POSTED BY JON WEISMAN (Brian Lowry's comments follow)
This is my first season watching "The Wire." I know that no apology can atone for that sin, so I won’t even try. I have forever been trying to carve out time to watch the series from the beginning, but 50-odd hours are hard to find. Finally, I decided, it was time to get on board — better late than never.
So I don’t come here as any kind of authority figure on the series, and I offer my opinions only as a perspective on the fifth season from someone who didn’t watch the first four. I know "Wire" fans are always looking to increase the series’ profile, so I thought you might be interested in how it’s playing to a newbie.
I do come as a diehard fan of David Simon’s first major show, "Homicide: Life on the Street," my second-favorite series of all time behind "Hill Street Blues," so I’ve got that going for me.
The intelligence of "The Wire" is clear from the outset, both in terms of sharp dialogue and intricate plots. The characters seem to have worlds of depth, and I say this knowing that I only have surface understanding of what makes them tick. I can’t think of any character that I don’t want to learn more about, nor can I find any plotline in the first two episodes of season five that I’m not eager to see the next chapter of.
I do think there are imperfections in the show. Some of the dialogue strikes me as on the nose. Not unrealistic, just unprofound. Understand me, 95 percent of the dialogue raises from strong to genius — in fact, I would say that the one aspect of the show that fans and media have failed most at making the world know about is the show’s clever, endearing sense of humor. But every now and then, there’s a line that I think is a dud — that could only work if you’re already in love with the character who says it.
Similarly, not every plot is "Dickensian," to borrow a word from Sunday’s episode, in stature. I’m keenly interested in the journalism plot, for example, love some of the snappy exchanges and adore "Homicide" alum Clark Johnson, but right now, it strikes me that the deck is stacked a little too heavily – the saints and sinners in the newsroom are too obvious. There’s real tension, but the impact of that tension is diminished.
However, to respond to a common fear about the show, lacking the backstory of the first four seasons hasn’t made the show too challenging to watch. I know I don’t know everything that’s going on, the significance of every appearance. But while the plots are sophisticated, there’s enough clarity that even a beginner like me can jump on. While I’m sure it’s better to start from the beginning, I wouldn’t tell a viewer to be afraid to start watching this season.
My biggest qualm with the show so far has been this: After two episodes, there hasn’t been a single moment that hit me in the gut, that really affected me in an emotional way. I’m sure these moments will come, and again, this may be the product of my being a rookie. But I still — for now — have to argue with those calling “The Wire” the best show of all time when it can be this emotionally quiet, regardless of how familiar a viewer is with a show.
“Hill Street” (left) and “Homicide” had ensemble casts, humorous lines and subplots, ongoing storylines and even season-long arcs infused with realism – carried out over 20 or so episodes a year, mind you — and yet still packed an emotional punch in each episode. I would be confident giving someone any of the first 100 airings of “Hill Street,” even if that person were viewing the show for the first time, and saying, “Watch this and tell me this wasn’t the greatest series of all time.”
Anyway, please understand, I’m not trying to render any kind of final verdict on “The Wire.” Someday, I will get a look at those first four seasons, and maybe I’ll change my opinion of it from “great” to “the best.” But if you’re wondering why even some sophisticated drama watchers haven’t gone hog-wild about the show, they may feel they’ve seen better stuff.
— Jon Weisman
Brian Lowry sez
If Jon Weisman is a newbie to "The Wire," I've been there from the beginning and confess that to having no idea how dense and rewarding the series would become based on that first smattering of episodes.
Allow a brief personal note, however, from the perspective of someone who lived through part of this year's media theme as a former reporter at the Los Angeles Times, which — like the Baltimore Sun, the fictionalized newspaper featured in this year's show — is owned by the Tribune Co.
Series creator David Simon clearly has axes to grind against a few former bosses in his depiction of the newspaper, and there's obviously a little exaggeration involved. For all journalism's modern failings, there aren't many Jayson Blairs out fabricating stories. (Or at least God, I hope not.)
Still, the series does capture the weariness of veteran reporters and editors, the pressure of job cuts and bureau closings, and the manner in which some editors are willing to overreach and sensationalize reporting in an effort to get noticed, generate awards attention and (in a trend that's developed since Simon left journalism) drive web traffic. Some ambitious reporters, moreover, are more willing than others to oblige — which explains, as Simon illustrates, how news values can be bastardized along the way.
It's always amazing, by the way, how the producers almost seamlessly layer each season upon the previous ones, introducing a new bureaucracy without short-shrifting the underlying cops/drug dealers story line. In terms of sheer emotional impact the current season probably doesn't reach the heights of season four, but the continuing threads regarding those high school students remain absolutely terrific.
One more thing: I have no idea what his long-term fate is, but if Omar (Michael K. Williams) survives this thing, someone should damn well give the character his own spinoff series.
To get another veteran "Wire"-watcher perspective on Sunday's episode, click here.