Charmless City: Disliking The Wire

[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]

[Introduction]

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.


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54 thoughts on “Charmless City: Disliking The Wire”

  1. [Note: MikeJer posted this comment on March 24, 2014.]

    Very fascinating post, Jeremy! I enjoyed the read!

    My relationship with The Wire is still at the baby stage, so I won’t be able to agree/disagree with much of what you’ve said. You see: I’ve only seen the first two episodes.

    All I know is that in watching those episodes I really struggled keeping myself awake. I found them to be pretentious and incredibly boring, not to mention lacking a character I could really latch on to.

    Like you have done already, I plan on forcing myself through at least the first season purely because of the critical reception the show has garnered over the years. But based on those opening episodes, I feel this post may turn into a shared experience.

    I’m sure you’ll be getting some interesting comments on this topic.

    Like

  2. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on March 24, 2014.]

    Dude, you’ve only watched the first 5 episodes of Season 3?! Stop doing your schoolwork and get thee in front of a television set. The end stretch of S3 ties together all the threads of the previous two seasons into a cohesive thematic whole.

    Middle Ground may well be the single greatest television episode of all time. Stuff like “The Suitcase” and “Ozymandias” aren’t in the same conversation.

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  3. [Note: MikeJer posted this comment on March 24, 2014.]

    I think you’re missing one of his central problems with the show: he simply doesn’t enjoy it. If you don’t really care about any of the characters, this often happens. Even if you’re right, Stake, I don’t really see how everything tying into a “cohesive thematic whole” really changes his underlying issues with it.

    I mean, if a story having a “cohesive thematic whole” was the primary criteria for great television, you’d think Buffy Season 7 would be held in much higher regard. 😉

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  4. [Note: alfridito017 posted this comment on March 24, 2014.]

    There’s one thing I’d like to point out that every show is different. Everyone might like about one show might be different from another. I hope that makes any sense.

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  5. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on March 24, 2014.]

    Well, it’s also the culmination of Jimmy, Avon, Omar and Stringer’s character arcs, all of which are three seasons in the making, as well as the turning point in Carcetti’s, Cutty’s and Colvin’s arcs (and Cutty’s scene is one of the funniest in the series).

    It’s a tighter, funnier, sadder, better “The Gift.” It builds off everything that came before it and draws it to an incredible close, even as it sets up the brilliance that is yet to come in the fourth season, which may very well be the greatest single season of television ever made.

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  6. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on March 25, 2014.]

    I’m actually surprised with how little of this I disagree with. I think the reason is I see a lot more flaws in The Wire than most of its fans do, particularly that I don’t necessarily buy its cynicism in many aspects, one of the worst being the schools in Season 4, where it seemed to suggest teachers cared more about their evaluation than actually teaching the students. I think this is true with some teachers, but to say it’s true on the whole is a road too far.

    I will come up with a rebuttal to this, though, and I will do it later when I’m not scurrying to get ready for work.

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  7. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 25, 2014.]

    I believe it’s worth watching at least one full season of this show before determining whether or not it’s your kind of series. If you find some character(s) to latch onto, it’ll probably be a very enjoyable experience. If not, well, it probably won’t.

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  8. [Note: T.G. posted this comment on March 25, 2014.]

    This just goes to show, that while being a television critic is fun, People are going to like what they like. Im not saying its not an important job, because critics get a lot of people into shows they otherwise wouldn’t take a second glance at. But when it comes to television, there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. A show isn’t bad because someone claims it “bad”. That’s what I hate about a lot of fanbases, they will literally attack you for disliking or liking something that they disagree with, and it personally makes me want to pull my nonexistent hair out. ugh….

    Anyway, I love this post, not because I like or Dislike “The wire”. But because you said something that made me think. A show can be a “quality” show without it being a “Good” show. Whether its good or bad entirely depends on the person. Like “Law and Order: SVU” Its a well put together television show, but I will always have a hard time sitting through one of its episodes.

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  9. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on March 25, 2014.]

    I don’t think it’s shown to be true of the teachers. The teachers care, just like the Barksdale Detail cares. The issue is the administrators, career politicians who aren’t there for the kids, but for the numbers. Like that horrid woman who forced Randy to snitch by threatening to have him sent back to foster care.

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  10. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on March 25, 2014.]

    Counterpoint:

    Look, I think the Wire is a flawed TV show. In fact, though I consider the Wire to be probably my second favourite show of all time, it would probably be more flawed than any other show in my top 5, maybe my top 10. I found the first season hard to get into. The second season was boring in parts. The fourth season was manipulative. And the 5th season might have just been plain bad. The show is sometimes too cynical, like it’s pushing its points to the extreme just to fulfill its agenda. There’s too many characters, you simply can’t keep track of them all. Too many of these characters are some of the most despicable people you will ever encounter.

    And yet.

    You see, I used to think The Wire was overrated, for all those reasons listed above. I never thought it was a bad show, or even a show that wasn’t for me. It just wasn’t as good as people say it was. But after a while, I began to realize. There is no show that has stuck in my craw to the same degree The Wire has. None. It taught me more about how society worked than any other show, or heck, then I ever learned in school. And this isn’t because I’m a Wire disciple. I’m very skeptical of many of the points The Wire tried to make. But most of what it is saying is almost undeniable.

    A couple of weeks ago, somewhere, authorial intent was brought up. I said that there is one very important case where authorial intent matters. You have to judge shows, TV, etc. based on what the creator was trying to achieve. Entertaining the masses was never David Simon’s primary intent with this show. It was a tool used to keep people watching, keep people interested. His main purpose was to educate. He wanted us to see life from the perspective of the criminals, the drug dealers, the gangs. He wanted to point at these people and say, “These people are not the problem!” Instead he points at the administrators, each person in power who can do something to change society and instead keeps it the status quo because it’s easy and it benefits them and to say “These people are the problem!”

