Early on in our relationship, Tater and I had one of those "Really?!" moments. I was pontificating to her about cinematic storytelling, talking about how character could be revealed without using a word of dialogue, and I said, "You know, like that scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone's guarding his dad with only one other guy, outside the hospital? And the other guy's terrified and trembling, 'cause any minute hit men could be coming to kill them, but when Michael lights the guy's cigarette with a lighter, his hand isn't shaking?"
Tater nodded slowly, with an odd expression on her face. Clearly she was wrestling with something, and with a little prodding, she finally came out with it: "I don't tell too many people this, but..." She took a deep breath. "I've never seen The Godfather."
I managed to subdue my incredulity (probably one reason we're still together today), and not long after her confession, I had the unique pleasure of popping my future wife's Godfather cherry. And the thing is, Tater - a journalist, an editor, an appreciator of all things story - totally got it; she understood why she'd been hearing so much about this movie for so many years, and she became an instant, rabid fan who can now quote and reference Coppola's classic with the best of them.
We've all got at least one of these - a gap in our cultural canon, a missed Something Big that would cause most of our peers to wonder what rock we were hiding under when that incredible movie/album/show came out and rocked everybody else on the planet's world. Given that I like to think of myself as generally with it, when it comes to arts and entertainment, I get a deep uh-oh feeling in the pit of my stomach when I encounter evidence that One of Those has somehow passed me by.
Such had been the case for a few years now, when it came to a certain TV series. References to it kept cropping up, often in unlikely places; I kept seeing people I respected speak of it with a knowing and/or worshipful air. Finally, when the media was glutted this past Fall with "Best of the Decade" articles, and this title consistently topped everyone's television lists, I had to throw down and buy Season One to find out: What was the deal with The Wire?!
Brothers, sisters - members of The Wire choir who've long understood what Tater and I came to, so, so late - please forgive me for having to state the obvious: it's all true. For once, the hyperbole is fully deserved, for The Wire may well be the best dramatic TV series ever made.
Better than The Sopranos? Than Mad Men? Than [Insert Your Holiest-of-TV-Holies Here]?! Well, taste is taste, comparisons are tedious, and the last thing I want to do is over-sell the series to the uninitiated; the road to viewing hell is paved with high expectations. But there's a reason why "Dickensian" and "Shakespearian" keep showing up as critic's adjectives for the series' five season stint - it really does have the depth and breadth of a great, great novel - and if a guy whose mainstay is romantic comedy wants to testify to the brilliance of a show about detectives and drug-runners in a Baltimore ghetto? There may be something to it.
In fact, since we started with Tater's confession, I can now own up to why, if you've happened to notice, my "Movies Seen Recently" sidebar has been oddly inactive for the past month or two, and for that matter, why neither of us has been seen recently, out and about. I am a Wire addict, as is my wife (it's a kind of Days of Wine and Roses situation, minus the alcohol): we've been devouring this 63 hours of genius since the past holiday season, and sadly, we've recently begun the home stretch - we're a couple of episodes into Season Five.
"When do we Wire?" is our standard evening query, voiced the way "What's for dinner?" is usually asked in other households (occasionally, at the end of a particularly gripping episode, the phrase is, "Double-Wire?"). The irony of a show that's tacitly about crack being our crack isn't lost on us, and we shudder to think what will become of us when the viewing binge is over.
For writers, The Wire is simply required viewing. Cops aren't good, crooks bad; characters you fall in love with invariably do things that horrify you. Everyone has their favorites, and one of ours is Omar, a professional thief with a string of dead bodies in his wake, yet he's about as close to a hero as you get in this devastatingly dark saga of insidious, city-wide corruption. As Omar famously puts it, after a high-horsed lawyer has been ripping into him: "I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase... we all in the game, though."
"The game" is the core concept of The Wire, which moves from Baltimore's street corners, to its port, to inside the precincts, the schoolrooms, the corridors of political power and ultimately, the media, to show how everyone - all of us - are in it. The writing is exquisite, as is the ensemble, the direction, the music...
But enough. If you take my bait, I have only one caveat: The Wire thrusts you right into the middle of its world in the first episode, which took Tater and I three attempts to get through. There's little exposition, and you may wish for subtitles; there's an entire vocabulary that has to be learned and a large cast to get to know. One of the great things about creator David Simon's method is its canny sense of storytelling: a seemingly thrown-away conversational exchange often contains a whopper of a major plot point, and the most startling moments of drama can unfold in a weirdly matter-of-fact, low-key way. You know - kind of like it is in real life.
My larger point, whether you choose to Wire now or never, is that great art doesn't always answer to a given time and place. I'm glad I finally caught up with The Wire, just as Tater thoroughly appreciated The Godfather, decades after its release. What matters, in arts and entertainment, isn't necessarily what just won the weekend. So if you've been wondering what the big fuss is about a certain show you chose to ignore, back in the day, I heartily recommend taking the time to seek it out and unlock its secrets. Catching up can be a great thing to do.
Speaking of which, I suppose this is the one silver lining that awaits my wife and I, when we enter our tragic Wire withdrawals. The Oscars are looming, and man, do we have a passel of current movies to catch up on.