The Wire Through Season Three
As I mentioned in a comment to Francesca the other day, my wife and I recently finished watching the third season of The Wire. The entire series so far has been extremely good, but whenever I offer that opinion to anyone I add that it’s half recommendation and half warning. The warning is there not just because of the usual violence and sex that are all too typical of the entertainment industry. In that respect the series is not all that bad: the violence is not excessive and the sex scenes, which appear about once every other episode, are mostly brief (and, I might add, contribute nothing to the narrative, but isn’t that always the case?).
No, the warning is about the cumulative effect of the unendingly crude-to-obscene language. For many of the characters this means that hardly a sentence is uttered that isn’t somewhere in the range from merely vulgar to pretty disgusting. (And I don’t think I’m especially easy to shock in that way.) But it’s very much justified artistically, because it is in fact the way the people depicted would talk. This is a show about the criminal and corrupt side of life in an American city (Baltimore). The characters are mostly cops, criminals, and longshoremen, with a few lawyers and politicians thrown in. It’s wearisome to hear this in real life, and more so on the screen, at least to me: somehow it seems more invasive, especially if you’re watching with someone with whom you would not ordinarily converse this way.
Why would you want to put up with all that? Because these are great stories full of great characters, and they show us something profound, something about life in the American city and something about the human condition in general. The only things I’ve ever seen on television that seem worthy of comparison to it are the great BBC productions of great novels—which is fitting, as the producer of The Wire, David Simon, has referred to it as “novels for television,” and that’s an apt description. So far each of the three seasons has presented a long, complicated, and coherent story, which I’ve not been alone in comparing to Dickens not only in plot but in character.
It’s the characters that really stand out. Perhaps it’s because in thirteen hours you see quite a lot of each major character, but it’s not only that. I can’t think of any television or movie production whose characters have come to seem so real to me—to the point where I’ve caught myself being startled by the impulse to pray for certain ones, or being genuinely fearful of what may happen to them, or genuinely grieved at what does happen. And clearly many viewers react this way. Included with the last DVD in this season are a couple of discussions and interviews with David Simon and others involved the show. At the beginning of one of these, the host notes that the story concludes with “The most unwelcome event in television since the creation of Fox News.” The audience begins to laugh and cheer before he names the event, because they all know exactly what he was referring to. (Substitute some other calamity if, like me, you don’t think Fox News is quite so appalling or important as that.) The event is not just important to the story, or merely startling; it is unwelcome; you really don’t want it to happen.
David Simon appears to be pretty much a conventional secular liberal, and he seems to see the show as having a pretty definite political message, having to do with the disastrous condition of the inner city and specifically with the role of drugs and the so-called war against them in creating the disaster. It’s interesting, though, that a lot of conservatives think the show is great. That’s because, whatever Simon’s vision of the solution to the problems of the city, his vision of the actuality is clear and unflinching about the complexity of the situation. The vision is very conservative or conservative-compatible, in the sense that it recognizes that no simple solution exists; it is an essentially tragic vision. It portrays systemic corruption and misjudgment without ever reducing its characters to mere automata reacting to those conditions, or to place-holders in a set of political opinions. It never stoops to the usual movie-and-tv level of attempting to convince you that if only the Republicans and capitalists and Christians would quit oppressing people everything would be fine. The struggle between good and evil is acted out not at the level of ideology and policy but in the heart of each character. It is tragic not in the loose sense of “sad” but in the classical sense: people are undone by their own flaws, their weaknesses and their bad judgment. Victories are more rare and more transient than defeats.
You could say that the artistic success of The Wire is a case study in the triumph of artistic vision and skill over abstraction. Whatever the abstract opinions of the creators of the series may be, they have been true to the reality they attempt to portray. And they’ve portrayed it so well that once you enter their world you’ll never forget it. I won’t, anyway.
Aside from the crudity, I have a few minor criticisms. Some of the acting is less than first-rate, for instance. There are one or two characters who aren’t really convincing (e.g. Brother Mouzone). But these are only quibbles relative to the achievement.
Here is the first scene of the first episode of the first season. It may give you an idea of the show’s appeal, or perhaps non-appeal.
“Got to. This America, man.” That may be my favorite moment of the series. At a moment of horror, stupidity, and waste, it speaks of an unwarranted but irrepressible hope.
And “Life just be that way, I guess” could serve as an epigraph.
Note to Tom Waits fans: that’s The Five Blind Boys of Alabama singing “Down in the Hole.”
Although I would love to discuss the series in detail, I’d hate to give away very much to anyone who hasn’t seen it, so if we discuss this let’s avoid spoilers.Pre-TypePad
Finally got around to watching this. It is great stuff, although because I agree about the pervasive bad language and its cumulative effect I'd recommend it only to certain folks and then with qualifiers. I like 'Breaking Bad' better, but admit that they are very different types of shows so it's hard to do a straight up comparison really. I'm up to episode 9 of the first season.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/12/2011 at 12:51 PM
Hello Rob, I can't wait for Season Three of Breaking Bad.
