[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
Hi. My name is Jeremy… and I don’t like The Wire.
(“Hi, Jeremy,” you can almost hear my support group friends monotone.)
It’s a challenge for me to express my distaste for the show, and not merely because of the adulation it’s accumulated over its time on the air and since. A good part of the problem comes from the fact that when I hear fans and critics praising the series, I typically find myself agreeing with them.
Let me elaborate. I certainly can see where much of the show’s praise comes from. Certainly The Wire is structurally consistent and thematically cohesive. And its adherence to realism is all but unmatched by the rest of the television landscape. Yet though I understand where the show’s acclaim stems from, I find it nearly impossible to appreciate and enjoy it.
The dividing line between objective critiquing and subjective opinion is one I find most fascinating, and as a result, I’ve chosen to use The Wire as an example for the subject. Thus, this article will not only serve as an explanation for my dislike of the series, but will function as an exploration of how tastes and impressions can differ even as stoic, objective analysis does not.
A quick word before I begin, though, knowing that many fans of The Wire are likely to read this: While many of the fans I’ve encountered and spoken with have been well-reasoned and understanding of my opinions, I’ve come across a select few who rub off as extremely self-righteous and antagonistic. To be clear: I am not attempting to make this article out to be a sweeping derision of The Wire, nor am I trying to demean its quality, nor am I trying to change the opinion of anyone who likes the series. In short, I am open to thoughtful, articulated debate, but will not tolerate insulting or overly acidic comments. Comments of this nature will be deleted at my discretion.
I thank you in advance for playing by the rules. Without further ado, here are my own personal feelings toward The Wire…
[An Objectively Subjective Critique]
The more television I watch, the more I find myself judging it less as pure entertainment and more as an art form. The best of television series have not only made me appreciate the shows themselves, but have opened my mind to explore other shows that I would otherwise have ignored. If done even more effectively, a television series can give me a new perspective of the world, exploring characters and themes which challenge the most critical of minds. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Breaking Bad, The Sopranos to The Shield, recent television has risen above even the best of recent film in crafting masterpieces that reward on initial and multiple viewings.
Upon first glance, The Wire should fit perfectly in this pantheon. It is indeed an admirable series, with the sort of ambition and cogency that rivals many of its fellow acclaimed shows. Yet I find myself thoroughly enraptured by the shows I’ve listed above, whereas enjoyment of appreciation for The Wire continues to elude me.
I list the above shows and not many others because, in the grand scheme of television, these are series which compare to The Wire in purest objective quality, if not content. I should point out that comparing shows through content alone has never struck me as particularly insightful, and that comparisons I’ve seen fans of The Wire make to crime procedurals like CSI strike me as baffling. Don’t such comparisons undermine the quality of the former series by comparing it to something that anyone who has viewed both series would realize is inherently inferior? (Put another way, would you promote Buffy to your friends by simply stating, “It’s better than Twilight?”)
In order to explain why one enjoys a series (or fails to enjoy it, in my current case), there must be an unspoken rapport between the critic and the readership, an understanding that, within a certain spoken context of taste, this series has such-and-such an effect on him or her. Only then can the readers come away with an understanding of the writer’s opinion, regardless of whether or not they agree with it.
This understanding comes with an extra tag on the prospect of truly objective critiquing: namely, that it cannot exist. If it did, all critical opinions would boil down to the same essence, and the very notion of debating the merits and demerits of a work of art would become null and void. We can thus deduce that for every piece of objective criticism, there is a level of subjectivity, a byproduct of the critic’s own personal reception to a work. And contrary to what appears to be a growingly accepted belief on the Internet, I don’t at all believe this factor detracts from the quality of a series. If anything, it has the potential to enhance it, by giving us (subjective) personal reasons to love a series through its (objective) qualities.
The Internet’s growingly accepted belief, ironically, has been my own personal detractor. For example, I have spoken a lot about the merits of Breaking Bad, but through my praises, more than one person has noted that some of my comments come off as a bit tongue-in-cheek. These comments, I assure, are not meant to be explained away as a form of criticism. They stem from my surprise – and occasionally, disapproval – at the nature of some other Breaking Bad fans. Specifically, the ones who use the series as an impromptu “intelligence test” to rationalize for themselves how a detractor could dislike the series. This attitude is unappealing to me as a critic, since it not only whittles the rich effect of the series down to a cheap insult, but also fails to illuminate the views of either party. (Personally, I’ve come across one friend who couldn’t get into Breaking Bad, though I believe his impossibly raised expectations going into the series was the primary reason.)
