“… featured characters that were written as if they weren’t written at all.”
I finally did it. After years of hearing how great it was, and years of owning the complete series on DVD, I finally watched The Wire. I liked it, I really did, but my introduction to The Wire was people claiming that it was as good, if not better than Breaking Bad, which after watching The Wire I just can’t wrap my head around. I understand that opinions differ from person to person, but not only do I think that Breaking Bad is better than The Wire, but I would also put The Sopranos above it. And that’s just becasue The Wire is different.
In every big television show you have a main character. In Breaking Bad you have Walter White; in The Sopranos you have Tony Soprano; in Mad Men you have a bunch of angered gentlemen (I’ve never actually seen Mad Men); but in The Wire you’d be hard-pressed to tell me who the main character was. In season one you could argue that it was Detective McNulty, as he was the main focus of the season. But what about in season two when he is barely in it? The same can be said about any character in any given season, becasue The Wire really doesn’t have a focus. To say that The Wire is about police work would even be disingenuous in some cases. And it was this presentation that kept me from immersing myself in the television show. Every other television show I’ve watched got me hooked by the end of the first season. I would be hanging off of every episode by the start of season two, but The Wire essentially played on hard mode; making it difficult to retain (at least my) viewership.
Every season of The Wire has a different focus. Season one is about turn of the century police work, season two is about working on the docks, season three is about the war on drugs, season four is about the school system, and season five is- well, it’s season five. This shift of focus from season to season makes it hard for the audience to form connections. I didn’t have any of the character names memorized until at least season three, and even that was a struggle. Hell, I still can’t name every cop that was a part of the Major Crimes team in season one, and I just finished the fucking series. This seemingly unfocused narrative frustrated me, and led me to put off watching the show. I took about a month’s hiatus between season three and four, and I’m lucky that’s where I stopped.
Season four of The Wire is easily one of the best seasons of television I’ve ever watched. Not only did it reignite my love for the show itself and demonstrate to me why other people love it, but it also explained to me what the show is about. See, given the first season of The Wire, and the name itself, I assumed (however foolishly) that the show would be about police in Baltimore coming to terms with the ever-changing crime landscape. Technology was quickly advancing, and the police were trying their best to keep up. This is why I got so mad at season two, becasue it essentially ripped me out of that storyline and threw in something about unions and dead sex workers. This isn’t what I signed up for; it isn’t what I was invested in. But I stuck with it, and when season four came around I finally got it. The Wire isn’t about police work, or drugs, or working at the docks; The Wire is about life. Specifically life in inner-city settings like Baltimore. The focus of season four being on the school system really opened my eyes to this fact. Sure there were still instances of police work, and politics, and illegal activities, but at its core season four was trying to convey to us the root problems with the world. It was trying to show us the start to all of these problems. And it worked.
Now season four being so great doesn’t excuse the rest of the show being decidedly sub-par (I did really like season three as well, though) in my opinion, but it did open my eyes to the true message of the show. Now in a few years when I go back and rewatch The Wire my opinions will probably change with this new found information, so it will be interesting to see how I view seasons like season two through this new lens. What I will say about all of The Wire was that it was written brilliantly. Though each season had a different focus which had a risk of alienating the audience if they didn’t buy into it, every season featured characters that were written as if they weren’t written at all. The intersections that are had in The Wire are so real, so gritty, that you can’t help but wonder if cameras were just left on the streets and then the footage edited together. And it isn’t even just the main characters that are written this way, but the real heart of The Wire is found in the background characters. Sure McNulty and Bunk having a conversation on the street might remind you of how you talk with your friends, but watch everything that’s around them. The person pushing the cart while wearing the raggedy clothes. The guys sitting on the corner listening to whatever’s on the radio while trying to entice people to buy what they’re selling. The kids walking home from school being subjected to all of this. It all paints a very real picture of the world, and it makes The Wire something special.
So I guess I was mistaken earlier when I said that The Wire doesn’t have a main character. It does. It’s Baltimore. I know that may sound a little clichéd, but it’s the truth. The way David Simon captures life in the city is like no other television show or movie that i’ve seen. It’s amazing.
Oh well, I guess It’s Mad Men next.