Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Wire - 'The Target' and 'The Detail' (1x01 & 1x02)

A few years ago, there was a whole wealth of TV series I hadn’t seen, but had heard great things about. Now, not so much, I’ve seen the vast majority of HBO’s recent output, and am watching most great new shows as they air. However, there’s still one titan out there I was missing, the show that more than any other since The Sopranos has been hailed as the greatest TV show of all time. It’s a show I’ve been told to watch, and something I’ve been meaning to watch for a while, but just never got to. However, the time has come, so I’ve begun watching The Wire. After two episodes, I can say that it lives up to the hype, it’s certainly not the greatest show of all time yet, but I could see the potential there, and I’m already hooked and eager to watch more.

The show seems reluctant to engage in the sort of high concept hook that even the best HBO shows have. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are easy to explain in one sentence, but how would you describe The Wire? So far, the hook seems to be the war on drugs, from both sides, and it’s in the dual perspective that the show finds its most powerful moments. The implicit point of most cop/criminal movies, Heat say, is that there really isn’t much difference between cops and criminals. They both keep the same hours, frequent the same places and have the same personal troubles. It’s a thin line, the law, and this episode makes it even thinner by spreading our emotional identification between many characters.

The best example of this so far is the scene where they bring D’Angelo in for questioning and almost reduce him to tears with a story about the kids who are now orphans because their father was killed. You could play this scene straight up, a criminal forced to confront his crimes, however, our knowledge that Gant was actually a single man colors everything. The police are lying and manipulating D’Angelo to serve his own agenda. It helps that D’Angelo is the one character of the crew who really has our sympathy. He’s on the outside of things, and already felt guilty when he saw Gant’s body. He is seeking some way to alleviate his guilt, and thus engages in the lie the police tell him. It’s cold watching McNulty and Bunk laughing at it afterwards.

But, at the same time, it’s a devastating moment when we see Gant’s body at the end of the first episode. He’s tried to help put someone in jail, the conviction wasn’t made, and now he dies for nothing. The gang rule punishes people for doing the right thing, leading to the perpetuation of this chaotic urban warzone that the characters live in. One of the show’s greatest strengths is the sense of place, everyone hanging out in the courtyard, an orange couch in the center. It’s a vividly realized world, enhanced by the critical location shooting.

But it’s our shifting sympathies that make things so interesting. The police officers who go down to the Tower are idiots, and it’s tough to watch as a kid gets his eye knocked out. However, at the same time, this is a chaotic violence run world, shouldn’t there be some attempt at regulation? Throughout, there’s a kind of concession to the forces of urban decay. Even if they take down Barksdale, will it solve anything? Probably not, someone new will rise up in his place. I think the show serves as a sobering picture of a world we don’t usually see. There’s no sense of a social structure in place to help these kids become anything but drug dealers. Live a legit life and work hard and you’ll get killed like Gant.

I’m imaging this has all been discussed a lot, but as a new viewer to the show, it’s pretty exciting. Discovering a new work like this is always fascinating because you’re not sure who’s going to be the main characters, what’s going to happen, what kind of world will develop. Obviously I’ll watch all the episodes, but there’s something cool about the mystery, having something to discover. Still, I’ll be going through the show and hopefully will catch up by the start of the new season in January. They edit the show where I work, and the season is just about done. I saw what I feel like might be the ending montage of the series, but I won’t say anything about that. Two episodes in, it’s a bit early to think about the end.


Jacob said...

Oh man, I could go on and on about the Wire. It's not my favorite show *ever*, because I don't think that much bleakness is entirely healthy, and I think that Baltimore is closer to being a worst-case scenario rather than Anycity, USA, but it's written, made, and acted with such scrupulous realism and integrity that I can't help but respect it - not to mention that it ruined me for pretty much every other cop show ever, except for its predecessor Homicide.

I'm glad to see that you're enjoying it, because in retrospect I think that the first few episodes are a bit of a slog; I know people who tuned out after a couple and I can't honestly say I blame them, though it's sad that they're missing out the greatness to come.

David Simon, the producer, is intensely intelligent but in interviews he seems to feel that any measures to improve/smooth the audience experience - music, tricky editing, expository dialogue - compromise the realism and are to be avoided. It's a very Dogme way to look at things and while I respect it I think it's a bit silly that he, and the press, then complains that Americans are idiots for not watching.

Anyway. When I started, the appeal for me was, sociology aside, the intellectual thrill of watching the case come together as the cops slowly build up a picture of how the Barksdales (and, by extension, their real world equivalents) operate. I wasn't too taken with the actual people at first, aside from DeAngelo, but I'm pleased to report that that soon changed, and without giving too much away I want to say that by season's end you'll find yourself amazed at how much you like even the most calculatedly unlikeable characters.

When you're done, if you'd like to know more, you should definitely check out Simon's two nonfiction books, "Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets" and "The Corner." For my money they're two of the best works of modern reportage and sociology currently available, but they're also really well-written; they're genuinely enjoyable reads instead of the bloated grad-theses that so many nonfiction books feel like. Also cool is that some of the real-life Baltimore cops that I read about in Homicide turn up as actors in The Wire, as do some of the drug dealers from The Corner.

Patrick said...

I really like your point about the lack of concessions to the audience vs. the show's popularity. For creative people, I think the goal is always to do the work on your own terms, and then have it embraced by the people. I'd imagine it's frustrating for him to get so much critical praise and not make a big impact on mainstream culture in the way that The Sopranos or other shows do.

It's certainly not an easy show to watch, but for me, there's enough humor that it offsets the grimness a bit. But, it's by no means an escape in the way that even most other cop shows are. And now, I'm pretty eager to see how things develop, I'm through six episodes now, and things are really coming together.