Thursday, March 05, 2009

Got to Keep the Devil Way Down in the Hole

I'll cheerfully admit that I'm often a follower.  If enough people who I respect recommend the same thing, I'll eventually check it out.  I keep it up because it keeps on working - people tend to enjoy things because they're really good.

The latest incarnation of this trend is The Wire.  It seems like most people had heard of it, but nobody actually had watched it, during its run on HBO.  When the show was wrapping up, suddenly there were loud accolades everywhere about how this was possibly the greatest show on television.  People began watching the DVDs, and the praise continued to flow.  I eventually checked it out myself.  It's pretty darn awesome.

First off, I think you can make a strong case that this is the most talented ensemble cast of any televised series.  That isn't meant to short anyone else - there are a surprisingly large number of well-acted shows this past decade - but The Wire is simply jaw-dropping.  A few particular characters are so perfectly magnetic that they can captivate you by just raising an eyebrow or twitching a jaw muscle.  Everyone is just perfect.

The most impressive part of The Wire, to me, is its scope.  I'm only partway into the second season, and it's already dizzying.  Most televised shows, even big-budget ones, focus on a few particular locations, a handful of characters, and a couple of plot lines.  The Wire simply sprawls.  A single episode will take you from a dirty crack-house filled with druggies and needles to a political fund-raiser in a swank hotel to a quiet suburban street to a courthouse.  Even something that I would often think of as a single setting, like a police station, becomes incredibly complex.  I think that it's the very first episode where you first get to see where the various characters work, and can contrast the crummy, dingy space that the Narcotics unit occupies to the brightly lit, corporate-style floor filled with Homicide detectives.  You see - and it needs no comment - that Narcotics is using old 1950's style typewriters and metal folding chairs while Homicide has modern computers and swiveling office chairs.  Details like that give the series a great sense of realism.  Continuing on the tour of the police building, you grow amazed at the palatial offices occupied by the department's top brass, and realize that they have nothing in common with the people at the bottom of the totem pole.

There is a single amazing shot somewhere early in the series that I think encapsulates the goals and artistry of the show.  You see a drug deal go down, as the goods are passed from one hand to another.  Then the camera goes WHOOOSH!  It pulls back and you see the courtyard these two people are standing in, then the block, then more and more of the city, until it rests on a picture of all Baltimore, lights twinkling.  You have the feeling that this show has created an entire city, and is showing you a fraction of its stories, but could just as easily be showing you anything else.

I get the feeling that I toss around the word "epic" too easily, probably because I love things that are epic.  When I talk about The Wire to other people, I find that I keep on using words and phrases that for the past few years I have reserved for Battlestar Galactica: "epic," "best show on television," "best cast," etc.  Some of these are just because it's hard to judge the relative merit of two shows that are at the top of their class.  I'd like to dig a bit more deeply into the "epic" label, though.

Both The Wire and Battlestar Galactica feel huge, but for very different reasons.  I think BSG feels huge in large part because of its setting.  I mean, come on - it's a show about the nuclear near-annihilation of an entire species; the handful of people who survive and must try to keep surviving in a universe filled with insanely powerful robots trying to kill them.  That's pretty epic.  Add in ancient prophecies, a long journey, and massive evolutions in plot and character development, and you've got a winner.

If BSG is huge by its setting, The Wire feels huge by its detail.  Everything coheres, everything hangs together, and every piece seems utterly believably, more realistic than life itself.  Tiny offhand comments or gestures prove to have enormous ramifications, and you believe that this is not because a bright writer set it up, but because those comments and gestures betrayed reality.  Now, the technical scope of The Wire isn't as grand as in BSG - we are talking perhaps dozens of deaths at most compared to billions, and drug deals in a single American city rather than a war raging across the universe - but it seems to speak more directly to the human condition, to illumine facets of ourselves that we typically just don't see.

