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The Guardian does The Wire

thewireseason4I’ve just discovered Steve Busfield at The Guardian has begun a week-by-week, season-by-season blog covering every episode of The Wire. It’s up to the final of Season One at the moment, but if you want to read them in sequence, or you’re afraid of spoilers, you might want to start at the beginning.

It’s interesting, in a way, to observe the afterlife of The Wire. Despite famously failing to rate during its initial run on television (a claim I always find a little hard to square with the rather obviously inflating budgets of successive seasons) it has gone on to enjoy cult status on DVD and via download, a process which has only added to its rather cliquey, elite appeal (it should come as no surprise that after being bounced around the graveyard shift by the repulsive Channel 9, the ABC has recently announced it will repeat the series from Season One later this year).

For my part I’ve always felt slightly conflicted about the show. For all that I admire its ambition, the sheer richness of the characters and the unflinching nature of its social observation (Season Four, which concentrates on the school system and the children within it is almost physically distressing), I’m troubled by the self-consciousness of that same ambition, the unreconstructed gender politics and the oddly conventional visual style.

But all that said, it’s a show which holds within it moments of brilliance. Who could forget Ziggy finally coming unstuck in Season Two, or Poot and Bodie disposing of Wallace on Stringer and Avon’s orders in Season One? Or the transformation of Prez? Or Bodie and Poot and their girlfriends running into Herc and Carver and their girlfriends outside the cinema? Or McNulty and Bunk’s wonderful “motherf**cker” crime scene reconstruction? Or Omar? Or Bubbles? Or indeed the chillingly hilarious cold open to Season Four, in which Snoop drops into Walmart to buy a nailgun:

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And I suppose while I’m here I can’t pass up the chance to give the motherf**cker scene one more airing:

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11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sam Twyford-Moore #

    I’m not sure why a ‘conventional visual style’ would be ‘odd’ in the case of The Wire. I’m not privy to the budgets for the show, or the individual seasons, but I can’t see how a HBO budget could be bigger than an NBC or ABC budget. I think the Wire actually benefits from it’s flat visual style – occasionally based on the political thrillers of the 70’s American cinema, All The Presidents Men etc – because it’s about giving the viewer a close to realism as possible view of the workings of the city and it’s people. Of course, the Dickensian characters and the way we are charmed by them and root for them (Omar, Bubbles) are a little out of that realism ideal… but I think the visual style is fitting.

    May 21, 2009
  2. The comparison with All the President’s Men is a really interesting one, and not one that had occurred to me, presumably because I’d been so blinded by the obvious homage to cop shows of the 1980s like Homicide and Hill Street Blues (I’m kind of surprised I missed it, not least because I used to get such a kick out of all the ATPM references in The X-Files). And I think you’re right, the decision to use those realist crime and political dramas of the 1970s and 1980s as a template for The Wire’s visual style is absolutely an attempt to achieve a kind of naturalistic closeness to the world it’s portraying. But at the same time I think it’s important not to assume you can only be naturalistic in one way. Certainly what I always feel is missing in The Wire’s visual style is a sense of the denseness of the textures of the city. By that I don’t just mean more location work (and I think the sheer proliferation of location work in the later episodes bears out my point about the expanding budgets – one episode of Season Four or Five looks like it cost about as much as the whole of Season One) but a sense of the richness of that environment. I think The Sopranos or even Breaking Bad (a fantastic show) are both essentially naturalistic (and I say that taking into account all the dream imagery in The Sopranos) but both make much more powerful use of the places they inhabit, and of the possibilities of editing and music and sound than The Wire ever does, and I could never quite reconcile the show’s lack of ambition about the visual and textural possibilities of the form with its driving ambition at a narrative level.

    May 21, 2009
  3. Sam Twyford-Moore #

    I’m glad you expanded on that point – because it looked as though it was just thrown in there in order to find some fault with a very fine show (I’m not at the stage where I’d be able to take up the lack of ‘reconstructed gender politics’). I see what you mean about the difference between the first season and the ones that followed – the widening scope, to include nearly all levels of life in Baltimore, would have demanded a wider location scout. But, I guess if you go back to the very first season, you have the Towers, in all their grimy glory, which seemed to get down to the gritty details. How scarily effective were The Towers in the scene where Prez and co. get beaten back by thrown bottles and Prez loses his mind and control in the fury? You had no idea where those bottles were coming from, so you felt like you were dodging them yourself. The open space of D and Poot and poor Wallace (always pronounced in my mind: ‘wireless’) and bad-ass Bodie’s outdoor lounge setting season (later replaced by Marlo’s skate-bowl HQ in Season 4), walled in by the destitute homes of those they are dealing to. The setting for Hampsterdam took on the nightmarish qualities that were demanded of it to as that scene played out. Whether it was the intention of the filmmakers (TV-makers?) or not The Wire has become the go-to guide for the filmic representation Baltimore, so I guess there needs to be some level of scrutiny in how they have portrayed that city and how realistically they’ve captured it. Not being a native I can’t grade it, but as a show about a low-socio-economic city of sickly Bush-era America, the visual ambitions the show had, whether they be achieved with low grade film stock or a static, unadventurous camera lens, seem to hit most of their targets.