By maintaining my own subjective views within an objective viewpoint, I’ve been rewarded countless times with television that connects with my tastes and grabs me, opening the door to a wealth of emotional, thought-provoking stories. But in order to initially grasp these riches, that door must be open, or at least capable of unlocking. And this is where the cold brunt of subjectivity can make its presence felt.
The very first thing that resonates with me about the television – about the stories in general – that I love is not the plotting, or the themes, or the dialogue. It is the characters. The notion of a series retaining a human element for which the rest of its deliverances can build around succeeds because of its relatable nature. Granted, not all great shows feature characters that are directly relatable. But so long as there is a character-centric connection between writer and viewer, I can become enraptured in the lives of those characters, and grow and experience as they grow and experience.
The Wire has a large number of characters, many of whom, over time, grow and experience a variety of events. Yet for all the realistic detail of these characters, I cannot connect with them. Rather than feel intrigued by their lives and differing personalities, I simply watch them with an air of indifference, incapable of latching onto them as individuals.
The difficulty of accessing the characters, I believe, is not an issue by execution. Rather, it is by design. The “slow burn” of The Wire, which has done its part well in separating the series from its competition, has been a subject of criticism by those who fail to note the subtle nuance of the series entirely. I have heard many of the show’s most ardent fans state that it takes at least three or four episodes to get into the “rhythm”, so to speak, of The Wire, with its unfamiliar storytelling style and complex and numerous story threads. Give it time, they assure, and I can respect this logic. I was initially a bit put off by the pilot episode of Mad Men, and only came around to really respecting it near the end of its first season. Looking back now, I can see that the show’s initial season was in fact excellent – the series itself merely took some adjusting to.
It’s discomfiting to say that the slow, careful storytelling of The Wire was the aspect which made me averse to the characters, but, by more causation than coincidence, that was the case. As I attempted to dig further into the series, trying to see past the surface of the characters, it became clear that The Wire was not primarily about said characters. That is, unless the city of Baltimore counts as a character.
To elaborate this point, let me speak of the first scene in the series that really held my interest – and the first sign that the series as a whole would not. I refer to that famous scene in “The Buys” (1×03) where D’Angelo Barksdale teaches Bodie and Wallace how to play chess, using the drug trade they involve themselves in, with specific reference to drug kingpin Avon and right-hander Stringer. This scene gives us a general idea of the business the characters are mired in, as chess pieces substitute for actual people, from the king (Avon) down to the lowly pawn (Bodie). It elaborates on the structure of the drug trade in an entertaining fashion, using a simple device (the chessboard) as a microcosm for one of the show’s main themes. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s subtle – overall, it is very good television.
Yet in setting a major theme of the series, it also sets my underlying issue with it. In this scene, The Wire prepares us for the message it plans to deliver – a message about the ills of the drug trade, the corruptness of Baltimore, the pernicious troubles of being a drug kingpin. Yet it also prepares us for the realization that the series is ultimately all about messages. Everything about this scene is calculated to help aim the theme of the series toward its audience – including the characters. At one point in the scene, we get the suggestion of character insight as Bodie compares himself to a pawn and speculates on whether or not he can become a queen. Although this moment tells us about Bodie’s ideals, setting up his arc for the future, it is first and foremost a device to use Bodie’s character in order to explain the power-grabbing and unrest that lurks within the real-life Baltimore drug trade.
This little moment is but one example of the series’ strive to place the show’s message at its core. And when it comes to thematic messages, I will be the first to admit that it does an admirable job. No other television series, to my knowledge, has felt so unified in the way it connects all of its aspects around a singular statement. It is this factor that grants the show a deserved spot in the annals of television fame.
