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Way Down in the Hole: 6 Great Dramas That Owe a Debt to "The Wire"

By Daniel Carlson and Joanna Robinson | Lists | April 23, 2012 |

By Daniel Carlson and Joanna Robinson | Lists | April 23, 2012 |

“The Wire” casts a long shadow. Whether or not you consider it the greatest show ever made, there’s no denying that it’s one of the biggest and best shows ever created. (We ranked its second season as one of the best TV seasons of the past quarter century.) As such, a number of currently airing shows owe David Simon’s epic a debt of gratitude, from story ideas to character treatments. Check it:

“Breaking Bad”: A Man Must Have a Code
Walter White is one tough son a bitch, but he’s not without his principles. This sounds like a cheat, or a rationalization, but it’s actually the key to understanding who he is. He didn’t wake up one day and think “I am willing to commit a murder for financial gain.” He got cancer, got desperate, and made a series of increasingly dangerous choices that changed his soul as much as the world around him. He became (is still becoming) brutal, but he tries to see every choice through the lens of a certain moral framework, even as that frame warps over time. This happened a lot on “The Wire.” As Omar said, “I do some dirt, too, but I ain’t never put my gun on nobody that wasn’t in the game.” What makes these people fascinating villains — what unites Walter White and the slingers of Bodymore, Murdaland — is their ability to construct an ethical code based on circumstance and to then do their best to actually adhere to it. That’s infinitely more interesting than a stock character who just wants money, or power, or to cause whatever chaos the script demands of him. The most seductive and powerful bad guys aren’t “evil,” at least not in the black-and-white way we conceive it. They’re just willing to go further than the other guy. Their code is more extreme, but it’s still there. — DC

“Game of Thrones”: You Come at the King, You Best Not Miss
Simon and company made no bones about likening their drug kings to the monarchs of old. The iciest contender for the throne, Marlo Stanfield, said, “The crown ain’t worth much if the nigga wearin’ it always gettin’ his shit took.” And over the seasons of “The Wire” we saw contenders rise and fall. Avon, Stringer, Proposition Joe, and Marlo all took their shot with varying degrees of success (and mortality rates). And as much as “The Wire” appears to be about drugs and “Game of Thrones” appears to be about dragons, both shows are, ultimately, about politics. They deal in corruption, shifting allegiances, layers of truth and high stakes. Make no mistake, your favorite characters could and will die at any moment. From the smallest kid on the corner and the most pathetic boy on the wall, to the loftiest kings and kingpins, everyone is fair game. Both Omar Little and Tyrion Lannister demonstrate that intelligence and craftiness is rewarded (to a point) but, in the end, power is power. Oh, and watch out for anyone played by Aidan Gillen; he’s always got a trick or two up his sleeve. —JR

“Downton Abbey”: If You With Us, You With Us
“Downton Abbey” is all about the dangers of walking outside the walls you’ve built around your class. The show’s second season was a good deal soapier than its first (and less concerned with niggling details like motivation and logic), but it was still riveting in its observation of the power that comes with money and the habitual way those with control seem to forget that theirs are lives of privilege. The thrust of the past two seasons — six years in story time, if you can believe it — has been to find Mary a suitable mate that won’t leave her reputation tarnished or dismantle her future fortune. At the same time, the second season saw Sybil (you know, the way hot one) debating the merits of marrying her family’s chaffeur finally doing so and scandalizing her family in the process. Yet it’s worth noting that such transgressions are, in the world of “Downton Abbey,” a one-way street. It’s one thing for someone at Sybil’s level to marry a working man. It’s another for someone in the lower classes to try and get out of them. The servants’ backstories are all about how their parents worked hard just to give them a chance to be slightly higher-ranking servants; their dreams aren’t of success or wealth, but of doing well enough so that their grandchildren might have it better. The schism between the worlds is impossible to overstate. Those problems defined the social spheres of “The Wire,” too. From childhood, the youth of Baltimore are already on the edge of becoming corner boys, and it’s a lot easier to sink into it than it is to escape it. Think of Dookie’s sad surrender to the life in a year, and of Bubbles’ decades-long struggle to climb out of the gutter. Nothing has the power to shape you so much as when and where you’re born, whether it’s to a single mom next to the Pit or to the Earl of Grantham. — DC