    And it’s true to a large extent. People growing up in the projects basically are bred to be criminals. The system of values that is instilled in these kids from the get go is completely backwards. Rule #1 is “don’t snitch.” How are the police the enemy? They’ve made themselves the enemy. They’ve been trying to put out the fire at the flame by arresting the people in these families that are making money the only way they know how, while instead leaving the fuel running, that being, the families are brought up in such a way they are basically forced to live like this.

    I may sound like hippy saying stuff like “It’s the system, man!” but it is. The system failed Wallace. The system failed Randy. Even some of the worst characters in the show, like Stringer, were failed. Stringer had good business instinct and passion for it, and could have been legitimate given the correct opportunity. Instead he was another kid in the projects who had to learn to be tough (read: a sociopath) in order to make it to 30. Why is this allowed to happen? Why do we allow people to live the way they are allowed to live in the Wire?

    The show sets out to say answers aren’t easy. There’s so much burocracy and so many people who are too self centred to care that you have to jump over to enact change. That’s where Sorkin falls a little short. He offers idealism in his shows, but they end up being more like cynicism as they just basically are saying “This is all we have to do to be a good society!” when that’s just not true. The Wire has good people who do try to change things, and they sometimes succeed on a smaller level. Bunny Colvin is a one man wrecking crew in the Wire, offering both a way to curb crime, and therefore, early deaths in season 3 and then rescuing Namond Brice from a rough and likely short life in season 4. But until change comes from a higher level, small changes are all that can happen. The answer the show offers is that people like Ervin Burrell can’t be like Ervin Burrell. They have to actually care about the little people, and want to actually help fight the war on drugs rather than simply pad stats.

    And maybe that’s what Simon wanted to do with the Wire. By putting the show on HBO he wanted to reach that upper class, the Ervin Burrell’s of the world, to put them in the mindset of the gangs and criminals and point the finger in the opposite direction. Part of me thinks Simon is sincerely disappointed that his efforts have proven to not really make a difference to this point. And maybe the problem is the very framing device that he used to catch the attention of people with his work also took away some of it’s legitimacy. The Wire is a fiction with some larger than life characters and sometimes ridiculous plotlines, so it’s just treated as a fiction. But it’s completely changed my perspective on crime, my empathy’s, and maybe even my resolve that no one is to be condemned without a comparison of contexts and circumstances. That’s pretty powerful stuff for a TV show, and no amount of flaws is going to make that any lesser.

    And I liked the characters better than you did.

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  11. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on March 25, 2014.]

    One of the saddest parallels between S3 and S4 is when Stringer talks about how he had always wanted to own a chain of grocery stores growing up…and then in S4 Randy says the same.

    My only quibble with this (other than the fact that I think The Wire’s first four seasons are as flawless as television is capable of being), is that I don’t think Simon is saying that the bureaucrats are the problem, either. They used to care, too, until it was beaten out of them by the way things are. The “Big Bads” of The Wire aren’t the people running the institutions, they’re still just people. Things were “like that” before they came and will be “like that” after they’re dead and gone. The evil is the institutions themselves. The ones that destroy kids like Randy and Michael. The ones that drive Jimmy McNulty to drink and self-destruction. The ones that reward men like Rawls and Valchek and drive out good police like Bunny and Daniels. Hell, those same institutions replace men like Avon with ones like Marlo.

    Rawls, Marlo and Carcetti aren’t evil. At worst, they’re amoral. The immorality comes from the institutions that enable them and let them justify just about anything because, after all, “It’s all in the game, ain’t it.”

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  12. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 26, 2014.]

    I expect most people liked the characters more than I did, and I think that gave them a better access point. You need to sympathize, to some extent, about these characters in order to care about what happens to them, and in turn, to care about what happens to their city.

    I think you’re underselling Sorkin’s merits when it come to stating societal truths. The aspirational point of The West Wing is idealism, yes, but very little of that show actually features them reaching those idealistic goals. Rather, it shows the people involved as less than cynical, and uses their motivational personas as a driving force, rather than a political endgame. I can think of very few episodes in which the series actually showed political idealism as reflected on the world as easy to achieve. (And I will be criticizing those few episodes when I get to them.) Season Two may feel like something of an exception, but it’s actually a natural progression of the series’ thematic arc about the rise and fall of power. Most of the time, the show is about good people who are trying to do right in a world that is willing, yes, but still quite difficult.

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  13. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on March 26, 2014.]

    I never said any of those people were evil. Heck, in Rawls and Marlo’s case, I wouldn’t even slot them into the “part of the problem” category. That would be tremendously unfair.

    But institutions themselves aren’t living things. They are allowed to continue the way they are because there are people who make sure they stay the way they have always been. One of the many important points I forgot to mention is that it takes a mobilization of multiple people in power to actually make the institutions change, though. Which is why things are so difficult. People like Carcetti who (maybe) started wanting to change things didn’t get it beaten out of them by the way things are, they got it beaten out of them when they hit a wall of people insisting on upholding the way things are.

    Here’s the difficulty. The very people who can mobilize and change the institutions are also the ones that the institutions put in power in the first place. As a result, they are way less likely to see the problem then the people on the bottom. Combine that with the fact you need at least a majority and probably a large majority of the people in the room to be with you, nothing is going to happen. The bureaucrats are the problem, but they are the problem collectively, not individually.

    Some other points addressing other comments:

    @Mike #3: Comparing Buffy Season 7’s cohesive whole to The Wire Season 3’s cohesive whole is a bit like comparing your Mom’s excellent spaghetti to a 5 star restaurant in Venice.

    Stake @ #21: Unrelated to my point above, so I’m putting it down here, but your second paragraph contains a lot of where I think the Wire gets too cynical. I don’t believe good police drive out people like Daniels and Bunny naturally. Obviously Bunny stirred the drink way too much. But police can still do good work and actually care about the people they are after and still thrive. It’s just doing good on a smaller level.

