Thursday, January 3, 2013

The best nuanced characters

by Kim Van Sickler

For Christmas last year my brother Mike gave me and my husband all five seasons of the HBO juggernaut The Wire, which ran from 2002-2008. "This is the finest television show, ever," he promised. We started watching it shortly thereafter, selecting times when my youngest daughter wasn't around, due to the show's extremely adult subject matter. It was slow going at first. Season One focuses on the drug trade in the Baltimore, MD area. So many characters were introduced, and it seemed they were all African-American and speaking in the code of their trade, whether they represented law enforcement or drug traffickers. Will we ever catch on? I wondered.
Season One of The Wire
It was about episode six that the momentum started. My husband and I figured enough out to watch semi-intelligently and holy shit! I felt like a fly on the wall of a world I'd never be a part of. We bought into the premise, the characters, the situations. It all seemed SO REAL. It's been an amazing ride.

Season Two hones in on the workings of the Baltimore seaport, including the longshoremen, European gangsters, and the port authority police. Season Three spotlights city government. Season Four features the public schools. Season Five takes on the Baltimore Sun daily newspaper. Some of the characters carry over from one season to another, but in varying degrees. Some go away for awhile and come back again. It's a complicated dance of interconnectedness, but all with the same themes: Politics is rife everywhere. Good people get bogged down by the system. Good people turn bad under the pressure. Bad people sometimes succeed spectacularly.
Season Four of The Wire
The most amazing part of The Wire for me, however, is the incredible complexity of the characters.  No one is absolute evil or pure as the driven snow. Everyone is composed of varying shades of gray. Motives are key to these people's characters, and every one of them is flawed. Here are some of my favorite nuanced characters:

Detective Shakima (Kima) Greggs is an openly gay Baltimore City detective. She deals with a lover who wants her to leave the dangerous world of undercover narcotics operations and become a father-figure to her lover's planned child—one that Shakima doesn't want. Shakima can parlay, drink, work, and whore with the most hardened cop. She's savvy on the job, but less smart when it comes to her personal life.
Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire
Bunk Moreland is a slightly pudgy, dapper detective on the Baltimore Police force. He flies under the radar, having mastered the workings of the Homicide Unit, and knowing what he must do to get by. He's a straight shooter who understands the imperfect world he lives in. Puffing on a stogie, drinking, and whoring give him pleasure, but he's still able to function in real life.
Homicide Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire
Omar Little is a murdering thief who lives by a code: he never harms a civilian (someone not involved in the drug trade.) He also disapproves of swearing, and is a man of his word. Scintillatingly smart, he's a modern day Robin Hood with himself as beneficiary. He robs from drug dealers and keeps the loot for himself and his loved ones. Omar's gay lover was gruesomely murdered in Season One and Omar hasn't gotten over it yet.
Criminal Omar Little on The Wire
Michael Lee is a middle-schooler with a drug addict single mother. He's taken over caring for his younger brother and also manages to take enough of his mom's government assistance money to actually buy them food before she spends it on drugs. Michael's actions lead us to believe that his brother's father sexually abused him before he was sent to prison. With his soft-spoken manner and watchful eyes, you get the feeling he's a smart kid who's going to be crushed by the unforgiving world he's been born into. He's cultivated as a good boxing prospect by a former drug dealer who gave up that life to open a neighborhood boxing ring. Imagine the shock when Michael turns out to be one of the biggest bad-asses on this show about bad-asses.
Middle-schooler Micheal Lee on The Wire
Bubbles is a sad sack drug user. He also makes a little money on the side as a confidential informant, a real buddy to Detective Shakima Greggs. The lows he sinks to, the indignities he endures to get his fix, are heart breaking. More so, because in his sober moments he realizes how pathetic he is, and he always has heart. Ultimately his fight becomes merely one to survive in a jungle where in the hierarchy of power, he's an ant.
Drug addict Bubbles on The Wire
For a gritty, real-life show with the widest range of nuanced characters, check out The Wire. You won't regret it. You might even agree that it is television at its finest.

For a clip of the show, click here. (Every season a new variation of the theme song is recorded.)

And now for a tongue-in-cheek comparison on how The Wizard of Oz is grittier than The Wire, click here.

And for a Funny or Die version, click here


  1. Thanks for a great post Kim. It's a reminder of how complex characters can make great out of good and of what novel writers can learn from other media like television.

    I haven't gotten around to seeing the Wire, but it's definitely on my to-watch list of programs. Another show, edgy content-wise was HBOs Deadwood. If you can get past the swearing every other word, it's plots and characters are Shakespearean.

    1. I've heard great things about Deadwood. My brother came through again this Christmas with the first season of Homeland.

  2. You didn't mention the creator or writers of the show. A character is only as good as the person who created him/her.

    1. Of course you are right, I should have mentioned David Simon in the post somewhere. He is the show's, head writer and executive producer. Before creating The Wire, he reported for The Baltimore Sun for 12 years (Season Five focus). Back to my brother, a newspaper reporter for longer than that. He believes Season Five is the worst season of The Wire because Simon was too jaded about the newspaper business to write his best characters.

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