If I can be permitted a poor analogy, I think that The Wire is epic in the way Hamlet is epic.  It's filled with passion, with marvelously drawn characters, tight plotting and action, and by its skill the author can draw out timeless truths and improve our lives.  I think that BSG is epic in the way Paradise Lost is epic.  It's a grand, amazing, sprawling story, filled with outsized personalities, enormous struggles, and a scope so large that it allows the author to talk about absolutely anything.  I don't think one is better than the other; both have their place, and both are amazing.

So, other than the scope (actually, related to the scope), the part of The Wire that impresses me the most is how it shows society.  Again, it reveals the peaks and the troughs of our cities, from people living in misery in slums to comfortable couples and the wealthy and powerful.  The camera moves with ease between these extremes, but you get a palpable sense for the different worlds occupied by these characters.  They're all part of the same city, but a kid from the projects will never see the inside of the Deputy Commissioner's office, any more than a white politician will hang around with Bubs.


So, for the first couple of episodes, the show sets out the prejudices and stereotypes, and you start to get a feel for the characters.  On one side you have the  criminals, on the other the police.  As the show goes along, though, they keep on tweaking our perceptions.  As in real life, people and situations are more common than you initially may believe.  How should a drug kingpin behave?  Brutal, efficient, smart-talking, okay.  How about attending night school so he can pick up an economics degree and learn how to expand and price his market?  Sounds weird, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.

Tangent - another thing I love about the show is how it de-mystifies the drug trade.  You've probably heard about a study done that compared the corporate structure of McDonald's with that of a drug gang, and found that if you show the relative salaries and remove the job titles, they're virtually identical.  The men at the top of the organization are smart, flexible, incredibly talented, and make a lot of money and oversee large organizations.  The bottom rungs are staffed by poorly skilled people doing crummy jobs for minimum wage.  Some people can, through hard work and talent, climb the middle rungs of some responsibility and incentive rewards, but the overall structure is clearly pyramidal.  The Wire gets this to a T.  A lesser show would have mainly focused on Barksdale, or on the couch, and just sketched in the other extreme.  The Wire shows everything, every stage, every rung, every transaction, how each dollar moves from the welfare check to Barksdale's safe to real estate.  It's easy to point a finger and say, "Tsk tsk, drugs are bad."  It's a much harder and much better thing to show what drugs ARE, what they do, how they work, who buys, who sells, who loses, who wins. 

Back to society - there's this ongoing crumbling in the show.  The characters feel locked into their worlds - many of them have never even left Baltimore - but we gradually realize that those worlds are more complex than we initially believed.  As the show continues, you start to gradually realize that the division between the ghetto and City Hall is not as solid as it first appeared.  A character will show up in a place where they don't belong, you'll kind of shake your head - "What's going on?" - and then start re-processing, updating your view of the world based on the new information you've received.  There are many layers to this onion, and everything is connected.


And I'm less than halfway through season 2!  Pretty amazing, and I get the feeling this will be even more epic by the time it's all done.


  1. Excellent review bro.

    One of the things I love about the show is how each season takes another aspect of the city and works it in. Season 1 focuses on the police force, but as time goes on the Docks [getting the drugs in], the government [how drugs stay a problem], the schools [how people turn to crime or law], and the media [how they are covered].

    It reminds me a lot of GRRMs writing style- you're dropped into a vibrant world and introduced to pieces bit by bit that explain so much of what came before.

  2. Oh, yeah... that gradually expanding focus is one of the things I love most about it. Since writing this post I've moved on into the third season, and it's pretty stunning. Things get even more complex and broader. I think this is one of the huge advantages that an HBO-style series has over a movie: the sheer duration allows the creators to do amazing things without needing to choose between detail and scope.

    Excellent analogy to George R. R. Martin, by the way... I hadn't thought of that, but you're right on. The show doesn't stop and tell you how the Southeast is different from the Western, because the characters already know the difference. Eventually, you come to understand it as well yourself, because you're practically living within that world.