Yet as the series makes itself all about the message, I find myself disliking the final product. Characters are included among the aspects the show uses to deliver its mission statement, and because of this, they are not central to the series. At best, they are a secondary aspect, and even when we see them developing, it is only in line with the theme of the series. With the slow but dawning realization that the characters are meant to further the themes of the show, I find it extremely difficult to connect with them on an emotional level. As a result, I find myself watching the series from a tangential perspective, unable to gain a feel for what occurs onscreen, and thus feeling indifferent to the story threads the show unspools.
It would be prudent to point out that I’m not the sort who would broadly sweep a series off the table due to its focus. But I can’t help feeling that The Wire would enthrall me more if it shifted the spotlight onto the personal element of the series, focusing less on being realistic, and more on being “real”. And I single this series out not out of pure animosity, but due to the nature of its characters.
Many of the best shows of recent years have explored the darker, more unsettling side of human nature, often to great dramatic effect. Tony Soprano instantly comes to mind, as does Walter White. Vic Mackey and Don Draper warrant a mention as well. (I’m on the fence with the cast of Hannibal, though Will Graham does have a fairly unsettling arc on that series.)
For the longest time, I wondered exactly what about the shows these characters inhabit was meant to be appealing. They are not inherently admirable characters, and rooting for their often reprehensible deeds seems against better nature. Yet as I explored these shows, the answer became clear. Series about antiheroes work so well because of the way they play with our perceptions. By showing a morally questionable family man in the unsettling backdrop of the Mafia, or a line-crossing cop in what we’d presume would be the goodhearted setting of a police precinct, or the slow descent of a high school chemistry teacher into the cold, cruel world of meth cooking, these series succeed by showing an alternative perspective of the world and juxtaposing it with our own. The protagonist of each series retains a level of humanity which allows us to care about him – and even root for him – as he commits his often amoral actions.
I’ve tried to imagine what The Sopranos or Breaking Bad would be like if we were unable to empathize with Tony or Walt. The result, I imagine, would be cold, listless, and unpleasant. Shows with morally ambivalent characters walk a very fine line, because it’s very difficult to make these characters come off as appealing to the viewer. When it works, the results can be marvelous. When it fails, however, the effect of the final product can come off as more detrimental than that of a series which features good-willed but unrelatable characters.
And watching The Wire only keens me to the fact that emotional connection is crucial to viewing a series. Without this connection, character arcs can only be viewed for their mechanisms, as there is no incentive for me to plumb them further. Jimmy McNulty’s struggle as a good cop in a bad society resonates with me as its concept, and nothing more. D’Angelo Barksdale grapples with the question of where his allegiances lie, but his arc rubs off at its most basic level (that of a man torn between two moralistic worlds). The rest of the characters have their own miniature arcs and storylines, but without the emotional resonance necessary to ignite them, I can’t view them from anything more than their most simplistic levels.
I suppose I could learn to accept The Wire‘s “message over characters” approach if the characters themselves were inherently likable. But because of their morally grey natures, very, very few of them are. And because, for reasons I mentioned above, it is so difficult to empathize with the characters on a human level, I’m left watching a plethora of characters who consistently engage in lewd behavior and use all sorts of repulsive words and phrases. If the character insight and development on The Wire felt less restricted, I could overlook the show’s disturbing content, seeing the characters’ moral issues as a part of their well-rounded personas. But with the built-in confines of the series, I’m simply watching a group of characters I don’t connect with committing all sorts of unpleasant actions. The result is a distasteful experience, the sort that leads me from feeling indifferent to the series to outright disliking it.
In my quest to get through The Wire, I’ve tried focusing less on the characters and turning my eyes toward the themes of the show, in hopes that I can better appreciate the series through its commentary on American society. But here too, I’ve had little success. I would be inclined to believe this is also due to by-design flaws, but when looking at the way the series executes its themes, that just doesn’t seem to be the case.
People who enjoy The Wire, I understand, admire the way it portrays the city of Baltimore. I can assume, for the most part, that they don’t enjoy the unpleasantness itself, but rather the way in which the series so vividly depicts it. And The Wire does a fairly accurate job recreating the city’s more troubled vicinities. But to the casual observer, it would seem strange to think that the slow, crumbling decline of American society would make for entertaining television.
