Admittedly, you probably need to have seen (at least some) of The Wire to make it through all 36 minutes of Erlend Lavik’s video essay on the “visual style” of the show, but it’s a fascinating and comprehensive look at an aspect of David Simon’s great television masterpiece that you may have overlooked, or undervalued.
But, let’s say you’ve never seen The Wire? I don’t see that as a problem. After all, what better way to prime the pump and get you to start watching than with 36 minutes of stills and artful commentary steeping you in The Wire’s visual subtleties and camera work?
I’ve spent a little bit of time watching television shows. In fact, I’d say that my screen time has shifted from movies to television shows by at least a 2:1 margin in the past five years. Oddly, most of the television I end up watching is not “on” television but later on DVD, but that’s a story for another essay. This is because we happen to be living through what many have rightfully called a high point, or a new high, for television as a medium. The Wire is just one of many landmark shows to be produced in the last ten years that have changed the landscape of not only television shows themselves but in how we see and how we “view” television, the latter having more to do with our expectations for how good a TV show can be. For my money, The Wire is one of the five best shows ever produced, in the company of other masterpieces like Six Feet Under, The West Wing, Seinfeld, and Mad Men, the shows that would round out my dessert island quintet were I pressed to choose.
Like most viewers, I watch The Wire for its incredible story telling; its unflinchingly realistic portrayal of city life in Baltimore, Maryland in all its many incarnations, especially those that deal with crime, poverty, drugs, and corruption in all forms, from city hall to the street corner. It’s no accident that The Wire has been called Dickensian. It’s novelistic scope of characterization and its viewer (reader) centered approach to allowing these characters to come to life over time feels, well, like reading a book. Find me a show that has ever better managed so many characters yet has not any one clear hero at its center (Jimmy McNulty being the closest, but even McNulty flits in and out of the show and we often go several episodes at at time without a McNulty centered plot, especially in Season 4). But I’ve spent less time thinking about the visual context of The Wire, the means by which is tells the story, which is a significant part of what makes it IT. According to the respected Norwegian academic Lavik, I’ve been missing a lot.
Watch this when you’ve got a little time. Or do what I did and watch it in four minute chunks over many days when you don’t quite have the time. Either way, this guy sounds pretty smart to me and even though he has kind of a dull voice and doesn’t emote all that well, it will likely either get you to watch or begin re-watching The Wire, which can only make your life better.