My Wire entanglement

Just about everyone who knows me in real life has heard me rhapsodize incoherently about the virtues of HBO’s so-much-more-than-just-a-cop-show,
The Wire, now in its fourth season. But the show deserves more than a burbly: “It’s awesome. I mean it’s like, awesome, and you should totally watch it, omg.” I enjoy the show tremendously as a fan, but I’m also finding it very instructive as a writer. So here are some storytelling lessons from the Wire.

As above, so below. A lot of the Wire is about systems, and how the same dynamics operate whether the system you’re (trapped) in is city government, the police department, public education, or a criminal organization. The writers reveal the similarities between these ostensibly very different worlds, making it impossible to make snap judgements about characters’ ethics and motivations.

Setting matters. The Wire takes place in Baltimore. It would be a different show if it were set anywhere else. Baltimore is a character in the story. The way Baltimore looks, its political and social history, the forces that are trying to reshape the city: all of this affects the way the Wire’s narratives play out. I think somewhere in Story, Robert McKee says, “There are no portable stories.” You can’t detach characters from where they live. Where they live is a huge part of who they are.

Don’t pull your punches. Sometimes people screw up. Sometimes people die. Don’t shield your favorite characters from the consequences of their actions. Don’t stick pins in them for no reason, either. But understand the stakes, and don’t lower them just because you’re fond of a character or know that your audience is.

Everyone is three-dimensional. This is one of the first things that really impressed me about the Wire. Series creator David Simon says: “We are bored with good and evil. We reject the theme.” Even the most cold-blooded of the show’s criminals have positive qualities. There are no cardboard cutouts. No one’s from central casting. It’s this three-dimensionality that makes it possible for the writers to follow many different characters’ individual stories through the course of a season, and even through multiple seasons.

Assume that your audience is smart. This is one of the reasons that the Wire rewards repeated viewing. Almost always, there’s more going on in a scene than you can catch the first time. A character appears in the background who, episodes later, will have a much more prominent role. What sounds like a throwaway exchange between characters resonates more powerfully when you know what’s coming.

Be an expert. Find other experts. This season, the Wire’s focus is on education. Ed Burns, the co-creator, was a middle school teacher. He took that job after twenty years with the police department, during many of which he was a homicide cop. (Guess which job he said was harder.) Lots of the actors are Baltimore natives. The man who plays the Deacon, Melvin Williams, was incarcerated for a number of years as a result of a wiretap set up by Burns. Another actor, Felecia Pearson — who plays a character called Felecia Pearson — came from a background much like her character’s.

So the show incorporates all these things: honesty, authenticity, intensity, the power of place, the way our systems shape us. And I haven’t even mentioned the uniformly high standard of the performances, or how funny the writing can be, or the lovely, lovely title sequence — different every season — with a different version, each season, of Tom Waits’ “Down in the Hole” — but enough said. Go, watch.

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  • kathmuse
    September 25, 2006 at 6:42 pm

    I’m a huge Wire fan, even more into it this year because of the school angle.


  • bridgeweaver
    September 25, 2006 at 9:04 pm

    I watched the first season which I discovered randomly as it came after the Sopranos. I loved it, but sadly haven’t had cable for the last three years and had sort of forgotten about the show until a TV critic brought it u on NPR’s Day to Day last week. His contention was that the show was (paraphrasing) way too smart to ever be popular. I thought it one of the tautest pieces of television writing I’d ever found at the time, and I’m glad to hear the show kept up the quality.

  • kiplet
    September 28, 2006 at 10:23 pm

    More on The Wire‘s credits.