I don’t know about you, but when I hear too many people praising something (music, movie, book, TV show) I grow doubtful that I’ll enjoy it as much once I check it out. I should draw a graph plotting the way I become more convinced something might be good when I read more than just one positive review, but when praise grows too uniform, too ubiquitous I start to mistrust it. This is often a mistake on my part. I mean, if 5 good reviews mean I’ll probably like something, let’s say the new Captain America flick, then why wouldn’t dozens of good reviews and all kinds of “top 10 best ever” lists be even more convincing?
All the above is my explanation for why I waited so long to check out one of the most acclaimed television shows in history. A few months back I found a great price on the complete series box-set of HBO TV’s The Wire and Lena and I have been watching it since. Actually, there’s a lot of precedent for me watching a TV series this way (all at once, after it’s over). With one or two recent exceptions we don’t watch TV when it’s broadcast, but only on DVD or BluRay. And because I’ve always devoted so little time to TV shows (and Lena’s the same way, so this continued when we got together) I don’t usually jump right on a new show as soon as it comes out on DVD. In some cases like 24 or Sopranos or Six Feet Under I might buy Season 1 when the show’s third or fourth season is actually airing, and gradually catch up by watching the DVD seasons faster than one per year.
The Wire, though, had been finished for several years by the time I got started. The hype was out there, unavoidable, but the nice thing about watching a show this far out of sync with the rest of the world is that it makes it much easier to avoid spoilers (which screwed up my enjoyment of the end of more than one other show). Sometimes a TV show takes a while for the writers and/or actors to grow into the characters, to figure out who’s interesting and why, and to get started exploring those interesting parts. The best-crafted shows end up making minor characters into major ones as they turn out to be interesting, while shifting focus away from less compelling major characters in compensation. The Wire seemed from the beginning to know who its best characters were, and while other major characters were revealed each season, this was more about the shifting focus of the show in general (each season had a central focus to counterbalance what was happening in the Baltimore PD, such as Baltimore’s drug-dealing criminal gangs, its schools, its longshoremen or its newspaper staff). The ongoing focus on the police kept a continuity running through all five seasons, and several minor characters (including Omar and Bubbles, respectively a Robin Hood-like thief among criminals, and a messed-up street-level drug addict, two of the more compelling characters in any television show I’ve ever seen) pop in and out regularly throughout every season.
I won’t bother to give a season-by-season breakdown in any greater detail than I’ve done above, but I’ve given some thought to the first point I talked about above, which is why this show is so universally acclaimed. Just about every writer or critic on the subject of television calls this show “best ever” or close to it, and I thought about this a lot while I was watching the show.
First, the writing is serious and adult, and assumes a certain intelligence on the part of the viewer. The story seems to have been carefully planned from beginning to end, structured so that each piece contributes to each other, and the viewer is responsible for keeping track of who’s who, and following narrative threads that drop off and pick up again years later without much explanation. The show “feels” more like a multi-part novel or work of ambitious cinema than something meant for television. Predictable outcomes rarely occur, and very often what feels like it should happen (a bad guy meeting a violent end, a corrupt politician or police official getting a public comeuppance) does not, yet the outcomes that do happen are satisfying. It feels real.
Second, the casting is unorthadox for American TV. Every person on this show looks like a real person, and there are no instances (so common on TV) of the Barbie and Ken syndrome, in which every character is played by an actor younger, prettier and more vapid-looking and -sounding than seems reasonable. There are a few decent-looking characters, lots of ordinary ones, and even a few crusty, ugly sorts. Particularly in the case of the street-level criminals, preference seems to be given to actors (in many cases non-actors) who are able to speak the dialog with authenticity or at least verisimilitude.
Third, each season has a specific focus and something to say about it, and as a unified whole the show does nothing less than examine how people live together in a city, how our social structures, civic entities and political leaders interface. Corruption is commonplace and exists on virtually all levels, and yet usually arises out of ordinary, believable human motivations rather than villainous or melodramatic notions like “evil.” I’ve never been to Baltimore, and don’t really care how much of this show arises out of or is inspired by the city’s true history. But I do feel like it says something important about the way a troubled, modern urban environment works and doesn’t work.
This may be the most ambitious story ever told on television. I could write dozens of blogs about the story, its implications and its characters. I could write a couple thousand words right now on the simple yet powerful transformation of Bubbles into Reginald and the way he finally got to sit at the table. Some characters failed, some thrived. Bad guys got promotions or won awards, well-intentioned good guys went off the rails. People found redemption, or died trying.