December 13, 2006

Almost Famous.... well, sort of

When I got back from errand-running and lunch on Saturday, I found an odd email in my blogmail. It went like this:

Hey there.I noticed your posting on My Space and wanted to interview you brieflyabout why you think The Wire is such a compelling show. I'm a reporter atthe Washington Post and writing about this TODAY. What is it that speaks toyou? The power of the kids' stories? The failure of the schools and copsand everyone else to address their problems? Some first hand experience ofyour own with dysfunctional cities? Something else?

It closed with an email address and phone number, and the name was one that did show up on a quick search of the Post site. So I figured it was probably legit. What threw me was a) the MySpace reference, since I don't post anything on MySpace (I barely even have a profile), and b) that I got it at all, since mine is not a heavily-trafficked site to say the least. But I was intrigued, and glad that The Wire is getting some much-deserved attention these days (Bubbles got a profile on the other day). I did call the reporter back, but didn't catch her; but it got me thinking about the show, and about the things that I find so gripping about it. I mentioned some of them in a previous post, but there is always more that can be said.

The article can be found here. I think it's a good one, and makes some good points. I am a little bit disappointed, though, because it only addresses a fraction of what I think is important about the show. I can't help but wonder whether the writer watches it herself, or was more just fulfilling an assignment. I felt kind of the same way reading the email, because it suggests a fairly surface-level thinking about the program. All of this is understandable, since I think her intent was less to talk about the program than about the personal reactions people have to it, but I also feel like a show this good deserves a closer look into what really makes it tick. Anyway, were I to have been able to speak with her as she was writing, this is more or less what I would say.

Let me preface with this: I am of the middle-class-white-kid demographic, so that is the point of view from which I approach the show. I don't relate in the same way some of the people quoted in the article do. I'm predictably fine with that, and I don't believe it affects my enjoyment, but I figured I should mention it.

I don't think that the show is about stories, really, and as such I can't say that the kids' stories are what makes it a must-see. It's about characters. Characters are compelling, in a way that stories are not, necessarily. We've all seen the downtrodden-kid-makes-good stories, or the downtrodden-cop-turns-his-life-around stories, but without deep and nuanced characters, the stories don't stick. What Simon/Berg and co. have done is create a world where all of the characters are themselves powerful, so wherever the storyline takes you, you want to go. Namond's story isn't remarkable; Namond is. Randy is. Cutty is. Bubbles definitely is. Marlo, while despicable in many ways, is extremely charismatic as well, and we want to see where the show takes him. I still think that Stringer Bell was one of the best characters this show has seen, but it's a crowded field.

The same thing is true of the "failures" of the police, govt, etc. It's not the failure that is powerful. It's the struggle. If they were failing for a lack of trying, that would be one thing, but you see well-intentioned people (and some not-so-well-intentioned) doing what they can and making small steps forward or large steps back. The new mayorship of Tommy Carcetti is a great example of this. He just keeps piling on examples of how "it's just not that simple." Just look at Prezbo. You could argue that the schools are failing, but you certainly get a clear view of just how much the people in the schools give of themselves to 'save' as many as they can in the process. Prezbo gives you a front row seat to the battle of idealism and hope with cold reality, and that even good people have to make compromises in order to keep doing good.

But really, it's hard to get a sense for how good this show is, or how well it's put together, just by looking at this season. Like many serials, there is a lot of inside baseball on this show, a lot of references and situations you don't fully understand without having seen previous seasons. And that background knowledge takes an already enveloping show and makes it even moreso. If you just watched McNulty during this season, you would get a certain impression, and you could get through the story without losing any critical info. But if you knew what he went through, from Season 1 to now, you would have an entirely different impression of him, and his actions would have a whole different meaning. His relationship with Bodie, and how it developed, is a really solid bit of storytelling, and it explains a lot of McNulty's behavior during the season finale (I'm being intentionally vague out of respect for those who haven't seen it yet. But seriously, get on it already). Same for Cutty, and Colvin, and Bubbles, and even guys like Prop Joe. You don't have to know how they got here, but it sure helps. Some shows are just like that. 24, not so much; this one, absolutely.

And the cast. Holy crap, the cast. Just the casting for the kids alone should be recognized, they're so good. They've cast convicted felons, people that Simon actually arrested years ago. They've got Method Man. And a whole truckload of people you'd never hear of otherwise. Everyone on that show does a superb job, and it seems like nobody notices. The fact that The Wire hasn't received more (any?) awards is, simply put, a travesty. I firmly believe that both the acting and the writing is better on this show that it is on the Sopranos, or Deadwood, or Lost, or pretty much any other drama you might point to.

I like to draw a particular parallel with Lost when I talk about it: there's a feeling you have while watching Lost, a certain tension you feel pretty much throughout the show, no matter what. It's like any minute, something major could happen, and you're just waiting for it. Watching The Wire is like that; there's a very similar sensation watching there as well. You don't know where it's coming from or for whom, but you know it's coming, and you're as much afraid to miss it as anything else. You know it's fiction, but you can't help it: you care. And that's the bottom line. That's the power.

If I'd been asked, that's pretty much what I'd have said. In the end, I wasn't, but it sure would have been cool, wouldn't it?


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