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Many Reasons to Watch The Wire

I did not begin watching The Wire last season because I have some sort of mutant ability to sniff out quality programming that's little-publicized and written about only by people who are going to assert that "this is the best show you're not watching." I began watching it because one of my fundamental fiscal philosophies is to justify my exorbitant HBO subscription by watching that channel as much as possible. Therefore, I will watch nearly any series HBO airs, with the notable exceptions of Arli$$, The Mind of the Married Man and Curb Your Enthusiasm . I avoid the first two because my brain shut down basic respiratory and circulatory functions in protest after I watched five minutes, and I don't like Curb Your Enthusiasm because, while I realize it's funny on a cerebral level, Larry David's character repels me on a visceral level and I can't make it through an episode without wanting to see him suffer, preferably in a gruesome, epic, Biblical way.

(No doubt all of you who love Curb Your Enthusiasm will write in to tell me how I'm comedy tone-deaf and missing out, blah-de-blah. Don't. You will not convert me. I disliked Seinfeld, and I dislike Curb Your Enthusiasm; clearly, I am never going to warm to the Larry David oeuvre so you're wasting your time.)

But this isn't about how HBO probably hit its comedic high-water mark with Larry Sanders and Mr. Show back in the day. This is about how I came to watch The Wire -- in some part because I like David Simon's work, but largely because I wanted to amortize the cost-per-hour of my HBO subscription. Two episodes in, I was hooked.

I still can't explain why. I've read other people's explanations for why you should watch The Wire, and frankly, reading things like "What marks The Wire is its verisimilitude and its finely honed sense of the absurdity and pettiness that exist on both sides of the criminal battle lines" and "Among the more extraordinary aspects of the original was the way it revealed complexity, gray areas, in all its characters, even the drug dealers" don't do a lot to tell people why to tune in. Fine pieces of criticism, but nobody's going to charge into the living room bellowing, "Gimme the remote, honey! I gotta see some of that there finely honed sense of the absurd and some of that there verisimilitude!"

The reason you should watch The Wire -- above and beyond all the high-flying critical assessments about moral ambiguity and all that -- is because it's damned entertaining. Unlike other shows on television, it's hard to tell who you're supposed to root for, so you're forced to follow everyone and draw your own conclusions about them. You can hold conflicting loyalties -- personally, I was fascinated by drug dealer Stringer Bell, and rooted for him even as I cheered on police lieutenant Cedric Daniels. One pleasant result of rooting for both sides is always being able to watch an episode while hoping everyone will turn out okay, knowing they won't, yet not being able to stop watching. It's a lot more entertaining than going into an hour of drama where you know who the good guys are supposed to be and the only mystery is how they'll prevail this week.

The other reason you should watch The Wire is because it's hard to figure out what the hell is going on. There's a cast of dozens, little details get introduced and dropped all the time, and there are few obvious hand-holding devices to tell you what you should be paying attention to. For example, in last night's episode (the season 2 premiere), there's a scene in which junior drug trade employee Bodie drives to Philadelphia to make a connection for his crew. Putting aside his hilarious consternation at losing his rap radio station and being subjected to Prairie Home Companion, the real sit-up-and-take-notice moment during the trip was when he carefully wrote down his car's mileage on a notepad. Why, I wondered, would he do that?

It became apparent when he returned to Baltimore and had to submit his mileage as proof that he didn't screw up his unfruitful trip. It was a beautiful moment -- a tiny, baffling detail that threw a lot of light into how the Barksdale drug crew worked later on. It was also a stark contrast to the self-protecting chaos of the police department, something I figured out as I watched a scene where an evidence room clerk asks Daniels for overtime when Daniels makes him clean up his sloppy work.

The Wire lets you draw your own connections, and to be that subtle, it's got to be carefully written -- which it is. The dialogue is snappy and often irreverent-bordering-on-offensive -- in one scene, Detective "Herk" Hauk comes in to drop some case news on former colleague Shakima Greggs' desk, and comments that compared to trying to take down the Barksdale crew (which employed a dazzling array of codes, complex communications protocols, and contingency procedures), busting white drug dealers is a cinch. He then tells Kima, who happens to be an African-American and a lesbian, that what Baltimore needs are affirmative-action laws protecting the business of white drug dealers and that what she needs to do is recognize that she's whipped, tell her girlfriend what's what, and get back on the streets. The entire exchange is shockingly un-PC and funny as hell.

With The Wire, you've got a show that trusts your intelligence to a point where it lets you decide who you're going to root for and what you're going to pay attention to. You've got snap-crackle-pop dialogue. You've got a story that's so well written, it delivers small payoffs in each episode (the mileage incident being one example) that often lead to bigger dramatic payoffs throughout the season. What's not to like about a show that can give you all that?

So that's why you should watch The Wire. Because it's different from nearly everything else on television, and those differences make it fun. You'll have fun watching. And if you're lucky, you just might catch some of that verisimilitude everyone else is raving about too.


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