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  14. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on March 26, 2014.]

    Yeah, The Wire isn’t about “Look how bad Baltimore is.” It’s about the death of the American dream in a world that values institutions over people. The focus on Baltimore is part of what makes it so effective, the universality of specificity and all that.

    And I think the point of how people like Carcetti “didn’t get it beaten out of them by the way things are, they got it beaten out of them when they hit a wall of people insisting on upholding the way things are” is a distinction without a difference, because that wall of people insist on upholding the way things are because they got their desire to change things beaten out of them when they hit a wall of people insisting on upholding the way things are. Thus, institutional corruption and stagnation is self-perpetuating. People upholding “the way things are” is part of “the way things are.”

    I also disagree that The Wire isn’t designed to entertain, though. It’s not structured as a documentary, but rather classical tragedy. “Oedipus Rex” was designed to entertain. So were “Antigone” and “The Great Gatsby.” It’s painful, and it’s not “fun” (unless McNulty is wrecking his car, or the Bunk is wondering about the plural form of a certain word, or Cutty is asking Avon for a donation to his gym, or Bunny is taking the kids out to a fancy restaurant, or the FBI is profiling the serial killer terrorizing Baltimore, or Omar is being Omar, or Landsman is talking, or someone thinks Lester only did thirteen years in the Pawnshop Unit, or Avon and Prop Joe are holding a community basketball game, or Herc and Carver are dicking around), but it’s definitely designed as entertainment.

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  15. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on March 26, 2014.]

    To the first point, sure. I was just saying that it’s not hopeless. If the wall could mobilize, the way things are can change. Society can be progressive, it just needs a catalyst.

    Also, I misstated. I meant to say the primary goal of the Wire is not to entertain. Of course the Wire tries to be entertaining, that’s part of its Trojan Horse model.

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  16. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on March 26, 2014.]

    So, basically, you fundamentally disagree with The Wire’s politics?

    Word. Me too, at least on a small scale.

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  17. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on July 11, 2014.]

    Just curious– does anyone bring up The Wire in a context that isn’t “You like show X? The Wire is grittier/darker/better than that show, you’re a weak-minded pussy and I am a Serious Purveyor of Television”? Because it sure feels that way.

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  18. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on July 11, 2014.]

    A little harsh, no? Of course the Wire seems to bring about the elitists, mostly because the critics are pretty much on their side, but I’d say the majority of people who think the Wire is the best show ever (I’m not one, by the way) can manage to not be huge jerks about it.

    This is the internet, loud obnoxious people get magnified.

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  19. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on July 12, 2014.]

    It may feel that way at times, but it’s really not. Most people I’ve spoken to about The Wire are well-reasoned and understanding of my problems with it. It’s only a select few fans who use the show as a springboard for intellectual attacks.

    I threw a cautionary warning about such attacks at the top of the article, though it won’t and hasn’t prevented me from being attacked elsewhere. I think the impression that such elitist fans cast does more harm to The Wire than anything I’ve written, though.

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  20. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on August 10, 2014.]

    Just read the rewrite, and it’s really well done, Jeremy. You haven’t written anything I disagree with in principle, it’s just simply a matter of me being able to enjoy the Wire more because I prefer theme oriented work to character oriented work to begin with.

    Your stance does seem softer than it did when you first wrote this though. Do you think you will ever get back to it? I do recommend at least getting through Season 3, and I think Season 4 does better with the introduced characters from an empathetic standpoint, though I think it suffers thematically. (Note: I’m the only “Wire fan” to not think Season 4 is one of the top 2 seasons of the show).

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  21. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on August 10, 2014.]

    (Note: I’m the only “Wire fan” to not think Season 4 is one of the top 2 seasons of the show).

    No, you’re not.

    3>2>4>1>5

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  22. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on August 10, 2014.]

    4>3>2>1>5.

    “You gonna look out for me, Sergeant Carver?! You mean it?!” and “This is my corner, I ain’t runnin’ nowhere” beats out “Get on with it, motherfuckers” (both times) and Ziggy’s breakdown.

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  23. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on August 10, 2014.]

    As for the re-write, I just fundamentally disagree with your thesis that the characters only exist to service the show’s message.

    Lester, Carver, Cutty, Wallace, D, Bunny, Avon, Kima, Bubbs, Clay Davis, Michael, Chris, Daniels and Omar are why I love The Wire. They’re smart, they’re funny and, most of all, they’re real. I don’t think I’ve seen another show with so many compelling, fully realized characters, and I watch way too much TV.

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  24. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 10, 2014.]

    The “softer stance” is the end result of my rewording of the article so that it completely removes the idea that I’m trying to knock the show as being “bad” or “overrated”, or as a means of inciting the fandom. I wrote it to be more of an op-ed than a critical analysis. (Plus, once I started watching and enjoying The Sopranos, it completely changed my perspective of what exactly it was that I didn’t like about The Wire, so a rewrite was necessary.)

    The completist in me has wanted to finish the whole series from the moment I started Episode One. The logician in me, however, has prodded me since around the time I finished the first season to just let it go, since the series and I just don’t ever seem to jell.

    As you can see, my two sides are engaged in a fierce tug-of-war, and I expect that this website will be the ultimate casualty.

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  25. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 10, 2014.]

    While I can understand that most of the characters you listed have on some level the sort of nuance and depth I enjoy, I just don’t find anything terribly compelling about watching them.

    True, there are occasional moments and scenes which build on the characters’ personalities and flesh them out into actual human beings. But with a cast this large, and with a show that is, by and by, driven ultimately by its need to convey thematic messages, the series needs more than it gives if it wants to keep me more than marginally invested. (Particularly when many of said characters are, due to their often reprehensible natures, not people I can inherently relate to.)

