Wednesday, October 31, 2007

...Unless They Some Smart Ass Pawns

The Wire Season One

After watching (and loving) the first season of The Shield, I was more or less obligated to tune into the similar (and even more critically lauded) The Wire. The two shows have strong similarities, both are gritty cop shows set in poor, crime ridden neighbourhoods (The Shield is set in a bad part of L.A., while The Wire takes place in Baltimore, a choice of setting that behoves the creators to make the slightly unusual choice of having an almost entirely black cast). However despite starting from similar places the shows have vastly different approaches to the genre. The Shield poses, explicitly and didactically, questions about concrete issues, mainly the attitude of 'the ends justify the means' with regards to law enforcement. The Wire is far subtler and more philosophical with it's themes, which are presented with a sophistication far beyond that of any other TV show I've seen, even in our current golden age of good TV.

Ten years ago television was the 'idiot box', the lowest form of entertainment. As a kid I was always puzzled by the far greater artistic merit attributed to film, when I perceived them both as moving pictures and could see no reason that one should be greatly different to the other. In a sense I was right. There's no reason that television should not be a medium for intelligent and enlightening story telling, but the fact remains that, with rare exceptions, no one was using it as such for a very long time. Certain shows (Buffy, The Sopranos) turned that around and now series' with long running, complex narratives are common place. Sadly this little renaissance comes at a time when broadcast television' lifespan is coming to an end, with the internet's Sword of Damocles poised delicately over its head. This era will no doubt be viewed in retrospect with a lot of nostalgia when we're all stuck watching the puerile offspring of lonelygirl on youtube or it's successor, and when we do so The Wire will no doubt be one of the touchstone examples used.

There are two halves to the first season of The Wire. In one we follow the fortunes of D'Angelo Barksdale, a rising player in his family's drug trafficking business, and his associates. In the other we watch the police investigation tasked with bringing down the gang's kingpin, D'Angelo's uncle Avon. Despite the dedication of the officers carrying out the investigation the authorities within the police department have little patience for the 'waste of resources' so our main protagonist, detective Jimmy McNulte, balances his time maintaining covert surveillance on the drug dealers while playing politics with his superiors who are constantly pushing to shut the operation down

On the plot level there's a lot going on, and while I have always been in the habit of watching Lost, 24 and even Buffy with one eye on the TV and the other on the internet, it's impossible to keep track of what's going on in The Wire without devoting most of your attention to the show, with it's fast paced, jargon laden dialogue and, refreshingly, it's willingness not to spell everything out for the viewer. Even a show like Lost, which has a reputation for keeping people guessing, deals out its mysteries methodically. The viewer of Lost is not meant to actually figure anything out for themselves, all will be explained (if it's going to be) by an explicit, revelatory scene or line of dialogue. The Wire, in contrast, keeps a lot of things, particularly the less important details, implied and unstated. The closing montage of the season is particularly good. Without any dialogue the point of the show is made clear, you can put as many criminals in prison as you care to, but without changing the social situation there's always going to be someone at every level of the organisation ready to step into place and carry on doing the same old thing. Sure, individuals lives and careers have been shaken up or destroyed (and one or two have even been improved), but the faceless institutions of the police force and the drug gangs remain trapped and unchanged in their perpetual war; a war which neither has any real interest in winning.

It's a downer but a great one to watch. The show lacks the gritty realness of The Shield, but makes up for it with artificial but snappy and entertaining dialogue and a plot that is never predictable. More than once I was on the edge of my seat, genuinely concerned for the fate of a sympathetic character (and they're found in both sides of the series' conflict) because the show unfolds like a novel, where plot is paramount, rather than a TV show, where a character's sudden death is more likely to occur because of the actor's contract negotiations than any dramatic reasoning.

To start with my opinion of this show was that it was good, but not as good as The Shield, but the elegant and genuinely unpredictable denouement of the season brought it all together so well that I'll happily concede that the common consensus is correct and this really is one of the best (can't say the best, that's Buffy) things ever screened on TV.

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