Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Wire vs. The Shield

In the past few weeks I've had the same conversation with two of my friends. Their answer to the Tupac vs. Biggie debate is quickly Biggie. I retort "But have you really listened to Tupac?" "Honestly... not really."

While the Black Frank White is undoubtedly one of the best ever, Tupac, in my opinion, was better. Biggie gets the shine with folks in my generation because his songs are catchier, "Notorious" was an awesome movie and there's a bit of East Coast bias thrown in there.

"The Wire is better than The Shield" my friends say. "Okay, but have you really seen The Shield?"

A Facebook wall post from my friend Jonathan Brice: "I aint a killer but dont push me....still like biggie better. You switch to the wire yet?" The Wire has more shine than The Shield. It has a cult-like following that makes it cool to say you've watched it (see: "Fight Club"). It was on HBO so anything was fair game, making what they showed seem extra gritty with a hint of wow. The Wire also (popularly) cast actors that were relatively unknown and even some off the same streets it was shooting.

I've gone through both series. Hell, I've gone through entire series of The Shield four times. And I can say with little* bias that The Shield is better.

*Bias upfront: The Shield is the first and only TV show that I truly loved. There's that certain feeling attached to it that I will always get whenever I talk about it. I get that feeling because the show was great and earned it, but nevertheless, The Shield would always get an extra bump for me because of that.*

(Non) Spoiler Alert -- I will spoil The Wire for those reading. However, I will not spoil The Shield. It's my assumption that most of you reading have seen as much as 50 minutes of The Shield despite the 88 episodes that aired on FX that won it a Best Television Series award in 2008.

Pilot: The pilot of The Wire is slow and methodical. The Wire is a series that you can't just pick up in the middle of Season 3 and expect to know what's going on (see: Mad Men). It's a show that you must watch from start to finish. While it's recommended you do that for every show, including The Shield, it's not nearly as necessary for The Wire (the advantages of being on HBO instead of cable). Nevertheless, I watched The Wire pilot in March. I didn't watch the second episode until June. The Shield, on the other hand, forces you to watch the next episode as soon as "Bawitdaba" finishes at the end of the pilot (Note: This is by far the worst song in The Shield's coup of music. The music on The Shield gets much better as creator Shawn Ryan works out the kinks.)

Strongest Characters: I told my friend Louie Horvath, who really pushed me to watch The Wire and whom I push equally as hard to watch The Shield, that I would be devastated and consider leaving the show when Stringer Bell dies. He died -- we'll talk about that later -- and I kept watching. I kept watching because Omar Little is so damn good. He robs and kills people, but he has a strong moral code, almost Dexter-like. He doesn't cuss, he takes his grandmother to church once a month, he doesn't turn his gun on anyone who doesn't deserve it. Then I realized why I love him so much. The paradox that his character is reflects perfectly with Vic Mackey of The Shield. Vic, whom you may remember from The Commish or The Thing in Fantastic Four, leads his small unit of police with gusto. The anti-hero plants drugs on suspects (who are guilty of something), screws around on his wife and he kills people. But he loves his kids -- two of whom are later found to be autistic -- he's good police and he, too, never turns his gun on anyone who doesn't have it coming. Omar and Vic are the same but in completely different places. With The Shield, you get Vic as the main character for seven seasons. With The Wire, you're lucky to get Omar for ten minutes a show.

Villains: There's no one else I'd rather see catch a bullet than Marlo Stanfield. He comes out of nowhere and takes over all of the Baltimore drug trade as a 20-year-old, all for the sake of wearing the crown. I hated him so much because I liked Avon Barksdale and Stringer just as much. B&B were a great mix of street smarts and business that ruled Baltimore fairly, but as Avon said, "There's always gonna be a Marlo." Marlo entered unassumingly, practicing his golf swing when politely telling Bodie to get off his corner. I never thought I'd see the guy again. His rise to power was quick and lethal -- the number of bodies he left in The Wire rivals the number in the final minutes of "The Departed." The villains in The Shield, those pitted against Vic's strike team, aren't as strong because you know they'll be disposed by the end of the season -- it's cable after all. But the heroes that turn into villains are incredible, and The Shield takes a much more subtle approach to creating a Marlo Stanfield.

"Did that really happen?": The first episode I ever saw of The Shield had that "Wow" moment. Police captain David Aceveda, a smug soon-to-be politician who Vic refers to as a "quota baby" for his Hispanic heritage, little background in police work and quick appointment to lead a police station, is cornered by two men and sexually assaulted. ON CABLE TELEVISION. You can't top that. The Wire could do anything it wanted on HBO and nothing ever matched that. The only time it even came close is when Rawls is seen at the gay bar for a brief moment in Season 3. I thought it'd be an interesting subplot to see how Rawls battles being homosexual in a male-driven police department that oozes masculinity. Instead, it's never brought up. Not a slight look at a man as he passes by, not a look into Rawls' home, no flashbacks to his childhood. It's like when JK Rowling said after the Potter series was over that Dumbledore was gay. Uhh... where is that?

