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The Wire

HBO

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Season 1

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Credit HBO

The Wire - Season One

The Wire had a lot going against it as I prepared to watch the first season. I already knew what the show was about. I knew it was meant to be a show about why the drugs war cannot be won. I knew to expect no heroes succeeding or villains being hauled away in humiliation. I knew the tone would be gritty and real. I knew in advance that the show lasts for five years. I had heard people talk in glowing terms about Omar, Stringer Bell and McNulty. So it was safe to assume none of them would be dying anytime soon.

I had of course also heard that this was the greatest TV show of all time. Normally I would ignore such acclaim as so many things in life get needlessly hyped. However these recommendations came from almost every TV critic I have respect for and they reiterated their arguments at the start of 2010 when summing up the best TV of the previous decade. I mention all these caveats because I will never know how I would have reacted to The Wire if I had seen it fresh in 2002. I think you will always lose some impact when you are removed in time from when a show airs.

On the other hand of course these expectations also helped the show in certain ways. I knew I would watch from start to finish and wouldn't stop even if I hated it. I knew I would give it my full attention. I also had no expectation of seeing Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell breaking down on the witness stand or being gunned down by Omar.

So with all that said...

The Good: It's a shocking and controversial statement I know but The Wire is a good TV show.

The show's structure appealed to me because instead of solving a case a week they focussed on solving one case and going in depth on how everyone's lives were affected by it. That structure is the opposite of every successful crime show on TV. Which explains exactly why The Wire appeals to those of us who see TV as the ideal vehicle for long term storytelling and why the show got such small ratings when it aired.

The first thing which impressed me was that despite the authentic dialogue I was never in doubt who anyone was, what their job was or what they wanted. When I first watched both The West Wing and Rubicon there were scenes which went over my head and took a while to disentangle. The Wire was written and presented in such a way that those obstacles were easily overcome. Episode one began with both McNulty and D'Angelo being dressed down by their respective bosses and the season ended with both men sadder and wiser about the world they live in.  

The world of The Wire was richly painted with fully fleshed out characters on both sides. We saw the users of drugs, the sellers, those processing the product, those marketing the product, the women that strip for them and the mothers who raised them. And we saw the cops who arrest the dealers, the ones who do the thinking, the ones who make the decisions, the ones who follow the rules then break them, the bosses who direct them and the politicians who promote them. I never felt like there was a piece of the story missing. At each level of the game there was someone with their own agenda and their own morality. It was as good a simulation of real life as I have seen on TV and studiously avoided the kind of clichés and convenience which can drag down other shows.

D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr) stood out as the most sympathetic and interesting character. Twice early on in the show he made it clear that he longed for a world where he didn't have to be involved in killing and violence. He voiced this thought literally to his crew while sitting out on their couch and then while on a date in a restaurant he wonders if people can tell that his money is dirty just by looking at him. Yet he keeps ploughing on until the end. He is caught up in a family business and is eventually persuaded by his own mother that he can't sell out those who raised him to start a new life. It's a sad tale and two of my favourite scenes of the season were due to D'Angelo's conscience lashing out. One of them was his initial interrogation by McNulty and Bunk (see Best Moment) and the second was his imploring question to Stringer Bell of "Where's Wallace?" He asked again and again and again, knowing the answer and hoping against hope that it wasn't true.

No one else stood out to me on a show where the ensemble ruled over the individual. But then again no one seemed unconvincing. Drug addict Bubs was sympathetic and pathetic in equal measure. McNulty, Daniels, Greggs, Bunk and Freamon gave the good side enough morality and competence to make their case work seem important and worthy of support. While Avon the bully, Stringer the brain and Levy the lawyer provided imposing enough figures to make it seem plausible that the police couldn't catch them. The smaller characters all received their definition and development. Omar provided a nice wild card element, Pryzbylewski grew up a lot after partially blinding a boy from the projects, Hauk and Carver showed the different routes to advancement on offer for young officers just as Wallace and Bodie did the same in more tragic ways down in the pit.

