Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Wire Season 1 (2002)

Quality TV in is fast becoming the most consumed and talked about artform of this decade. Game of Thrones is smashing records, both legal and nautical, every time it shows its face. Breaking Bad is ready to set the internet alight with its final eight episodes come the end of summer. Even the way TV is being made is changing, with Netflix getting in on the action with House of Cards and the latest season of Arrested Development. Both shows took the new approach of releasing all episodes at once for you to choose your own pace: watch one a week when you get time, one every night for a week or two, or do what I do and binge through them all in a weekend.

Even with the recent loss of the greatly talented James Gandolfini, you can see how quality programming has dug its feet in. This was a man who was in a film just last year that received five Oscar nominations (Zero Dark Thirty) among numerous massively successful films, but every single mention of him has forgone all them to describe him as "Sopranos star James Gandolfini".

It's, now "classic", shows like The Sopranos that today's TV owes its existence to. The early 2000s set the precedent, and 2002 gave us one of the most influential shows when HBO debuted The Wire.

The Wire, when boiled down to the bare minimum, is a cat-and-mouse drama set in the crime and drug riddled city of Baltimore. The extensive cast of characters come mostly from two sides: the cops and one of the city's many drug gangs. But to say it's a black and white, clear cut story of cops chasing robbers is a disservice to how grey The Wire gets. Nobody is a fully blown bad guy or good guy, but there are a few that are close to the extremes on both sides. Essentially, the people you end up rooting for aren't those on the right side of the law but the people who are trying to do the best for themselves and their friends given the restrictions of the world they inhabit.

Characterisation is where the show truly shines. It's a credit to the shows writers that the frankly huge cast (only a fraction of whom are in the artwork above) all seem to be developed at least to some degree of believability in just 13 episodes. So often in any medium, be it TV, film or books, you get characters who exist solely to perform one action that moves the plot forward. But here, even if that's the only reason a character exists, they're at least fleshed out to be interesting enough that you don't notice.

Apparently, my favourite from the roster is shared with President Obama himself in Omar Little. Imagine your typical gay, black drug dealer character  and Omar will subvert it. This is one scary motherfucker, and I don't mean that creepy type of scary that lazy writers will use to try and make a gay character scary. Omar literally gets people running from the streets  when he makes an appearance because they know that he, along with his trademark shotgun and whistled theme tune, has come to town to cause some bad shit for some unlucky people. Despite being an armed robber by trade he has a strict adherence to a code of honour and it's these sort of almost contradicting traits that make him one of the best characters to watch on screen.

Not only that, Omar has the best single line of the series, and Michael K Williams absolutely nails it.

The tradeoff of focussing so heavily on characters is pacing. You have to go all in with a show like The Wire because the payoff is great but you're going to be waiting a while to get there. This isn't Homeland where every episode has a 50% chance of having an "Oh holy shit!" moment; there's a handful in the season but they are so much more worth it. It's for this reason that I'd recommend the binge approach for this show. I watched all 13 episodes of the first series over the course of four nights (because I have no life) and even then I had to stop for a minute at least once per episode to remind myself who had done what and what had happened. Slow, steady pacing and a cast that'd fill a coach isn't a recipe that comes out best when cooked over 13 weeks.

If you haven't clicked on by this point: I really, really like The Wire and thank it for everything it's responsible for in the modern TV landscape. And if that's not enough for you the show even managed to get the famously sarcastic and pessimistic Charlie Brooker to just sit back and say "It is just fucking brilliant".

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