Overthinking The Wire (Season 1)

Overthinking The Wire (Season 1)

How can all of the characters on The Wire be “well-written” if they all seem like they were written for different shows?

[This article is full of spoilers for season 1 of The Wire.  It covers only season 1 of The Wire, which is, thus far, the only season I’ve seen. So no spoilers for later seasons in the comments, please.]

Overthinking It, if you haven’t heard, is two years old.  Hooray, good for us, pats on the back, etc.  What’s more interesting to me is that, over those two years, we keep returning to the same question over and over and over again: How do we judge pop culture?  Is there an objective way of saying “This TV show is Good” or “This movie is Bad,” and, if so, how do we do it?

Beneath that giant rhetorical umbrella drip these fascinating sub-questions: Is Glee “good” because it’s entertaining, or is it “bad” because it doesn’t have a coherent continuity?  Should we judge Avatar based on its opsis (Aristotle for “spectacle”), based on its mythos (a.k.a. “story”), or based on other criteria?  Why does everyone consider The Simpsons of the 90s to be superior to The Simpsons on air today?  And why can’t I like the new Battlestar Galactica even though everyone tells me it’s the pinnacle of televisioned arts?

We at Overthinking It haven’t come up with real answers to any of these questions.  Well, not answers we can agree on, anyway.  Because of that, I’m coming to the conclusion that looking for an objective measure of a piece of art is an impossible task.  That’s right, folks: I’m becoming a pop culture relativist.

So “good” art is relative, huh?  No one can define it objectively; no one can agree on what it is.

Except The Wire.  Everyone agrees about The Wire.

What’s the deal?  How can people who spend hours—days, even—bickering over the merits of Showgirls and Family Guy drop their verbal weapons and sing kumbaya together over some canceled HBO series?

My answer, or at least more questions, are below the fold.

I’ve looked through the reviews in the papers, in the magazines, on Amazon.com.  Everyone loves The Wire.  It’s the best show ever.  And, hey, I like it a lot, too.  The first season?  Mahvelous.  Gripping.  Well-acted.  Significant.  A mi me gusta el Wire.

But why?  Why doesn’t everyone love The Wire?  Well, for one thing, it seems to me that everyone loves its characters.  I was at the movies the other day when a trailer for an upcoming film starring Idris Elba pops up on the screen.  Immediately, two of the friends I’m sitting with shout, “Holy shit!  It’s Stringer Bell!  Fucking Stringer Bell!  Awesome!” Or I’m reading a AV Club article about this season Friday Night Lights, which stars Michael B. Jordan, and suddenly a grief-filled “Where the fuck is Wallace?” comment string eats up the bottom of the page.

And don’t get me started on the deification of Omar Little.

Omar: The only character on The Wire who makes sense on a T-shirt.

The fact is, the characters on The Wire seem to work for audiences.  People are attached to them, interested in them.  They point to these characters when someone asks, “Why do you like The Wire so much, anyway?”  And they say, “For one thing, the characters are well-written.”

“The characters are well-written.”  Okay.  What does that mean?  Here’s a quiz.  Does it mean

A) “The Wire’s characters are multidimensional, realistic, and morally-gray,”
B) “The Wire’s characters are cool, fun to watch, or larger-than-life,”
C) “The Wire’s characters are easy to identify with and/or heroic,” or
D) “The Wire’s characters are pitiable and lovable”?

Give up?  The answer was E, “all of the above.”  Trick question.  Fooled you!

But, wait: how can all of these statements be true when clearly some of them are contradictory.  A multidimensional, realistic character, for example, cannot be a “cool,” “larger-than-life” character by definition.  Conversely, a super-cool, larger-than-life or mythic character cannot be multidimensional, realistic, or pitiable.  A heroic character that is easy to identify with will probably not be very “morally-gray,” and a character that is pitiable would make a lousy hero.  (Such a character also would likely not be “morally-gray” or “larger-than-life.”)

Yet each of the above statements applies to the characters on The Wire.  Take a look:

Multidimentional, realistic, morally-gray: Applies to most of the characters, particularly Barksdale, D’Angelo, and Stringer.  Doesn’t really apply to Omar or Wallace.  Applies somewhat, but not completely, to McNulty, Kima, and Freamon.

Cool, fun to watch, larger-than-life: Applies to Omar.  Doesn’t really apply to anyone else in the same way.

Identifiable, heroic: Applies to McNulty, Kima, and Freamon.  Doesn’t apply to most of the members of the Baltimore PD or the Barksdale crew.

Pitiable, lovable: Applies to Wallace (and, to a lesser extent, Bubbles).  Doesn’t apply to most of the B’more PD or the rest of the Barksdale crew.

