Over the holidays, I finally checked out HBO’s THE WIRE, a decade after its five-year run began.  I found myself binge-watching through the first three seasons.  This show was never a clear hit with audiences, and didn’t win many major awards.  But WGA screenwriters voted it the ninth best written series of all time last year – and fourth among dramas.  TV GUIDE called it the sixth greatest show of all time.  And some will go further, telling you it’s the most important show in the history of television – at least in terms of what it examines about our society.  It’s studied in colleges, lionized by critics, and said to be the favorite show of our current president.

Why did I avoid it all these years?  Maybe for the same reason audiences did.  I thought it was going to be bleak, negative, hard to follow, not very compelling or entertaining, with too many characters, and storytelling that was too experimental, dry or academic in its attempt to portray an entire city as a social ecosystem.

Honestly, I did find those negative preconceptions to be borne out , at times, in the 36 hours I just watched.  But I also found the first season, especially, to be possibly the most involving thing I’ve ever seen on television.

Why is that – and why did I personally not feel as enthusiastic about the second and third season?  To answer that requires some background on the show – which might contain SPOILERS.

The first season opens with a grave injustice – several murders are going unpunished, and witnesses are paid to lie or simply assassinated by a ruthless drug gang in the Baltimore housing projects.  A lone detective seems to be the only person in the entire criminal justice system who thinks something should be done about this, regardless of the difficulties or costs.  We immediately fall in love with him (at least I did) – despite his many personal flaws – because of this good and important fight he’s waging.  Arrayed against him are powerful, crafty and merciless adversaries both on the streets and within his own department (and the larger bureaucracy that controls him).

As the season plays out, this two-pronged difficulty for him and his allies (many of whom take a while to emerge as such) builds to a fever pitch, with wild plot turns and huge complications along the way.  Sounds like a compelling cop show, right?  It is – but it’s much more than that.  The show manages to get the audience inside the perspective of members of the gang (and others who interface with it in various ways), such that we begin to care about them, as well.  A variety of characters have personal stories that are incredibly engaging, with huge stakes and great emotional resonance for the audience.  And I dare say that at the same time, it is the most realistic police show in television history – going beyond easy answers, popcorn excitement and good-vs.-evil morality to depict the complicated layers of these characters and institutions in a way that amounts to something so much more than mere entertainment.

But at the same time, I found it incredibly entertaining.

The reason, I think, is plain and simple: I cared about the characters.  They had problems and goals that were clear and emotionally compelling, and these stories moved forward with gas as they faced increasing, escalating complications.

This is the model, I think, for all effective storytelling  It’s also the key to making a TV series work that has open-ended episodes, with plot threads that continue over the course of the season, and sometimes offer very little in the way of resolution within a particular one-hour installment.  (Otherwise known as “serialized storytelling”.)  If the characters have enough at stake, and enough positive qualities for the audience to care about – and the stories move forward compellingly enough – then a show has a chance at getting away, sometimes, with not always having super clear “beginnings, middles and ends” within each particular episode.  I believe DOWNTON ABBEY also achieves this difficult feat – and for the same reasons.

Still, I normally recommend that writers think of potential series they might write primarily as “100+ short stories” instead of “one long story” – because when any given episode (including a pilot) doesn’t deliver a complete-feeling narrative with traditional dramatic structure, it usually doesn’t work as well.  And even on shows like THE WIRE and DOWNTON ABBY, the best episodes (and certainly the first few) do tend to adhere to that classic narrative shape – where you can really feel the beginning-middle-end to an episode’s stories, even though they are all part of larger dramatic threads that will continue.  Later episodes might veer off from that model at times – once the show and characters are really well established, and have totally hooked viewers.

But sometimes they can go too far.  And for me, Seasons 2 and 3 were more challenging to stay engaged with, for the same reasons Season 1 worked so well (in reverse).  As THE WIRE branches out in its scope to explore criminal situations among city dockworkers, and higher-level intrigue among police commanders and city council, respectively, the focus of the drama becomes more diffuse.  (As they also try to also keep alive many of the characters and issues from the first season.)  Perhaps more importantly, I found it harder to engage with the new characters.  I didn’t find their situations and story arcs as sympathetic or compelling story as I did with the first season’s primary players.  And the stories move forward more slowly, with so many characters and situations to keep alive every episode.  Often, there also isn’t as much of a clear beginning-middle-end structure to the narratives within any given hour.

But I’m still interested in seeing how THE WIRE brings in the school system and the news media as additional institutions to be explored in Seasons 4 and 5 – while integrating the police and other characters we’ve invested in from prior seasons.  And I think the show’s realistic (if somewhat despairing) exploration of how personal, social and institutional agendas can keep a troubled city troubled is probably the most impressive and important thing I’ve ever seen a scripted series try to do.

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