Friday, September 9, 2011

Death and The Wire: Introduction

A lot of people die over the course of Ed Burns' and David Simon's The Wire, called by many, myself included, the best TV show ever.  At some point I had the idea of going through the show and cataloging just how many people actually died over the course of the series' five season run, which never came to fruition because what point would there be in doing so if I couldn't post it on the internet.  As I have never been accused of being cheerful or upbeat anything I wrote about the show would necessarily have been a little morbid anyway, so why not just go whole hog with it, right?

My plan is to go through the series episode by episode, noting who dies and how, and what it means within the course of the larger narrative.  I don't know what will be unearthed by focusing this particularly narrow lens on the series as a whole, probably because I'm not done writing the posts yet, God.  We will find out together!  What an exciting internet voyage we are going on.  In this post I want to go over why The Wire is worthy of examination in the first place.

I'm not going to pretend I'm going over anything new in describing the show since wiser hands than mine have typed copious words about the show already.  The Wire began in 2002 and ended in early 2008, spanning, for those of you for whom context is important, much of the span of the Bush presidency.  It was nominated for only two Emmys, both for Outstanding Writing, losing in 2008 to the pilot of Mad Men and in 2005 to an episode of House, decisions that I and any right-thinking person should decry as bullshit (this is also leaving aside that no actor on The Wire was ever nominated, or that in the years since the show went off the air they haven't made up some Lifetime Achievement mea culpa award).

Lack of awards is kind of to be expected with a show like this, however, given that it is remarkably different than most TV shows.  I'm jumping mediums here for a moment to illustrate something, but indulge me; my job allows me to listen to books on tape, among other things, so I listened to Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities over the last few weeks.  One of the virtues of Dickens is that, because he's so voluble and because the style is almost over-descriptive compared to modern prose, if you drift off for a moment or someone is talking to you or whatever and you miss something, you can still kind of jump back in and know what's going on.

The Wire doesn't work like that.  It has been described as novelistic, which is as good a word as any (and here I am using a novel as a contrast hurf durf), in that it requires attention to every detail.  Words are carefully chosen, every character is important, every utterance is something that might be referenced in a later episode.  There is symbolism and allegory and all that meaningful writerly shit.  It's also very funny; in fact, as David Simon himself has pointed out in one of his many interviews about the show, the humor is what saves it from being completely bleak and shattering.  We'll see what happens to it when I look at it through my skull glasses.

The Wire nearly transcends genre.  It begins, in the first season, as a cop show; a great cop show, a cop show unlike any other, but nevertheless a show about cops.  If there is any one reason why someone would pick up the show and feel it is not for them, it would be this.  "Oh, cops and robbers Law And Order bullshit.  No thank you."  And they would be missing out.  But they might stick with it only to be turned off by sometimes impenetrable slang, a largely African-American cast (which, for all our talk about how post-racial Obama's American should be, is still a turn-off for some people whether they like to admit it or not, which is fine with me because it leaves me to enjoy Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters all by myself, no homo), or the pace, which can feel glacial for someone used to the traditional peaks and ebbs of a network or cable TV show.  The Wire is verisimilitudinous to the point of being too much like reality, which has led some commentators to wonder whether or not people might not have tuned in while it was airing because it wasn't escapist enough.

If a viewer managed to get past these barriers to entry, they would have witnessed the genre-demolishing quality of The Wire's tremendous scope.  Every subsequent season widens the lense to focus on a different part of the city while still integrating the casts and milieus of the previous seasons.  Imagine if, after the first season of Seinfeld, we had begun following a different group of people whose lives sometimes intersected with Jerry and the rest of the gang.  This approach might have failed if it had been a network show, or if they had been less lucky with keeping their cast together, but through some miracle The Wire's production staff was able to keep the enormous ensemble largely intact.  As a novelist you have the luxury of being able to choose any word you like, and the characters, no matter how much they may chafe under your iron rule, are subject to your whim, under no contract but your own.  TV shows, involving as they do a multitude of people, are much more subject to having the intricacies of real life intrude on the story-telling.  The Wire has only two instances of this that I know of, both of which will be touched on (since they happen to be death-related), and both of them involved tangential on-screen characters (although their behind-the-scenes influences were undoubtedly immense).  In other/fewer words, The Wire is a largely unobstructed vision.

If you've seen the series before, feel free to follow along and comment.  If you haven't, and plan to, be aware that each post is like a calzone filled to the brim with spoilers and grave dust (not, by the way, a commonly available combination).  The show is well worth your time, although unfortunately it doesn't seem to be available to stream online through either Hulu or Netflix (although the normal snail mail DVD service works just fine if you're into that).  My plan is to have each post up on Wednesday, since nothing helps people get through the hump day than being reminded of their own fragile mortality.  Each post will probably cover one episode, although some early season-intermediate episodes may have little to no death in them, and the penultimate episodes of each season, as well as the season finales, may require more than one post to unpack fully.  I may also pick up the pace a little bit because there are around 60 episodes and who knows if I am still going to want to be writing this a year from now.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. And I too wondered whether anyone had catalogued the deaths, or noticed the rise of Tommy Carcetti parallelling the rise of Marlo. Tonight (Sept. 12th 2011) I just finished watching the whole series end to end - again - with my son. Where Bubbles found redemption of a kind, many didn't and this strange world, which most of us don't live in, is opened to our gaze and we look in with a mix of wonder & horror & sadness.