Friday, August 6, 2010

The Wire

I must be sick because descriptions of The Wire (the TV show not the magazine) as a sociological examination of the American city actually sounded good to me. "Complex", "bleak", "stark", "deep" are often used and that's not even getting to the superlatives ("greatest show ever" or some variation is common). So yeah this is definitely my kind of show.

Except, well, I don't think it is. I watched the first two discs (first five episodes) and was very surprised, almost shocked even, at how conventional and un-complex, un-bleak the show is. Just look at it this way: A ragtag team of misfits who don't get along are tucked away in a crumbling basement while trying to take down a criminal mastermind (who Mabuse-like most law enforcement have never even heard of). One has a temper problem, one can't stop talking, one is so righteous that he got busted down to routine duties, etc. Gosh, they even have a lesbian - how broadminded is that! And oh yeah the drug dealers are given almost equal time. One wants to move up in the organization, one is street muscle, one is mostly a businessman, etc. Gosh, they even have a gay drug dealer - how broadminded is that!

And to be honest I don't particularly care about how original the story may or may not be. (Claims that it's based on journalistic reality are of course a way to avoid dealing with the actual show.) What seems most odd is how clumsy it's put together. There are several monologues that are clearly meant as actor showcases - they're blatantly, almost agressively, unrealistic though not to the point that even sympathetic viewers might call them Brechtian. They feel inserted whenever exposition or background or character info is needed. One of them when the drug dealer explains in bizarre detail how he murdered a woman seems oddly placed since it reveals a killer when there was no reason to do so. (And who had the idea for the scene investigating the apartment where the murder happened to have the dialogue be entirely variations on a curse word? That's more like a Saturday Night Live sketch.) David Simon claimed he was making a response to the procedurals that dominate TV crime shows so it makes sense that he would remove the mystery from a murder mystery. Still, in this specific case there's no real benefit unless it's later in the season that I haven't seen yet.

Trying to portray a surveillance society comes in fits even though that's the reference in the series title. One particularly odd moment is a cut to video security camera images of the drug dealers leaving a building and getting into cars. The image itself is pure padding--there isn't the slightest narrative purpose unless they were trying to document modern urban transportation methods--but the jump to a black-and-white video image is jarring for no purpose, especially since it's the only such moment in the episode. We do get bits about the use of pagers and public phones but it's hardly as interesting as Clockers for instance.

For all I know The Wire improves. I keep thinking of watching Babylon 5 the first time and after about the fourth or fifth episode asking some friends who were big supporters (in fact they helped bring it to TNT for the final season) that it was merely ok so far and does it get any better. They said absolutely yes and were absolutely right so I wonder whether The Wire really does get down to business later or whether it stays with this sloppy, half-hearted drama that's not particularly dramatic. There's no way it can retroactively improve these early episodes but there's a chance that with all the basics out of the way it can start moving to worthwhile territory. I just don't think it's worth my time to go along with the journey.