2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, TV

The Wire (2002)

It’s been about 10 years since The Wire finished and 16 years since it started. In that time, I have managed to watch the first three seasons four times (I think), the fourth season three times and the notorious fifth season twice. (The only other dramatic show I have ever watched more than once is Deadwood.) I never wrote a review of the show, which I considered The Greatest TV Show of All Time, because I first watched it before I regularly wrote movie and TV reviews and, I guess, because I sort of considered its greatness self-evident. I don’t think I will ever watch another show multiple times, simply because there is so much great TV now, in the world created in part by The Wire (and other shows of its era) but I must say that watching The Wire so many times has given me a more nuanced view of the show than I initially had (I hope).

SPOILERS about the fifth season, but it’s 2018.

I still believe that The Wire is the greatest fictional, dramatic English-language TV show I have ever seen. (The reason for those qualifiers should be obvious.) But having watched it multiple times now I must say that it is far more flawed than I remember it being and that it is a reminder that art is always flawed, no matter how important (or how perfect) it is or may seem.

For its first 50 hours, The Wire is arguably without peer with regard to a few things:

  • Long-form storytelling with few-to-no concessions to the episodic nature of television. (It’s now a cliche to call it the Russian Novel of American TV, in part because of its concern with issues bigger than character and plot.) It’s worth noting that more and more shows have been willing to take risks with not conforming to the episodic nature of TV, though I feel like The Wire is still relatively unique in its willingness to plunge into stories and to not follow the conventions to each “hour” of TV, in service of a greater whole.
  • Depicting the social and systemic nature of our reality and the systemic and social pressures that influence and cause people to not only do things that others might view as immoral or unethical but also to rationalize those decisions as necessary or normal or even ethical. It is only in very recent years that our pop culture has regularly depicted this reality as reality, as opposed to the old Good vs. Evil paradigm, where some people are truly good and some people are truly bad and few people are in between (and those in between or only confused).

Yes, there are definitely issues: sometimes the focus on systemic issues is at the sacrifice of decent storytelling and sometimes the plot (and the allegory) are too important and character development is sacrificed or confused.

And yes, it looks bad now, especially if you are watching it on a bunch of DVDs you bought when the show is on the air. (I have not seen the new, re-formatted version.) But all early digital video looks bad, just like early digital music technology sounds terrible.

But things really go off the rails in the fifth season, which is even worse than I remembered. It’s not so much that the serial killer invention is a problem as that it’s who invents it. Had the show chosen to just have the reporter invent the serial killer, I think a lot more of us would have accepted everything else the fifth season gave us, but having the cops do it – and having them endure forced retirement as their only punishment – stretched credulity on a show we had all convinced ourselves was more realistic than anything else on TV.

And that ending is just too cute with reasonably happy endings and new beginnings for more of the surviving cast than not. (That final episode is also Return of the King-level interminable.)

But, if you can ignore or forgive the 5th season, I think The Wire‘s overall quality – acting, long-form storytelling, grounding in an everyday reality that actually exists, and its exploration of the issues of human systems and institutions – plus its timing – which is, arguably just as important given how few shows even remotely like this existed prior to it – make it, at the very least, a very strong candidate for The Greatest (fictional, dramatic English-language) TV Show of All Time, if not the most important. (The Sopranos – which I personally view as not quite on the level of The Wire in terms of its violations of TV norms and certainly not remotely on the level of The Wire in terms of its understanding of how institutions and people within those institutions function – was still first, and therefore, arguably, more important.)

Even a decade later, its first 50 hours remain the best thing I have seen on TV which educates people how the world actually works. I still think it is mandatory viewing, even if that view makes me a bit of a cliche. The only thing I know like it – Deadwood – isn’t as explicit in its message and so lacks the ability to both double duty as entertainment and education.

10/10

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