Friday, September 24, 2010

Up on The Wire

Yesterday was a sad day. I went to the library, returning the final disc of the final season of the greatest television show ever made. There are no more episodes to watch. There was not another disc to borrow. It was over.

No more Bunk. No more Dukie or Michael. I wouldn't see Carcetti anymore, nor Greggs or Daniels. Won't hear from Marlo or Gus again. No more Jimmy McNulty. I had finished watching The Wire.

For those unaware, I have a 'thing' when it comes to watching television. I wait. I wait until something is known to be worth watching and then I'm on board. With Lost, I hadn't seen a single episode until the summer before the final season. At that point I banged out all five previous seasons in time for the (highly disappointing) sixth. No matter the ultimate outcome of how the show ended, waiting and watching five in a row was brilliant. I wasn't forced to wait a week between episodes. I didn't have to wonder for days and days what the hell just happened. For the show Heroes I did something similar. The same time the show was being canceled for sucking, I jumped into season one. That's all I watched, season one. I heard the show dropped off after that, so I stuck with what was good. It worked. I call this smart viewing. Some might consider this jumping on the bandwagon because I wait until 'the public' tell me something is good. Well, with The Wire, that certainly was not the case. There was no bandwagon. No one watched this show.

(I now will talk about this show as if it didn't end a couple years ago. This is the only downside to my viewing 'technique.' It is like Jim Gaffigan's joke about the movie Heat. He just saw Heat and wants to talk about it with someone, but no one has seen it in a decade. You get the idea. I'm going to anyway though.)

On one hand, this fact is surprising, yet on another, it makes sense. The surprise stems from this being the best tv show I have ever watched. It is widely believed to be the greatest tv drama of all time. Anyone who has seen it would not disagree. In fact, if you have not watched The Wire, stop reading this post right now, just close your browser and go rent season one. The very first episode is a bit long but after episode two I was hooked. That's all it takes.

The reasons behind the lack of popularity do make sense though. There are the racial elements which I don't care to venture into too far, but they are there. Most people cannot, perhaps, relate to the plot of the show, or many of the characters, let alone understand the language and lingo throughout. This clearly drives away some viewers. Gettin' a re-up on a burner, corner boys slingin'; not language used in every walk of life.

Another reason for the lack of ratings was probably HBO's fault. I am told it had a bad time slot and was put On Demand before the original airing. This seems like a bad idea. Also, tv ratings don't take On Demand viewing into account, nor does it count anyone watching the show on other platforms obviously. And of course me watching every episode in 2010 after the show ended in '08 doesn't help David Simon's rating either.

All those are valid reasons for the public 'failure' of The Wire. Here is the real reason though: it was too perfect. This isn't even a joke. The show had too few flaws. Every scene served a purpose. Every character filled a role. Nothing was wasted. In the end, there was nothing to complain about. And isn't that what drives talk? Sure, after certain episodes you can call a friend and say "Can you believe Stringer had D killed?!" But then the other person says something agreeing with your amazement and the conversation is over. There were plenty of surprising twists and turns but everything made sense. There were no arguments created. David Simon made a show too perfectly.

Think about the most popular network drama, Lost. Why was Lost so popular? Because after every single episode, there were a million confusing things. People had to talk with their friends just to try to figure out what was going on. There were dozens of arguments about what certain things meant and what one character was going to do. In the end, it was all hogwash, they were all dead, but the point is, the plot drove 'water cooler talk' more than any show I can remember. People knew about Lost because everyone talked about Lost. Whether what they were saying was positive or negative did not matter. It's the theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The Sopranos ended with a similar boost. Throughout the seasons, it was more popular than The Wire ever was. The reasons for that can be argued. But the series ending is what made The Sopranos lead every entertainment discussion. I have never seen an episode of the show, it's on the list, but I know how the show ends with the fade to black. Everyone knows. The reason everyone knows is because a lot of people hated the ending and talked about hating it. Let's get cliche crazy. I have already gone this far. No one writes good restaurant reviews. The only time someone fills out a review is if they had a bad time/experience. It's the same thing here. If the ending was good and tied everything up nice enough, I would not have heard about it. Well, guess what? The ending to The Wire was perfect. There was no ambiguity. That is why no one talked about it.

And a lack of confusion by no means implies the show was boring and straightforward. It was a fantastic show. Surprises came routinely whether it was DeAngelo getting murdered, String getting gunned down at the height of his power, Avon getting released from jail, Carcetti turning the mayoral race around, Prop Joe getting taken out, Snoop getting shot, and of course Omar's demise. Nothing seemed forced to get a rise out of the viewer. Nothing was out of place. It was all just too perfect.

Of course not every season was as good as the others. Many people felt season two was weak. I kind of liked it. It was off the streets a bit, away from the show's core, which is why some didn't like it as much. But again, it was necessary. It told of where the drugs supply came from and characters in season two were intricate to the plot of the final season. The final season, the fifth, was actually the one I felt to be weakest. That is not saying it was bad; it just wasn't as tremendous as the others. The whole newspaper plot was a little much for me. And I know I was probably supposed to hate Scott Templeton but I did hate him and it lessened my enjoyment of the plots he was involved in.

Of course the great parts outweighed any weaker moments, even in season five. The cyclical nature of the streets was portrayed excellently. Season five showed Michael becoming the next Avon or the next Omar depending on your point of view. Duquan was turning into the next Bubbles as Bubs was saving his own life. And rather than, after the first three seasons, flash back to the main characters at their younger days, The Wire simply shows children, the next group coming up, as a parallel to how people become who they are. How does Omar or Chris Partlow become like that? Well just look at Michael. Look at Randy and how little control he had over his own life. Look at Namond and how gaining a parental figure can so easily save a child.

The only real discussion that arises after watching The Wire is who the best character was. Everyone's immediate reaction is to say Omar. Heck, my reaction was Omar as well. Ruling the streets without his own muscle, being a nightmare more than a real person, striking fear into the dealers by simply arriving at their door. Some of my favorite scenes of the entire series are when Omar is coming down an alley whistling Farmer in the Dell. Omar Little was certainly the most interesting character. And yet, I'm not sure he was the best, or just stuck in my mind because his scenes were the most dramatic.

Since he was killed in season three, it was easy to forget, but Stringer Bell was a fantastic character. Dying before the legendary fourth season makes it tough to count String as the show's best character, but through the first three he certainly was. He was a street thug and a business man. He ordered people to be killed and bought real estate. He was the coolest customer, Avon's business sense, and then realized he could run things on his own, better than his partner. He created the co-op which was later taken over by Prop Joe, and then Marlo. Stringer was the center of it all until his murder.

Perhaps it is best to say The Wire is so strong because it relies on no one. After all, Jimmy McNulty was clearly the main character in seasons one and two. Then for about two seasons, he became irrelevant. He was a cameo character at best. The show didn't need him. Season five saw Jimmy get back into the limelight, and the series ends with him, but at no point in seasons three or four did you miss him. The main character was not integral.

In the end, who really knows why the greatest television series of all time did not show it in the ratings? Maybe more people are like me than I think and thousands of viewers are watching online or on the DVDs right now. Or maybe it just missed that important factor that all popular television needs: the ability to criticize it. Well if that is the case, as Clay Davis would say, "Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeit." Then you people don't even deserve to enjoy The Wire. As for me, I am going to miss it.

(Image taken from from HBO)

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