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.