The Wire 1:1 and 1:2

Last week I introduced the concept: I’m rewatching all the episodes of The Wire (two per week), and posting my reviews and thoughts of them here on my blog. All part of a reading program we’re running at my university. This week marks the first real entry into the series, so let’s launch right into it!

Season 1, Episode 1

I’ll be honest. This isn’t a smashing start to the series. In fact, I generally found it to be way too . . . normal. It seems like a fairly straightforward police procedural, hitting many of the same well-worn beats as other shows, except with more swearing and some occasional nudity. Not exactly an auspicious start to the show. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people had heard great things about The Wire, and then were disappointed when this is all they got in the first episode. In retrospect, knowing the end of the series from the beginning, some of these decisions do make a bit more sense, though that’s typically a risky move to make.

Then again, looking more closely at the episode, some thing stand out to me. First of all is the amount of time the episode devoted to establishing some of the characters. We’ve got McNulty and Bunk, Kima, Carver and Herc, Rawls, the Judge, Bubs–the list goes on and on. This is a sprawling series, with big ambitions right from the get go. In a typical police procedural, we’ll meet some of the characters, but they’re developed over time. The murder of the week is the focus. This episode starts with a murder and ends with a murder, but they’re more back story than anything else. Opportunities for us to learn more about the characters than to watch what they’re doing.

The opening scene with McNulty talking about Snotboogie? I loved that scene, right down to the way it ends. “Got to. This America, man.” That seems to sum up a lot of what the show ends up analyzing: people who know that something is a bad idea, yet do it anyway, and the people who let them get away with it, because America. It’s not just people, either. Institutions do the same thing throughout the show, as you’ll see. (I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that, though I will do my best in these responses to steer clear of spoilers. You’re safe with me, if this is your first time through the show.)

Because the episode introduces so many characters so quickly, it’s easy to just assume this is a police procedural. In actuality, it’s introducing all those characters because it isn’t a police procedural. The characters each get enough time for us to see a caricature of who they are. The druggie. The drunk cop. The tough. The smart crook. It sets those caricatures in place so they can be explored, elaborated, and deconstructed through the course of the show. Our library’s reading program theme is “Your Story Matters,” and that’s definitely at play in these episodes. It’s easy to try and classify someone by labels and stereotypes, but the Wire will soon prove that such classifications are worthless.

Rating: 7/10: more understandable in hindsight, but still not a fantastic start to the show. Some glimpses of greatness, but not enough to raise the whole episode above mediocre.

Season 1, Episode 2

Now this is more like it. One of the things I like most about The Wire is how the show plays against common tropes. There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in this show. There are only people, and people are both good and bad at the same time. So on the one hand, you have a great conversation with the drug dealers in the Pit talking about chicken McNuggets (reminiscent of the McDonald’s debate in Pulp Fiction), and on the other, you have three moronic cops go pick a fight in the middle of the night and end up blinding a boy in one eye. The bad guys do normal things, the good guys do terrible things.

The Wire presents a reality constrained by . . . reality. Budgets. Manpower. Attention span. Publicity. Political campaigns. And it uses all those elements to make observations about them through the course of the show.

The stereotypes I was talking about in the first episode continue here, for the most part. We have the good cops and the bad cops. The smart ones and the dumb ones. Sure, the dumb ones are portrayed as quite a bit dumber (with worse end results) than the dumb ones in your normal cop show or movie, but it’s easy to tell who you’re supposed to root for and who you’re supposed to dislike. Meanwhile, the drug dealers are humanized to a point none of the cops get the luxury of: Avon is shown hugging kids and giving back to the community, for example.

I think some of what makes this episode begin to click better for me is that it shows what was going on in the first episode. There’s still no plot of the week. No murder that’s tied up and resolved by the end. And so I stop judging it by television episode rules and start watching it more from a cinematic, overarching plot mindset. The Wire played a big part in evolving TV to where we are today, and it didn’t stumble into that by accident. It consciously made the choice to play big, right from the beginning.

Something that stands out at this point in the show: how The System is as much a character as any actor in the episode. All the higher up are focused on keeping things running smoothly and covering themselves whenever and however possible. None of them are crooked in an “I’m working for the drug dealers” sort of way, but they certainly aren’t working to try and uphold any lofty ideals. We look down at them for it because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to do. But are they really that bad? Any worse than the coroner who calmly munches on yogurt next to a dead body? Not really. They’ve got a job, they’re used to the System, and they’re not going to let idiots like McNulty try and get out of that system.

Then there’s the way it ends: with Daniels (who we’re clearly supposed to think of as a good guy) not just telling the three knucklehead cops to lie, but detailing how to lie so they can get out of the mess they got themselves into. A kid gets blinded in one eye because of these guys, and they’re going to get off without so much as a slap on the wrist, publicly, because who is the world going to believe? Three police, or one random kid? It’s not fair, but life isn’t fair.

And neither is The Wire. Get used to it, folks.

Rating: 9/10: Maybe more of an 8.5, but I’m feeling generous.

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