good work, good projects, good shows, good movies, good music… where is the GREAT work?

    The Wire is definitely it.

    g. r. e. a. t.

    I’m looking forward to the final season… and I love that I’m not alone in appreciating all the little things that add up to such a great experience.

  2. I could not have said it better myself. I hold The Wire in as high regards as you do. I think the writing is phenomenal. The character development is second to none.

    I am just finishing season 4, I watch the seasons as they are released on DVD. I don’t think I have ever felt for a TV character as much as I do for these four school children. Not to mention Chris and Snoop have to be the most terrifying villains I have seen.

    I am sad to see it go but I would much rather see it go out on top than fade away.

  3. ok, FINE! i’ll add it to my queue, already! geez. this show has been hyped to me by so many people now, i cannot count them all. and i used to work for HBO! how did i miss out on this one?

  4. I have the On Demand service and for some reason they’re showing next week’s episode already, so I’m ahead of the curve. Anyway, I agree about The Wire; I’m quite disappointed that it’s over after this season.

    One of the thing that really bothers me about HBO programming is that it seems the really good series don’t last long enough. Specifically The Wire and Carnivale.

  5. I think it stinks that people must turn to HBO, Showtime, etc. for good programming. Entourage, to throw out another example.

    The West Wings of the world have left network television, perhaps forever, and have been replaced by fourteen versions of Law and Order.

  6. Not so fast, Erik. Mad Men on AMC is absolutely wonderful and I can hardly tell that it’s on basic cable (as in it has neither cursing nor nudity). I’ve been hyping it to my friends for months. Check it out.

  7. I too am unable to watch The Wire S5 week by week and I’ve made the decision to wait until I can sate my addiction in larger doses.

    If you need something to tide you over, perhaps try The Corner. The six part mini-series is The Wire’s low-key sibling and is an absolute triumph in its own right.

  8. Best show ever, maybe, but don’t forget about LOST. Fate vs. Free will, repentance, meticulously crafted story arcs, cinematic craftsmanship. I must be missing something, but doesnt LOST give those 2 a run for their money? Unless you prefer a bit more realism in your television.

  9. It might seem somewhat less-mature, but I really enjoy Nick’s Avatar for its storytelling and characterization. One of the best US-created animation series I’ve ever seen. Sadly, the current season (it’s third) is the last.

    And as a bonus, my entire family (including kids ranging from 2-10) can sit down and enjoy it together–which is a rarity given most of today’s TV programming choices. (BTW, love Spooks and Robin Hood from the BBC. Gonna have to check out The Wire now.)

  10. Right there with you Khoi. I just finished season four a couple days ago and I’m debating if I should get cable to watch the new season. That’s right… I want to get cable just for The Wire.

    And I second Ty’s remarks about Avatar. One of the best series on TV, animated or not.

  11. The Wire is unlike any other series I have seen, especially since the story unfolds over so many episodes, while maintaining the realism and high quality storyline.

    Spooks is great as well, as is Damages, but both suffer from the ‘fantasy’ factor Khoi mentions for the Sopranos.

  12. Well… I must say that chance came by my way when one of my co-worker told me about this TV Show!

    After only one episode of season one, I was hook… and I am still running with season’s 2,3 and 4 to be ready for the last season (5)!

    This is what I like about TV… nothing like the rest of the trash that comes out these days!

    THanks for your post!

  13. This is very interesting. I, too, am a massive fan of The Wire, but for me it falls short of The Sopranos for precisely the reasons that you think it goes past it.

    In The Sopranos, it’s the fantasy stuff and the dreams and the larger-than-life characters that elevate it beyond storytelling to something more magical and powerful.

    And I think the idea that death means more in The Wire than The Sopranos is probably a bit selective – we could compare Adriana and Christopher’s deaths to some of the mindless murders in The Wire and come out with the opposite conclusion.

    I admire The Wire’s incredible attention to detail and it’s undoubted realism. And the way it pays off small things in big ways shows a level of storytelling that is right up there with the best I’ve ever seen. But for me, it just doesn’t have that indefinable magic of The Sopranos.

    But hey, how good is it that we can have this discussion? Ten years ago, this sort of quality on television was unheard of.

  14. I actually felt like crying when I saw what happened to D’Angelo in the second season. The end of the third season left me emptied out…it was the “right ending” but I thought how can the show go on. And then the opening scene of season four had me and my husband hooked in minutes. How do they do it? I have small kids so I dont watch this around them but, I must admit once I know they are fast asleep we are watching it. Now season 4 disc 2 is waiting….

  15. Ty,
    I watch Avatar with my kids too. I love the storyline. I have two little girls and I love that they are watching a show with young, butt-kicking females.

    Next year with no Avatar and no Wire, what I will I do? People better bring up more high quality suggestions.

  16. I actually started watching The Wire because you had given it such high regard in an earlier post. I was immediately sucked in. What amazes me is how few people have heard about it even though it’s now in its 5th season. I’m a bit behind, but my netflix is all queued up and I can’t wait to catch up. Thanks for enlightening me!

  17. I love the Wire, and I’ve been hyping it to my friends here north of the border, but for me, the prize for best show must go to The West Wing.

    The episode “The Two Towers” is the most powerful and gripping hour of television I’ve ever seen. Television at it’s perfection.

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