Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Greatest Show on TV?

It has been well documented that HBO's debut of The Sopranos in 1999 was the beginning of a fresh new business model for cable television. Stations like HBO had depended on the logic that people would pay to see content in which they very rarely had a hand in producing.

Sure, people subscribed to HBO to see good movies, bad movies, boxing, etc., but there was not much room for growth. Then someone had a really good idea. Invest a lot of money in the production of their own shows. Good actors, good writers, good directors, good producers. And being on HBO, the shows can play well outside the friendly boundaries of network TV.

Truth be told, The Sopranos wasn't HBO's first show of this ilk, it was just the most popular. Oz debuted in 1997. Talk about pushing the limits. Yikes. You wanna scare kids straight? Make them watch Oz. Since then a number of shows in this model: Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Da Ali G Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Deadwood, Entourage, Big Love, Rome, Flight of the Concords, and more. Not all were award-worthy, but the quality of programming was much better than you'd find on any other station. And I haven't even mentioned the best one.

The Wire debuted in 2002 and this past Sunday aired the last episode of its 5th and final season. The main focus of the show is the ongoing war on drugs in the city of Baltimore. Characters of every rank on both sides of the law are well-developed; from the hoppers on the corner to the drug kingpins, from the cops working the beat to the Mayor.

The show is produced and mostly written by David Simon, a long-time Baltimore police reporter (who also wrote and produced "The Corner", a docu-drama that appeared on HBO in 2000). Simon knows personalities and hard truths of the city very well, and it shows in his work. He has even casted non-actor natives of the city for smaller roles in the show.

One of the more unique qualities of the show is its focus in each season on a different storyline of the city. The first season focused on drug trade. The second on the ports. The third on the mayoral politics. The fourth on education, and the fifth on the newspaper. This design has allowed new characters to be ushered in and out of the story each season, while still maintaining the large and incredibly talented ensemble that make up the core of the cast.

Another trait that stands out about the show is that its quality never diminished with each new season, as is the case with many dramas. In fact, the 4th season of the The Wire was the greatest season of television I have ever watched. I remember reflecting during the middle of the season that there had not been one klunker or filler episode. Every one had me glued to the TV and having to snap out of the context of the show when it ended. That is an incredibly high standard that many of my other favorite shows, including The Sopranos and Lost, haven't accomplished.

As you may have noticed, I can't give the show enough praise. The writing, acting, directing and producing are all top shelf. So I recommend the next time you want to rent a movie, you pick up the first disc of the first season of The Wire. Now, I've totally set you up for disappointment. You won't watch the first few episodes and have the same opinion I do now. But if you like the first disc, keep watching. It only gets better.


Mike Belgrove said...

Me and the other writers over at Highbrid Nation loved The Wire. Actually, one of our guys just did a post today talking about how important The Wire was to viewers as well as the cast.

I think The Wire is one of those shows that most people won't truly get until years from now. 20 years from now people will look back on the Wire as one of the greatest shows ever created.

Marty said...

Here's another take on the show posted on a blog that Rekha turned me on to: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com/2008/03/09/85-the-wire/

Roller said...

Mike, Marty, thanks for the links. Good reading.

Marty, the quote from yours, "If you attempt to talk about an episode they have not seen yet, they will scream and cover their ears. In white culture, giving away information about a film or TV series is considered as rude as spitting on your mothers grave. It is an unforgivable offense." rings so true. And I am totally that dude who doesn't want any part of the story spoiled for me.

Coovo said...

One of the best shows ever created? Really Mike? Better than My Two Dads? Better than Moesha? It's possible. I regret I haven't spent much time with The Wire. I should do a blog on regrets. Oh, I've had a few.

Humor aside, will The Wire go the way of Sopranos and Sex in the City and find its way to syndication on free TV minus the language and private parts?

Ryan said...

The Wire is my favorite show of all time, with the only possible competition coming from X-files.

Rhonda Perlman is ridiculously close to Scully in my heart, but she can't quite take her over.

With the nice Netflix/blockbuster montly subscriptions, it makes renting entire series very easy and cheap.