Posted by: francesca | 01/12/2011 at 01:02 PM
I haven't seen Breaking Bad yet. Craig doesn't think it's as good as The Wire and I confess I don't expect it to be, either, just because The Wire is so extremely good.
Sad to say, there have been several murders in this area recently that could have come right out of the script for The Wire.
Posted by: Mac | 01/12/2011 at 01:45 PM
I saw Craig's comment on his blog, and I was surprised. Breaking Bad is a different genre (black comedy), but in its own way I think it is as good as the Wire.
Posted by: francesca | 01/12/2011 at 03:26 PM
I agree, Francesca. 'The Wire' is an outstanding, realistic cop drama. 'Breaking Bad' is an outstanding, not-quite-realistic dark comedy. Comparing the two is like comparing 'Goodfellas' and 'Fargo' -- equally good films, I'd say. But I like 'Fargo' better.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/12/2011 at 05:08 PM
Just read Craig's write-up on Breaking Bad. I think he makes the very mistake of which I spoke -- comparing the shows rather too directly.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/12/2011 at 05:42 PM
'Fargo' is better.
So is 'The Wire'.
And so to bed.
Posted by: Craig | 01/12/2011 at 09:38 PM
I haven't seen Goodfellas, at least not past the first 15 minutes. I don't have much attraction for that sort of Mafia-chic thing. So I can't judge between them, but I did like Fargo.
Posted by: Mac | 01/12/2011 at 11:02 PM
Fargo is an interesting comparison. BB tends toward fantasy in the way a certain kind of comedy does, without being completely 'off the wall'.
Posted by: francesca | 01/13/2011 at 09:02 AM
Did anyone see Robert Barron on True Grit. It has all the strengths of his method, though also the weaknesses. One of his best. in my op
Posted by: francesca | 01/13/2011 at 09:04 AM
The capitalized "SPOILERS" in that link is stopping me from reading it, since I plan to see the movie (eventually).
Posted by: Mac | 01/13/2011 at 09:35 AM
Fr. Barron is saying exactly what I've been saying about True Grit. There were a couple of other telling things that I noticed that he did not mention, and I didn't not catch the last reference in the song that he mentioned, but otherwise the same, and the things we each left out all support the main idea.
I was glad to hear what he had to say because sometimes I wonder if I see things that aren't there.
Posted by: Janet | 01/13/2011 at 11:06 AM
"BB tends toward fantasy in the way a certain kind of comedy does"
Yes, in a way it's almost, but not quite, magic realist. The creator, Vince Gilligan, did a lot of work on 'The X Files,' and I'm sure that that's where some of that comes from. One movie that has a similar feel but without the comic element is Paul Haggis's 'Crash.'
Posted by: Rob G | 01/13/2011 at 01:36 PM
Didn't know that Vince Gilligan was involved. I recognize his name from X-Files credits. If I remember correctly he was the producer for quite a few episodes. I definitely need to give BB a chance.
Posted by: Mac | 01/13/2011 at 01:42 PM
Yeah, it's funny, but when I watched the first episode and saw his name, it rang a bell, but I couldn't remember where I remembered it from.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/13/2011 at 02:26 PM
I've never seen the X-files. Normally, I would not like anything called 'magical realist', whether it's a film or a book or a moving train. I thought A Hundred Years of Solitude was very boring.
Posted by: francesca | 01/13/2011 at 02:28 PM
I am glad you liked it Janet. My Presbyterian friend who was bothered by the Gospel accompaniment to a story of vengeance was really taken with Fr Barron. I should confess at this point that I hardly noticed the musical background, and certainly not the words. I can't pretend I was tired by the flight or jet lagged, because by the time we saw the movie I'd been here five days or so.
Posted by: francesca | 01/13/2011 at 06:06 PM
I'm not a fan of true magic realism either. But I don't mind stuff that veers close. Perhaps 'borderline fantasy' would be an appropriate term, but even that isn't really accurate.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/14/2011 at 07:34 AM
I've started 100 Years of Solitude twice and found it not especially appealing. Not sure I'll get around to it again before I die.
Posted by: Mac | 01/14/2011 at 07:42 AM
"Hello Rob, I can't wait for Season Three of Breaking Bad"
Me neither! My guess is it'll be out in Feb or March; that's when Season 2 came out last year if memory serves.
The only books I've read that I've liked that might be considered magic realism are a few of Tim Powers's and James Blaylock's novels, and Bradbury's
'Dandelion Wine,' which I read this past fall and absolutely loved.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/14/2011 at 09:53 AM
I've never read Dandelion Wine but have often seen it recommended. I'm going to have to read some Tim Powers sometime.
