Sunday, June 1, 2008

Season 1 Episode 1 - The Target

Scene opens with a pan up a trail of blood and flashing lights to a dead body.

This is the opening of what some have called the greatest drama of this decade, or the greatest television show ever, or the angriest show on television, or... you get the point. A lot of people who watched it, think it's pretty darn good.

The opening scene sets the up a show that definitely breaks the mold of "cop show." We get the story of snotboogie, a citizen of Baltimore who has a greed for money which ultimately kills him. It's a tragic tale which elicits more questions than answers for McNulty, the assigned homocide detective. How'd he get the name snot? Who killed him? Why'd they even let him play the weekend dice game, when he snatched pot every time it got big. Those assembled would customarily beat him up except this time. McNulty does find out why they let him play: "You got to. This is America."

The opening story sets up some of the show's ultimate themes, like the brutality of the city, "games," and the false opportunity of America's myths. These might be a bit pretentious for a cop show- but remember "It's not TV. It's HBO." The opening also provides a compelling (true) story about human life, and one which likely never made it into the paper. If Simon is a journalist, then this is the human interest story on A1 of the West Baltimore Sun. And the story is one of the many true tales which Simon and Ed Burns introduce from their experiences in the institutions of Baltimore.

The opening also never features into the overall narrative. At all. In TV world, the pilot (which this basically is) must provide all of the necessary backstory, introduce the main characters, and make an argument for filming episodes 2-13. Apparently snotboogie's story didn't help this because HBO initially declined to pick up The Wire. It later would authorize the show after Simon's begging letter convinced them.

"...when it's not your turn"

After the credits (also worth discussion on another day), we find ourselves in the courtroom. In the case of D'Angelo Barksdale, the jury found the defendant innocent even though he was guilty as sin. This was another example of witness intimidation by the Barksdale crew. But the interaction between String and McNulty shows that, no hard feelings, this is just business.

Back to an unidentified block and Kima, Herc, and Carver introduce themselves. Kima is cool, calm, and all business. Herc and Carver play the role of beat'em down, take no prisoners, "the Western District way" cops. This is a successful narcotics bust- reminiscent of typical cops shows, but fairly small time stuff.

Back to the Barksdale court room for the jury's decision- innocent. Then onto the Judge's chambers where McNulty begins discussing Barksdale, the real Barksdale, Avon. This is one place where the opening quote, "...when it ain't your turn" applies. McNulty could play dumb and not stir up trouble with Judge Phalen, but instead he tells him about Barksdale's power and success in the towers. If this were a Greek Tragedy, it would be that one act by the protagonist which leads the gods to strike him down in Act III. Later in the episode, we get another example of a small act with long term consequences. When McNulty tells Sargent Jay Landsman where he doesn't want to go, the boat, it surprises no one that McNulty eventually ends up here.

I particularly like some of the exchanges, including:

McNulty: Think about clearing the court?
Phalen: On what basis? It's an open court, a free nation of laws.
McNulty: I thought it was Baltimore.

This sets up a theme that Baltimore is not the same as "America," at least as America considers itself (which I've written on).

Later, the Bunk decides to answer his phone (even though it wasn't his turn) after hearing a body was found indoors- unfortunately it turns out to be a vacant. This little turn is an example of the realism that Simon tries to bring to the show. According to the DVD commentary, every detective in the country knows why Bunk prays for the indoor body because he has a much greater possibility of solving the case.

Up to this point the show has introduced four different cases in rapid fire, none of which have much importance (the Gant case being the exception). In the world of network procedurals, this would be a big no-no. But it soon becomes The Wire's bread and butter.

The episodes also introduces my blog's namesake, Bubbles. He's a happy
go lucky dope fiend with the skills to successfully hustle his daily
fix, but he's also a teacher. He's trying to "school" his new white
friend name Johnny. When Johnny fails at the fake money scam and gets
beaten within an inch of his life- Bubbles decides he will turn on the
Barksdale crew. This is another example of how "all the pieces matter."
A theme which will be discussed more in later episodes.

One other theme, that would achieve larger significance is how institutions function. AKA "shit rolls downhill." The narcotics crew makes note of this, but you don't get it in full until McNulty and Dee get reamed out by their respective bosses. Both McNulty and Dee get "punished" for their errors in judgement. we also learn about "chain of command" from Major Rawls, Burrell, and Lieutenant Daniels.

The episode closes with what will become a well known feature- Bunk and McNulty's drunken bullshit sessions by the railroad tracks. Bunk tells another true story, this one about Bunk shooting a mouse with his service nine. More importantly, McNulty almost gets run over by a train. A symbol that I have also discussed on numerous examples. This is an instance when the symbol, representing the institutions of Baltimore, comes closest to rolling over McNulty in reality. But in a symbolic sense, the episode shows how Baltimore's cop shop is slowly massing against him.


In plot and theme, the show is a far cry from "the cop show," even at this early episode. But in the show's look and feel as well, it's a very different world. This episode, directed by Clark Johnson, used a very gritty and real style, favoring hand-held shots, wide angles, and footage from natural sources (like security camaras). As many have said, it's a world where we all are increasingly being listened to and watched. But in the show's music it also treads some fresh ground for TV. All music must come from natural sources- car stereos, boom boxes, etc. This is very different from network procedurals which use music to lead the viewer by indicating suspense, resolution, and conflict.

The show is different in its characterization as well. Simon introduced a whole trove of actors in the first show, most of whom will make further appearances. This includes- McNulty, Bunk, Landsman, D'Angelo, Avon, Orlando, Stringer, Wee Bey, Stinkum, Savino, Phalen, Bubbles, Johnny, Kima, Herc, Carver, Daniels, Freamon, Burrell, Poo, Bodie, Wallace, Coles, and about 20 more in addition. The only characters who seems to have a main role in bridging between the different worlds at this time is McNulty and Bubbles. The procedurals feature a small cast of notable detectives and a revolving list of crooks who float in and then float out after the police catch them and solve the cases.


To sum up, the first episode introduces some very big themes that later episodes and seasons will address. More importantly it introduces a style outside of the traditional cop show in plot, characters, visually, and even in sound. The Wire staked new ground on television with this episode and broke many conventions. But the show had greater aspirations than to be "not your average cop show" or "better than Homocide." These came out in later episodes which I'll keep discussing tomorrow.

No comments: