The Wire

Wow. Isn't The Wire amazing? I plan to smear some pretentiousness over this statement, but I feel I should begin at the beginning. The Wire is amazing. Plot, character, dialogue, setting, camerawork, editing, music, the frigging title sequence... all the pieces fit, and all the pieces work.

Now for the sticky pretentious stuff that glues the whole thing together. Episode 6 of season 1 is itself called 'The Wire', and it begins very interestingly. The teaser opens with a shot of a mutilated corpse lying spread-eagled on the hood of a car. The camera then picks up on a rising power line, and follows it over a back garden, through a second floor window, and then comes to rest on a sleeping teenager. From the previous episode, we know that the teenager and the body are linked, and the power line visually communicates this. So although 'The Wire' primarily refers to the wiretaps the police use to build their case against a drug dealing organization, it's difficult not to interpret the opening sequence of this particular episode -- a wire connecting two individuals -- as an alternative thematic statement on what the series is about. Relationships. The wires that connect us to others in our environment. The hierarchies of duty and obedience that structure our lives. And the show demonstrates over and over again how people are oppressed by such hierarchies, both legitimate and clandestine. Relationships -- wires -- create the framework on which a working city is built. But they also create cages that limit our freedom to move and act.

It's extraordinary that such a defining statement is delivered visually, rather than through dialogue. The writers of the show know when to keep silent and let the directors and actors do the heavy lifting. Using non-verbal means to impart messages is one distinctive feature that sets The Wire apart. Another example (of many) that stuck with me is in the final episode of season 1. In a short, throwaway scene at the end, Bodie -- now in control of the Pit -- walks away from his underlings. The camera pushes in to close up as he stares at something above him. What? We don't know. We cut away to another scene. It could be the camera that has been spying on their drug dealing operation. Or it could be a momentary daydream about his new position, and the new heights he has yet to scale.

Leaving the ponciness behind, time for a word on another distinctive feature of the show. Unlike the rest of American television, the characters in The Wire are not all white, straight and handsome. In order to build a realistic portrayal of the city of Baltmore, the creators have gone for 'character' actors, not leading men and women. Certainly no other show has done more to exhibit black acting talent. However, interestingly, there are limits to this race/gender/beauty blindness. Although an ensemble piece, McNulty's character stands a little bit above the rest. Dominic West, the actor who plays him, gets the first credit. McNulty is a semi-protagonist, and is still white, straight, handsome, and a guy. He is a leading man. Similarly The West Wing, the *other* greatest American TV show ever, and another high brow ensemble piece, has a leading man in Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn. Initially, much of the series was going to revolve around him, before the creator realised that C.J., Josh, Toby, even Donna were more interesting. Similarly, Mad Men has Don Draper, and Six Feet Under has Nate Fisher. American television still needs its leading men to look good on the posters and sell the product. The mold is cracking, but it hasn't been completely destroyed.

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