Ultimately the show's strength was its relentless detail and chronicling of how corruption and rule breaking is an endemic and never ending part of human life. Police and drug dealers have to operate under strict rules to survive in a high stakes game where lives are on the line. Those in power have the ability to crap on those beneath them and those who do the right thing (McNulty, Greggs, Wallace, D'Angelo) can suffer far worse than those who do wrong. The Wire shouldn't be seen as a police show in this light. It's a lesson about human greed and temptation. Every day we are asked to make choices about how far to go out of our way for others, which rules to follow and which to break and how to make our lives better at the expense of others. It's not hard for me to imagine how four more seasons of this story I might too agree that the show is the best ever.

The Bad: However it's not there yet. As is usually the case, the show's greatest strengths are its weaknesses too. The show's perpetual detail work meant not many scenes stood out in my memory for their individual power. The show works so well of course because it avoids the kind of sensationalism which marks other dramas. However that meant my emotions were never engaged the way they have been by the other great television I have seen.

Omar stands on the same street as Avon (109) at one point and tries to kill him. Although I was engaged I didn't feel tense or excited. It seemed so unlikely that the show was about to tell the story of one man's triumph when the theme of the whole show is about organisational operation. Similarly when Poot and Bodie came to kill Wallace (112) the tragedy of it all didn't really sink in. Poot and Wallace had been shown to be close but we didn't get to see Poot's emotions as he had to choose whether or not to stay in the game or protect his friend. Suddenly he was dead and it was all over. Similarly when McNulty yelled at Rhonda about why the bar association would allow someone like Levy to represent criminals I didn't swell with emotional support. The show had done such a good job of showing us that McNulty is a talented ass hole who will break rules to suit himself that his excellent point had a lack of emotional conviction.

My favourite shows have tended to dramatise emotions and draw them out on a grand scale to create the great moments I remember. Of course The Wire wasn't going to have aliens, vampires or magical islands but I never felt emotional about the events going on the way I have with Breaking Bad, a show with similar themes and content. Of course that is a show about individuals and not an ensemble. If The Wire delivers the emotions down the road for me then I will be happy. At this stage though I left season one fascinated and satisfied but without the memories which usually lead to awards of greatness from a critic like me.

As with the finale of Rubicon I was left wondering about the mathematics of greed. The investigation claimed that Avon was making around 65 million dollars a year. His plan was to buy up real estate in an area where the government would then pay inflated prices to buy up the land from him. Was such a plan really necessary if you are making that kind of money? Surely Avon was making more than enough to retire for good and go straight? I recognise that he was in deep at this point and was moving and spending a lot of his cash but it still felt like too high a number.

The Unknown: There were only a couple of moments when the series broke from its detail work and felt more like a TV show and they came in the same episode. McNulty claimed that the investigation wasn't about Avon but was all about him and showing off how smart he was. Then a state State Senator tells Daniels that no one cares where campaign money comes from, implying that drug money is as good to them as any other. Both moments felt quite on the nose, cutting through the carefully worded reality straight to the underlying truth. I wouldn't say either moment was bad but they both stood out to me for their surprising directness.

Best Moment: My favourite moment was in episode two when McNulty and Bunk drag in D'Angelo to question him about the murder of a state witness who testified against him. They tell D'Angelo about the man's orphaned children and his church work. D'Angelo begins to weep. They encourage him to write the man's children a letter to express his sympathy. Outside the interrogation room they admit that none of what they said was true. They fabricated it all to see if they could get D'Angelo to give them something on who was responsible. They had me going the whole time, allowing me to be fully sucked into the tragedy along with D'Angelo before brilliantly pulling the rug out from under me. It says something about the show though that my favourite moment came from episode two of a thirteen episode season.

Conclusion: As I said before I started, when I watch The Wire, I know I am watching "the greatest TV show ever." The show has to live with an unfair burden forcing me to compare it to shows which I would never have bothered to think about otherwise. And don't get me wrong, this was superb television from start to finish. There are a hundred little details which I didn't mention in my review. To give one example I loved that Stringer refused to acknowledge the name Barksdale when talking to Omar (who has just tried to murder Avon) because his caution knows no limits (110). The season was richer in authentic detail than anything else I've seen and I will watch season two soon with great enthusiasm.

However I feel the need at this stage to address that "greatest ever" tag and feel comfortable saying it's far from that at this point. The show didn't trade in the big vibrant emotions which hook me (and many others) on a show. Instead the show trades in a million tiny emotions instead. I would love to see those emotions build up over the next four seasons and create something truly special.