Wednesday, January 4, 2012

GOT TO. THIS IS AMERICA, MAN:  Even if I had never read a word about The Wire before watching its pilot episode, "The Target," I'd probably recognize (I hope) that this is not a world in which it's likely that McNulty is going to decimate the Avon Barksdale drug ring, become a hero, and live happily ever after. (Maybe I'm wrong: don't spoil!)

Compared to Homicide: Life on the Street, with much of the same crew in front of and behind the camera, everything and everyone feels more worn down, stuck. No showy camera moves (save the flashback) no chase scenes and dramatic interrogations in The Box; what we see in "The Target" instead is a lot of meetings and hierarchies of power. On Homicide, Giardello was clearly in charge and powerful from day one; I don't see anyone that commanding on the police side in this Baltimore, thus far.

This is a Baltimore in which no one's bothering to look at the strippers anymore; life just keeps going on, with little incentive to get too excited. The guy who steals money from the craps game every week keeps playing, because petty theft is tolerated as long as there's a decent ass-whuppin' to be had, just like not-cleared murders aren't something to raise a fuss about even when a Judge asks you about them, just like it's okay to shoot a mouse when you have to get rid of a mouse, just like how the police still don't have computers instead of typewriters.  And if someone thinks Alexander Hamilton was a President, it's not worth fighting him too hard on it. Givin' a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck is not tolerated in Baltimore.

A pointer from Alan Sepinwall, from his essential "Wire for newbies" recap:
[F]or the most part, "The Wire" took a very different approach to narrative from any series in American history, so much so that it essentially had to teach you how to watch it. The cast is huge -- and the season one cast is tiny in comparison to later seasons, which would bring in new characters from the Baltimore docks, City Hall, schools, newspapers, homeless community, etc. -- and almost everyone you meet will play a key role in the unfolding storylines.


  1. Semi-relatedly, TWC NYC has now indicated that HBO GO will be launching on the 10th, so I'll have to catch up then.

  2. Dillard9:38 AM

    It would seem that everything we need to know about this particular Baltimore is set up bluntly in this episode.  This is a world where drug dealer/murder suspects have their henchmen openly intimidate witnesses in open court.  It's a world where dectectives semi-involved in the case are none too surprised when the trial goes to hell in a handbasket.  It's also a world where the same detective is made out to be the biggest dick around when he makes the mistake of raising these obvious points to the judge.  The shitstorm that follows within the Homicide and Narcotics division of the Baltimore PD paint the clear picture of who is more organized in this battle - and it's definitely the Barksdale side of things.  Barksdale is cooly in control and organized in terms of how things should and will run in the wake of the trial and the related events.  The police department is in a state of meltdown and it's on McNulty to clean up the mess. 

    Great first episode setting the stage for the culture and what's to come. 

  3. isaac_spaceman11:05 AM

    Note:  the Snot Boogie scene comes directly from the book Homicide, and was a true story. 

  4. Andrew11:06 AM

    Compared to most cop shows, The Wire stands out as drastically different because it presents a much more nuanced version of the police hierarchy. McNulty stands out because he cares about police work, he cares about getting the Barksdale crew and he's thwarted not by corrupt supervisors but by insitutional inertia. At any one time, a homicide detective may care more about building his deck than whether any indiivudal mope gets convicted for murder. McNulty is a PITA to the department not because he's fighting corruption but because he's simply fighting inertia (aka giving a fuck, when it ain't your turn to give a fuck.)

  5. Great post, Adam - you really captured the world of that first episode.  What I was so taken aback by is how this is a world full of people just trying to do their jobs - and not necessarily do them well - punch out, and go home.  No one wants to be a hero here, and they certainly don't want more work.  It feels different than any other cop/crime show I've ever seen, right out of the gate.

    I do have trouble keeping all the characters straight, and I'm hoping that future episodes (I'm three episodes into season 1 now, but plan to mainly keep pace with these posts) will help clear it up.  My husband and I took the advice of posters here who suggested watching with captioning, and that helped - for one thing, it proved that I was right in which character was Stringer Bell and which was Avon Barksdale.

  6. The first episode immediately caught both my fiance and me.  Really complex stuff---we spent a certain amount of time asking each other if we knew who a particular character was, or if that character was new.

    It's also fascinating in the cops are portrayed as deeply problematic, and not merely as the good guys fighting the bad guys.  I enjoy some comfort-food-type cop shows, but most of them (The Closer being an exception) don't really acknowledge the possibility that the cops are submerged in gray.