Vanessa and I marched through the first 4 seasons, 1 by 1 in relatively little time. Each episode is a rock solid hour and better than anything on live TV. If you ahve the need for a 2 hour movie, just watch 2 epidodes!

Oh, indeed.

callahan said...

i consume TVshows-on-DVD at a ravenous pace... those who know how quickly i caught up with Lost are privy to this.

But I'm a little ashamed at my Wire viewing habits.... hadn't seen a single episode until Walleye gave me Season 1. This was maybe in November.

i watched the final 3 episodes in real time. i need a hobby.

i even requested to Wallace that he start calling me "McNulty".... i think i convinced him once he saw the episode (Season 2?) in which he wrecked his car - on purpose. God, i love that scene.

Roller said...


Anonymous said...

Well written Roller. As a huge Wire fan, I enjoyed reading all of the postings. Your entry was one of the most in depth overviews that I have read, a great summary for those who haven't lived and breathed over the wire for the last five seasons. I personally liked the reference to The Corner, which I also enjoyed, but never drew the correlation between David Simon. No need to question how David nailed the Baltimore Sun's personalities, especially "Gus", with his background!

An obvious favorite, I have to give David the biggest compliment on McNulty. Watching him struggle with authority, his career, legal/illegal, sex, booze, women, his wife/family and finally the street made riveting TV. I think all of us have an internal McNulty to one degree or another. How could you not love the Jekyll and Hyde quality McNulty brought to the table? The guy could go from hero to dirt bag in 2.5 beers, and then often back again.

Our family subscribes to HBO exclusively for me, and I only subscribe to see the in-house productions, like The Wire. This may be an overstatement, but I think HBO would be out of business if not for their in-house shows! I rented Michael Clayton from the iTunes Store and certainly wasn't going to wait for HBO to release it in 2009. Boxing? TiVo and DVR have literally killed their commercial free value. They have had to evolve, and thankfully the fruit of that evolution are products like The Wire.

You mentioned many good HBO productions, I watched all of them except for Flight of the Concords. For you Wire junkies and history buffs, I'll give a solid nod to Rome. Not only is Rome a great production, but it also brings a good deal of historical truth to the stage, with the nonfictional twist of getting to see undocumented details of the characters private lives. I think John Adams will follow in Rome's footsteps, I've enjoyed the first two episodes.

I'll leave my first visit to The Loop and The Lou with a question? Why didn't The Wire become water cooler fodder like Sex and the City and The Soprano's? In other words a mainstream hit? I have my theories, but would like to hear from the group.


Roller said...

Anonymous (aka Badge), did you sign "Ziggy" because of your rampant incompetence or your extra-large manhood?

Excellent comments - so many great points.

My dad has also recommended Rome. I never got into it, mostly because I didn't have the time to devote to it. That's probably the best and worst part about these shows; when you take the time to watch them - from the beginning - they pay tremendous dividends. But you can't watch them casually. You're either all in or all out. I think John Adams looks great - I'll check out anything with Paul Giamatti.

Nice commentary on McNulty. There was a time where I thought Dominic West might leave the show to launch a bigger career. Perhaps he tried but failed. Either way I think his work on The Wire is better than most other things that would have been available to him.

McNulty's character was an interesting parallel to a theme of the show - self-destruction. You nailed the "Jekyl & Hyde" aspect of McNulty, and you see the battle with inner demons in many other characters, too (most notably Bubbles?).

So many excellent character traits in the show:

The honor of Bunk
The patience of Lester
The cunning of Stringer
The street of Avon
The code of Omar
The sociopathology of Marlo, Chris and Snoop
The blue-collar of Frank
The redemption of Prez
The business of Prop Joe
The incompetence of Ziggy

As to why the show didn't gain more popularity, good question. I remember feeling vindicated when, somewhere in the midst of the second or third season, I discovered that you appreciated it as much as I did. I had recommended it to other friends to no avail. I didn't understand its lack of popularity.

But if I had to take a swag, here's my theory: The story of The Wire is ongoing, building show by show, season by season. It's hard to jump into midstream.