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  26. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on August 11, 2014.]

    Jeremy, I’d suggest it’s worth at least finishing season three. Regardless of whether you enjoy it or not, “Middle Ground” is one of the best episodes of TV ever and nobody should miss it.

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  27. [Note: Bodie posted this comment on August 22, 2014.]

    I am just gonna say that if you don’t like it, then you are missing out. It is the greatest explanation of the decline of any American City. It explains why kids sell dope, why politicians do the stupid stuff they do, that not all cops are good and not all bad guys are bad, or all bad. I will admit, the Wire is not an easy watch. You have to think and a lot of what you see is gonna be heartbreaking. But it is the most well put together series ever.

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  28. [Note: Kyle posted this comment on August 22, 2014.]

    I’m gonna have to agree with Jeremy. For me the characters were just unlikeable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the series isn’t well written. It is well written, very well written indeed. I just can’t connect to any of the characters…

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  29. [Note: Franco posted this comment on October 15, 2014.]

    My comment: Jeremy’s fraught derision of “The Wire” is pretty laughable considering the sheer volume and opacity of his arguments which boiled down are little more than: “I don’t/can’t feel empathy for the main character(s)”.

    Even funnier is how frequently he cites exceptions to his overarching argument which undercuts his essay’s assertions. It’s like witnessing an unsuccessful Houdini escape.

    Yes, “The Wire” loads its drama with message, it’s packed with message, as are all great fictions, even “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos”. But, there are no TV shows, no, not “Breaking Bad” nor “The Sopranos”, the only shows even remotely worthy of comparison, that approach the sheer grandeur and scope of “The Wire”.

    “The Wire” is bluntly confident from the very start. It announces its outsized ambitions in Episode 1’s opening tickler. Its theme is “the great American experiment” and I am not ashamed to say that The Wire’s scrupulous examination of the American experiment’s current state arouses in me a profound sense of empathy, the deepest, indeed.

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  30. [Note: MikeJer posted this comment on October 15, 2014.]

    Indeed.

    The fact that Franco has interpreted your post as a “fraught derision of ‘The Wire'” uncovers the lens with which he approached it, because you couldn’t have been more even-handed about exploring your feelings towards the show.

    Many of The Wire‘s superfans have truly mastered the art of pretentiously sophisticated borderline trolling. It’s quite impressive, really.

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  31. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on October 15, 2014.]

    What I’m bothered about is the assertion that Breaking Bad and The Sopranos are the only two shows “remotely worthy of comparison”.

    Like, excuse me? Did you just happen to forget about the existence of Mad Men, The Shield, Six Feet Under and Deadwood?

    I can somewhat sympathize with those who hate Jeremy’s article (although I personally don’t) because I have no idea how I would react to it if I hadn’t already spent much time debating with him on the forums enough to realize that he wasn’t a lunatic writing garbage. Coming across this without any knowledge of Jeremy’s other work puts you in a very different position to the one I hold.

    Hey, Jeremy. Maybe after you’ve finished both shows you could write an article “Why The Shield is better than The Sopranos“. That could stir up some controversy. I myself could probably write one or two or fifty comments in response 😉

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  32. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on October 15, 2014.]

    My favourite parts of the comment are, in reverse order:
    5. Using “fraught” as an adjective for “derision”. You’re really putting yourself on the edge with that derision.
    4. Starting the comment with “my comment”
    3. Comparing the article to an unsuccessful Houdini escape. That’s why the derision is so fraught.
    2. Calling the argument opaque, but then summing it up in one sentence
    1. Whatever that last sentence was.

    I can somewhat sympathize with those who hate Jeremy’s article (although I personally don’t) because I have no idea how I would react to it if I hadn’t already spent much time debating with him on the forums enough to realize that he wasn’t a lunatic writing garbage. Coming across this without any knowledge of Jeremy’s other work puts you in a very different position to the one I hold.

    The following statement has nothing to do with my fraught derision of Jeremy on the forums:
    This article (revised form) is the most even handed criticism of one of the “greatest shows ever” that I have read. It’s why I can’t really argue against it even though I do hold The Wire in very high regard.

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  33. [Note: Franco posted this comment on October 15, 2014.]

    OK, you got me. The caption “My Comment” was goofy. I will accept that the use of fraught was too fussy and the Houdini joke was just bad. Looking back I see that Jeremy wrote in the spirit of civility and I should have avoided invective.

    Still, despite those reasonable objections, it stands that Jeremy’s chief criticism of The Wire is that he doesn’t feel for its characters. That seems more his failing than a weakness of The Wire. For instance, Bubbles and his sponsor Walon; Bunk, Omar, and Sobatka at their most righteous; Slim Charles and Bodie at their most loyal; the transformed Prez and Carver; Carcetti, Cutty, and Colvin at their most idealistic; and the young innocents — Michael, Randy, Duquan, & Wallace etc are all worthy of our deepest empathy. The futility of their struggles ought not diminish nor distance their lives for us instead these struggles endow them with a heartbreaking and wondrous humanity. This is what separates The Wire from the rest, it stretches the viewer from the solipsism inherent in the protagonist as proxy narratives found in great but lesser shows like BB and The Sopranos etc, shows immediately familiar and comfortable in their conventions.

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  34. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on October 15, 2014.]

    Gotta say, Franco, you need to tone down the lyrical flights of fancy in your prose. It’s an internet forum, not a mid-19th century Romantic (capital R) novel. Busting out the ten dollar words often comes across as trying to hide a lack of substance with a Thesaurus.

    I totally agree with your second comment, though. The Wire is full of amazing, fully realized, well-developed characters whom I love very, very much (and McNulty’s there too!), and I don’t understand how anyone can fail to empathize with them.