So The Wire, in portraying the seedy aspects of Baltimore, features a melancholy sense of humor, which, I’m led to believe, makes it more enjoyable for many fans. I say “led to believe” because humor can have different effects on different people, particularly when portrayed in drama. Nevertheless, the frequency with which fans quote the dialogue of the series in humorous context attests to their enjoyment of the show’s comedic side.
And yet I simply can’t enjoy it with them. At first, I thought this was due to the idea of a series making light of the troubles of a real-life city. Upon closer inspection, however, I believe the reason is a bit more subtle than that.
To explain my lack of enjoyment for the series’ portrayal of Baltimore, allow me to use another specific example: The opening scene of “Time After Time” (3×01). This scene features Poot, Puddin, and Bodie as they prepare to watch the demolishing of the 221 tower, where they used to operate, and reminisce about their time there in a “those were the days” fashion. Their remembrances include several venereal diseases which they caught and transferred during their more illicit activities, a topic which they talk about with smiles and laughter.
At a glance, this scene appears to be of two conflicting tones: On the one hand, it proposes a real-life issue plaguing the slums of Baltimore, opening our eyes to the disturbances of the fact. On the other hand, it presents it with a dose of levity that, if anything, should undercut the scene and its message. Are we meant to laugh at such an unsettling prospect, particularly given the implications of its reality?
Upon closer inspection, I don’t think this is the writers’ intent. Rather, Simon and Burns employ a two-stage form of education: At first, we are to laugh at the amusing prospect of young African-American men fondly wishing they could return to such unsavory days. Then, once our initial wave of laughter subsides, we come to realize that this is in fact a genuine issue with the lower class of the world. Subsequently, the cold reality hits harder than it would if the show had addressed it more dramatically.
Unfortunately, I don’t come to experience it that way. The idea that a series would choose an indirect route in order to deploy its pointers is a savory one, as it gets the message across without feeling too ham-handed. And indeed, The Wire does feature occasional indirectness, and benefits from it thematically – the aforementioned chess scene, as well as Omar Little on the witness stand in “All Prologue”, are among the few precious moments in the series I found myself enjoying.
But for the most part, the show’s use of indirect messaging is fairly broad, and scenes like the “reminiscing” one I refer to lack the delicacy which comes with potent thematic deliverance. For the most part, The Wire is content to show things as they are, and the humor they find in these situations strikes me just as tangentially as the characters do. Perhaps this can ultimately be attributed to the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the show’s elements – The Wire asks me to accept its world as reality, yet also presents countless opportunities to laugh at the situations it creates. When all is said and done, this is not my idea of an ideal viewing experience.
But even a truly straightforward perspective (which, many fans argue, the series brings) would not work, for the simple reason of alternatives. Were I looking for an education on the uneasier side of Americana, I would much prefer watching a documentary, which not only offers a slice of actual reality, but is meant to be viewed from an emotionally tangential perspective – the better to empathize with the overall plight.
When viewing a television series, however, I want to grow close to the characters themselves, unencumbered by the allegories they ultimately represent. It’s a thrill to connect with a series on a personable level as well as an intellectual one, and unfortunately, The Wire doesn’t offer me a genuine opportunity.
What’s left, then, is the novelized story structure, which, I must admit, is pretty impressive, and not merely on an objective level. The show employs a structure by which episodes that seem uneventful and unimpressive can retroactively improve once whole seasons have been viewed. As with much else about the series, this is commendable, and actually more entertaining when looked at as its own attribute. I won’t hesitate to say that the last few episodes of Season Two succeeded in holding my interest, if only because the payoff they delivered served as something of a karmic ending to a season which overall failed to grip me. But even keeping such a prospect in mind, there’s very little of actual entertainment to be found in narrative structure, which can be appreciated on an artistic level, but is ultimately more of a surface attribute than characters or themes. And with my lack of interest in The Wire‘s characters and themes, there’s very little incentive to continually press forward with the series, in hopes that it will pay off narratively.
On that semi-complimentary note, I suppose it’s best to wrap this semi-critique up. I don’t expect to please too many people with this article, and I’m well aware that, despite my intentions, I may still get a lot of flak for writing it. But at the same time, I hope that the message – about objective art versus subjective taste – does not ultimately take a backseat to the Internet’s increasingly tiresome intelligence tests.