Why You Love "The Wire," Explained In Fascinating Detail

A Norwegian academic breaks down the visual style of The Wire and in so doing, illustrates why creative integrity matters.

The Wire re-emerged in headlines recently when show creator David Simon made some (seemingly misunderstood) comments about late-arriving fans of the show.

While Simon expressed an "amused contempt" for fans who walked "sideways" into the challenging show long after its five-season run had concluded, what he was really decrying was a certain website’s Wire-based bracket specifically, and the post-mortem dumbing down of the series in general. One imagines, then, that Simon would look kindly (to the extent that he can look kindly) upon "Style in The Wire," a video from a Norwegian academic that breaks down the look and filmmaking techniques of the acclaimed series in painstaking detail. Even—or especially—a creative stickler of Simon’s caliber would surely appreciate the thoughtful homage to uncompromising creativity that the video represents.

Created by Erlend Lavik, who hails from the Department of Information Science and Media at the University of Bergen, Norway, "Style in The Wire" dissects the beloved show from the standpoint of visual style—the filmmaking philosophy and camera techniques used to tell the stories of Baltimore’s hardest men and women.

Lavik begins by making the point that though the TV show as an entertainment form has ascended in the cultural ranks and is now commonly dubbed "better than movies," this rise in station has little to do with the visual style of the shows. When TV is good, in other words, it’s typically down to the medium’s particular capacity for narrative and character development.

And here he turns his attention to The Wire, a show he identifies as the "crown jewel" in the golden age of TV. Like anyone else, Lavik admits that The Wire’s greatest achievements were in dialog, character, and plot, but then goes on to make an argument that the show’s unusual and disciplined shooting style contributed, seamlessly, to the impact of the end product. The result of this style was a show that allowed viewers the satisfaction of discovering the beauty of a story, instead of having it explicitly and repeatedly pointed out to them.

"For several years now, I’ve had an interest in the potential that digital technology has to reinvigorate film and television criticism," says Lavik of his labor-intensive project. "I had sought to explore this in a couple of academic articles, but realized that theoretical speculations only take you so far, and decided it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I chose The Wire partly because it is a series that I admire a lot, and partly because I’m writing a book on the show, so I had already done much of the research." Lavik says the show’s visual style had been neglected by critics but the topic itself was a good vehicle for him to explore the video essay format. "Literary critics have always been able to do this, of course, and now finally film critics can do the same. It can be very awkward to write about film style without recourse to the visuals, so the video essay should enable us to analyze film and television’s artistic means of expression in more nuanced and accessible ways than before."

The great thing about Lavik’s video is that it itemizes and demonstrates the creative decisions—imperceptible to the "average viewer"—that made the show excellent. But it also provides a powerful demonstration of the monumental effect that those seemingly small creative decisions have on any creative end product.

Of course Simon has famously exhibited some disregard for the sensibilities of that average viewer ("fuck the average viewer," he has said, as is noted in the video). And Lavik’s video shows how that attitude informed the style of the show, which in turn helped make the show the creative milestone it was. And the video reminds us that while it doesn’t sound pretty, the underlying philosophy of "fuck the average viewer" is the best thing that can happen to a creative work—and an audience.

So does Lavik think even devoted viewers of The Wire will be able to clock the subtle techniques he dissects in his analysis? "That’s a very interesting question, because one of the main reasons I wanted to explore the video essay format was that I felt it could help bridge the gap between academic and journalistic film criticism," says Lavik. "Film scholarship has become so highly specialized, and often esoteric, that much of it does not even attempt to speak to anyone outside of the research community. Journalistic film criticism, on the other hand, often lacks ambition, I think, and functions merely as a form of consumer guidance. Writers rarely give their readers anything to reach for. Everything is pre-digested for you. The video essay I made is obviously meant for people who have already seen The Wire, but I hope most of those who are familiar with the show will be able to follow my arguments and observations. I certainly don’t think anyone will find it totally incomprehensible. But so what if there’s something you don’t understand? You’re watching it online, so Google it! Coming across something you don’t comprehend is not a cause for offense, but an opportunity to learn."

You may have to save a complete viewing of the 35-minute video for later depending on your work load, office environment, or perspective on creative sidetracking. For now, here are some of Lavik’s observations.

The overall style of the show is "quite plain," in contrast to the self-consciousness—and attendant camera tricks—of many other shows.

Even techniques like slow motion are used sparingly, and other elaborate devices not at all. The story is linear. And the one flashback that does take place in the series, Lavik notes, was included at HBO’s behest. Lavik also notes that Simon was influenced by documentarians, including Frederick Wiseman.

Simon has said that he never wanted to see the camera "fish" on the show: "I never wanted to see the camera know more than it ought to know." The result is, for example, that during a conversation, the camera moves to the next speaker after he has started speaking, not before. In other words, more like the way a camera would move in a similar scene in a documentary.

Lavik notes a relatively liberal use of wide framing and points out examples where this technique allows viewers to discern information and emotion for themselves, rather than having a close-up and extra edits hammer a point home.

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  • nayeem.mahbub

    great visual essay! just one thing, at the beginning he mentions that (tv scholar) jeremy butler critiques the show's "functional" audio-visual style, calling the first few episodes "downright clumsy". while i think this video makes a great argument for why the style of the show is so great, i do have to agree with a butler a little bit about the first couple of episodes.

    the first episode in particular is kind of dull visually (particularly the dialogue scenes, lots of flat shot-reverse shot talking heads; there are great shots though, like when weebey gets D out of the car to remind him of the rules). anyway, maybe was the pilot and they were still figuring things out? and then over the first few episodes they were exploring the visual possibilities. anyway, they found their voice very soon, and it was all gravy from there! i love the show, i just think it just takes a couple of episodes in the first season to find its visual groove.