    For your interest… here are some shots of the empty Wire sets, days before their demolition…

    May 21, 2009
  4. Sam Twyford-Moore #

    There should be a SPOILER WARNING on that link. Just ruined the fifth season for myself.

    May 21, 2009
  5. D’oh!

    May 21, 2009
  6. Mardi #

    There’s a lot to like about The Wire (personally, seasons 1 and 4 are the stand-outs so far, I was less excited by 2 and 3). But what I don’t like about The Wire – and this might be what James meant by unreconstructed gender politics – is the way that all the characters are very male, and in a particular tough-guy sort of way, and the only thing it’s really interested in is men at work, being tough; whereas something like The Sopranos was so startling because it contrasted the tough guys and their world of work – which is appalling – with their family lives, which were startling, detailed, grotesque and fascinating, and which showed them having to maintain a whole different set of relationships, with their wives and mistresses, but more fascinatingly with their mothers, sisters and extended family (and the kids too). One of the interesting things about Prez in Season 4 of The Wire is that he’s one of the few characters who you feel has genuinely grown and changed, and it’s at least partly because you see him taking an interest in the life and future of the kids he’s teaching – which is a big departure from the tough guy stuff. Generally though, The Wire is fairly uninterested in wives, women, or anything that falls outside the world of men doing stuff with other men.

    May 21, 2009
  7. Sam Twyford-Moore #

    I wonder if The Wire is so firmly set in the world of ‘men doing stuff with other men’ because of it’s focus on crime and police procedurals. I’m assuming that the reason that the show is so great is because both creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, brought so much of what they knew and had experienced to writing up the episodes and the arc of the show. It’s pretty clear that Ed Burns is Prez. He started out as a Baltimore detective and then became a teacher (if The Wire kept going Prez would probably become the Creator of a hit TV show). So we get to know Prez and identify and sympathise with his ability to change, and to congratulate him on it, to feel proud for him. By stepping out of the police world, he steps into education and widens the show’s scope (as does Bunny Colvern – the character I warm to most, mostly thanks to Robert Wisdom; fitting surname). McNulty makes a similar move, stepping down from Homicide and Major Crimes, to working the beat. Prez doesn’t have a choice, but McNulty seems to choose it so he can have a ‘normal’ life with Beadie. The show seems to be interested in the lead up to that commitment but not at all with the everyday reality of it. So Beadie is around when McNulty is flirting with her, but all her dialogue and scenes are cut when their relationship is consummated.

    It’s interesting that the two female characters with the most influence on the events of the show, Kima Greggs and Snoop, who are both lesbians (I’m making an assumption with Snoop, but if she’s not a lesbian, she’s certainly an archetypal tomboy). They certainly fit into the brashness of the ‘man’s world’ (for want of a better phrase) that the show depicts and actively take part in the off-colour behaviour of both sides of the law – Snoop is responsible for the season’s most grim murders and Kima does just as much boozing and sleeping around as the boys.

    May 21, 2009
  8. Snoop is a genuinely terrifying creation. And I think Mardi has summed up my feelings pretty well, with one qualification, which is that I’m always struck by the way the show never really interrogates the behaviour of the men. Certainly it – and its writers – are always a little bit too much in love with all the macho bullshit Rawls and the others roll out. There’s a bit of perfunctory observation of the toll of the drinking (how many times does Bunk throw up?) but it never really digs away at what all that male shit is about, or the cost it exacts on both them and the people round them. As for Ed Burns being Prez – maybe: David Simon, “the angriest man in television” certainly isn’t: But I think the fact the show is so grounded in the experience of its creators is interesting, and probably telling. But as I said in my original post, these reservations need to be taken in the context of my broader admiration for the show.

    May 21, 2009
  9. A remarkably accurate portrait….The bus I take to work goes by, I think, the quad in which the couch sat, if not the original then close. The bus also goes by The Church of the Holy Comforter (Lutheran, in case you were wondering) and Epiphany House, for end of life care (my fave – epiphany – fuck! I’m going to die!) so keep in mind John Waters is the other pole in the culture magnet that is Baltimore…

    May 22, 2009
  10. Pip Newling #

    Snoop is in fact a real woman/girl who has done time for murder – no creation. And what’s more she has started a whole program to educate young Baltimore kids about how awful jail is because she and the guy (is it Chris?) who does all the hits with her (and has also been in jail in real life) was shocked by how the show ‘glorified’/’made easy’ the killings her character did. A customer of mine (I work in a bookshop) is from Baltimore and says that The Wire is an accurate depiction of the city. Note that Philipp Meyer, writer of ‘American Rust’ also grew up in Baltimore.

    Re: the gender stuff. The Wire is a pretty good police procedural which means character loses out to plot. Except for Prez, Omar and Bunk (in the end). Do we really believe that McNulty stopped peeing on railway tracks because of Bea (I mean she’s cute and smart and should be a bigger character in the story but the love of a good woman…???) If we are going for gritty realism here then perhaps the way the female characters are treated as bit parts or mere accessories is a realistic depiction of how these men behave but…it isn’t reality TV its meant to be drama.

    June 5, 2009

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