Quo Vadimus

Friday, September 17, 2004


Telly Alert. #034:

The Wire 3.0 (HBO, premieres Sunday, September 19th, 9:00 p.m.)

The first season is out on DVD on 10/12/04.

Salon awarded The Wire the first annual Buffy Award (PAGE 1 IS SAFE, BUT THE REST CONTAINS MASSIVE, DEVASTATING SPOILERS IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FIRST TWO SEASONS), honoring the season's most unjustly ignored TV show.


Not long after "The Wire" debuted in 2002, David Simon explained to Salon that he was interested in creating a show that didn't pander to an audience's expectations. "The pilot of ["The Wire"] is very much the anti-pilot. The one thing it doesn't have is that sense of, 'Are you gonna watch this show now? Are ya? Huh? Huh? Huh? If you don't come back we might kill this guy.' That's what you have to do on network, 'cause if they don't come back, you're cancelled."

That's the sort of pressure that a show like CBS's "CSI: Miami" feels when it promotes its Monday season premiere with flashing images of the cast and a warning that one of these characters will not survive! Despite suspiciously enthusiastic TV forums like this one, it's tough to believe that anyone cares very deeply about disposable characters on a skin-deep crime franchise.

[SPOILER edit, leading into discussion of second season's mindblowing sprawl]

Such meandering is utterly deliberate, according to Simon, who writes in "The Wire: Truth Be Told," a just-released companion guide to the show, "We would certainly lose some viewers: those who did not devote enough effort to follow the intricate story, those who gave it their all but were confused nonetheless, and those who, expecting an episodic television drama, would be bored to death by the novelistic pace of [the show]."

The patience and complexity of the storytelling might just be what distinguishes "The Wire" from any other show on TV. Entire episodes can feel like a setup to future plot points. Even the writers behind "The Sopranos," a show that never attempts to create contained little stories, throw in one or two moments per episode -- a great Meadow hissy fit, a memorable visit to Melfi -- that titillate and entertain while the major plots are slowly unfolding. [The Sopranos s5 SPOILER edit] On "The Wire" there are no sops to viewers. Let's just admit it: Things can get a little slow. Like a very long, wordy novel, you need to pay close attention lest you miss something important. And you have to trust there's a payoff down the road -- because there is.

[SPOILER edit re season 1's glorious delayed payoffs, leading into:]

Can you image one of TV's franchise crime shows, with its strict 44-minute formula, stretching the denouement over seven weeks?

"The reward for such committed viewers would come not at the end of a scene or the end of an episode, but at the end of the season, indeed, at the end of the tale," Simon writes. That could sound like incredible hubris, if it didn't pan out so beautifully.

Part of what makes the "The Wire" so convincing is Simon's passion. A Baltimore journalist who left the profession in disgust over the toothless nature of most newspapers, Simon still talks like an old-fashioned muckraker, and the stories he tells have the zing of a good exposé. The first season, which focused on McNulty's obsession with a far-reaching drug-running Baltimore crime family headed by the mysterious Avon Barksdale, was not a crime show to Simon. Instead, it was "a dry deliberate argument against the American drug prohibition -- a Thirty Years' War that is among the most singular and profound failures to be found in the nation's domestic history." The second season, which eventually found McNulty and crew probing a foreign crime syndicate operating out of the Baltimore port, was really "a treatise about the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class, as exemplified by the decline of a city's port unions." One thing's for certain, this guy Simon is angry. Maybe that's why his show crackles with such fierce conviction.

"The Wire" may be populated by a killer cast of unknowns and scripted by a writing crew (including Richard Price and George Pelecanos) that will appear legendary years from now, but Simon doesn't hold back in giving credit to HBO, which, free from the demands of commercial TV, doesn't place the same sort of demands on him ("How [would] I help my sponsors sell sports utility vehicles and prewashed jeans to all the best demographics while at the same time harping on the fact that the American war on drugs has mutated into a brutal war against the underclass?"), the sort of demands he felt as a writer on "Homicide," after NBC executives had read a script ("Where are the victories?" "Where are the life-affirming moments?"*).

There's nothing obviously life-affirming about "The Wire." [SPOILER edit]. It's a swirling moral universe these characters exist in, and it can be a disorienting one. But at a time when most television (entertainment and news) seems programmed to provide quick titillation and social reassurance, "The Wire's" insistence on seeking out truths and raising important questions is more welcome than ever before.
*Where have we heard that before? Ah yes, NBC's Garth Ancier re Freaks and Geeks.

Also: Salon Emmy picks [some SPOILERS for The Wire, The Sopranos, etc. Can anyone write a blurb without revealing major plot developments?].

YES: "[Deadwood's Ian] McShane's absence on the ballot is easily the most ludicrous oversight of the Emmys this year." Actually, there is another oversight that is equally ludicrous: the continued absence of Lauren Graham for her work on Gilmore girls. She is the best actress on the television.)

UPDATE: Simonizing.

posted by Linus | 7:32 AM