But are a lot of shows like that, right? Well, perhaps the attempt to make the show as "real" as possible - the focus on drugs, poverty and the truth that some of these things will never change, that a large part of the society's lives are pre-destined to scrape by at best... that aspect of the show doesn't appeal to people who are looking to unwind at the end of the day.

Now I'm not suggesting that storyline is all there is to the show. The Wire has a lot of intelligence in it, and some redemption (Prez, Namon, even Bubs), and a good dose of comic relief (we could do a whole post on the one-liners). But you get where I'm coming from.

In the end, I think our first commenter Mike Belgrove had it right - The Wire's legacy will be much greater than its popularity during the show's original programming.

Thanks again for the comment, and I want to hear your (and everyone's) theories on this too!


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Ryan said...

Is it assholish of me to suggest Sex and the City is mostly followed by chicks and Wire mostly by dudes, hence the difference in gossip?

Great comments all.

Roller said...

Interesting thought. I don't think it's assholish, but I don't know if it's necessarily true.

Your demographics are probably correct, but I think the popularity of The Sopranos is owed to its large male viewership. Thus I find it hard to attribute The Wire being much less popular than those shows to the notion that guys don't gossip as much as chicks.

An' if it weren't for your friend Sergei, here, you and your cousin would be two cadaverous muthuafuckas.

Just kiddin. I just realized I had done this whole post without delivering my favorite Wire quote (Prop Joe, Season 2).

Ryan said...

Awesome quote. One of my favs too.

I was just guessing at Russ' question for Sex and the City vs. Wire.

As for Wire vs. Sopranos, I think not only was Sopranos first, but it was more typical: Itallian mafia family, less developed characters, no law enforcement.

the Wire is a much more complex show because of all its character subtlties. It's so subtle, I can't even spell subtlties. But the Sopranos was like "ground breaking" because the main guy saw a shrink. But the complexity of his character was jsut "I do bad stuff. SOmetimes I feel bad about it. I want to bone my doctor."

As Russ pointed out, McNulty is way more complex a character, as are most of them. Not any clear heroes, only a few clear villians, but even they have redeeming qualities, and that's harder on the audience.

We like our coffee scorching and our queers flaming.

[snoop, buying the nail gun]
"But this is $400"
"Keep it, main, you earned that bump like a muuufucker."

Snoop has my favorite accent of all time in any show.

kevin! said...

does anyone read comments this old?

i just discovered this posting. as a lover of all things the wire, i want to say at least something. and as a former lover of sopranos who has seen all eps, i think the main diff between the two series is that the wire has no tony. it's not mcnutty or bubbs or avon or striner or omar. there's just no tony. tony was great - no doubt about it. maybe the best single character in tv history. but he carried such a load for that show.

no person from the wire carried such a load, but the drama was better for a variety of reasons that, umm, i just don't feel like typing out.

lame, but hard question: who are your 3 fave characters? after much thought, mine were mcnulty, bodie, and omar.

Roller said...

Only three? Shiiiiiiiiiiittt...

kevin!, I like the Bodie pick. He was played and written so well, an excellent character that exemplified life for young males in the hood (because of course I know what that's like). Don't think he's in my top 3 though.

My top three are probably pretty typical... McNulty, Omar and either Stringer or Avon. Prop Joe and Bunk are close as well.

How about your top 3 non-stars? Slim Charles, Brother Mouzone, Snoop. Frank Sabotka belongs in there too.

Regarding comparisons with the Sopranos, I think you hit the nail on the head. I was actually watching "House of Saddam" last night, and thinking how the Saddam character really reminded me of Tony. The alpha-male aspect to be sure, but there was something similar in their relationships to their wives and children, too.

Rye, I completely missed your last comment about Snoop. Right on. I'm sure you know, but she wasn't an actress. She was actually a juvenile offender in Baltimore that somehow Ed Burns got to know. She's legit. There's a pretty funny story about her. In between seasons 3 and 4, she found someone on the street selling bootleg copies of the Wire. She apparently like kidnapped him, or something like that, and called Ed Burns and asked him what he wanted her to do, to which he of course replied that she should let him go.

Ryan said...

Ahhhwwwww, Hellzno. We're digging up some old shiz, like the zombie bodies in the vacants.

