21 June 2012

The Wire

I keep telling people to watch the HBO series The Wire, and it occurs to me that I should have my pitch somewhere handy. Here's the short form:

The Wire is so good that it will make you embarrassed to have ever liked any other television shows. Really.

To expand on that:

The Wire is a TV show about police wiretaps like Moby Dick is a novel about whaling, like uranium-235 is an explosive material, like Elvis was a guitarist. The show’s intelligence, ambition, and craftsmanship make almost everything else on TV look shabby … and at the same time it delivers livelier entertainment than most programs that try for nothing else.

On top of all that, I submit that as an American citizen one has a responsibility to watch The Wire because it delivers such a vital examination of American institutional failure, using the devices of fiction and television to tell the story in the way that a serious book on the subject could not.

So watch it.

That said, I have some recommendations about how one should go about doing that.

Though released as five seasons of a weekly series, one should not think of it like series television. Each season does not just have an overall story arc; each season constitutes a thirteen hour film with nearly arbitrary hourly breaks. The story and characters do not coalesce until three or four episodes in. This means a kind of commitment much like reading a novel; one cannot read most novels in a single sitting, and since it requires a certain momentum to keep the book in your head, typically one reads a novel in a mix of long and short sittings over the course of a week or three. Similarly, I strongly recommend planning for a long viewing session to get started with The Wire, three or four hours. After that you will want to set aside time for 2-4 hour viewing sessions two or three times a week … and by “you will want”, I mean that once the show gets its hooks into you, it will become hard to devote that little time to watching it.

I envy anyone getting to watch The Wire for the first time. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that I can watch it again, which I can attest is every bit as gratifying.

If I cannot convince you, here’s Charlie Brooker:

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