Monday, 24 May 2010

Boxset Binges #1 - The Wire (Season 1)

So come 5am Monday morning, most of the UK will be getting up early, to watch the final episode of “Lost” which is due to be telesynched with our US cousins, as we finally find out the truth after six seasons of twisting plots and misdirection. Well that is everyone bar myself who has only just gotten onto season 4, mainly as a result of “Sky” buying the rights from the terrestrial “channel 4” so I kind of fell behind and got caught up with other shows in its absence. Still in these current times, were good drama is so prominent, which it’s safe to say is nothing to do with the output we have from the studios over here in rainy England, but rather from the American powerhouses such as HBO, who have in recent years turned series into almost mini movies. So drenched is the market with quality series, it has now pretty much reached the point, that you have to decide by the end of the first episode whether your gonna actually commit to the series and try and squeeze it somehow into your no doubt already packed show watching schedule.
I guess it is no surprise because of this that the popularity of the boxset has increased so much, which in many ways is often the best way of watching a series, in one big ole boxset binge, which its safe to say is also probably the best to watch “The Wire” especially, when faced with such a huge cast of characters to memorise, let alone the scope of the series, which covers more ground with its first season, than most series will do in three.

Set in Baltimore, Maryland this vision of the city is a far cry from the happy and slightly warped world, which so many John Waters movies, have lead us to believe it is. Created by former police reporter David Simon, who also created “Homicide: Life on the Streets”, aswell as the mini series “The corner” both of which were based on his books and served as a suitable inspiration for the show, with each of the five seasons taking a different aspect of the city to put under the microscope, with this first season looking at the low rise projects known as “The Pit” were D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.) has just been demoted from his position in the high rises to the pit, by his crime boss uncle Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), after shooting a dealer in front of a civilian during a confrontation, a murder he is acquitted of after a key witness changes their story, bringing him to the attention of detective Jimmy McNaulty (Dominic West), who is recognised as a good detective, while at the same time constantly seen as a pain in the ass by his superiors, due to his constant highlighting of the department failings, especially when it comes to investigating Barksdale’s criminal activities during his conversations with Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety), who inturn embarrasses McNaultys superiors into creating a detail to investigate these activities, with a focus on the dealings happening at “The Pit”, using a mixture of surveillance as well as the wiretaps which the series takes its name from.

One of the most common problems I have found that people, including myself have with this series is the sheer amount of characters and depth of the story, which can leave you kind of confused as to what is actually happening, especially for the first few episodes, which is were most people tend to faze out and it’s not something that’s helped by the shows refusal to constantly repeat itself, like so many other crime shows, which tend to highlight the important information, by having characters frequently talking about the same things, or through heavy use of flashbacks and voice over, all of which are noticeable absent here, as subjects are usually only repeated when new information is found which links to it, forcing you to listen closely to conversations, which is another reason why the boxset is really the best way to watch the show, allowing for you to go back and relook at some conversation or scene, you might have missed out on, during the first viewing.
At the same time you can’t help but admire the scope which Simon has incorporated into the series, refusing it seems to focus on just one side of the story, as the action not only switches between the police, but Barksdale’s crew aswell with the main focus of their side of the first season, being his nephew D’Angelo and his attempts to work his way out of “The Pit”, while being forced to deal with the bumbling nature of the crew he is forced to work with. Still not content it would seem with these two aspects of the story, Simon expands the scope further to include informants such as the junkie Bubbles (Andre Royo), whose battle to get clean is also a key focus of the first season, aswell as the loose cannon Omar (Michael K. Williams), a sawn off shotgun carrying, gay stick up man with an axe to grind against anyone involved with Barksdale, after a revenge hit is carried out on his lover, in retaliation to Omar robbing one of Barksdales stash houses. These two characters in particular prove to be key characters in this first season, while also helping to fill in the gaps in this world, which Simon has created and helping to provide a fuller picture, rather than keeping the focus purely on one area or the other, even if it does at times make it hard to see how everything links up, but these supporting characters aren’t filler as Simon cleverly manages to link everyone together, as you soon realise that every character is part of the same bigger picture and a reminder that not everything is as black and white as it seems.

Despite not being big on physical action, despite the occasional burst of violence which appears mainly towards the end of this series, it still manages to remain highly griping as the crews on both sides of the law, battle for their survival, with McNaulty and his fellow officers working the wire, having to constantly work against the superiors who are keen to shut the operation down and Barksdale’s crew constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the law, with smart dialogue used to drive the action forward, with the show being packed with numerous memorable and subtle scenes, which help the show to stand out from the numerous others, which prefer to rely more on the action, while with “The Wire” we get great scenes such as D’ Angelo using a chess game, to emphasis his work ethic and views on this world he is part of, a scene of such subtly and metaphorical for their situation, it is doubtful that other crime shows would be bold enough to even attempt it.

From the outset thirteen episodes might seem like a brief run for a season, but it certainly doesn’t feel like your getting short changed in any way, especially with the story being so rich and in depth, it almost feels as if it was any longer, it would run the risk of being bloated, rather than helping make anything easier to follow, though it is clear by the end of the final episode that the series still has plenty of options, for were to go next, even though had the show not got passed this first season, it would have still felt complete and not as if things have suddenly been brought to a grinding halt, like so many series cut brutally short.

Despite the smart writing and fantastic characters, the series has ended up becoming kind of an underground hit, as despite constant praise from the critics, the networks and lousy scheduling have prevented it in many ways from being a bigger show than it was and it’s really through word of mouth that this show has gained the majority of it popularity, despite having now long since finished, its still talked about like a new show, so personally I’d recommend on this occasion you believe the hype as this is one show thoroughly worth making some time on the viewing schedule for.


  1. Great post about what in my opinion, is simply the best television show in history. I got super lucky and grabbed the complete series on DVD for only $89 last year during a one-day Amazon sale and have already surfed through it for a second time. Most importantly, I'm proud to have convinced a few friends to also give it a chance which I consider something of a duty.

    You make a great point about the difficulty in latching onto that first season. One really has to make an effort to watch the first four episodes or so in a row, and it's not really until the end of Season 1 (and one of the most effective murder scenes ever) where you realize ou're watching something truly great.

  2. I'm not sure yet if it's the greatest show in history yet, but it is definatly a show worth checking out.
    I'm already six episodes into the second series, which piles on even more new characters to learn, but is already proving a refreshing change, by moving the story from the pit, to the docks than just stomping over the same ground again. I'm already looking forward to seeing the direction that the second series takes things.

    I think one of my favourite moments from the end of the first season, other than that powerful murder, is the final shot of Omar, who is fast becoming one of my favourite characters on the show, which could be alot down to how threatening he is without even trying.


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