“It’s all in the game.”
Pop culture validation in this day and age is instant with social media. The benchmarks, IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes are basically the first two sites anyone checks for a review. Do that for “The Wire,” David Simon’s ode to Baltimore, and you come up with scores of 9.3/10 and 94% respectively. Whoa, right?
Then you search for articles about the series, and come up with results like this wonderful article in The Guardian.
And then from time to time, you have an urge to watch the actual thing, but it gets put off, which is fine because there always are incredible shows to watch, with high production values, amazing cast and crew, and huge fan followings.
But finally, I got down to watching The Wire, and it’d be an understatement to say that it’s good.
As the first episode opens, the first two things that struck me were the dialect and the camera angles used, both of which continued through the season as part of the show’s style. The dialect, the street lingo, was a hard thing for me to catch. I’m indebted to the subtitles for bailing me out. The camera angles consisted of close-ups of both the dead and the alive, in a way that reminded me of the movies of the South Indian film industry, only a lot more focussed and a lot less disorienting. The famous ‘vertigo effect’ was also used to good effect at various points.
There are many wonderful things about the series, at least this first season that I’ve watched. The attention to detail and constantly smart writing that force you to see this as not just another show on the telly. It is also aware of the familiar tropes of genre fiction and shows and time and again, either junks those or finds a way to work around them. Case in point – late in the season, two officers go to a transport department guy, an ex-cop, for information about a major suspect’s vehicle. After the transport guy tells them that it’d take him a week to get that info, the cops thank him for his time and turn to walk away. At this point, in a normal cop show, the expected thing is the police telling the guy how important the info is and why he should move heaven and earth to find it in a day or two. But they don’t do that here, and the transport guy, in a funny bit of metafiction or cheekiness, asks them, “Wait. Isn’t this supposed to be the time you tell me how all-fired f****n’ important this is?” This is a moment to chuckle for the viewer, and chuckled I did. The detectives then inform him of the gravity of the situation and the case proceeds from there.
The chuckling reminds me, this is a ridiculously funny show. It came as both a surprise and an encouragement for me. Some of the jokes are so well set-up that by the time the punchines land, you’re already rolling around in laughter.
The highlight of the season for me was this sequence from episode 4, Old Cases, when the series lead, Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), and his partner Detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) work the scene of a murder. Throughout the 5-minute sequence, the only dialogues are variants of the F-word, and despite that, its crystal-clear to the viewer what’s happening and how. The level of writing is staggeringly high throughout the series but that sequence basically blew my mind away. Have a look yourself :
Another core feature of this show is its focus on how beneath the veneer of order and lawfulness, everything is broken. It is a running theme across seasons, from the aforelinked article, and it’s depicted marvellously even here in the first season. Inner-city life is a shambles of drug-led crime. From investigators to higher-ups in the bureaucracy to politicians, the way everyone is playing his/her own game is fundamentally a huge two-fingers up to the idea that ideal conditions and people can exist in the real world, and that sooner or later, the system grinds everyone down and spits them out as shrivelled, regurgitated imitations of their prior forms. Doing the right thing might be what one thinks s/he should do, either to come up in life or simply because it is the moral choice, but it means ruffling feathers where geese are laying their golden eggs, and that’s never a good thing. Politics exists at every level of the justice process, and that’s included in the story quite well.
Another highlight is the high number of African-Americans in the cast. These are not just supporting figures in the story, but actual highlights of their own. That a black homosexual female character was the co-lead of the investigation in a show back in 2002 is an amazing thing in itself.
Some of the focus is also on the effects of drug addiction, although it’s not explored as deeply in this season. I have read that there are scenes and themes that have been covered across seasons, so I am hopeful it’ll be picked up later. The show does play on the themes of family, loyalty and a moral code, either those of blood or the ones that we create for ourselves in this world. The same is the case with The Sopranos, this show’s contemporary which also laid immense stress on the themes of family and loyalty. Having watched The Fast and The Furious series, which features “family” as a huge leitmotif, it was an amusing coincidence.
Many of the cast members of this show have gone on to be big stars. There’s Idris Elba, who has starred in multiple Hollywood blockbusters. There’s Michael K. Williams, about whom I recall being mentioned as an alum of this series while watching HBO’s own ‘The Night Of.’ Dominic West is another, although I haven’t watched The Affair. There’s Wendell Pierce. Also, Lance Reddick, of John Wick fame. And oh, a young Michael B. Jordan, star of the Creed films and lead villain in Black Panther. And these are just folks whom I recognized.
For potential viewers, there’s a discretionary warning. The Wire has a lot of nudity and strong language throughout the duration of the season. Some might find them off-putting. But, if you are able to go past them, a rich show awaits you.
Number of episodes: 13.
Run time : 57-60 minutes each.
Thanks for reading. Do share your thoughts about the series in the comments section.
Featured image courtesy.