    (Dislaimer: I actually think Jimmy’s an amazing character, but he is the worst. Part of what makes it such a great show is that it never shies away from the fact that Jimmy is the worst, or tries to glamorize his unrelenting awfulness in any way.)

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  35. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on October 16, 2014.]

    Well, from my reading of it there are actually three essential points that Jeremy’s argument boils down to:

    1) A good deal of the humor on the show doesn’t affect him the way it does others;
    2) He thinks that the primary subject matter of the show – an unsparing look at the corruption and decay of the institutions of the American inner city – is something that would lend itself better to a documentary than to a drama; and
    3) He doesn’t feel a connection with the characters on an emotional level.

    The first point is impossible to refute because humor is just about the most subjective thing there is in fiction. The second point is one I would disagree with vehemently: the spectacle of a once-great empire in decline and fall can be one of the most arresting notions to confront the modern human imagination, a worthy subject for an epic narrative – which The Wire to my mind undoubtedly is, despite the flaws that its more zealous fans tend to overlook. But the third point is the one that really interests me, not just because it is the most important to Jeremy’s overall argument, but also because it’s the one that I’m closest to agreeing with.

    Specifically, I do agree that compared to a number of other great shows, the characters of The Wire, vivid and well-acted though they undoubtedly are, are not quite on a level. What I disagree about is the reason for this shortcoming. Jeremy believes that the characters are difficult to connect with because the show regards them as secondary to the delivery of its messages, and because most of them are not very admirable figures. I don’t think either of these suggestions is quite right. Even a cursory look is enough to establish that this show really cares about its characters, and wants us to care about them too – or else all its messages would have little meaning or importance. And the fact that so many of them are morally ambiguous or downright reprehensible figures isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a strike against the fact that many of them are in fact sympathetic and/or compelling.

    I think the real explanation is slightly different. And by happenstance, I recently stumbled on another piece that I think does a really good job of putting it into words. The piece in question is by Ross Douthat, who was responding to an article by Matt Zoller Seitz about the question of whether The Wire or The Sopranos was the Greatest Show Ever. Douthat zeroed in on the issue of which show was better as an exercise in characterization. Seitz, writing about the strengths of The Wire in this category, had rhapsodized:

    “I have to award this category to The Wire for the sheer breadth of its achievements. Near the end of its run, as it struggled and succeeded at recalling and polishing characters and subplots dating back five seasons, sometimes hauling out people you’d nearly forgotten about and giving them one last lovely grace note, the magnitude of its achievement became undeniable. At its most magisterial, the show felt like the dramatic version of a journalism-school test in which students close their eyes, open up a phone book to a random page, call whatever person their finger randomly landed on, and try to tell their life story in 500 words or less. Simon’s crew did this over and over and over for five seasons, with black and white characters, rich and poor people, civilians and cops and criminals, teachers and politicians, state senators and grieving mothers: hell, everybody.”

    Douthat’s response to this is focussed on The Sopranos, but I think that you could substitute Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, or The Shield, and perhaps a few other shows, and the essential point would still be intact:

    How much characterization can you actually compress into the television serial equivalent of 500 words or less? How much psychological depth, how much moral complexity, how many of the nuances and quirks and unexpected tangles that define human personality? The answer, and I say this as an enormous admirer of “The Wire,” is much, much less than what David Chase and Co. managed to offer us with their less panoramic but far more intimate portrait of Tony Soprano and his two families. “The Wire” was wonderfully shrewd and vivid and true-to-life in the way it sketched its characters, but even the richest of them – McNulty and Stringer Bell and Omar Little and yes, the beloved, sainted Bubbles – look two-dimensional and predictable and, well, sketchy compared to the level of depth and interiority that “The Sopranos” aspired to, and often achieved. Is there any human relationship on Simon’s show, any marriage or friendship or love-hate mess, that has the psychological heft of Tony Soprano’s relationship to his shrink, let alone his relationship to his wife and mother? As much as everyone loved Omar, did we really know as much about him as a human being – as opposed to a “Farmer in the Dell” whistling icon of cool – as we did about a Christopher Moltisante or a Janice Soprano? What did we know about Jimmy McNulty by season five that we didn’t know after season one? That he wasn’t just a reckless hothead, but a really reckless hothead?

    Again, this isn’t meant to be a slight on Simon. He was more interested in the sociological than the psychological, more fascinated by the professional than the personal, more obsessed with depicting how political and economic structures affected individual lives than with plumbing those individuals’ internal depths. But to give the nod to his show for the one thing it clearly didn’t do as well as “The Sopranos” is to miss the crucial distinction between the two works. “The Wire” was described as “Dickensian” so often that it became a cliché, but it really did have a lot of Dickens’s strengths: The teeming panoramas, the crackling dialogue, the burning social concern, and yes, the memorable characters. But it also had some of Dickens’s limitations. He was a social novelist who specialized in vivid archetypes and telling caricatures, not a psychological novelist who specialized in human intimacies, and for all their vividness none of his Micawbers and Cheerybies and Gradgrinds rank with the truly great characters of Western literature. They are marvels, but they are monodimensional marvels; they are “characters” in the “what a character!” sense of the word without being fully-realized human beings. So too with the characters on “The Wire”: Even raised to an art form, “the dramatic version of a journalism-school test” is simply incapable of creating a Dorothea Brooke, a Huckleberry Finn, an Emma Bovary, a Pierre Bezukhov, a Humbert Humbert – or, yes, a Tony Soprano.

    Prefer Simon’s show if you want, but prefer it for what it is: A great work of socio-political art, not a brilliant exploration of character, personality and soul.