Okay, so on the one hand, we have Wire fans making blanket statements about how great and “well-written” the characters are, and on the other hand, we have the show itself, which is full of wildly different types of characters that cannot all be judged by the same criteria.  For instance, for characters like Stringer Bell and D’Angelo to seem “well-written,” they must made to seem like real, complex, morally-nuanced human beings.  What happens to them at the end of a season must be informed by their clear but complex psychologies, motivations, and actions at the start of the season.  These characters seem to belong in a realistic or naturalistic story and should be judged based on the criteria associated with that mode of literature.

Omar, on the other hand, is a two-dimensional antihero.  He is more developed than a straight archetypical Robin Hood (mostly because he’s gay and likes nursery rhymes), but he’s not developed enough to seem like a real human being you could meet in real life.  A character like Omar should not be judged by his multidimensional personality or his realism.  He can only be judged by his “coolness” factor.  The second he loses that coolness, we stop liking his character.

Moreover, what happens to a character like Omar should always be a result of his (relatively simple) psychology and his own actions.  A character like this belongs in a more “romantic story,” like one found in a comic book, Tarantino film, or work of genre fiction.  We cannot judge a “romantic mode” character like Omar based on the same criteria as a “mimetic” character like Stringer.

McNulty, Kima, and Freamon are multidimensional heroes.  Even though they each have one or two morally-iffy moments in the first season, for the most part they are white hats.  Unfortunately, the system (or “Game”) is against them, so what happens to them is informed partly by their personalities and actions but mostly by the personalities and actions of those who hold power over them.  They thus belong in “tragic hero” stories and should be judged by how likeable and identifiable they are.  The second one of them crosses a “moral event horizon” (like, say, if Kima killed and ate a defenseless puppy for no reason), she will likely lose her appeal and may become less valued as a character.  A character can’t be a tragic hero if she isn’t likeable and heroic.  If the audience can’t somehow like or identify with a character, said character’s downfall cannot be cathartic or tragic.

Wallace (and, to a lesser extent, Bubbs) is a two-dimensional object of pity.  Although Wallace is developed as a character more than a lot of other TV children, he is not meant to be seen as a real multidimensional person.  If you don’t believe me, imagine what a show ABOUT Wallace would look like.  If Wallace were the main character of a TV series, I would bet he would be far more developed as a character than he was on season one of The Wire.  On The Wire, though, he’s mostly an adorable cipher meant to be killed so that we, the audience, can feel bad.  It’s manipulation, pure and simple, and, by god, it works.

Characters like Wallace do not really have free will.  What happens to Wallace is a result of his relatively simple psychology and the actions of those around him.  For these reasons, Wallace belongs in a 19th century-style melodrama.  Characters like him should be judged by how well they pull at our heartstrings.

In The Wire, then, “well-written” means different things for different characters.  Does that mean the show is bad in terms of character development and design?  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe the worst we can say is that (in the first season, anyway) it is inconsistent.  Whether the characters were drawn in this inconsistent fashion on purpose or not remains to be seen—for example, I’m quite interested in seeing whether Omar becomes more fleshed out and realistic or (my bet) even more mythic or larger-than-larger-than life as the seasons progress.

How do YOU judge the characters in The Wire?  I’d love to hear your comments below, but, if you can, try not to spoil seasons two, three, four, and five for me.  Pretty please?

Note: Some of you may be wondering if this is the beginning of a new Overthinking It series on The Wire.  For the time being, let’s say “no.”  A certain favorite series of mine is coming back on the air soon, so I’m going to go back to writing about that starting two weeks from now.  Any Wire-related posts by me will have to wait until later—but, of course, that doesn’t mean one of the other OTI writers won’t decide to tackle the show between now and then.

11 Comments on “Overthinking The Wire (Season 1)”

  1. KnowsNothingAboutPopCulture #

    The Fact that The Wire characters are all so different “written” works for me because they all play different roles in the story. In any other police-story we expect the good-guys (the cops) to be identifiable and heroic. It´s a bonus when they also multidimensional, realistic and morally-gray.
    That the villians in The Wire (Avon, Stringer) are multidimensional is what makes it such great television.

    Bubbs and Wallace on the other hand are the victims so of course they have to be lovable. Stringer can´t be that, or at least not in that extent, or he would stop being a villian.

    In short: Different Character play different Roles in the story so you have to write them different.


  2. Dan Miller #

    First of all, let me say that an Overthinking It series of Wire articles would be spectacular–I will definitely donate money if you guys do a full week like you did for Verhoeven. Secondly, I think the goal of the Wire is to give you a picture of Baltimore, not (or not only) as it actually is, but as it would be experienced by someone living there and seeing this story happen. At the least, it’s a very useful way to think about who the “viewer” is intended to be, if that makes sense. And from that perspective, it’s totally logical to have different characters presented in different modes. Every person’s life contains some people that you can understand, and some people whose behavior is so extreme or unusual that it borders on the mythical. Think about the worst boss you’ve ever had, or the one guy in your college dorm who was just completely off his rocker, or Marion Barry. The Omar you see on the screen is the Omar that other figures in the drug trade see–a legend as much as a man. Meanwhile, other characters are all too human.


