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The Wire vs. The Sopranos


I've been meaning to write about HBO's The Wire since the final episode aired nine days ago and now it seems the show's creator David Simon has beaten me to the punch. My bad.

Even so, while Simon's defense of the show's final season is dead-on, and carries unfortunate echoes for critics -- the big picture that newspaper critics missed was that the newspaper in The Wire kept missing the big picture -- Simon's Baltimore Sun is still not as interesting as his Baltimore Police Department, as his Baltimore docks, as his Baltimore political and education systems, because the best in all of those institutions were monumentally flawed while the worst still came through at surprising times. This doesn't happen with his Sun. The good editor there is always right and the bad reporter is always wrong and the higher-ups always make the wrong play. Not enough gray area in Baltimore's gray lady. It doesn't surprise me that Simon used to work at the real Baltimore Sun and that these characters were based upon real people. In journalistic terms, Simon was perhaps a bit too close to the story.

Anyway that's not what I wanted to write about. I just wanted to urge people to watch the show. I admit I'm a late-comer. I only started watching it in January, and bulldozed through season after season on DVD, always amazed at how great it was.

Since it's HBO, people ask me how it compares with The Sopranos and I answer it's a different universe. But comparisons can be revealing. I love both shows but The Sopranos centered around one person, Tony, who was like the show's black hole. Everything got pulled into him and either came out damaged or disappeared completely. The Sopranos, a corrupt universe, inevitably collapsed in on itself. One of the big arguments against a Sopranos movie is the sad question: Who's left?

The Wire? It started out with these cops vs. these drug dealers and kept expanding: now the BPD, now East Baltimore gangs; now the docks and the old Greek mafia; now the political system and the education system and the media. By the end they'd created an entire city.

But it's more than that. I'm beginning to wonder if the five seasons of The Wire aren't the most relevant thing going in any media -- TV, news, books, movies, documentaries -- because it explains our world and it explains why our world is effed up. Boil it down to three words: the numbers game. Hell, boil it down to one word: appearances. More important than doing the job is the appearance of a job well done. For the BPD it's arrests, (no matter who's getting arrested and who isn't) and for schools it's test scores, (no matter who's getting educated and who isn't) and for the media it's Pulitzer prizes (no matter which stories get told and which don't).

So those who play the numbers game get rewarded and those who don't, don't. And those who try to shake up the system get shaken off. The system protects itself. It's like HAL in 2001. "McNulty, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye."

It's not just Baltimore and it's not just the Police Department; it's everywhere. It's probably your job, your office, your boss. The show is infinitely relatable. It explains our world, not just theirs.

How about the characters? Characters. I fell in love with Det. Lester ("Louis Quatorze") Freamon in the first season and my girlfriend fell for Omar ("Indeed"), the gangbanger who stole from the gangs. Omar first makes an appearance and you think, "That guy doesn't know who he's messing with." Then you realize he does.

The show started smart and got smarter. I once interviewed Ron Safer, the assistant U.S. attorney who led the team that brought down the Gangster Disciples in Chicago in the 1990s, and one of the things he said to me was about the corner kids. "Those kids are there for you to arrest," he said. "There's an endless supply of them. They're the victims of the gang." When the best of the cops on The Wire knew this despite the urgings of the worst of the higher-ups, I knew the show knew, too.

I loved the team-building in that first season. Talk about a narrative device that never gets old. Whether it's cops, crooks, NASA, baseball, SWAT, whatever, you gotta love teams, where everyone's doing their bit, and we're all in this together and the sum of our parts add up to a greater whole. We're not isolated; we have meaning now. Most of us just wish for that kind of feeling. Most of us could use it now.

The second season seemed weaker to me ... until the final episodes, when it packed a punch I didn't see coming. Meanwhile, the results of the smart, endless police work were never clean; they never got quite what they wanted. It never felt satisfying but always felt right.

I fell for Bubbles next. Not even an Emmy nom for Andre Royo? Sheeeeeyit. Then there was Bunk (Wendell Pierce) and his perpetual cigar and his great three-word description of the state of things: "Shit is fucked." Hemingway never said it better although he might've said it the same.

Bodie, the worst of the corner kids in the first season, seemed the best of them by the fourth: last man/kid standing of the Barksdale clan. Suddenly he was my guy. By the fifth season it was Dukie. Where will he end up? How can he possibly survive? I identified. I grew up white and middle-class in Minneapolis and I identified.

There were surprises about the actors, too. First time Lt. Daniels (Lance Reddick) stands without his shirt on? Damn. You'd listen to interviews with the actors and think, "You're kidding -- the guy's British? And that guy, too?" And still no Emmy noms. The Emmys were looking elsewhere, as I had been. I can't point fingers.

I could go on but I don't want to say too much because I want you to watch the episodes from the beginning. It's worth the 50-60 hours of your life. I'm beginning to think it's worth another 50-60 hours of mine to watch it again.

What can I say? The Wire explains our world, not just theirs. But theirs, too.