    As a final thought:  Everyone on the narcotics side of things seemed to be affronted by the claims that McNulty was making about Barksdale, but do they not understand that, if he's right, and Barksdale essentially owns the projects as his own personal drug market, then their failure to know anything about the operation is pretty damning?

  7. Reading just the first few comments here, I want to urge Adam, at the end of Season one, to do a post collecting links to each week's entry, so folks can easily go back and see what they were saying at the start.  (That's not a spoiler.)

  8. I really really liked the first episode and I think going into it I was perhaps overly cautioned that it would be complicated and hard to keep track of the charcters and some of the dialogue, etc. so I went in paying more attention than I might normally and thus didn't have as much trouble as I thought. I also quite easily could have watched the next 5 or 6 episodes because I found this pilot so compelling -- the world which Adam talks about is shown so well -- it's a great episode of showing not telling. Superb acting and I think I was perhaps most intrigued by Sonja Sohns performance, which was a little more subtle than some of the others (though all were terrific.)

    I'm really looking forward to continuing to watch the show with other Thing Throwers. Glad this is happening.

  9. Cecilia1:18 PM

    I agree that Sonja Sohns is terrific. I could always tell what her character was thinking -- but in a way that just added to the mood of the scene (as opposed to screaming "this is how I feel!!!").

  10. Marsha1:18 PM

    Note: for those who suggested watching with captions, HBO GO does not offer closed captioning. (Which means I'll be trying to get my hands the DVDs. Also, I'd like something where it's easier to rewind and rewatch.)

  11. isaac_spaceman1:18 PM

    Another note:  the actors who play McNulty, Stringer, and Lester Freamon are British.  McNulty's accent comes and goes, and certainly isn't native to Baltimore, but you'd never know it with the other two. 

  12. Marsha1:33 PM

    I agree that this was a really compelling pilot. I had taken Alan's advice about watchign the first few in a batch to mean that the pilot itself wasn't enough to hook you, but I'm guessing now (having not taken the advice) that it's because the pilot is rather confusing.

    I often have difficulty putting myself in the mindset of a time when a show started airing or a movie came out - for example, I watched My So-called Life and couldn't manqage to stop myself from thinking how derivative it felt of Freaks & Geeks, when (of course) MSCL beat F&G to air by several years. And it's hard for me to be impressed by groundbreaking films like Citizen Kane and Bringing Up Baby when I've already seen all the things they influenced and thus they feel hackneyed to me. It's a failing I have as a viewer and a critic. This is all a preface to the fact that I suspect that The Wire's pilot felt completely brand new when it came out - dropping you in the middle of this world with no explanations; many, many characters, who are hard to keep track of; new language/slang/patois (as Isaac notes in the other post); the darkness of it all. It still feels exciting and interesting to me, but doesn't feel as brand new as it probably should. I doubt that will harm my enjoyment in any way.

    That said, I worry that I will end up feeling about The Wire the way I do about The Sopranos - more impressed by it than adoring of it. I never really connected with The Sopranos, whether because of the violence, or because everyone was so unlikeable, or because I found it hard to keep everything straight. I hope I find more to connect with here, because while I'm certainly intrigued by the plot and everything I saw in the pilot (particularly D'Angelo's developing discomfort) I still dont' know if I'll LOVE it or just admire it.

    Also - everyone in this show looks familiar. I know there's a Wire Full Employment Act in TV these days, so I know where I've seen some of these people, but I've lost track ofsome of the character names, so it's hard to look people up. Is that Avon who has the talking-to with D'Angelo in the bar?

    Finally, how is it that the actor playing D'Angelo is my age? I know this is almost ten years ago, but he doesn't look much older than 20.

    Hell of a start.

  13. Becca1:49 PM

    Like Maret, I went into this episode expecting to be completely lost, and paying close attention for twists and turns, and was pleasantly surprised that I wasn't a mess by the end. I'm guessing y'all said to watch the first 4-5 eps in a row, as we're still getting exposition, and being brought up to speed on what the characters know and don't know. The first ep is compelling, but mostly because of the acting, which is very subtle, but strong. I agree that the fact that narcotics doesn't know about Barksdale is damning, and I expect we'll see WHY they don't know in the coming eps. I think the most telling moment of the ep for me was the narcotics team at their desks. Between their juvenile conversations, and the fact that not only do they not have computers, but they'd have no idea what to do with them if they had them, we're shown who they are quite clearly. CSI tells us the police have lots of technology at their disposal, but that's TV, and this is closer to real life, I'd guess. How much old fashioned police work are they being trained to do?

    Oh, that and the FBI being pulled out of everything but anti-terrorism. That was an interesting tidbit to show us.