    “A great work of socio-political art” sums up the essence of The Wire very well for me. Except that I also found it to be ridiculously entertaining, from the moment at the end of the third episode when the series really sank its hooks into me, right up to the end (even if there were admittedly large chunks of the last season that basically amounted to David Simon standing on top of a garbage fire, ranting about the sins of modern print journalism). Which is why I still find Jeremy’s post to be quite baffling on a personal experience level – much as I feel whenever I encounter people who insist that the fourth season of Angel was a great piece of television, or who say that the American remake of House of Cards is one of the best shows on television right now.

    Still, hopefully this will stir up the pot of the discussion a bit.

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  36. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on October 16, 2014.]

    Gotta say, it’s telling that he never mentioned the only one of Dickens’ characters that I’ve ever actually liked: Sidney Carton.

    He puts the lie to the idea that a Dickensian sweep can’t create a truly magnificent character, and I say this as someone who doesn’t like Dickens at all.

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  37. [Note: Franco posted this comment on October 16, 2014.]

    Got it, no flights of fancy pants prose. While I clearly prefer Simon’s Wire to Chase’s Sopranos, I wholeheartedly agree that The Sopranos’ depiction of marriage and family is extraordinary TV. But, its scope is limited, — it’s basically, like Breaking Bad, a domestic drama with a twist — and no matter how soulful Tony, Livia, Uncle Jr, Paulie and especially Carlotta at first appear to be, their dramas become pretty threadbare by mid series or so. From then on it’s a rehash of Tony’s fury and the tremors it sends throughout his families. And, as entertaining as the the secondary dramas surrounding Janice or Christopher, say, can be, they don’t cover much new ground nor reveal much beyond what we learned early on about this “family”.

    I am not interested in arguing that The Wire’s characters are superior to those of The Sopranos, I’ll concede that character is far more central to The Sopranos’ success as a sustained drama than it is for The Wire. But Simon’s examination of institutions and their crushing presence in people’s lives is, for me, no less soulful.

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  38. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on October 16, 2014.]

    I feel we’ve kind of been bullying and I don’t think you deserve it. The fancy pants prose was sort of impressive. It’s the combination of the fact that you were talking about “The Wire” very reverentially and the prose bordering on pretension. It was like a parody of every over the top Wire fan on the internet, which is why we thought it was kind of funny.

    And I completely agree with all of your last comment.

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  39. [Note: Franco posted this comment on October 16, 2014.]

    Thanks for showing some flex. I WAS trying to be a little funny. though, if I am honest, I still, years later, can become downright rhapsodic when discussing The Wire. It’s a stunning achievement. I love its lean presentation, its brash humor (“Does the chair know we’re gonna look like some punk ass bitches out there?”), and its bold directness. I like to joke “Flashbacks to god-damned hell with flashbacks and dream sequences! The Wire has no flashbacks. In fact, it don’t need no dream sequences. It don’t have to show you any stinking flashbacks or dream sequences”.

    “The Wire” don’t need no steenkin’ dream sequences or flashbacks”.

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  40. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on October 16, 2014.]

    Yeah, The Wire is an absolute masterpiece.

    I really need to get around to watching The Sopranos and The Shield so that I can actually have this discussion, haha.

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  41. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on October 17, 2014.]

    I don’t think that that’s really the point, Stake. The argument is not that the Dickensian “social novelist” approach to storytelling isn’t capable of creating characters that are dynamic and compelling. It’s that this approach tends to preclude against delving into or suggesting the interior lives of those characters with the sort of depth and complexity that you need to make them feel like fully rendered human beings.

    “A Tale of Two Cities” is as good an example of this as anything. Sydney Carton is unquestionably the best and most complicated character in that book, but even his inner struggle is relatively straightforward and easy to sum up in the way that it builds toward his going to his death in the novel’s famous ending.

    Which brings us back to the issue of the characters in “The Wire”. Lester Freamon might be one of the coolest TV characters ever, and watching him do his work is endlessly fun, but on a personal level he’s a complete cipher. Ditto Omar. Stringer Bell is probably the most interesting figure on the show, but he’s also an utterly unapologetic douchebag, with no indication that he’s ever really affected by what he does, except when he makes a mistake (okay – selling Avon up the river made him feel bad, but not nearly as bad as it made Avon feel). Out of all the characters, McNulty is the one who gets fleshed out the most on a personal level, but even so between the point when we first really get to know him, and the point when we say goodbye to him for the last time, it changes little about our sense of understanding for the man.

    Which is a problem that extends in no small degree to the rest of the cast. All the characters on “The Wire”, by and large, are vivid and true-to-life in what they do and feel as they get battered around by the institutions and social forces that the show does such a good job of depicting. But when it comes to depicting their impulses and compulsions as people, the show isn’t always quite so convincing. That’s a generalization of course, and there are exceptions. But they are exceptions that I think prove the rule.

    Put another way, every single character on “The Wire”, no matter how cool or interesting, is very easy to pin down and define in terms of who they are, what they do, and why they do it. There’s extremely little room for differences of opinion on this count. And that degree of certainty is only possible on a show that specializes in “vivid archetypes and telling caricatures” when it comes to its characters.

    That’s not to knock its status as one of the best shows ever made (although not, I would reassert, the best – on that count there are at least two, perhaps four, other shows that have it beat in my book). But if we’re looking to discuss why some people – Jeremy being our Ur Example – don’t feel much of an emotional connection to the characters, I think that may be an important part of it.

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  42. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on October 17, 2014.]

    Extremely easy, and not just because the ending of the fifth season makes it impossible to interpret their fates in any other way than “Carver becomes the new Daniels; Michael becomes the new Omar”.

    Carver and Michael were both good characters, and there was never a time when I didn’t enjoy watching them, but hard to pin down they were not – no more than D’Angelo was in season one. There was never a point when their motivations for doing what they did, and the reasons they felt what they felt, weren’t clear-cut – ditto for their relationships with the people around them. Again, that doesn’t stop them from being compelling – at least not to me – but I do count it as another point for “The Wire” being primarily a work of socio-political art, rather than a story geared toward exploring character, personality and soul.

