Sunday, December 17, 2000

The Wire Review

Imagine a show that every critic on the planet loves. Imagine a show so deeply layered that it makes every other drama seem simple. Imagine a show where each character is equally important. Imagine a show that reinvented itself every season, yet still felt like it was part of the world it created from the outset. Imagine a show so complex that you will always discover something new the next time around.

Doesn't this sound like perfection to you? Trust me, it is, in more ways than you can fathom.

THE WIRE is a show so meticulously crafted and executed that it would take me a dozen reviews to scratch the surface of what makes it great. After catching the very first episode on HBO, I immediately bought the 1st season. The rest, as they say, is history.

I'm so afraid to ruin anything that I don't even want to give away characters' names. To even let you go in expecting certain traits from a character would spoil the fun. So instead, I'm deliberately being vague about what occurs. If you've never heard about this series, you deserve go in cold.

But I'll give you a few details, starting with the very first scene. THE WIRE begins when a detective is questioning a young hoodlum who witnessed a murder. The detective asks why the guy and his friends allowed the victim to continue rolling dice, after he'd been known to snatch the money & run. The scene closes when the kid says, "Got to, man. This America."

Then the show begins its title sequence, in which The Blind Boys of Alabama's cover of "Way Down In The Hole" plays over a montage of seemingly random clips of police activity & urban life. But as you'll learn the more you see this title sequence (and song), this montage is actually filled with clues, both literal and metaphorical. The greatest crime dramas throw clues in your face without telling you how important they are. Believe me, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, one of the greatest films of all time with its labyrinthine plot, has nothing on THE WIRE. And we're only just getting started.

What you'll also notice from the opening scene is the dialogue. It actually took me two viewings to find out what the detective and the dice-roller were saying. As if that wasn't enough, I eventually had to turn on the English subtitles just to find out what each character was saying. The dialogue flows so naturally that THE WIRE never feels like a TV drama. There are no scenes where the characters recap what happened in the previous episode, unless the characters would actually take a moment to remind each other. This sounds like a challenge, and indeed it is. THE WIRE requires (and deserves) your undivided attention. Pause if you have to. Rewind if you have to. Use the subtitles if you have to. Many have called THE WIRE "a visual novel", and they couldn't be more right. You see how much attention I've given to just the first few minutes? Guess what, the entire series clocks in at 63 hours.

So, what's the premise of the series? The first season's main story begins when a team of Baltimore police is assembled to take down one of the city's high-profile drug dealers. The investigators and surveillance teams endure what real cops would endure: long hours, cold trails, bad weather, tedious paperwork, crummy offices, and criminals. THE WIRE gives the justice officers an equal amount of screen time as the targets they pursue. The dealers aren't delightfully vicious or glamorous in the least. Sort of like the Corleone Family or the protagonists in GOODFELLAS, THE WIRE portrays its criminals as guys who either can't do anything else for a living, or refuse to do anything else for a living. The series goes even deeper, as we're engaged in the lives of judges & lawyers, homicide detectives & their office-dwelling superiors, drug kingpins & their corner workers, and even the homeless. Calling this "epic" is an understatement. If you're as interested in the urban drama as you are in the police procedural, then you're on the right track. Don't worry, you will get to see the cops bust a few doors and arrest a few thugs, but just be aware each event it treated as ordinarily and naturally as anything else in THE WIRE. To the characters, these events are just another day.

Now bear in mind, I've only given a little info on the first season! I won't give away any details, but Season Two continues in the exact opposite way you'd expect a sequel to. The cops and criminals shared equal halves of TV time on Season One, but for the seasons that follow, they share equal parts with a completely new side of Baltimore. Just wait until THE WIRE continues through its next few seasons, it gets even more deliciously complex. If you think Season One sounds like a beastly Rubik's Cube, wait until you get a load of Season Two, not to mention the seasons afterwards. After all, you can't predict how a single story is going to proceed if you're too blindsided by how it begins. One of the most interesting aspects is that slowly over time, THE WIRE becomes more than a crime drama --- the series evolves into a multi-layered epic, where crime is only part of the picture. Each of the five seasons feels like its own individual story, but naturally connects with the season that comes before and after it.

I don't want you to be discouraged by this onslaught of convoluted storytelling. There is a method to the madness. Audiences (including me) are too used to knowing where we are at every given point of the story. THE WIRE purposefully refrains from the kind of clarity we're used to. This challenge that will stimulate your mind in ways that no other TV show has. In so many ways, it's the kind of entertainment we've always wanted: Surprising yet Natural --- isn't that always the goal?

THE WIRE is so great that everyone is going to take something different from it. This show can be interpreted in a million ways. Nobody is right, and nobody is wrong. How can that be? Well, creator David Simon is to be credited for this neutrality. Simon is as hands-on as any other TV series producer, writer, or creator. Every single aspect of the show is exactly what he wanted it to be. THE WIRE was never the victim of a writer's strike, or cancelled seasons, or poor broadcasting schedules, or any other excuse. If there is a character or story arc you don't care for, it isn't Simon's fault; your personal taste just doesn't mesh with it. Sure, I have one or two nitpicks about what THE WIRE should've been in my eyes, but not once did I believe it was for a lack of focus. For example, one particular season takes a more didactic approach to the series. We witness moral dilemmas with an ambitious mayor, unethical cops, and newspaper staff --- all tackle the immortal question, "Do the ends justify the means?" This more black-and-white angle is exactly what David Simon wanted to use. I preferred a more gray-shaded tale, but Simon decided that this tale needed a more direct statement. Now, even though this isn't my preference, I overlooked my own criticisms because this season was built this way. There are a couple of other little things that might not sit well with some viewers, notably how the "star" of the show's cast disappears for most of one season (don't worry, you'll know it's coming before it happens). The point is that THE WIRE never once strayed from its intended path.

I think that's what I'm going to take away most from this show: It tells every story it wants to tell. It answers every question it poses, unless we're meant to ponder. It forces us to sympathize with those we'd normally condemn, and to relate to those we'd usually ignore. This television drama is a masterful work of art, from the page to the screen.

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