‘The Sopranos’ vs. ‘The Wire’: The Great TV Debate
Though it has slipped behind Showtime in recent years, HBO ranked supreme in the first half of the 2000′s with its incredibly rich, diverse selection of original programs. As Hollywood regressed in terms of ambition and originality, HBO developed a reputation as being something of a madcap network, pouring huge sums of money on eclectic, highly personal material regardless of its commercial viability or mainstream appeal. More often than not, their gambles paid off both artistically and financially. When it comes to the discussion of HBO’s most groundbreaking original program, two titles in particular stand out – the organized crime dramedy The Sopranos and The Wire, an epic drama detailing the various institutional failures in the city of Baltimore, Maryland.
During the course of their original runs, The Wire never came to close to matching The Sopranos when it came to viewership, awards, and cultural impact. However, as the years have gone on, the show has developed a large, dedicated following. This, coupled with near universal acclaim from critics, have led many to crown it one of the greatest, if not the greatest, shows of all-time. While every aspect of The Sopranos and The Wire has been examined down to the most minute detail, it’s the characters and their functions within the story that resonate with me. Here, The Sopranos pulls ahead by a significant margin.
Prior to The Sopranos, the popular image of the mob was the one presented in books and films, which often mythologized and even glorified criminal types. Over the course of six seasons, creator David Chase slowly dismantled that myth by highlighting the familial qualities of mob life. In doing this, Chase humanized the show’s low-life characters without ever asking the audience to sympathize with them. At the center of it all was patriarch/crime boss Tony Soprano, brilliantly portrayed by James Gandolfini.
Tall, husky, with a fixed scowl and ever present cigar clenched between his teeth, Tony Soprano certainly had the look of your average, one-dimensional thug in the vein of Billy Batts from Goodfellas. At times, he acted the part too, killing close associates without a hint of remorse. Nevertheless, few viewed Tony as an outright monster given the “everyman” qualities Chase and Gandolfini imbued the character with. Despite serial womanizing and other immature lapses judgment, Tony was generally a loving and protective husband and father, always striving to shield his family from the harsh realities of mob life. In fact, his deep concern for their well-being was partially to blame for his severe panic attacks, violent mood swings, and bouts of depression.
Tony brought that same sense of paternalism to his role as boss of the DiMeo crime family. For example, when capo Vito Spatafore is revealed to be a homosexual, Tony becomes one of his staunchest defenders even though it puts him directly at odds with New York boss Phil Leotardo. However, David Chase never let the audience forget that Tony was, at his core, a deranged sociopath, as shown during his bloody and paranoia-fueled downfall. Deep, morally ambiguous, and, most important, relatable characters were staples of The Sopranos and they helped make the show the cultural phenomenon that it was.
Creator David Simon’s goal for The Wire was to provide a truthful and uncompromising portrait of urban life in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. His approach for tackling the material was quite unique, with each season focusing on a specific institution within the city, such as the government or the media. While Simon’s vision was hugely ambitious, The Wire‘s bite did not match its bark because it lacked that human element.
For a show that prided itself on realism, there were a shocking number of generic, over-the-top caricatures, starting with lead Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). Let’s rundown some of Detective McNulty’s attributes. A refusal to adhere to authority. A “take no prisoners” approach to crime solving. A penchant for self-destructive behavior. An inability to commit to any meaningful relationship. We have seen countless variations of this cowboy cop persona before, from “Dirty” Harry Callahan, to Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, to Martin Riggs.
In all fairness, not every character on The Wire was a walking cliché. In fact some were almost disturbing in their authenticity, like the Stanfield Organization’s go-to enforcer Snoop Pearson, played by reformed criminal Felicia Pearson. Unfortunately, Simon never left any room for characters like Snoop to grow, essentially rendering them walking plot devices. They showed up. Mayhem ensued. Then they were gone. A fleeting glimpse into their psyches would have benefited the show tremendously.
In looking back, one can see how David Chase and David Simon had diametrically opposing views on storytelling. Where Chase allowed his characters to drive the narrative, Simon allowed the narrative to drive his characters. Ultimately, this diminished the underlying tragedy in The Wire‘s depiction of institutional dysfunction because the people who were being hurt meant very little to the audience. While Tony Soprano and his crew were deplorable human beings, their demise in the final season of The Sopranos packed an emotional wallop, all because we saw ourselves in them.