Help me watch The Wire.
January 18, 2010 9:05 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find spoiler-free information on The Wire? Also (and related), should I watch the prequels ahead of time?

So after about eighteen thousand recommendations, I picked up the boxed set of The Wire. So many friends whose opinions I respect speak so highly of it that I have bought the entire series without ever seeing even a single episode. And because I knew I wanted to watch it through in its entirety, I have more or less miraculously avoided learning anything about the plot.

However, as with any long-form drama, I expect there will be things that will sail past me: character names which are mentioned once and then not mentioned again until four episodes later and I will occasionally find myself in the weeds as far as following the finer points of the story. Is there a site which will give me refreshers on the characters as needed without exposing me to spoilers?

I ask because not long ago I watched the entire run of The Sopranos in a few weeks (I had previously watched it as far as the third or fourth season some years earlier). As there are literally hundreds of characters -- I think Wikipedia has entries for 332 different named characters from the series -- and probably 75% of them are played by Italian-American men aged between 30 and 55, I would occasionally see a character or hear him mentioned and realize that while I had seen him before, I couldn't place him. I did use a couple of online sources but I found that these were all written from the point of view from the end of the series... I would spot someone in the fourth season whom I vaguely recalled having turned up once in the second season, go to check him out, and learn that he gets stuffed into a car trunk with a slit throat in the sixth season. It diminished my enjoyment. Is there a way I can avoid this with The Wire?

The other question is that I notice there are three prequels in the boxed set. Should I look at these ahead of time, or will they just diminsh my experience by giving too much away (or alternately, do they work narratively by assuming the audience to know what has come afterwards)?
posted by ricochet biscuit to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The prequels are nonessential and don't have any spoilers. I think they were done mainly for people who'd been watching the show for a while--they were released just before Season 5--but watching them before starting the series proper would be fine.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:14 AM on January 18, 2010

HBO's synposes are good and spoiler-free if you don't click on the later episodes. I used it a lot when watching the show (as it aired) to clear up character names. They also have a spoiler free cast page to help with faces/names.

Re: prequels, like the rest of us, you should watch it in between seasons 4 and 5. :)
posted by neustile at 9:15 AM on January 18, 2010

I don't own the boxed set, but have watched the entire series. If the prequels you're referring to are what I think they are (link goes to Youtube clips of the prequels) there probably isn't anything earth-shattering in them that you would need to know before watching the series. They were produced as part of a promotion for the fifth series.
posted by emelenjr at 9:17 AM on January 18, 2010

Not to be a snark, but you're overthinking it. It's a TV show; it's meant to be watched. You will be a little confused at first, but you won't miss anything essential. Just watch it. If you feel you missed something, back up a little.

The nuances and identities of all the secondary characters really aren't important for your first viewing. If you watch it and decide you love it, watch it again, then you will really appreciate the things you missed.
posted by jckll at 9:24 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't worry too much, the series is not that hard to follow, especially if you're watching them on DVD in a crunched time period instead of week-by-week on TV.

One tip: you might want to watch the show with subtitles on, as it'll help you catch all the character names and spell out a lot of the street lingo you may not be familiar with.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:24 AM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's possible to avoid your Sopranos story with The Wire. At least it wasn't for me, and I fancy myself something of a skilled Googlerer. People LOVED talking about the episode that was just on and what a mind fuck it was, and putting the element, development or twist in the title of the page/blog post. "Did you see last night's Star Wars? DARTH VADER IS LUKE'S FATHER!!!"

Secondly, my personal interest was to watch it the way the rest of the world had to watch it (except I did the whole thing in like three weeks. serious), so I would watch them when the rest of the world saw them: between the fourth and fifth seasons.
posted by rhizome at 9:24 AM on January 18, 2010

I suggest you start at the beginning and work you way through. If many trusted friends had recommended a book, would you want study aids or would you just mix up a pitcher of ice tea and head out to the hammock so you could take your own sweet time to savor the book?

If you get a little fuzzy, you could always go back and check a TWP recap as a Cliff's Notes for that episode.

There's not going to be a "The Wire" test you have to pass to get into heaven, grad school, or someone's pants.

The prequels are not, necessarily, going to help or hurt - but they will take up valuable time you could use for watching "The Wire."
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:24 AM on January 18, 2010

You're going to have so much fun. The Wire is the best television show ever.

