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BET’s editing butchers “˜The Wire’ story line

By Mark Humphrey

April 15, 2007 9:50 p.m.

If I had to describe HBO’s “The Wire” using only two terms, they would be “criminally fantastic” and “criminally underseen.”

The latter changed when BET snapped up the show’s syndication rights. Now, the show is available beyond pay cable to people who want to watch. Sure, sex and profanity are edited, but at least viewers can still follow the story lines.

BET deserves credit for showing each episode of the first season in 90-minute blocks ““ as the show runs on HBO with no commercials, episodes often run 55 minutes or more, rather than the 42 minutes that network shows typically run. BET made a concerted effort to run the episodes longer so that viewers could see the whole story. And I’m glad. “The Wire” is an exceedingly complex show that unfolds like a novel, with every detail important to the overall story.

Which makes BET’s decision to heavily edit the show’s second season all the more maddening.

The second season of “The Wire” follows the scattered members of the wiretap detail from season one as they are brought back together in pursuit of a new case. This case involves corruption surrounding Frank Sobotka, the leader of the local dockworkers’ union. The season also focuses on the Barksdale drug organization and many characters introduced in season one, but they take a backseat to the dockworkers.

With the way the second season is being presented on BET, though, you would think you were watching an entirely different show.

For unknown reasons, BET has decided to air season two in 60 minutes rather than 90-minute blocks, but with no fewer commercials. To do this, nearly 20 minutes needs to be cut from every episode. To cut anything at all from a show as layered as “The Wire” is already a bad idea, but BET’s cuts are truly bizarre.

The second-season premiere, as seen on BET, is almost an entirely different episode than what was aired on HBO. Instead of opening with Detective Jimmy McNulty finding a dead body floating in the port, the episode opens with drug dealer Bodie driving to Philadelphia. For some reason, the show’s original opening, a pivotal moment in the second season, was cut out.

Even more pivotal is a scene involving Major Valchek and his son-in-law Roland Prezbylewski discussing Valchek’s donation of a stained-glass window to a local church. The fact that Sobotka donates a larger window incites Valchek’s jealousy, which causes him to demand that the department investigate Sobotka for corruption. The entire second season wouldn’t happen without this scene, yet it’s missing from the episode.

Additionally, BET’s press release about its airing of the second season highlights the ancillary drug and street story line of season two before briefly mentioning the dockworkers as tangential characters at the end of the press release. The dockworkers are the intended focus of the season ““ but not the one BET is showing.

The second season is supposed to be about the death of work and the American middle class, with the dockworkers losing their livelihood due to outsourcing of jobs, a stagnant economy and the transformation of the shipping docks into condos.

While the dockworkers are primarily white characters, and season two is often referred to as “the white season,” the death of work and the middle class (seen in the real-life closing of steel mills in Pittsburgh and auto factories in Michigan, not to mention tax reforms that favor the rich) are issues that millions of Americans can relate to ““ regardless of race.

Yet BET’s editing of “The Wire,” is less disturbing because of any racial component and more disturbing because of the way the show’s meaning is changed. By having the season focus on the drug trade when it’s not even the main plot cheapens the show, causing it to feel one-dimensional. “The Wire” is excellent because it’s about Baltimore and the various institutions that operate within it, not just the drug trade.

Key scenes were deleted from the opening episode that set up story lines later on. By cutting out these crucial details, either the major points in the dockworkers’ story line will be omitted completely or will still happen but make no sense.

You can argue whether the editing is racially motivated, but the real reason likely isn’t sinister. BET probably wanted to show the program in one-hour blocks and needed to cut out a bunch of material, and they figured that black viewers would be less interested in a “white” story line, so the dockworkers were the first to go. Racist? Nope ““ if anything, it’s a decision based on demographics (though it bears mentioning that if the same thing were happening with black characters’ stories being edited out, the media firestorm would be enormous).

Yet I think I speak for everyone who watches “The Wire” when I say that it’s the last show that should have to fall victim to a business decision that turns it into an incoherent, unwatchable mess.

E-mail Humphrey at [email protected]

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Mark Humphrey
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