What You Should Think About The Wire

November 9, 2007

“. . . until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence in the news, there is no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.”

–Alicia Silverstone in Clueless

I remember being disappointed with NBC when they pulled the plug on Homicide: Life on the Street. Whether I was a college student or a yuppie working 60+ hour weeks or a hippie hardly working at all, it was the one series I always made time to follow. It took television to a place the medium hadn’t really been in the past, and it continued to generate top quality dramatic entertainment right up to the very end.

Frontline did a nice piece on the struggle to keep the show going even though Homicide was neck in neck in the ratings with Nash Bridges. In a less consequential but similarly gloomy way, I felt this made the kind of negative statement about our culture the world saw more clearly in the 2004 Presidential election. Still, right up to the end, Homicide managed to keep its integrity and turn out television that was rich with dramatic intensity and technical artistry.

Nowadays when people think of those virtues in television content, the tendency is to look at premium channels, with HBO leading the charge. The Sopranos was a cultural phenomenon that rightly deserved nearly unversal praise of the highest order. Yet HBO has proven in the past decade that it is capable of supporting many bold efforts to produce television content that realizes the potential for artistry in the medium. Lurking in obscurity relative to its cousin from New Jersey, The Wire capitalizes on the creative freedom premium channels encourage while carrying on with some of the best traditions established with Homicide.

In fact, both programs are centered on law enforcement operations in Baltimore. However, with The Wire we see even more of an effort to remove the filters between harsh realities of life in an urban environment plagued by crime and the experience of viewing the program. Tremendous effort has been made to give each character an authentic voice. It may be that most of the gangsters in the show are portrayed by educated professional actors, but it is easy to forget that fact as they set aside the lessons of voice coaches and stage experiences in favor of a profoundly natural mode of human interaction.

Likewise, law enforcement characters are portrayed with their own occupational quirks and colorful language. In the fourth episode of the first season, there is an amazing scene in which two homicide detectives do a significant amount of investigative work while engaging in richly detailed dialog that is confined to a single word. Variations in tone and context make it possible for both characters to express a wealth of information without venturing beyond the vocabulary of that particular expletive. Gems like that provide a generous payout of entertainment value for viewers willing to stare directly into the show’s stark depictions of drug addiction and street violence.

Perhaps a fair touchstone for the whole thing would be the teaser at the start of it all. The first episode begins with a detective questioning a minor gang associate about a dead body on the street. As the reluctant witness is coaxed into providing some background on the decedent, it turns out the man had a habit of robbing back-alley dice games. He would show up and make small wagers of his own, but as soon as a large amount of cash was put into play, he would swipe it and run from the group. When asked why the thief was allowed into the games again and again in spite of his conduct, the uneducated gangster displayed his understanding of Constitutional law by replying, “you got to let the man play — it’s America!”

The series rarely becomes so bogged down as to lack a mix of intrigue and action. Yet even in its slowest moments a mix of wit and philosophy is there to keep viewers engaged. Both levity and profundity tend to emerge naturally from the story as it unfolds. The biggest laughs and the deepest thoughts come to viewers from unexpected angles, rather than being presented as heavy-handed contrivances.

Each season offers up a relatively self-contained story arc, though it all begins as a detective sits in court watching yet another murder acquittal resulting from a street gang’s capacity to neutralize witnesses. With rampant apathy in a criminal justice system overmatched by the resources of drug-funded criminal organizations, a policeman intent on observing a trial for a case that was not even his own work draws attention. A judge also more motivated than most public servants in the show solicits the detective’s advice on how to deal with these seemingly indomitable gangs. The end result is a police task force that gradually manages to collect insight into the inner workings of a substantial criminal empire.

The show is fraught with events that repudiate the notion of karma. Then again, life itself has been known to exhibit just the same sort of injustice. For example, the apparent protagonist of the series, having created extra work for his associates by conversing with that judge and pushing for a thorough investigation from the task force, finds himself starting the second season with a new assignment specifically selected to make him miserable.

In the third season, a supervisory officer on the brink of retirement displays an uncommon level of thoughtfulness about the relationship between narcotics commerce and violence. While concealing his activities from other police commanders, he orchestrates a “no enforcement zone” where drug peddlers have been assured they can ply their trade without being arrested for it.

Though the project is slow to get traction, when gangsters in the area start to trust that the whole proposal is not a setup, it produces impressive results. Social services are more easily administered with drug commerce openly occurring in a small area rather than taking place covertly on street corners all around the district. The opportunity for easy money provides a strong incentive for the gangs to avoid violence. In the end, the project known on the street as “Amsterdam” unravels because of its own success — other police commanders become curious as to why crime has fallen so remarkably in that area, and the end of the secret becomes inevitable.

Now the days of The Wire are also numbered. The fifth and final season has already been completely filmed. Presently HBO on Demand is rolling through the previous seasons to give newcomers a chance to dial in to the story so far. Also, DVD collections of the first four seasons are widely available. Even if television writers had not decided to strike for a better share of the proceeds from direct media sales of content, this series would be an excellent way for anyone who enjoys good crime drama to spend some time. With the rest of the medium facing a form of artistic paralysis, all the more reason exists to take a look at this amazing confluence of Homicide‘s tradition of grit with HBO’s capacity for supporting artistic freedom.