I Heard It On The Wire …
So, there’s an amazing little show called The Wire.
You may have heard about it.
I come back and revisit it from time to time. It’s one of those very rare series that simply gets better with time and repeated viewings. If you’re not familiar, it’s a series that follows a web of criminals, police and civilians in Baltimore. It begins with a single police unit investigating a drug operation in the west Baltimore slums, and grows organically outward from there over five seasons, touching on a lot of areas of the city: the slums, the port, the schools, the paper, the mayor’s office at city hall, you name it. You can feel the love that David Simon has for his city, but also the hurt and outrage that he feels over what has happened to it, the waste and corruption that he sees sinking it. Characters come and go, but one of the most impressive things about the show is the fact that despite the large and shifting cast, it never loses its footing, never feels like it’s casting about or trying to reinvent itself.
And the writing. Sweet mercy, the writing.
The dialogue snaps and pops hotter than bacon frying, and the plots wander as slyly as burglars casing a neighborhood, looking natural but constantly scheming under the surface. Things rarely play out quite the way you expect, but don’t go for sensation, cheap twists or other lazy tricks. Instead, the surprises come from the fact that the series almost never follows television conventions – things unfold more or less as they do in real life, which makes them even stranger and more powerful. It’s a testament to trusting your material, really, and letting it take you where it will, instead of forcing it to take some more unnatural shapes. It manages to employ a lot of moral ambiguity without falling into cynicism or resorting to stage-y ethical conflicts. You find a lot to sympathize with on all sides, and a lot that leaves you feeling really conflicted, and some things that just outright shock you.
Just listening to the dialogue is a master class on its own. It’s not unusual for a series to get one “sound” right – the streets, maybe, or the police. The Wire manages to hit every group and make it sound natural and effortless. You come to love certain characters just because of the way they talk – my favorite’s Proposition Joe, though Omar and the Bunk are close behind. It’s incredible to hear so many unique voices, especially with so many characters to juggle, you’d figure that sooner or later someone would get lazy, write some filler. But it just doesn’t happen.
So sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, or just need a fix of some fine writing to jumpstart my own inspiration, I put it on like some people put on the Beatles, and just sit back and listen to the poetry. If you haven’t, give it a try. I’ll tell you this much – it takes about three episodes to kick in. Those first couple are a little confusing, not because they’re poorly written, but because they refuse to play like the television we’re used to, wrapping things up neatly each episode, with clearly defined arcs and outcomes. Then it kicks in, the shape of the series starts to emerge, and damn! Off you go.
Enjoy. And listen carefully.