The first time through, I would just watch it straight through. You will miss lots and lots of details and it won't matter; you'll still have a great time. When you watch The Wire for the second or third time, you'll catch more details and the show only gets better.

The prequels are intended for people who've seen the whole series. I'd skip them until then.
posted by eisenkr at 9:24 AM on January 18, 2010

Best answer: Alan Sepinwall is a columninst for The Star-Ledger and a Wire junkie. He has overanalyzing blog posts for each episode in seasons 4 and 5 from the time they were shown, and he went back and did seasons 1 and 2 for "newbies" that don't have spoilers for later seasons. (Didn't get to season 3 yet, it seems.)

Season 1
Season 2
Season 4
Season 5

Only problem is that they are in the wrong order on those pages, so you have to work from the bottom to the top.

Television Without Pity also has recaps of most of the episodes (again missing most of season 3), which are good about refreshing your memory on who these characters are, or what exactly happened. Should be no spoilers, but very verbose.
posted by smackfu at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2010 [8 favorites]

I expect there will be things that will sail past me

And it's exactly those things that will make your 2nd pass through the series just as much fun as the first. :)

Seriously, just dive in and enjoy.
posted by mediareport at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2010

Best answer: Be sure to check out Slate's TV Club when you're watching Seasons 4 and 5. Several Slate writers and critics wrote a few entries each week to discuss the most recent episode. You'll have to be careful not to skip ahead and accidentally "spoil" anything, but it's great to have a running commentary from to complement each episode.

Slate TV Club: Season 4
Slate TV Club: Season 5
posted by BobbyVan at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2010

I used Wikipedia, but I skimmed the articles and usually only read the character intro/first paragraph parts.
posted by fire&wings at 9:33 AM on January 18, 2010

Oh how I envy you watching it for the first time!

I too would recommend diving in to Season 1, episode 1 and watching it through to the end, leaving the prequels, articles, etc. until you've watched all five seasons. The core characters on all "sides" are so well written and acted that you shouldn't need to look them up and whilst you might have some confusion on the more peripheral characters, don't worry about the names, it won't spoil your enjoyment/understanding in the least.

I'd also recommend switching subtitles/captions to on.

Also, if you get a bit of a sinking feeling after watching the first two episodes, wondering what all the fuss is about... keep watching. I've spoken to quite a few people who are so glad they got to episode 3 when "the magic" kicks in and you start caring about all of the players and real addiction begins. Enjoy!
posted by ceri richard at 9:36 AM on January 18, 2010

Best answer: Wow, you are going to be crushed if you don't like it.
posted by smackfu at 9:36 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, if you get a bit of a sinking feeling after watching the first two episodes, wondering what all the fuss is about... keep watching. I've spoken to quite a few people who are so glad they got to episode 3 when "the magic" kicks in and you start caring about all of the players and real addiction begins.

I didn't even like the SHOW throughout all of Season 1. Watched it, shrugged and didn't watch another episode for 2 years. S1 makes it seem like "another crime show", it's only in S2 and beyond that you start to see the scope of the series and how it pulls in elements of politics, the working class, the school system, the press, etc. to tell the story of a modern American city.

It was worth pushing through. I think the show reaches its peak in S3. And apparently I'm in the vast minority thinking that the final season was the other high point of The Wire.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:54 AM on January 18, 2010

Alan Sepinwall's episode by episode reviews are as good discussion and reviews as you will find to pair with watching the series new. He plans to recap and discuss Season 3 this summer. (The comments for that last link are somewhat spoiler-y.)

I would avoid the prequels until you get to the end of season 4, since they were released to promote season 5.
posted by andrewraff at 10:03 AM on January 18, 2010

On the stick-with-it subject of ceri richard and, somewhat, smackfu: I watched the first season and a half of The Wire without really thinking it was particularly great or interesting at all. I hadn't built it up much, but I was way underimpressed. Then somehow by the end of the second season I was rabidly hooked. So, even if you are crushed, stick with it.
posted by xueexueg at 10:07 AM on January 18, 2010

Beanplate. It's a TV show; it's meant to be watched. If you find yourself missing things, back up a few minutes. You don't need to know every minor detail and character to get the show. If you love it, you can go back and watch a second time for the nuances you may have missed. Just watch!
posted by jckll at 10:07 AM on January 18, 2010

