Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Wire and Homicide

So I've been watching Homicide: Life on the Street lately.

A few years ago, everybody and their mothers was telling me I needed to watch The Wire, an HBO series that had just ended a critically acclaimed five-season run. One day I happened to catch a sale on Amazon for the box set of the whole series for something like seventy dollars. At the time, I had something like seventy dollars (ah, those days of wine and roses!), so I bought the set on a whim.

Over the next few months, I devoured that series. The Wire is sort of a police procedural, following a group of cops as they target various criminal organizations and work to take them down. I say it's "sort of" a procedural, because often the most interesting and dramatic elements of the show had nothing to do with cops-and-robbers (or, for that matter, cops or robbers). Each season expanded out into a different sphere of life in Baltimore: the first season concentrated on the drug trade, the second on the slowly dying ports, the third on city politics and the dirtiness thereof, the fourth on the badly failing school systems, and the fifth on the media and journalism. (The fifth season might be my favorite, but it's hard to judge.)

The Wire was the brainchild of one David Simon, former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and author of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, in which he followed the detectives in the homicide unit of the Baltimore police for a year and detailed their experiences. This book was also the inspiration, as you can probably guess, for the television show Homicide, so as soon as I finished The Wire and started jonesing for some more excellent television, I decided to turn to Homicide.

I was expecting it to be a disappointment, honestly. The Wire was intricately plotted and crafted from start to finish; its creators described it as a "visual novel," in which the characters and plotlines and all elements of the story are as carefully and thoughtfully designed as they would be for a top-class novel. I expected Homicide to be the larval form of this, with attempts at doing long-running storylines and character arcs, a show trying to be something that network TV ultimately would be unable to handle.

So it was pleasantly surprising to find that Homicide was not just a watered-down Wire, that it was, in fact, entirely its own entity, and far more entertaining and thoughtful than I expected it to be.

Comparing the two shows is really apples and oranges. Or, to use the terms I've already introduced, if The Wire is a novel, then Homicide is a book of short stories. Because each episode in The Wire had to fit into the larger, overarching plot for that season, the episodes had to be watched strictly in order, so that you followed the intersecting lives of all the various characters. But Homicide episodes, for the most part, are standalone; they can be watched in any order. In fact, it's because there's no overarching plot that they had the freedom to make the kind of episodes they did. Often, Homicide episodes are constructed of three subplots, following three pairs of detectives, whose cases all touch on a single theme: fatherhood, for example, or obsessive love, or modern America. Other episodes will experiment with the format: one episode in season one simply followed the detectives in the squadroom one night, waiting for a call to come in, but no murders happened and none of them even so much as went outside; they spent the whole night talking and arguing and debating with each other. Because their characters don't necessarily have to follow an elaborate, season-long plot, they can be used to comment more generally on whatever issues they want.

What I'm saying, here, is that it's a pretty dang good show, and I don't know why it took me so long to get into it.

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