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