    If there was a figure on the show who I think might have been an exception to the rule that the characters can all be pinned down and defined with ease, then it would have been Carcetti. For most of his run in the third and fourth seasons, and even in parts of the fifth (in which I wish his character had been given a much larger role), I was really impressed by the way that the show kept me second-guessing about whether he was totally self-interested, or if he really had the good intentions and ability to be something more than just another hack. I would have liked it if there had been at least a little bit of ambiguity left on that question, but that wasn’t to be.

    No other character on the show who made it past the “getting to know them” stage ever managed to get me to second-guess myself in my interpretation of them at any given moment. This is actually something that’s indicative of why I think that “The Wire”, despite its enormous and particular strengths, ultimately doesn’t affect me nearly as much as “Mad Men” or “The Sopranos” do – because at the end of the day it’s a very *What You See Is What You Get* show, with very little room for competing interpretations (I think that Sepinwall’s reviews do a very good job, even if it’s unintentional, of capturing this aspect of the series). Ultimately at its heart, the show is a polemic – and there are few things more alien to a polemic than ambiguity.

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  43. [Note: Franco posted this comment on October 17, 2014.]

    Interesting, really thoughtful, persuasive and detailed. I really like “the show is a polemic – and there are few things more alien to a polemic than ambiguity.”

    And, I agree that The Wire is forcefully polemical but – where is the ambiguity to be found in the characters of Walter White, Don Draper (the literal cipher) and Tony Soprano or any of their supporting casts? I wonder, if you applied the same lens to Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or The Sopranos, if you would find their characters and motivations any less “clear cut”. I don’t. I don’t even find Chase’s black out ending more ambiguous than McNulty’s “let’s go home” at the conclusion of The Wire’s Season 5.

    On the other hand, I don’t think we can cite a single character among BB, MM, and TS who demonstrates anything like the moral complexity and refined inner life of Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins. His slow return from addiction is freighted with enormous guilt and regret yet is sustained by his extraordinary capacity for love and a personal reckoning that is deeply moving. Far more moving than anything I find in the characters of the other three shows.

    Of course, you may want to pin down his character as “the addict with the heart of gold” but that diminishment denies the richness of his expressed inner life. I don’t remember any character from BB, MM or TS offer anything so personally revealing and with such poignancy as “Ain’t no shame in holding on to grief . . . as long as you make room for other things too.” And this is just a scant example from his extensive, painstaking, and personal “clean time” odyssey.

    In comparison, Tony’s inner life, mostly revealed through his sessions with Melfi (though some might find something to fix on in the ridiculously cryptic and lurid dream sequences) is a trifling litany of self pity, rage, anxiety and manipulation. And, I am pretty sure if we looked closely at the inner lives of Walter and Don you would find much the same. And, Bubbles is, for me, not an anomaly. Carver, Prez, Colvin, yes, even Michael and others are far richer characters than your labels let on.

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  44. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on October 17, 2014.]

    I disagree.

    Bubbles is a good character, and he’s animated by a phenomenal performance (probably the best of the show) from Andre Royo, that makes him into a window for the viewer to empathize with the plight of the unfortunate number of people, not unlike him, who fall through the cracks of American society and get chewed up down in the dark spaces where the rest of us prefer not to look. That makes his eventual redemption one of the most uplifting moments of the show (even if it is followed by the kick-in-the-guts of seeing that Dukie has taken his place).

    But… emotional and moving though Bubbles was, if you boil him down to his essentials as a character, then he really is just “the addict with the heart of gold”, and not much more complicated than that. In this aspect, he cannot compare to a Tony Soprano – or even to a Christopher Moltisanti or a Paulie Walnuts. Because try though one might, these characters and the relationships they have with each other can’t be reduced so easily to mere essentials.

    I take Paulie as an example because he’s probably one of the most two-dimensional figures on the main cast of “The Sopranos”, and yet even he has as much substance to his personality as the most developed characters on “The Wire”. On the surface he looks like little more than a swept-back hairstyle with some threatening lines, but in fact he’s such a gloriously depicted jumble of insecurities (his pop-eyed humiliation when a Mob boss from the big city fails to recognize him must rank high among documents of all it means for a proud hoodlum never to make it out of Newark) that he feels just as human as Jimmy McNulty.

    If we turn for a moment to your question of where in the other top drama shows is to be found a moment as revealing and poignant as Bubbles’s “Ain’t no shame in holding on to grief… as long as you make room for other things too.” I would respond that one of the reasons why, with due allowance for the strengths and weaknesses of both series, I consider “The Sopranos” to be a superior show to “The Wire”, is because the former show was capable of producing such moments of precious, fleeting emotion with such incredible regularity.

    Where “The Wire” needed five seasons worth of build-up before Bubbles could have his moment and blow away the audience with it, “The Sopranos” often felt like it could achieve similar levels of profundity almost every other episode – and often without even needing to use any words at all. A scene of Tony just sitting by his pool, waiting for the ducks to come home, mooning over his horse Pie-O-My, or Carmela bursting into tears over a painting in an art gallery, or Artie Bucco cooking a dish of rabbit for the young couple who came in late to his restaurant- all manage to speak to a depth of humanity in the characters that sometimes shines through in “The Wire”, but not all that often.

    The reason for this is that the characters on “The Sopranos” have an abiding complexity to them that “The Wire” mostly doesn’t have the space or the inclination to indulge in. Tony Soprano himself is the ultimate example: a character for which it is absolutely impossible to say what the dynamic essence of his inner struggle is, because there are so many damn parts to it. You could say that it’s the way he constantly has to bring into balance the different considerations in his life (e.g. Outside his home, his power is unlimited, but inside he can affect the behavior of others only to a certain extent, because they know he won’t kill them). Or you could say that it’s battle between his spiritual compulsion toward higher knowledge, and the corrosive influence of his base instincts. Or you could assert that it’s the conflict inherent in a nostalgic fixation on childhood – the naïve hopes of a boy butting up against the crushing weight of adult responsibility and the dizzying temptations of escapism. Or perhaps you could think it’s the loneliness of being the only one in his circle of bloody gangsters who recognizes the darkness and cruelty of the world he inhabits, and has to bear the weight of that recognition.