  14. Saray2:07 PM

    Echoing what Andrew said, the idea of institutional inertia really pulled me in - that McNulty gets reamed out for mentioning a red flag highlights just how reactive (and not proactive) government agencies can get.

    I expected to be more confused than I was.  Pleasantly surprised.  But I did watch without CC (waiting for an ill-timed Netflix DVD meant that I caved and purcahsed the episode off of iTunes) and am very much looking forward to getting the DVDs so that I can watch with CC.

    Also, I'm gonna be doing a looooooooooot of Urban Dictionarying this year.  I just hope UD can take me 10 years back into urban vernacular.

  15. <p><span><span>I suspect this will be a little bit controversial, in that some will disagree with me, but my take is that The Wire is much easier to love than The Sopranos, and that it comes down to the different visions of the creators.<span>  </span>While both are bleak and "dark" in their respective ways, their darkness differs:  The Wire is fundamentally humanistic; its premise is that institutions fail over and over, but that individual acts of kindness and generosity and bravery can effect real (even if sometimes fleeting) good.  The Sopranos, at least in my view, takes a very different view -- namely, that people can't change, at least for the better, and that efforts to change for the better either fail (at best) or are affirmatively punished (at worst).  This approach led me to stop liking The Sopranos in later seasons, even as I continued to watch and (to use your word) admire it.  I won't spoil anything by giving specific examples, but The Wire is in a sense more optimistic in that regard, and for me, at least, that made it more likeable/lovable.</span></span></p>

  16. Dan Suitor3:00 PM

    The thing I'm immediately struck by is the ease with which David Simon & Co. slide you into the world of The Wire. The oft-trumpeted refrain of "There are so many characters, it's overwhelming to start out" didn't hold entirely true for me (more on that later), and the show has a remarkably low visual barrier-to-entry. I liken it to Star Wars, of all things, in that the show feels weathered and lived-in, as if people have been living and dying there long before the narrative began, and will continue to do so long after it concludes. It probably has a lot to do with shooting on location in actual inner-city Baltimore, as well as the naturalistic performances from the cast, but the pilot absolutely puts you in this specific time and place. And frankly, given that early-2000's inner-city Baltimore is as foreign to most of us as Tatooine or Dagobah, that's a hell of an achievement.

    As for the large/minimally introduced ensemble, I didn't have as large a problem with that as I thought I would. One of the primary excuses I kept finding to procrastinate The Wire was the sheer complexity of the show, and the corresponding level of effort it would require. Apparently, nagging self-doubt in my own ability to digest The Wire lead me to train myself like an Olympic-level TV watcher under the tutelage of a nerdy Béla Károlyi. After watching shows with similarly expansive casts like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Parenthood (possibly the most extreme diametric opposite of The Wire), it was like I'd been training my whole life for this day. I'd also be lying if I wasn't just a little bit worried about the cross-race effect coming into effect, but I did just fine so I'm (seemingly) not racist.

    The only issue I had with regard to the large number of characters being thrown at me was picking up names. I got McNulty and Bunk just fine, along with Avon and DeAngelo Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Kima, and Wallace, but the rest of the characters I mostly had to remember by rank (Lieutenant, Sergeant) or role (smarter strung-out junkie, dumber strung out junkie, those other two drug mule kids who didn't play for the East Dillon Lions). In keeping with the realistic dialogue, the didn't continually throw character names out there, so if I missed it the first time around I didn't get too many chances to pick it up. I wound up mentally terming characters by other roles the actor played (Lance Reddick was still Broyles to me until I very carefully scoped out Wikipedia while writing this).

    So, you know, I'm really excited for this. I'll probably wind up a few weeks ahead of this project, because Andrew, Amy, and I want to discuss The Wire on the RaffCast (or whatever Andrew winds up calling it), but I want to try my hardest to keep my quicker schedule from coloring my week-to-week observations. I'm really excited to experience The Wire with this ragtag band of cultural miscreants; thanks for the prod in the right direction.

  17. Dan Suitor3:02 PM

    Simon has said in interviews that he made up a good portion of the street slang used in The Wire, as he didn't want the show to get left behind. By using slang that sounds as if it could be real, he made the show a little more timeless.

  18. Dan Suitor3:04 PM

    Of course, DeAngelo's turtleneck immediately betrays that. Wow, is that one dated look.

  19. Scott3:09 PM

    Neither does the version I downloaded from iTunes :-(

  20. janet3:36 PM

    I was amazed at how much I connected with so many of the characters on both sides of the law throughout the seasons. I found myself being more sympathetic to and/or moved by the darker outcomes than I expected -- which is to say that the creators succeeded in conveying to me the humanity of each of the characters.

