Sunday, January 6, 2008
Print the Legend: A Half-Assed Look at The Wire
A show like The Wire seems like it should be right up my alley. It's gotten reviews that range from loving hyperbole ("[The Wire] will knock the breath out of you," says the New York Times) to hysteric hyperbole ("The best TV show ever broadcast in America," says Slate.) It's "gritty" and "character based," the type of show I'm naturally drawn to. And most of all, it's just off-the-grid enough so that it's "cool" to like. The Wire is one of those shows that make you feel like you're part of an exclusive club of awesomeness when you're watching it. And if you aren't watching it, well, then obviously you aren't that cool (see: Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, Mad Men for other examples of this phenomenon.) But all of that being said, I still don't watch it.
Count me in the ranks of uncool. Honestly, The Wire just never seemed interesting to me--it looked like a second rate Law and Order episode, but with swearing. However, when my good friend Tony (the man who turned me onto the joys of Ricky Gervais' Office) emailed me to start watching The Wire with the following plea, I figured I should at the very least, check this show out: You have to watch The Wire. Have isn't even the right word. More like need: need to breathe, need to eat, need to watch The Wire. It's masterful. And not like The British Office masterful. It is 57 minutes of foot on your throat goodness.
And so here I am. The final season of The Wire is about to premiere and I'm four seasons and some fifty episodes behind. What to do? The solution is simple. Cram in all the information you can about the first four seasons and sit down to watch the fifth. I hate doing television shows like this, but at the same time, I don't see any other way to accomplish watching The Wire. Even I don't have 50 hours lying around to catch up--though I did just spend about 23 hours re-watching the third season of LOST, and it was *still* awesome. And if this show is as good as advertised, I'm sure I'll have no problem fitting it into my schedule.
The first step of this information cram session was for me to visit the very descriptive Wikipedia page that is devoted to The Wire. A good start, sure, but it's not enough. Well, fear not! Thankfully, HBO has The Wire: Odyssey available On Demand. It's a thirty minute retrospective about the previous four seasons. Perfect. Tell you what, I'm going to watch this right now. Grab a snack and I'll see you in thirty minutes.
(Thirty minutes later)
Um, that's it? No, no, seriously, that's it! Based on the thirty minute clip-and-talking head retrospective on The Wire that I just watched, this show, well, sucks. Yes, I am aware that's a giant generalization based on seeing zero episodes and it makes me sound like a completely clueless philistine. And I know what you're thinking: maybe The Wire: Odyssey is just a poorly produced piece. You're right. It could be. Watching a thirty-minute breakdown of four seasons and then making an opinion about The Wire is almost unacceptable (would anything as supposedly dense as The Wire look good in thirty minutes?) but I have to start somewhere. And right now, I'm starting with this question: what's the big deal here?
From what I can tell, The Wire plays like an east coast version of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic combined with a dash of Homocide: Life on the Streets, Law & Order, and countless other generic cop shows. The writing seems treachy and predictable (think Jack Black at 1:25 of the Be Kind Rewind trailer: "What's happening to our hood!") And the acting and the actors are borderline terrible. There are only two performers on the entire show that seem to have anything worthwhile to give an audience. Dominic West, playing tormented cop McNaulty with a big and expansive face filled with macho anguish, needs to be a bigger star immediately. And Michael K. Williams, as the gay thief and murderer Omar, is perfectly menacing and terrifying. You know these two performances are good if I'm saying that after watching what amounts to a thirty-minute "making-of" special.
But everyone else? Between the rejects from Spike Lee movies (the untalented Wendell Pierce, the utterly hateful Isiah Whitlock), the no-name character actors that all seem to have appeared on episodes of Third Watch, and the dude who played "Dom" on those bad episodes of Entourage from two years ago, the caliber of actor goes from bad to worse to downright confusing. I don't need to see full episodes to know that Wendell Pierce is a terrible actor. And he's one of the LEADS?! This just cannot be good.
I think it's safe for me to say that so far I'm underwhelmed. We'll see how I feel after watching the Season Five premiere.
See you in an hour. Again, grab a snack.
(One hour later)
I wish I could sit here and tell you that my thoughts about The Wire were completely wrong. That every preconceived notion that I came into the show with was utterly trashed in the face of what's the greatest American television drama in the history of television. I wish I could tell you that. But I can't. This is truly a case of the Emperor having no clothes. It's not that The Wire is bad, it's just not that good. At its worst, it felt like I was watching a rote episode of a generic cop show, while at its best, it reminded me of a very average episode of The Sopranos albeit with worse acting, dialogue and observations about America.
And oh, the dialogue. Preachy doesn't even begin to cover it. At least three times I actually groaned at the obvious lines being spoken. The Wire favors big speeches about right and wrong over introspective and ambiguous moments. And with the exception of West (again, this guy should be a big star), Clark Johnson as the City Desk editor at the Baltimore Sun (who knew the guy who directed S.W.A.T. would be such a compelling actor?) and Andre Royo as Bubbles (workman like in his portrayal of a former junkie trying to hold on), the acting was pretty terrible. Most of the time I felt like the only direction given to the cast was "hard," as in, "look as hard as you possibly can." Also, if you're a cast member on The Wire I'm sure you are encouraged to yell a lot. Broad doesn't begin to describe most of the performances here.
If you're a fan of The Wire, I know you are about to put your fist through a wall. And I apologize, but the show just didn't do it for me. I totally understand if you think less of me for not liking this show, much like I would think less of a person who thought the British Office was anything less than perfect. But again, I'm left with the thought: what's the big deal here?
As the title card to start the episode said: the bigger the lie, the more they believe. The big lie about The Wire is that it's this Dickensian critique of American culture in the 21st century. But the truth is, it's a procedural done through the prism of HBO. It's allowed to have more characters, more violence, more cursing and a slower pace, but basically, it's a dolled up episode of Law and Order, sans any dry wit. Where's Sam Waterson when you need him?