  3. Bob #

    Thank you for overthinking The Wire. I love your take on the multifaceted personalities that are the characters created in this show – I’ve never looked at them in this way before and seeing it makes a lot of sense. From the leviathan like stature of Omar to the whimpers of Bubbles, this is a great way to stack the characters in their spots.


  4. Keith #

    In one sense, it might be good to look critically at The Wire’s first season characters and their developments without having seen the other seasons. You rightly point out that not all of these characters are three dimensional (in this season) and not all of them are on the same page as far as narrative intent goes. But, trust me, things change and characters change along with them. It wouldn’t be so regularly deemed as one of the best shows to ever grace television if it didn’t. So, I would say keep this post around, but go take a month or two and work your way through the rest of the seasons. Seasons three and four especially. If those two don’t change you a little as a person, something is wrong :P


  5. Turin Hurinson #

    I think one of the most important things about the characters on The Wire – and this doesn’t just apply to the characters – is how *consistent* it all is. You don’t get characters doing absurd about-faces for no apparent reason, or picking up and dropping the “idiot ball” every other episode. They are of varying psychological complexity, but the complex ones are complex in plausible ways, rather than just being a combination of a bunch of contradictory character traits, and the simple ones, e.g. Omar, take a handful of powerful attributes and focus pretty much only on those attributes. Omar’s mythic, but it’s a clearly-defined myth; he’s not just a card the writers can use to get out of any situation.

    In fact, I think I’d say that the reason the characters are so compelling is that the show is so tightly plotted.


  6. dock #

    Thank you Mlawski, you oontinue to be my favorite contributor to Overthinking It. A series-long overthinking of The Wire would be awesome, and you are in for a real treat with that series. However, much like most of the television watching world, right now at least 78% of my daily mental energy is devoted to one topic only…Feb. 2nd, 9pm (EST). One thing I think would be great- a predicitons thread. We have to get these prediciton recorded in case someone is right, they could brag about it forever, and have documentation to prove it…


  7. John Perich #

    @Dan and @Dock: I don’t know that we can do an entire Wire-week. But I can jump in with Shana for some coverage of the later seasons. Shana: you up for it?


  8. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @John: I’d love love love to do more Wire posts. However, I can’t promise anything at this point, because Lost. Oh, Lost. It will almost certainly eat up all of the Overthinking RAM in my brain. I’m also not sure when I will have time to get through the other four seasons of The Wire since there is so much TV on the actual TV right now. I watched season one in December when everything else was in reruns… But I’m not ruling anything out completely. We shall see. We shall see.

    @dock: Thanks for the suggestion! We will, in fact, be posting a Lost predictions thread this week, so keep visiting!


  9. jesscard #

    Dan Miller addressed a lot of where my mind was going with the article, as well. First, Baltimore as an organism perhaps being the most compelling character on the show, as the current that drives all the interaction. Second, in terms of viewer perspective. When I think of sprawling ensemble casts, for instance, what P.T. Anderson and Robert Altman are known for, it creates the same result of different kinds of characters that are fleshed out to varying degrees. Miawski’s thoughtful categorizations of antihero, victim etc. seem organic to ensembles in general. I see it as not a fault but as almost necessary because those varying degrees of complexity are how we see the world. We can never know that many people in that finite an amount of time (eg. a movie or a season.) Indication of a well-written/well-acted ensemble is when those seemingly two-dimensional characters are capable of nuance that imply complexity that the viewer never has enough time to unearth. While the shot of Wallace’s morning where he cares for what seems like a half dozen children in a slum when he is a child himself flattens him into a victim, but the subtlety of his casual conversations on the outdoor couch with the other dealers implies a fuller consciousness on his character’s behalf, a complexity we’ll never have the opportunity to know. Compare this to William H. Macy’s character in Boogie Nights, arguably one of the flattest in the film. His wife sleeps around. And he loses it eventually and murders her. What salvages this flatness is both the good writing in his conversations with other porn techs about lighting and what his brief narrative does for the overarching narrative of the porn industry in the 70s. I’m not even a big fan of ensemble casts, but can appreciate when they’re done well, often for the sake of a larger theme. What separates The Wire from these films is that serialization of good writing allows for the satisfaction of ensembles to become more complex with time (without becoming hokey if they’re written and performed well), which is precisely what The Wire does.


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