More with Less – The Wire 5.1

08Jan08

Before diving into the season 5 premiere of The Wire, I just want to point folks to the show’s podcast, where you can get a number of interesting commentaries, the prequel shorts that give some back story to characters like Omar and Prop Joe (my favorite is how Bunk & McNulty met!), and a full copy of this week’s episode – although my copy for some reason cut out the theme song, performed this year by Steve Earle.

And for those of you who haven’t watched the show, I wanted to respond to something that I’ve heard from a number of folks (including Derek commenting on my last post). The Wire has been so hyped and celebrated that it becomes almost doomed by its own importance – it sounds like “green vegetable TV” that you should watch, but that you won’t really like. While I agree that the show is more intellectually engaging than almost anything else on TV, what such accolades tend to ignore is that it’s also great entertainment. The show is quite funny, emotionally engaging, and warm, despite its dour setting and unrelenting cynicism. I took a while to start watching it, as I feared it would be homework, but it’s not. It’s simply great TV at all levels. So get watching! (Episode response with spoilers beneath the fold…)

In my essay on The Wire, I try to bring some skepticism to bear on the oft-repeated claim that the show is like a novel. But one aspect where the comparison is apt is how early episodes in a season get the drama going. Most novels take a while to start the core plot, using early chapters to establish tone, characters, and themes, while often leaving some core information out to create some enigmas and productive confusion. Commercial television and film are comparatively more plot-driven in their exposition, needing to hook viewers into the core narrative early and strive for clarity above all else. The Wire gives its first few episodes over to establishing a rhythm, theme, and tone to the season, which arguably alienates the expectations of many viewers wanting an immediate mystery or conflict to drive the drama forward.

For the long-term viewer of the show, this season’s premiere points to a lot, even if there’s comparatively little action. A core question is how can an institution still function in the face of massive cutbacks, doing more with less. This applies directly to the new institution, The Baltimore Sun, but also the police department, the State’s Attorney’s office, and presumably the schools (not yet seen). Of course, the institution best able to survive changing contexts (and leaders) is the drug trade.

Most of the developments reset issues that have lingered for seasons and undone the “new day” dawning at the end of season 4: Major Crimes Unit is disbanded again, Marlo’s bucking for control of the city again, Carcetti’s letting political ambitions compromise his city again, McNulty’s back to boozing & hounding again, and Bubbles is struggling to stay clean again. In a lesser show, this would feel like retrenchment and formula, but a key part of The Wire is that change is fleeting, while the corrupt status quo always prevails.

The scenes in The Sun are least satisfying, in part because they feel less familiar, but also because the commentary feels a bit more obvious than typical of the show – the young reporter bucking for a promotion is clearly being set-up to make some ethical compromises, and Gus (played by Clark Johnson in a welcome return of one of my favorite Homicide actors) seems a bit too much of a stand-in for the roles played by Frank and Bunny in previous season: middle-managers willing to take huge risks and sacrifices to save something he believes in. Maybe the compressed 10 episode season is forcing a bit too quick of a storytelling pace, or maybe Simon & Burns will surprise me (as they often do) – but I’ll offer a bit of early skepticism.

Coming back to The Wire‘s Baltimore is less about what’s happening at the level of plot than rekindling my engagement with these characters and the sense of place that the show evokes. Just as I love to see so many of my favorite folks again (Lester, Bunk, Bubbles, and Norman especially), I also felt a longing for many missing faces. Omar wasn’t there, but we know he’ll be back. I’m less certain what the future might bring for Bunny, Cutty, Randy, Avon, and Pres, all of whom will be missed if they don’t play major roles this season. And this is one of the show’s key challenges – having created the richest and broadest ensemble of characters I can think of, can it give everyone their due without shoehorning them into the story artificially? I have faith.

Finally, The Wire‘s style is rarely discussed. It lacks visual flash by design, aiming for naturalism without any of the common pseudo-documentary cues for “realism” (shaky cameras, jump cuts, sloppy focus). Instead, it visually creates a rich sense of space, showing Baltimore and its residents through fragmented glances of experience, weaving a sense of a whole through the mosaic of little parts.

Wire 5.1

Shots like this one, from a surveillance van watching Marlo’s crew, give a sense of lived-in texture and complex urban geography that are just as important to the show’s success as the brilliant performances and pitch-perfect language. The opening credit sequence for each season captures its themes and texture, so I look forward to charting how this year’s collage of images fits with the season’s arcs.

See you next week in Baltimore.



One Response to “More with Less – The Wire 5.1”

  1. I posted my recap/reflection last night. I appreciate your comment on the visual style of the series. I’ve heard David Simon discuss the desire to limit the amount of “flash,” perhaps reacting to some of the more cinematic devices that were part of the house style for Homicide, but you’re right to point out that this doesn’t make The Wire visually flat or uninteresting. And, absolutely, if the series is “homework” TV, it is the kind of homework that comes from books you kept in college.


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