One of the benefits of being unemployed is that you have lots of free time on your hands. Summer-holidays kind of free time, where you start to lose track of the days and the hours and find yourself at a loss as to what to do while waiting for your recent round of job applications to get processed.
This is fine with me. After a year of 9-5 at Penguin in New York, being able to sleep in on a Tuesday and stay up late on a Wednesday night is brilliant. Especially since it’s letting me get caught up on my sleep, my books, my tv shows.
Now, I’ve been hearing about The Wire for some time, from friends who rave about it and from people who dismiss it casually as no big thing (but whose very nonchalance is at odds with their insistence.) So I got my hands on Season 1, and started watching.
This is a very different kind of show. For one, it makes demands of the viewer. It’s not content to simply hand you snappy dialogue and explosions, letting you sit back, mouth open, eyes glazed. Instead, it features a complex plot, eminently believable characters, and a slow, inexorable pace that catches you up if you have but the patience to bear with it for a few episodes.
Much has been said and made of its verisimilitude, and with good reason: there is a palpable sense of reality to the show, from the depth and variety of characters to the pace at which the police investigation is conducted to the obstacles–expected and not–that they face. Things build incrementally. You learn the difference between ‘good police’ and humps: good police are thorough, imaginative, have great instincts and the patience of a hunting cat awaiting prey to pass beneath its branch. You don’t go around waving your gun–instead, you build your case on a foundation of solid paperwork and evidence, culled over months of careful detective work and observation, and only spring your trap when you’ve caught everybody red handed around the cookie jar.
Which is what makes the politics of the police department so fascinating and frustrating. Lieutenants, Captains, Majors, Commissioners, Senators–everybody has a stake in what’s going on, whether its concealing their corruption to protecting their careers, from repaying back old grudges or bowing to pressure from the media and superiors. The detectives end up fighting a war on two fronts: against the crooks, and against those within their organization whom for one reason or another are willing to spike their case.
What’s even better, the crooks are smart. Competent, charismatic, running a tight operation, with brilliant lawyers and even better business models. They’re almost too good; the detectives are faced with such a daunting task that for much of the first season I was unsure as to how they would manage to pull off their assignment. We get a fascinating and chilling look into the world the criminals live in, are shown their motivations, their lack of options, how family, honor and greed trap people, hold them fast, even when they want to get out.
So did I like Season One? Hell yes. It’s slower, more thoughtful, realistic and brilliant than the other shows. It’s the perfect show for long autumn days where you’ve got nothing to do but wait to hear back from prospective employers. I’ve just started in on Season Two, and will report back in when I’m done. Given the quality of the first season, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.