If you really enjoy it enough to care about the details you are missing, you will watch it again. I've watched every episode in order twice, and am going through a third time now. I now know everyone's name and notice many intricacies that I missed the first time through. Even through I know what happens I still am thrilled. It is one of the few pieces of media that is truely worth owning instead of renting.
posted by nowoutside at 10:17 AM on January 18, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I will dive into it and, if needed, check some of the spoilerless links above f0r clarification.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:24 AM on January 18, 2010

Thirding the Alan Sepinwall recommendation. I'm currently plowing my way through the series, and his recaps for newbies have been really useful.
posted by lunasol at 10:55 AM on January 18, 2010

After watching the first two episodes, I was a bit nonplussed about the shows acclaim. After another episode I was completely hooked. Hang in there. I am now working through season 4. I am planning on naming my future dog 'Avon Barksdale'.
posted by jasondigitized at 11:46 AM on January 18, 2010

FWIW, if you do enjoy the show the first time, it's got excellent re-watch value. You definitely won't pick up everything the first time through. But you'll get the major plot arcs; and the small connections you miss will just make it more enjoyable when you come back to it in a few months or years or whatever.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:12 PM on January 18, 2010

I just finished Season Three of The Wire, and I have avoided reading anything about the show online just in case of spoilers. As with jasondigitized, though, I'm now done with three seasons and I'm still nonplussed about the show's acclaim. Don't get me wrong, it's quite a good show, but I'm really not getting the OMGTHEBESTSHOWEVERTHISISWHYTELEVISIONWASINVENTED vibe that my friends gave off which is what convinced me to watch it.

It's an excellent show, sure, and better than a lot of dreck that's on these days, but don't go in thinking it will revolutionize television and that everything you watch after will be the TV equivalent of stick figures on notebook paper, and you'll get more enjoyment out of The Wire.

Bottom line, just watch it for what it is - a TV show - and don't try to overthink it and you'll be fine.
posted by pdb at 12:44 PM on January 18, 2010

Two things...first, I really benefited by watching each episode, and then reading the Wikipedia episode synopsis. If I had missed anything, the Wikipedia entries filled in the gaps.

Second, I disagree with the "don't overthink" opinions being given by some here. "The Wire" touches on numerous themes, not the least of which is the relationship between agency and structure in the American context. Not thinking about what the purpose of the city is or how its residents are affected by structural forces is to miss an important aspect of the writer's worldview. Furthermore, the characters themselves are, IMHO, American archetypes. This is just the start.

My sense is that if you approach the show from a point of view of "its just tv" you'll miss out on part of the reason why there is a certain level of fanaticism about it. Thinking about whether or not you agree with Simon and friends (and why/why not) is critical to understanding its appeal precisely because the creators of "The Wire" were unashamed about having an intensely dark, upsetting, but defensible opinion.

I, for one, am planning on naming my first child "Omar".
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 1:24 PM on January 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I just this weekend finished the last episode of Season 5 - and loved every moment of every episode. Two things I did to make it more understandable, both named above: definitely turn on closed captioning, and I would read Sepinwall's columns after each episode. He always saw or remembered something that I had completely missed, making the whole thing more coherent.

Enjoy. If you don't like it after the first couple of episodes, please don't give up. It's a hell of a ride.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 4:29 PM on January 18, 2010

The only thing I would add is that if you are having trouble following the accents and dialects (which may be the case depending on where you're from), turn on the closed captioning until you are fully immersed.
posted by Hali at 5:53 PM on January 20, 2010

Response by poster: Well, I am back to report for posterity that the show kicks much ass.

Just after I picked it up but before I started watching, I mentioned to a friend that I had bought the DVD boxed set and his reponse was:

You are in for a treat and a half, though the down side is that almost nothing in film or TV drama will ever quite satisfy you again. Still, a small price to pay for sixty-odd hours of engrossing, addictive, intelligently written, immaculately acted, complex, multi-layered, nuanced, polemical splendidness.

I figured this for hyperbole, but after being immersed in The Wire for weeks, I finished it up and started watching The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which looked like a bunch of ugly chickens by comparison.

Anyway, for future mefites in the same boat as me: the Sepinwall links are great, and do not agonize about the "prequels," which are about three minutes each.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:55 PM on March 18, 2010

« Older Russian equivalent of US stores   |   How risky is it to have a baby? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.