David Simon, the creator of The Wire, likes to take a few episodes each season to set his stage. Dramaturgically, Simon is a classicist, much more so than his fellow HBO auteur David Chase, whose work (though also superb) is much more digressive and fanciful. There are no arty cuts to black in The Wire, or dream sequences masquerading as real life. The Wire is all real life, overwhelmingly so, blacksmithed into place with hard, painstaking *thwacks* until it’s bent into a deeply useful old-fashioned Aristotelean arc.
The moment in each season of The Wire that really gets me isn’t the astonishing rip of climaxes at season’s end—though those are devastating—but the moment where Simon first places his pieces on his chessboard, and lets you know where this season’s battlefield is going to be. It usually happens right around the third episode, after he’s cleared his throat for a couple of hours.
Last season’s battlefield was an eighth-grade classroom at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School in West Baltimore. As the students shuffled into class on the first day of school, there was a single image that made me think that David Simon may be the greatest filmmaker currently working. The image itself wasn’t revolutionary. In fact, it was almost cliché. It was a wide shot of a classroom full of kids, staring back at their teacher. We’ve seen this image a thousand times, in god knows how many shitty inspirational-teacher movies. It usually happens about ten minutes in, at around the one-eighth mark. Usually we’ve met the kids for a few minutes, hanging out with their families and friends. The bell tolls and they assemble. There’s the smart-aleck, the dumb hunk, the slut.
But on The Wire they are all Hamlets.
OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe there are only four Hamlets: Namond, Randy, Dukie, and Michael, all wounded and feral, bottomlessly human, hurtling unstoppably towards their unspeakably tragic endings—unless, of course, they achieve transcendence.
Simon has already spent well over two hours (standard running time for a dramatic theatrical feature) simply hanging out with these four, showing us their worlds, unveiling the impossible minefields of their day-to-day existences: their absent fathers, disastrous mothers, the tractor-beam pull of the drug trade. But instead of simply letting them loiter in that world, Simon’s structural engine begins to rumble and clank, and he starts moving his characters into place for the quiet battle that will define their lives. When they first enter the classroom –- which we know, god dammit, will not save them, cannot save them (right?)—I am knit fully inside their hearts. I am going to watch every moment of their lives unfolding just as surely as I am stuck with my own.
Let me digress and quickly mention that I watch The Wire on a dirty 13-inch laptop with crappy earbud headphones, usually on a very loud Metro-North train. I say this to shout down all the bullshit techno-hucksters who are trotting out gizmos hackishly designed To Give Audiences A More Immersive Moviegoing Experience! like 3-D or HD or IMAX-9D or NachoCheez Smellovision. David Simon’s radical technique for immersing his audience more deeply into movies is—heresy!—to plunge his audience more deeply into the inner lives of his characters. And, lo and behold, it works. All these kids are doing is walking into a classroom, and I can barely breathe. As the camera trained on the four of them in that wide shot, I swear I felt the medium itself start to warp, pulling me in, taking on a power with which I was not familiar. I actually felt a bit queasy, like the image had exceeded the legal limit of its power to engage. We’re not supposed to feel this much for these three-inch, made-up people.
What I was feeling was that overpowering end-of-the-movie feeling, times four, and enhanced still another degree by the oh-my-God knowledge that the movie was just beginning.
This new dimension that David Simon and his colleagues in long-form TV drama are bringing to American film—length—does not alone greatness make. (I give you Spiderman 3.) But when that length is coupled with equally trenchant breadth and depth of character…
I must at this time hasten to add that Simon is not doing this alone. His collaborators on The Wire perhaps the most talented team ever assembled in television history, if not film history. (Co-creator Ed Burns deserves co-canonization.) And as brilliant as the actors and directors are—and they are—special mention must be made of the writers. While other TV shows were keenly filling out their writing staffs with 23-year-old cleverheads from the Harvard Lampoon, Simon went out and signed up Murderer’s Row: Richard Price, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane, writers so good that, naturally, they don’t write for television. Except for The Wire, where not only do they work, they rise to new heights, uniting to form a cohesive, operatic voice even greater than each of their own (and each of their own is about as good as fiction writing gets).
My point is this: while Hollywood has bravely set about the business of making the finest movies based on breakfast cereals ever made, Simon and his collaborators have hoisted the medium of film onto their backs and marched it into the territory previously inhabited by Tolstoy, Melville and Dickens, the greatest of the long-form storytellers.
The achievements of The Wire suggest that the two-hour American-standard-length film only scratches the surface of what the medium can actually do. And it does so with none of the diluting effect that some might expect would come from breaking up a 13-hour film into individual episodes. The experience of watching The Wire is precisely the same as reading Anna Karenina. We do it by sandwiching its chapters in between the chapters of our own lives. We read a chunk, we live a chunk, and each enriches the other.
The four kids are just the beginning. I haven’t even mentioned all the grownup Hamlets running around, the cops and the dealers, the politicians and hangers-on, scheming and plotting, dreaming and dying, McNulty and Marlo and Bunk and Kima and Bodie and Bubbles and Royce and Rawls and Stringer and Lester and Bunny and Wee-Bay and Carcetti and Burrell and Lieutenant Daniels (excuse me, Major Daniels) and Prop Joe and Carver and Prez and even the gleefully vivid second-tier guys like Slim Charles and Clay Davis (“Sheeeeeeeit”) and Namond’s bitch-of-a-nightmare mom. Oh, and then there’s Omar—Omar Fucking Little, who all by his lonesome is enough to be the centerpiece of the greatest show never made, yet is a mere sideshow in The Wire, the poetry-spouting Fool of Baltimore, hanging around the edges of the game, darting in only long enough to jack it.
As C.S. Lewis once wrote of The Lord Of The Rings, “For sheer width of imagination it almost beggars comparison,” which he meant as a backhanded slam on its (perceived) lack of depth, of course. But in the case of The Wire, the sheer-width assessment flatters, because the depth is there to back up the width. Just as it does the length. And the thing is, I think 91.8% of The Wire’s greatness is achieved before Simon and Co. write a single word. Because most of its strength, like the core strength of all great narrative art, lies not in its execution of action and dialogue but in its underlying assumptions about humanity.
The core assumption on The Wire is based is simple, tough, and as profound as they come: that there are no bad people; that there are only people in conflict with one another and with themselves; and that our collective power to transcend these internecine conflicts, though theoretically within our grasp, continues to elude us, and will continue to do so, unless…
These assumptions create the plane of drama upon which the wide, teeming stage of The Wire is set, and it is this punishing, forgiving plane that gives it its power, even more so than the brilliant peaks built upon it.
Which brings us back to Simon, the very real human being whose nature has transitively given us the nature of this fiction. Simon is a former Baltimore Sun reporter and relentless chronicler of that city’s underclass—a man who has lived and worked with these characters for so long, and had his heart broken by them so many times that he appears to have lost all power to bullshit about them.
It’s as if the aspects of Baltimore that once inspired him to pledge his life to its improvement have so thoroughly betrayed and battered him that he has no paints left on his palette besides the bleakest blues and grays.
Listen to him interviewed and he fulminates with disgust. “The central premise of The Wire,” he says, “stems from one simple truth, which is that every day in America, people are worth less.” He speaks with utter conviction, along an asymptote angled straight into the ground. He has seen enough to know enough. And he appears to have given up.
Josh Shelov is the creator of W Films, and the writer of the film Green Street Hooligans.