    Whew -- it's also harder to think un-spoilery than I expected.

  21. Saray3:41 PM

    Well, crap.  I went to prep school, I'm not equipped to interpret slang that's not even real slang!

  22. Watts3:47 PM

    Because of a comma in the closed captioning, I misread/thought that Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell were the same person. It didn't take long for me to realize my mistake, but I had a moment of, "Yeah, if my name were Avon, I'd pick up a nickname like Stringer pretty quick, too."

    Stray, brief thoughts:
    - I didn't even recognize wee Michael B. Jordan.

    - It's weirding me out to hear Dominic West and Idris Elba speak with American accents; I'm most familiar with West from "The Hour" and Elba from "Luther" and "Thor".
    - F-bombs don't phase me nearly as much as the n-word.

    - For a show on HBO, this has CBS-demo-cop-show levels of nudity. I'm not saying I *miss* the nudity, but, much like it does on network shows, it's throwing me that these "strippers" are so covered up.

    - Peter Gerety as a judge was a delightful surprise - how many series has he put the robes on for now?

    - I really, really liked when McNulty mentioned The Bridge on the River Kwai and when his partner didn't know it, he didn't explain it.  I'm hoping that's an example of a series-long tendency to not have Teaching Moments from characters.

    - The only association I have with the name Santangelo is this, so I'm giggling every time I hear it.

  23. Marsha3:48 PM

    THank you both - that's good to hear.

  24. Marsha3:48 PM

    And yet I saw a guy at U of C hospital today dressed EXACTLY like that. Interpret as you will.

  25. Marsha3:51 PM

    I did wonder if I'd have had a harder time keeping the actors/characters straight in 2002 before I'd seen FNL, The Office, Fringe, or any of the other things I've seen these actors in. I did have to look up where I'd seen Avon before - it's Julius! Left side! Strong side!

  26. Not sure how to take your first comment, Amy, because Stringer's actual first name is Russell...

  27. Craig5:01 PM

    A little late to the party today, but most of my initial thoughts are pretty well covered. Like others, I went in expecting to be confused by the number of characters and/or the language and didn't run into problems. Might've been that I was watching it alone, with headphones, on an iPad, so it was a little more "intensive." Don't know for sure.

    One thing I did like is that the show doesn't go out of its way to want you to like the characters. Associate to them, perhaps, but not necessarily like them. And, perhaps, even give a slight edge to liking the bad guys more than the cops, who, for the most part, come off as ignorant, childish, and corrupt.

    Interested to see where this is headed.

  28. Maret5:28 PM

    I may end up some episodes ahead with you because I have, well, very little will power (I've already watched episode 2.)

  29. Amy Watts5:29 PM

    Fine, I'll start calling you Mary Kay.

  30. Anonymous6:22 PM

    Wire Old-Timers:  Is it me, or are all the newbies subtly telling us we're stupid?  :)

  31. Grr.  Me.  And maybe not "subtly" at all!

  32. Paul Tabachneck6:38 PM

    I love that so much.

  33. Deanna6:44 PM

    I also expected to get lost in the number of characters but because I recognized so many of the actors I didn't. (I only recently discovered Idris Elba, for example, and was elated when I saw that he was in this.)

    I tend to view the world through my educator lens so watched the episode from that perspective. I looked at the kids in this episode and thought about their education, whether formal or informal, especially the scenes where Wallace teaches about Hamilton and later fumbles making change. I couldn't help but think that these scenes are a great example of contextualized learning and that kids learn what they need to know. 

    Bunk's mouse story made me chuckle. I work with someone who drew down on a bat in his house a couple of years ago. At least he didn't fire and make a huge mess.

  34. They are benefitting from our experience and largesse in sharing tips on how to approach the show, that's all.  (At least that's what I'm telling myself.)

    I was going to just read along, but now I pretty much have to watch along.  This is too much fun.

  35. kingkaufman8:11 PM

    The guy who played Freamon isn't British, he's American, but he's lived in London for a long time. In interviews, he sounds American, but with an occasional crumb or two of an English accent. Not nearly as English-sounding as, say, Madonna.

  36. Anonymous10:12 PM

    You are a model of will power compared to me.  We finished episode 3 last night and are preparing to jump into episode 4.  (We are weak, what can I say?)

  37. I really enjoyed the first episode.  Very, very well-written.  No issues with following or slang or any of that.

    A lot of issues in this show overlap with what I do at work.  I deal with government agencies, police, judges and kids all day - so I was dreading the overlap.  So far, not too bad.

    I was expecting more violence.  I anticipate it will get worse, though.