Help Me Appreciate ‘The Wire’

There isn’t a ton of English-language media floating around our village. However, some ex-pat friends of ours (she’s from Vancouver, if you can imagine) lent us season 2 of The Wire. I’d never seen an episode of the show, but a couple of people had recommended it to me, and it’s quite popular over at TVTorrents.

We watched episode one of season two, and I’ve got to admit that I was pretty lost. There seemed to be no affordances–to borrow a term from usability–for new viewers. And frankly, we were pretty bored. ‘The Wire’ is the talkiest cop show I’ve ever seen.

The show definitely seemed very gritty and realistic (I’ve never worked on the docks in Baltimore), and strongly influenced by the men-with-men tone and dialogue of David Mamet. Plus, the acting was strong. Still, it didn’t really float my boat. I guess I like my TV more in the middle-brow escapist mode of Weeds or The West Wing.

If you’re a fan of “The Wire”, why do you like it?


  1. I only watch Battlestar Galactica and Mythbusters, but that type of show seems to becoming the norm; every episode usually continues from the previous, confusing new viewers who aren’t familiar with the characters and plot. BG is like that.

    What modern show started that trend? 24? The Sopranos?

  2. Jody: Yep, season-long story arcs and big casts are the name of the game these days. I figured given that it was the start of a season that they might help out new viewers like me, but apparently not.

    I think the trend predates those shows. I probably first saw it on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, though were there hints of this serialization trend in “The X-Files”?

  3. I started watching with the first season and I can understand how difficult it is to start in the second. The first season was electrifying. It started slow and then, bang, I just couldn’t get enough. I Netflix-ed straight thru the next two seasons.

    I like the characters and the POV from all sides. Yes, I like the bad guys as well as the good ones (and the ones caught in the middle) but it’s the way they are alike that is appealing to me.

  4. Jody: Thinking about it further, neither “Buffy” or “The X-Files” are right. One way to look at the question is to ask “which shows often end with a cliffhanger?” I’m not sure which ones qualify.

  5. Ami: Thanks for that. To summarize the opinions on that page: “It’s great, but it takes patience.”

    I followed a link from that MetaFilter post to this interview excerpt. David Simon, the show’s creator, sounds like a massive egotist.

  6. That diatribe from Simon is hilarious. I’ve got 3 seasons of The Wire cued up and ready, but I’m saving them for later in the Winter when I’m sitting depressed in a Calgary hotel room. I know that it may take me some time to get into it.

  7. I agree with Aaron; you really do need to watch Season One first. Not just because it sets up all the characters, but because the storyline is more compelling. It’s a no-apologies, no-whitewashing look at crime on the streets of Baltimore. (Written by a former detective and former cop reporter, if I’m recalling that correctly.) What I like aobut the Wire is that it doesn’t dumb it down for you. There’s not a lot of signposting and the language isn’t explained. That said, I did watch it with subtitles because sometimes I had NO idea what people were saying. It took me a few episodes to get into it and now I’m totally hooked. And so are most people in my office.

  8. Well, the creators might be egotistical, but if you watch the show as intended, you’d be hard-pressed not to say they’ve earned it. It’s been compared in many places to a great novel, and just as with a novel, you can’t start in the middle.

    The Wire doesn’t really have episodes, or even seasons. The video just stops at certain points and waits for you to start it again, putting music and end credits in the gap. Which makes it utterly incomprehensible for new viewers, which is a major factor in its bad ratings, but allows for character development that other shows can’t touch.

    I’ve introduced the Wire to seven people now, and the average person took 4 episodes to get into it. It took me the first 5 episodes to care much. So you should start with the first episode and dedicate some hours to getting through a few. But once you do, if you’re like anyone I know, you will find yourself unable to do anything productive until you have finished them all.

  9. Okinopolytrans: Yeah, I read several mentions of the ‘it takes time to get into it’ theory in the aforementioned Metafilter thread. Four hours is a lot to ask, I think. If I wasn’t hooked by a novel in the first hour or two of reading, I generally put it down.

    Once I get back to Vancouver, I’ll give the first couple of episodes of season one a try. That said, I think it’s the burden of a show’s creator (any artist, really) to interest me promptly.

  10. I can’t say that I disagree with that assertion; under most circumstances, I discard any entertainment that fails to pique my interest. I’m known amongst my friends to be the most likely to put down a book 100 pages in, walk out of a movie, or sell a video game a day after buying it.

    The Wire, though, is obviously made ignoring the idea that it is the artist’s responsibility to make the viewer enjoy the show. As you watch, you gradually sense the indifference on the part of the creators to any of their viewers. Not disdain, but indifference. This is a story that they consider important, and the story they’re telling.

    9 times out of 10 (or much more), such an attitude is pretension, and is not merited. But occasionally an artist crafts something that does not ask to be noticed, but merits it anyway. That’s The Wire. You sense the indifference, but you begin to care, more so that you would for a show that panders for viewers (at least, I did).

    Another thing to consider, I’d say, is that a long story needs to be given a chance proportional to its content. When I sit down with a book, I can usually tell in an hour if it’s worth any more of my time. Two at the most. Then, for a 300 page novel, it’ll probably take me a couple of days to read it. Typically around 8 hours, say.

    The Wire, on the other hand, currently stands at over 50 filler-free hours, and will be over 60 when it concludes. If you apply the same percentages, you should give it around 7 hours to hook you.

    But I realize that such an investment is difficult, and that, heck, it might not be to your (or someone else’s) taste.

  11. It’s a good show. You should watch it. Advice to begin with S1 is good. My wife and I are addicted fans, and can’t wait to begin watching Season 5. It just keeps getting better. Nuff said.

    Oh yeah. Go, Omar!!

  12. Darren! Stop! If there’s *one* television show in the history of the medium that you *have* to start from the very beginning, it’s “The Wire”. A lot has been written about “The Wire” as a televisual novel, so all I’ll say here is that starting with the second season is like starting a quarter of the way through a Dickens novel. The story and character arcs don’t go across episodes, they go across entire *seasons*. Moreover at the beginning of Season Two, a lot of time has passed since Season One, and so it takes time to catch up even if you’ve *seen* Season One – argh, enough, just get hold of Season One and start enjoying perhaps the best written, best acted, most ambitious and most exhilarating and enthralling television show of all time, and one of the most serious minded pieces of popular culture ever produced.

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