    Or it might just be that Tony embodies so many American weaknesses: pure selfishness rationalized through misguided notions about “family,” brute force rationalized by illusions about “loyalty,” macho superiority and sexism rationalized by romantic notions about patriarchal birthright, guilt and self-hatred numbed through alcohol, music, drugs, junk food, and sports trivia – a frightful mirror shoved into the face of the audience in every episode, that somehow doesn’t stop Tony from being lovable, because it’s balanced out by his fierce urge to protect his family from harm, his fear of his son following in his footsteps, or of not matching up to his own father‘s legacy, his compassion for children and animals, his loyalty to his closest friends, his need to be loved, his capacity for generosity, his childish and infectious sense of humor, and his occasional capacity to do the right thing. You could say it’s a dozen other things beside these that sit at heart of what makes the character complex and compelling – and they’d all be true. Because Tony is merely the ultimate example to demonstrate the point that it’s difficult to say a fictional character gives a real sense as human being if they don’t contain multitudes.

    On the other hand, a comparison to Tony is not entirely fair, because he dominates the show that he’s on to a degree that very few other protagonists approach. It’s the secondary figures who ultimately make for the more revealing contrast, because they help to show up the difference that is made by the focus of “The Wire” on the sociological over the psychological, the professional over the personal, the effect of political and economic structures on individual lives over those individuals’ internal depths. While Carver, Prez, Colvin, Michael, Kima, Bodie, Sobotka, and the dozens of other significant characters on the show – up to and including Bubbles – all show flashes of depth at times, those flashes don’t add up to the sense of interiority that can be achieved by a show where character is the essential focus. (Which sort of brings us back to Jeremy’s point, I suppose).

    On the issue of ambiguity, it’s not even a question. “The Sopranos” stock in trade is ambiguity, with even a character like Livia (who like her namesake from the BBC series “I, Claudius” is basically absolute evil rendered absolutely believable) or Ralph (a reliable psychopath, barking and cackling) ultimately raising far more questions than they did answers. “The Wire” takes the opposite approach: its entire mode is geared toward providing answers – definitive ones.

    And as long as we’re on the subject – the dream sequences on “The Sopranos” are one of the best parts of that show.

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  45. [Note: Franco posted this comment on October 18, 2014.]

    You’re starting to repeat yourself. Joking aside, your description(s) of Tony’s interior life is really masterful as is your argument in support of character driven narratives generally. Nevertheless, we’re left where we started. I find the breadth and scope of the Simon canvas compelling and deeply moving. I take great pleasure in watching its accretion of facts and unfolding events. More so than The Sopranos because of the overall bloat of Tony’s saga and in the case of Breaking Bad, its reliance on the improbable propulsion of close calls and pulse pounding menace. As Lester, Simon’s surrogate, states “we’re building something here and all the pieces matter”. The Wire, for me, is a breathtaking achievement, in great measure in just how sure handed Simon’s team is in laying out its radiating and complex narrative through an immense and distinct cast over the five seasons.

    And, even if the character revelations occur in infrequent flashes, I am no less moved when they do burst forth. In fact, I am more deeply moved because of their rarity. The Wire is laden with almost surreptitious connections that we come to see, over and over again, are misconstrued or simply missed, which is its own kind of ambiguity. Perhaps this happens with some regularity for the viewer, as well. I think of Colvin’s restaurant experience with the trio of students, the raw innocents, whose braggadocio and brashness is quickly overwhelmed by their intense insecurities before the facile polish of a waitress in a middling establishment. It’s easy to feel nothing for Stringer Bell when you don’t connect him to these young people. But we can’t lose sight that Stringer began as a corner boy and in some sense he remains a corner boy aspiring to refinement but only capable of aping its trappings and educational accomplishments. As Avon says, “maybe you’re not hard enough for this here and not smart enough for them out there”. It is The Wire’s scrupulous attention to such detail in creating, not merely a polemic, but a fully realized world that I find so compelling and satisfying.

    That said, I don’t expect to move you from your point of view. And, to be perfectly honest, I am no match for your intelligence and the suppleness of your arguments. Really nicely done.

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  46. [Note: Zach posted this comment on December 3, 2014.]

    This was a very good read, I lean more on Alex. C’s side, but I truly think it comes down to a preference of the sociological supremacy of “The Wire” or the character intimacy and depth found in “The Sopranos”, I personally prefer the latter.

    And I gotta say, I went from strongly disliking “Franco”, to really liking him in the span of a few comments…

    I was like “Oh…he’s one of those pretentious assholes”, thanks for making me re-learn the lesson too not judge others preemptively.

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  47. [Note: emcoffey3 posted this comment on December 12, 2014.]

    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.

    Who the fuck says it isn’t first and foremost about Bodie’s arc?

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  48. [Note: Benkim posted this comment on December 19, 2014.]

    Wow! I know we are different but I never thought it was possible to not be moved by or to not find the characterization in The Wire absolutely compelling! The big problem I find the author has is the same mistake the teachers were making in Sn4 which as Bunny put it, trying to bring them into a world that is not theirs by bringing them into your world which couldn’t be anymore different!

    Heck, I find it difficult to not see Omar or Rawls when they appear in another TV show because of the impact they had on me. I guess we are different though and to each his own.

    For the record, I don’t think anything will ever even come close to topping The Wire. It’s that good.

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