“Sons Of Anarchy”: Game’s the Same, Just Got More Fierce
FX’s erratically brilliant drama about a California biker gang grappling to maintain control over the drug and gun trade shares some very superficial similarities with “The Wire.” Players jockey for power, there are those low-life criminals you love and those you hate. Like “The Wire,” plot lines you thought were dead and buried will come back to haunt characters several seasons later, rippling through the universe to create interconnected (if not always coherent) storytelling. But despite creator Kurt Sutter’s disavowal (“The Wire we ain’t, nor do we aspire to be”), the most compelling link between the two shows is the way they’ve updated classic literature to fit the modern crime world. David Simon was acutely aware of the debt he himself owed to Charles Dickens, calling an episode in the last season “The Dickensian Aspect.” Sutter, on the other hand, took on an even more ambitious adaptation by transplanting Shakespeare’s Hamlet into the central Californian Valley. And while neither show runner restricted themselves to their source material, the classical allusions prove that it’s same as it ever was, be it doublet and hose or leather vest and riding boots, no one’s getting out of this mother alive. —JR

“Homeland”: The Bigger the Lie, the More They Believe
Carrie Matheson’s insanity-fueled surveillance binges seem a far cry from Lester Freamon’s methodical, furniture polishing sessions tapped into the titular wire. But in her often dubious and increasingly desperate pursuit of “justice,” one can easily see echoes of a latter season, off-the-wagon McNulty. Frustrated by bureaucracy and by those who doubt the legitimacy of their sterling instincts, both Agent Matheson and Det. McNulty stray outside the bounds of the law for what they deem to be “the greater good.” “Homeland” is explicitly based on Israel’s hit series “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”), but while that show’s focus was a more subtle exploration of the psychological injuries done to POW’s, “Homeland” created its unforgettable crackle and hiss by making the damaged Agent Matheson its focus. And though “The Wire” and “Homeland” are not the only shows to center on someone working outside the bounds of the law to serve a higher code, (“The Shield” is just one example that comes to mind), I can’t recall any characters as f*cked up, reckless, and ultimately as noble as Matheson and McNulty. They’re willing to wreck everything in their path to catch their man and whether it’s the frustrating obstructions of their agencies or their own frailties that have made them this way, they’re both fascinating and terrifying to watch.—JR

“Justified”: We Got Our Thing, But It’s Just Part of the Big Thing
I thought a lot about “The Wire” watching the latest season of “Justified.” The shows had a few narrative similarities (notably the drug trade and its effects on a given region’s law and economy), but what really jumped out at me was the way Harlan and its environs had come to feel like a rounded, real place. The show’s always been about the South, but it’s been a pleasant surprise to see the setting become as vital a character as any of the human heroes or villains. A lot of this is thanks to the way the show’s season-long arcs have effects on the years to follow, so betrayals and twists from the first season have an impact on relationships in the third, and so on. That makes from some wonderfully rich stories that take their time and call back to each other in complicated ways. More than that, though, it’s the specific allure of Harlan and its gallery of characters that makes the show feel like a fully formed universe, and not just a scene for a play enacted for the benefit of viewers. The show has stretched every season to include more people, more parts of the city and state, and more interweaving plot lines, all of which make Harlan that much more tangible in our imagination. Obviously, the show’s sheen is different from the documentary-inspired approach of “The Wire,” but they’re still a lot alike. Every season of “The Wire” introduced a new region or conception of Baltimore, until what started as a show about the drug trade in the projects became a sweeping look at a city as organism. “Justified” doesn’t have the same goals as “The Wire,” but its organic world-building is straight out of B-More. — DC

Daniel Carlson and Joanna Robinson felt “Treme” was too obvious to be included.

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