The Wire (official site) is often held up for as a paragon of modern television, and with good reason, but rarely for its cinematography and visuals. Writers have criticized the show for being so plainly shot (David Bordwell calls The Wire “uninspiringly shot” here, for instance), but the video above by Erlend Lavik, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at the University of Bergen, persuasively argues that The Wire’s plain shooting style belies the complexity of visual metaphors, compositions, and camera use throughout the series. The video is worth a watch…I rarely sit through video online, but made it through the 36 minutes of this essay with ease.
Lavik argues that just as the show doesn’t hold the hands of viewers in subject matter, dialog, characterization, and so forth, the cinematography of the show works subtly and effectively to communicate complex ideas in a visual way. Whereas the current crop of “cinematic” television can be quite heavy-handed with visual styling (Breaking Bad’s over-the-top sepia/yellow-toned scenes are a notable example), The Wire deftly uses camera movements and compositions influenced by documentary filmmaking to create a sense of verisimilitude and honesty in the story, all without really drawing attention to its techniques. The series uses wide compositions, frames within frames, lingering shots, a lack of flashbacks, music used only as experienced by characters, and a variety of other techniques to suss out mood, character, and plot, in a way that few other shows have been able to do, even with much flashier visual language.
If you liked the series, watch the video above. If you haven’t watched the series, watch the show, and then watch the video above.
While we’re at it, here’s a thread on reddit in which the supervising sound editor on the show talks about his work for the series; this comment is particularly interesting. And here’s an interesting oral history of the making of The Wire published last year. Matt and I could both go on and on about this show, having watched it as it aired, but that’s enough for now. Oh, an here’s a post from 2009 about the 100 greatest quotes from the show.