Sunday, November 2, 2008

THE WIRE, or Not Reading Dostoevsky

I feel like such a loser for finally catching THE WIRE only 5+ years after it premiered.

Again, credit goes to Philippe, who gave me a DVD of all 13 episodes of season 1. He's been telling me to see this show for a couple of years now. So have other people. And there have been those great reviews. I remember a few in particular on NPR, describing it as the best thing on TV and simply sublime.

After seeing all 13 episodes in one day (I couldn't put it down--that's almost 13 hours of DVD watching), I have to agree. It lives up to the hype and more.

I don't know about the other seasons because I have yet to see them (now I will have to get them somehow), but season 1 was epic. It felt like I was watching or reading some epic Russian novel--something heavy and serious.

It's the only show I've ever seen where cops seem real and haven't been glorified like crazy and ditto for the drug hustle in the projects. It was brilliant. Each episode, each scene was so well acted and, most importantly, so well written.

The episodes have different guest directors, but the influence of the writer is so strong, that there isn't much stylistic difference among the 13 episodes in terms of visual content.

And to the writer's credit, there is very 'little showing off' to draw attention to his obvious brilliance. Though what little showing off there is is enough to put a smile on your face.

What do I mean by the writer 'showing off'?

The best example is the scene when McNulty and Bunk go out to examine the now-empty apartment in which a young woman was killed 6 months earlier. Working from a thin file, which contains another homicide detective's shabby write-up of the same scene and a half dozen photos of the victim, McNulty and Bunk, being more thorough, observant, and better cops, figure out the angle of the bullet's trajectory and manage to find a bullet that had been lodged hidden inside the refrigerator for 6 months. They do this while a third man, the super, who has let them into the vacant apartment, is standing there watching them and being treated to a show of two really skilled cops at work.

Of course, my clunky description of the scene doesn't do it justice. Because besides serving the utilitarian function of exposition, the 5-minute scene, which might have been a part of any police procedural, is elevated to art by being played out in such a way that the progressive little discoveries that the two detectives make in piecing together what really happened in that apartment is conveyed by one detective to the other with multiple exclamations of "fuck" by McNulty and "motherfucker" by Bunk.

In other words, the only dialog in this 5-minute scene, is 15-20 "fuck"s and "motherfucker"s.

Basically, te two actors play the entire scene with the imposed limitation that each convey all the exposition by uttering only one expletive. Usually on TV shows, the same scene would have been loaded down by clunky exposition dialog of the "From the angle in the photo, the bullet must have come through the window and entered her neck and come out her back. Hey, wait a minute. Do you think it's possible that she might have had the fridge open? I'm not sure, let's take a look..."

The characters in this ensemble piece are terrific and have complex internal lives. The show is frank about homosexuality, alcohol abuse, snitching, fuck-up cops, corruption, and a dozen other things. In other words, it is true about life, without being completely pessimistic or cynical.

I know that my description of season 1 is rather vague and rambling. I'm writing this on Sunday morning after having spent all of Saturday watching the show.

One more thing. The show seemed to switch protagonists half way through the season. It starts out being about Jimmy McNulty, a white detective with a maverick streak, but then at some point in the 2nd half of the season, becomes about Lieutenant Cedric Daniels. Indeed, Lieutenant Daniels has the biggest character arc and changes the most due to the events of the story. I've never seen the actor who plays him on other TV shows or in movies. I'm guessing he must be a theater vet. The guy was amazing. His delivery of lines is so utterly unique.

Overall, watching THE WIRE was like reading CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, but without the reading.

I'd read Richard Price's CLOCKERS way back in the early 1990s when it came out. That tome was about a stuttering low-level drug crew manager in a housing project in Newark. It was a good read, if ultimately not as gripping as some other books about the drug hustle in the ghetto. Still, it was ambitious, but became a rather bad movie by Spike Lee, who is one of my favorite directors.

Compared to CLOCKERS, or other dramas set in the hood, THE WIRE shines even that much more brilliantly. I normally don't even like cop shows. I think they nearly always lie about how noble, smart, and hard-working cops are. THE WIRE is different.

If you haven't yet seen this show, you have to check it out. Don't take my word for it. Trust the next President of the United States.

According to Wikipedia, THE WIRE is Barack Obama's favorite TV show.

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