I’ve been trying to put into words for some time why The Wire is so incredibly good, and I guess the biggest reason is that it doesn’t feel like a TV program at all. It is the most realistic TV program, for my money, ever filmed. Here are some of the ways:
-It’s the complete opposite of Terminator 2 or The Matrix. It looks like the product came out of any garden-variety video camera (an insanely high quality one, but not doctored at all).
-It is devoid of TV trickery. There are no flashbacks, no dramatic reveals from peoples’ pasts, no kitschy guest-stars, no CGI, few cold opens and little camera skullduggery. There’s not even any music on the show, for Pete’s sake; what little music you hear is completely digetic, meaning that the characters interact with it (like it was coming out of a boombox). The city is real, the characters refer to real-life political events, and it was filmed on location in Baltimore.
-The next, really big, reason is that the actors do not feel like actors. They feel like real people. Part of that is the writers having an amazingly, unbelievably good feel for what they can do with each character. I can’t think of a single time where a person has done something that wasn’t believable for their character to do. Certainly the characters have grown and changed and evolved over time, but it’s always natural, organic growth. You never have a just out-of-left-field change because the writers needed something to work a little better, and they rarely feel stagnant in their roles either. Even characters who would be “stock” characters on other shows—the angry, obstructive boss, the disgruntled cop who knows what’s best but can’t pitch it to the boss, the gangland drug dealers—are anything but stock on this show. Everybody is amazing.
That willingness to create characters and then work within those characters’ roles—both on the part of the writers and the actors—makes for just a stunning storytelling experience. When I got started on the Wire and was just getting into Season 1, I read somewhere that 1 was kind of a mediocre season, and that you just kinda had to push through it and keep going into 2 and 3 to get the full Wire experience. That didn’t mean that Season 1 was bad; it meant that any season of The Wire, standing on its own, didn’t mean nearly as much as it did as a part of the whole. Each season builds on itself and the seasons that came before it in the most incredibly organic, continuity-focused way I’ve ever seen. It’s brilliant. By season 4, which I’m finishing up now, the body of work that underlies the show just informs what you’re seeing on the screen in so many different ways. (And don’t think that they’re just recycling old characters and having them interact with each other in new ways, either; each new season has added another cast and taken on a completely different environment. Season 1 was the projects, 2 the waterfront, 3 Baltimore politics, 4 the school system, and 5 will be the newsroom. Each one came with its own new cast.)
-Part of the show’s genius is allowing new relationships and old to just sort of grow towards each other. Picture a grassy field, freshly mowed. Each blade is a character with his or her own dreams, aspirations and life experiences. As the season progresses and the blades grow, they touch and interact with other blades, inspiring different scenes and experiences as the characters bounce off each other, cooperate with each other and wreck each other’s plans. By the end of the season, it’s a twisted, tangled jungle of brilliant, continuous storytelling. It can be hard to follow at times—the Wire is definitely a show that it takes effort and time to understand, and heaven help you if you drop it for a while and then pick it up again later on—but it’s worth every minute of what did he mean by that?