Weakest season: The Wire Season 2 stands alone as the weakest season of all. I spoke with Joe Ovies about this yesterday and he revealed to me that seeing how the dock workers (a white group) are forced to help the drug dealers (a black group) when neither really want to work together over a long, begrudged period of time is what The Wire is about. I agree with you, Joe, and that is quite an insight. I still hated Season 2. Ziggy was weak and never heard from again, the gratutitous showing of Frank's nephew at the Mayor's speech at the dock in Season 5 was lackluster and the ending of 2, the "Hahaha I'm not even Greek" was hokey and below The Wire's standards. Likewise, The Shield Season 6 stands out as the weakest of the seven. It sets up a perfect and beautiful Season 7, but the entire time you can just tell it's a space filler for the good stuff, busy work from the teacher.

Deaths: This section will be more about The Wire since I cannot spoil deaths on The Shield for you readers. While I said Stringer's death would drive me away from the show, I still came back. I came back because of how satisfying the death was. While he should have known Avon was setting him up (when a hardened criminal and your best friend asks you for the first time in your life when a run-of-the-mill meeting is happening and you're on the verge of turning him into the police, you should make a mental note of that) the scene of him attempting to flee the warehouse like a businessman -- instead of a street-smart gangster -- is incredible. He tries to talk his way out of it instead of standing like a thug and saying "How's my hair look?" Masterful stuff from The Wire. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Omar. Yes I understand the scene: The normally precise and cautious Omar goes to the store to buy his favorite Newports (which, by the way, owns nearly 50% of the African-American market -- a true monopoly), looks as someone enters and pays the child no mind, and is promptly capped in the head by the kid who wanted to impersonate Omar earlier in the show. Yes, I got it. The fact still remains that OMAR LITTLE IS CAPPED BY AN INFANT. Forget the poetry of it, Omar deserved a death in the streets with a rival or to be imprisoned beside Avon. To be done by a kid? Omar? Really? As for The Shield, the death in the Season 5 finale is heartbreaking and perfect.

Series finale: Again, I won't ruin The Shield for you, because I know that all of you are going to illegally stream The Shield as soon as you're done with this post and embark on the best experience of your life. Suffice it to say that the series finale of The Shield is fulfilling. I didn't think I'd know what to do when The Shield came to a close. But that damn finale did the entire series justice and made every Tuesday night that I spent watching that show from 13 to my freshman year in college worth it. Every end was tied and every person got what they deserved based upon their morals. The Wire's series finale was overdone. Okay, so Michael becomes Omar, Dequan becomes Bubbles, Marlo becomes Stringer, Pearlman becomes Judge Phelan and so on. It drives home the point that Baltimore life is cyclical, but I didn't need all those examples. Dequan's fall to the land of junkies makes complete sense, and seeing how he asks for money from Prez is tough to watch -- a really well-done ending to his character. But Marlo becoming Stringer is too much. Levy telling him not to talk to the guy unless he's in the room, the tan suit, the Clay Davis sighting -- all of it was a little much for me. But then Marlo going back on the street to show how he was once king and getting scraped up? C'mon. He misses the streets and he's not a business man, I get it. But for a slow, methodical show like The Wire, that came a little too fast.

The moral of this story: Listen to Tupac and go watch The Shield. Just try it out. If you made it through this entire story then you'd be foolish not to watch The Shield's pilot. Not because I think my argument is convincing -- I tried to balance the merits of both shows but also break any grandiose aberrations the cult following has left folks --but because you just made it through this whole post. The Wire is a great show and fully worth watching, but so too is The Shield.


  1. I feel like your whole argument seems to boil down to "The Shield is a more entertaining show with a greater mastery of drama." While that may be true on some level, and it's a show with great characters and writing, it seems to possess less gravitas than The Wire does in it's comment on morality, humanity, and modern America. From what I've seen of The Shield, it also feels less realistic, so at least for me, I also feel less involved with the characters.

    Additionally, you seem to not particularly like The Wire's pacing, which is undeniably slow — for me, however, it's part of what makes it so compelling. In it's pacing and it's inclusion of conversations with no real relevance to the plot, you come to know and love its characters on a profound level, more like you would in a book than a traditional tv show. That makes their triumphs, failures, and deaths all the more involving. So maybe The Shield is indeed a more thrilling and entertaining show, but I think The Wire, at least for me, leaves one thinking about it for a longer time on a deeper level.

    p.s. I agree, Pac is better than Biggie, but Illmatic-era Nas slightly edges out both.

  2. I'm gonna hold off with my final verdict until I've seen all of The Shield, I'm just working through the second season now, and I'll say up front that I have the opposite bias, as I watched The Wire first and it is far and away the best thing that's ever aired on TV in my opinion. I'll admit that The Shield is picking up in the second season, but I found it very hard to get a grip on during most of the first. The small cast and strange, sometimes even wacky criminals they where dealing with made it hard to take it serious and the amount of stuff Mackey & his hit squad get away with seems hard to believe, at least the crooked cops on The Wire where a little more sophisticated and careful, or maybe that's just how I remember/interpreted it.

    The fact that The Wire doesn't allow for viewers to just jump in mid-season is one of the things I loved about it, it was refreshing with a series that was so unrelenting and cut the crap and just told the story the way it wanted without abiding to norms or conventions. Some episodes where 42 minutes some 65 what ever suited that chapter.

    Idris Elba is amazing as Stringer Bell and I'm really looking forward to seeing him in Luther as soon as I'm done with The Shield - which, so far - doesn't have any actors with as much charisma and powerful presence. Likewise the Omar Little character was a favorite from the start.

    I definitely agree that Season 2 of The Wire is the weakest but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Like I said I haven't seen enough of The Shield to make a judgement call yet, but so far Mackey is really not charming me one iota.