Over the last few weeks, I finally watched HBO’s The Wire in its entirety. It was a fascinating ride.
The show’s greatest strength is, far and away, its attempt at realism. The speech, the violence, the depictions of impossible choices and ineffectual bureaucracies…all of it has more sincerity to it than most of your run-of-the-mill network television series.
And this is a big part of why I like a lot of “grittier” shows. When Dexter Morgan calls his missing sister’s voicemail to frantically ask “where the fuck are you?” you feel a real sense of gravity because there isn’t some imposed lexicon of decency from which he is allowed to choose his words. When Big Love addresses the reality of polygamous families living in middle-class America, you get sucked into the stories because they don’t have to avoid the usual awkward taboos. And when Walter White transforms himself from a mild-mannered high school teacher into a hardened, utterly amoral criminal mastermind, it’s that much more enthralling to watch simply because the main character conforms to so few of the usual traits of a hero or a protagonist.
The Wire does a lot of similar things and it packs a heavy punch. After just a few episodes, racial tensions, extreme swear words, police brutality and infuriating bureaucrats have held their sway over the narratives. What I find particularly refreshing about this series, however, is the sense of meaninglessness. The rising and falling of so many of the characters speak to a failing system that feeds its own failure, a vicious cycle of violence and corruption and futility. It’s a depressing theme, I suppose, but it’s an important one that’s illustrated so beautifully over the show’s five-season run.
One of the most important ways this was accomplished, I think, was through the on-screen deaths. Death on television tends to be either glamorized or brutalized. Sometimes it’s a murder victim being disposed of with unnecessary cruelty and sometimes it’s a hero going down in a blaze of glory. While The Wire does occasionally feature these aspects, more often than not, it tries to take things in a different direction. There is nothing heroic about Wallace begging for his life before an unceremonious bullet to the brain. There is no slow-motion, dramatically scored death scene for Bodie when he’s gunned down on his street corner. The demise of Omar is perpetrated suddenly and to little fanfare by a very minor character. And, notably, the child struck by a stray bullet from a gang shootout in season three is perhaps the best example of the senselessness of the show’s violence.
In contrast, some of my favorite network television shows can often fail to create the same atmosphere of realism. Supernatural, for example, suffers from the limited vocabulary that shows like Dexter and The Wire don’t have to worry about. Dean Winchester has always struck me as the kind of guy who would be very foulmouthed, but the closest he ever comes to it is a few bleeped words and a handful of indirect references. Every time Sam tells an obnoxious villain to “shut the hell up,” I get a little disappointed because in most cases, you can tell that the character really meant to use the F-word. For a show that deals so much in heavy, apocalyptic stories, it’s frustrating to me when the dialogue can’t match the subject matter.
In Burn Notice, another favorite of mine, Michael Westen gets himself into almost-going-down-in-a-blaze-of-glory situation every few episodes. And his mother’s final scenes, which culminate in her blowing herself up to save her son, are complete with tearful goodbyes and solemn last words. These are touching moments, to be sure, but they can feel a little contrived. Sometimes fiction is supposed to be contrived to allow the viewer (or reader) to vicariously live in a world in which death is that meaningful and sacrifice is that poetic. But it’s difficult to create those kinds of scenes without abandoning some of the realism or resorting to anything maudlin or excessively hokey.
None of this is to say, of course, that series from HBO and Showtime and Netflix are inherently superior to network shows. But I do believe that the less you have to conform your writing to an outside standard, the more potential you give it. Sincerity and honesty are what can make a story really connect with its audience. I’ve seen some ebooks on Amazon that I think are completely nuts…but I can at least tell, while reading the previews, that the authors have poured their hearts into them. If there are people who can relate to that stuff, I think they’ll get that much more out of it because it’s pure and it isn’t censored or whittled down into something marketable or less offensive.
Not every book or movie or television show needs F-words and rape scenes and meaningless carnage. But if that’s the direction in which it needs to go, I hope writers don’t shy away from things that belong there. So whether your story is headed to a dark place or whether it exists solely in dark places, remember to keep the writing honest.