How much characterization can you actually compress into the television serial equivalent of 500 words or less? How much psychological depth, how much moral complexity, how many of the nuances and quirks and unexpected tangles that define human personality? The answer, and I say this as an enormous admirer of “The Wire,” is much, much less than what David Chase and Co. managed to offer us with their less panoramic but far more intimate portrait of Tony Soprano and his two families. “The Wire” was wonderfully shrewd and vivid and true-to-life in the way it sketched its characters, but even the richest of them – McNulty and Stringer Bell and Omar Little and yes, the beloved, sainted Bubbles – look two-dimensional and predictable and, well, sketchy compared to the level of depth and interiority that “The Sopranos” aspired to, and often achieved. Is there any human relationship on Simon’s show, any marriage or friendship or love-hate mess, that has the psychological heft of Tony Soprano’s relationship to his shrink, let alone his relationship to his wife and mother?
To my mind, Ross’ depiction of characters on “The Wire” is unfair. McNulty is more than a hothead, horndog, and righteous crusader. He can be a gentleman. When he goes over to Beattie’s house in Season Two for a hook up, he leaves early because he realizes she has children and making out with her willy nilly would be immoral. Omar is more than an icon of cool, wiseguy, and upholder of a moral code. He is empathetic. When one of his gang is shot dead accidentally in Season Three, he burns a cigarette into his hand. I could give two or three more examples – D’Angelo, Wee Bey, even Avon – but you get the point.
Sure, the characters on “The Sopranos” had more depth and interiority than those on “The Wire.” The former was more like “Madame Bovary” or “The Sun Also Rises” than the latter. But stop to consider the premise of Ross’ argument: Character is ultimately a matter of depth and interiority, the psychological and personal. That’s misguided. Character is about more than those things: It’s about the breadth of human relationships and the social context, the political and the economic. Sections 1878 and 1879 of The Catechism support this point.
Just think of the book that tied all those forces together better than any: “The Great Gatsby.” Jay Gatsby is a memorable character not simply because of his extraordinary devotion to Daisy or his ambiguous relationship with Dan Cody or his father. He’s a memorable character because society and the economy enabled James Gatz to create a new self, a man who could touch if only for a moment “the fresh, green breast of the new world.”
To the credit of “The Wire,” the show drew parallels between Jay Gatsby and D’Angelo Barksdale in the second season. Both characters were at once sexually indulgent, socially hospitable, and tragic. Did “The Sopranos” feature characters facing the full panoply of human forces? Was it as catholic? Unless it slipped in a King-David like character, I’m guessing not.