Posted by: Mac | 01/14/2011 at 10:11 AM
Here's Bill Kauffman's appreciation of Bradbury and 'Dandelion Wine.'
Re: Powers, most of his books are either modern or historical fantasy, usually with a dark tinge, but he has written a couple things that are less explicitly fantastic.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/14/2011 at 11:30 AM
Yes, that Kaufmann piece was one of the ones I was thinking of. Really made me want to read it.
I think I saw Tim Powers' name in the credits for some movie recently...maybe Dawn Treader?
Posted by: Mac | 01/14/2011 at 11:48 AM
No, it's the for the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean flick. They've based it (loosely) on his novel 'On Stranger Tides.' The book is pretty good. I don't have my hopes up for the movie, however.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/14/2011 at 01:34 PM
Oh yeah, that's it--saw the preview when I went to see Dawn Treader.
Does it mark you as being old if you call it a "preview" rather than a "trailer"?
Posted by: Mac | 01/14/2011 at 01:44 PM
No, I am old and I say trailer.
I am the only person in the world who didn't like Pirates of the C. I saw the 2nd one and detested it.
Posted by: francesca | 01/14/2011 at 02:32 PM
No, you're not the only one (who didn't like PotC). There are at least two of us. I guess it was the first one that I saw. I wouldn't say I detested it but I found it tiresome.
Posted by: Mac | 01/14/2011 at 02:38 PM
I saw the first one and found it mildly entertaining, but not enough so as to watch any of the subsequent ones. I had the same feeling about Spider Man.
Posted by: Rob G | 01/14/2011 at 03:27 PM
That was pretty much my view of Spiderman, too, except that I thought the power/responsibility question, and Peter's need to deny his love for Mary Jane in order to protect her, gave it a bit of unexpected death. I saw the second one and didn't think it was more than ok.
Posted by: Mac | 01/14/2011 at 03:45 PM
"a bit of unexpected death" LOL
Posted by: Janet | 01/14/2011 at 04:13 PM
That's funny, but it's also a little disconcerting, because I suspect it's one of those things that's not exactly a typo, in the sense of just a slip of the finger, but a case of my brain thinking one thing and my hands typing something else. This happens to me fairly often. It pays to proofread.
Posted by: Mac | 01/14/2011 at 04:28 PM
That's what made it so funny.
Posted by: Janet | 01/14/2011 at 04:37 PM
I'm going to say something to Francesca about True Grit and while there are small spoilers, they happen at the beginning of the movie.
There are couple of things that point towards Fr. Barron's take on TG, but which he didn't mention. When Mattie asks the Sheriff about bounty hunters, he mentions three and I think the choice between two of them is significant. One is a man who always brings in his man alive because he believes that even the worst man deserves justice (I may have that reason wrong, but I think I'm right.) Then there is Rooster who is mean as anything and would just as soon kill the man he's looking for. Of course, she chooses Rooster, which seems to me like a choice between vengeance and justice. Fr. Barron uses these two words interchangeably, but they aren't the same and I think you see a distinction here and in the rest of the movie.
Then, as Mattie is leaving to go search for Chaney she takes--steals, I suppose--apples from a bowl on a chest in the boarding house. These are big, red, tempting apples and this is the third shot we've seen of them. I can't think that this is thrown in for no reason.
Posted by: Janet | 01/15/2011 at 08:43 AM
My oldest son and I enjoyed the first "PotC" very much when it was on television (he bought the dvd and must have watched it half a dozen times), but when I took him to see the second one in the cinema we were both very disappointed. His immediate reaction was "Why have they turned it into a soap?"
Posted by: Paul | 01/15/2011 at 08:53 AM
My negative reaction to Pirates is of a piece with my negative reaction to a lot of adventure/action type movies: the action sequences tend to be so over the top that I lose all sense of tension or suspense about them. I have to be able to think "wow, it's amazing that someone could do that," and it has to be somewhat grounded in reality for me to do that.
Posted by: Mac | 01/15/2011 at 11:22 AM
I really do need to see True Grit. Maybe next weekend...
Posted by: Mac | 01/15/2011 at 11:22 AM
More Spoilers: Janet, that is interesting. My friend specifically said, 'I don't get why there was a gospel soundtrack to a movie about vengeance.' I didn't quarrel with her, though I'd just seen it as being about how much it costs to pursue justice to the end (a lost arm and all the people you love dead). It is right that justice and vengeance are not precisely the same.
Another pointer to Father Barron's take is simply coherence with other Coen Bro movies. Wouldn't be the first time they made an ironic or semi-ironic contract between soundtrack and events. I'm thinking of A Serious Man, where the whirlwind is accompanied by the Jefferson Airplane singing 'Don't you want somebody to love'.
I didn't notice the apples. Maybe I really was tired!
Posted by: francesca | 01/15/2011 at 01:20 PM