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  • RobinB

    I don't understand David Simon's contemptuous, bitter diatribes against anyone he feels has slighted him or his work. Everything I've ever read about him has left a sour taste in my mouth. That disappoints me because I think Homicide: Life on the Street, based on Simon's A Year on the Killing Streets, is still one of the best series ever aired on network TV. Knowing what Simon is really like taints my view of the show a bit; he must be something like the emotionally restrained, deeply angry Pembleton. Why is David Simon always on the defensive?

  • Daniel Woodard

    Or maybe it's just an open challenge for people to demand more. I cancelled cable a while back, and I have done it before, though this time it's for keeps. It's a great medium that is largely wasted with cupcake throwing dwarf weight loss TMZ bachelorette ice fishing repo men with 14 kids in a singing contest. And then there are the news channels with the yelling, the over-talking, the simplified labels, the edited sound bites manipulated and looped. He may be a butt head about it, but it probably comes that that tortured artist thing where even he is just never really happy, even with his good work.

  • Kungfupanda

    May I add to the list of simplification devices: Limited color scheme (Buildings are brick red, cars are navy, otherwise it's mostly skin tones and some greys and browns). Absence of dating information (there is no display or mention of specific technology other than cell phones, no fashion, celebrity or brand references). Detectives' reasoning is displayed through dialogue (because of underfunding, all the officers seem to rely on typewriters and filing cabinets rather than using their computers. So the viewers don't have to look at the typical 'searching....searching...' computer screen all the time).

    But these are merely techniques. They can't be the reason why we love the  show.

  • Piablo

    "The average viewer"... I think people in general have a poor opinion of average humanity.  We get pummeled with exceptional stories from the media and associate that with the 'average' person. Unrealistic.

    The average viewer is more intelligent than most of us give credit to which is also why a show like The Wire can be considered so great.

  • Suleman

    So much can be added and manipulated using thoughtful visual and camera techniques. The impact, mood and feel of a scene or character can be enhanced dramatically.  Not enough film and TV series producers pay attention to this, perhaps because it is too laborious or complex to think about it. I hope The Wire will make others more ambitious.

  • Jj

    Lavik is plagerizing from several of Zizek's ideas given in a lecture last year. Guilty.

  • Greg St. Arnold

    There's a scene in season 1 - Avon and Stringer and crew walking through the pit, he's kinda overseeing everything - it's shot in slow-mo, with some funky music.  I always wondered if that scene was put in by execs, it just seemed so out of place compared to the feel of the rest of the season.  

  • Daniel Woodard

    Maybe it was supposed to represent "swagger." The swagger of making money off the streets, of living outside the bounds. That feeling of living the life of being in a video. He's looking at his "empire" and giving himself a video treatment. I see that same swagger at the grocery store, in the clubs, etc. Consciously project image, instead of just being.

  • Dennis

     I agree that it does indeed seem out of place. I re-watched the series fairly recently and too was stricken by how overly stylized and out of place it was.

  • M.Florianz

    Glad I.Jones mentioned the music as sound is so often underestimated  for the impact it can have.

    The Wire has thoughtful audio often mimicking the tension and relationship of characters in the chosen backdrop of sounds, be it airplanes, the sound of children playing or cars suddenly accelerating.

    Required viewing and listening really.

  • I. Jones

    I don't get involved with many series or tv shows but I got excited when I heard the theme start to play. I didn't watch the videos and I guess that's what this article is about so forgive me. I wanted to mention the music, the theme, the street, and for me this was  real. As real as it could be sitting in my apt in Texas. And they swiched it up from year to year but it still had continuity of some characters but they came and went. I may have watched the first episode and knew it was different. The kid got on the bar and whipped it out. Ziggy? The docks the underbelly the politicians the teachers the cops and the voyeurs. Fuck the average viewer is ok by me.

  • marlinpage

    I now own the series on DVD and I never get tired of watching it.  Absolutely awesome show!

  • Surelyd

    The Wire is the greatest piece of visual art ever created by mankind. I envy those who have yet to watch it, pity those who don't "get it" and despise those who don't like it.

  • P|C

    What a breath of fresh air! It is for the benefit of academics and viewers alike to go even deeper into what makes this show so utterly brilliant and compare and contrast it with the choices we ourselves make as a society. In my mind The Wire represents the greatest achievement surely in television history (and perhaps even film), as it redefines not only the medium in which it resides, but the world in which it reflects with devastating accuracy. Although this is a somewhat obscure comparison, the reflection/commentary on real life, and the brilliance found in the synchronicity/structure of each episode, season and the series in its entirety evokes such classics of literature as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  Each season peels away another rotting, decadent layer of society that provides greater significance to every other episode of the series, and ultimately the overarching themes/ideas/contentions of the show. Following upon another element of this article, it IS about time film criticism stepped up and away from merely being a commercial companion to the box office. I can only imagine how much someone like Pauline Kael would have sunk her teeth into the endless depth and fascinating depictions found 'down in the hole.' As much as I love to chew over the best hit of the series, or 'coolest character', I can easily see where David Simon comes from with his ornery attitude in regards to Wire fandom. The series presents a unique opportunity, to ask vital questions to ourselves and each other about the norms and choices of the bureaucratic purgatory that dictates and destroys our lives. In 20 years when all has been said and done lets discuss the most badass way for Omar to carry his hair, until then, its all in the game yo.

  • Corey

    The Wire was great not because of what it had but for what it didn't have. It had no moral authority, cops were "bad", drug dealers were "good". It didn't pander to a specific age group like network television does. It didn't hang on to main characters at all costs, they died when they were supposed to die, no miracles. It didn't ask it's audience permission to take a certain story line. It wasn't obvious, it wasn't kind, it wasn't easy.