Rollz, hilarious story about Snoop. I knew that she was "4realz". Also heard that a lot of her little sayings and accents were being spread throughout Baltimore too. that little "ya hirrrrr" has probably already been yelled a thousand times today.

Favorite Big 3: McNulty, Omar, Marlow.
Fav "Small" 3: Bubbles, Snoop, Slim Charles
Fav Supporting 3: Bunk, Frank Zabotka, Cutty
Hottest 3: McNulty's ex-wife, D's wife who snook with Spring, Carcetti's political advisor
People I might beat the crap out of on instinct, even though they're actors: Ziggy Zabotka, Sergeant Fat Ass, Rawls, that Judge, Namond, that one white guy reporter
Honorable mention for making the show even better: Liet Daniels, Clay Davis, Kima, Rhonda Perlman, The Greek crew and Boris, Gus, Herc and Prez.

Long live the Wire. For all the greatnesses of the whole series, I though the final episode was an incredible touch. Resolved everything with taste and some surprise. Lotta head shots though, damn. I jumped when Slim offed Cheese.

Roller said...

I forgot about Slim offing Cheese like that. I loved that scene, too.

Interesting that you put Marlo in the top three. I actually didn't buy Marlo as a drug kingpin until one of the last episodes. Stringer and Avon? Completely bought them. Marlo just never seemed that tough or conniving.

In the end of Season 5 though, there was the scene where Marlo, Chris, Snoop and Cheese (amongst others) are all locked up. Someone lets it slip that Omar has been trashing Marlo's name on the streets, and Marlo gets enraged. I bought that - great scene. Wish I would have seen more of it earlier.

kevin! said...

ray - cutty is a big fave with some homeboys out here too. remember when michael finally chooses the dark side, and cutty gets shot in the leg. mike wants to wait for the ambo, but cutty says a line that we always say to each other: "go wicha people. go wicha people".

but cutty wasn't always that honorable. i play this scene in my head before every sales meeting where i need to bring my A game:

i love marlo. i know what you mean about not being like avon or stringer, but the guy is ice cold and brutal, plus he has muscle with chris. there's also that scene in the final ep where he leaves high society and goes back to the corner and represents.

kevin! said...

here's that scene with cutty. maybe one of the saddest points in the entire series i think.

click here

here you go ry:

that was for joe


my name is my name

Roller said...

oh dude... I just got lost down a Wire rathole.

I saw the ones you posted, Kev, nice. The "My Name is My Name" scene is definitely the one I referenced.

I hear you guys on Marlo... he's definitely a cold sociopath. I just didn't buy his character until the last season (this may have been because the show didn't give his character as much focus as Avon/Sringer). I do recall, though, a scene in Season 3, where Marlo ambushes and shoots the girl who tried to sabotage him. The way Marlo was holding the gun... to me he looked like someone who hadn't held a gun before. That kind of made the impression on me. Anyway...

Here's one of my favorite scenes from Season 5, esp because we get one last Avon scene

Roller said...

Best scene of Season 3...

And 2nd best of Season 3... (Avon had a gunshot wound to the chest, which is why he went down so easily).

Thanks for passing these links on, Kev, had no idea they were out there. And thanks to you both for continuing the discussion. I miss this show...

Roller said...

Rye - the first comment is actually the only comment we've ever gotten from a complete stranger that wasn't spam. I have no idea how he found the blog...

Roller said...

The Brother Mouzone introduction

sorry one more... this one ends in an awesome Prop Joe scene with so many great quotes, including perhaps my favorite of the whole show:

"Fool, if it wasn't for Sergei here, you and your cuz both would be cadaverous muthafuckas."

Roller said...

Kev, always loved that Cutty/Mike scene too. Great line, without looking at the dude, "Young man, if I was talkin to you, you'd know I was".

kevin! said...

i also love when prop joe describes cheese. he usually says 'he's my nephew...on my sister's side'.

kevin! said...

so there was just this huge leak from the blagojevich people. someone took a camera into a meeting where the corruption was happening. this will take TLATL to a new level.


Blagojevich and shich

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Roller said...

Anonymous, just fill out this form in triplicate, sign over your soul to the blog, and you're in!

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