The Wire, season 1, episode 2: Read all about it! Read all about it!

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I could watch a full hour of Lance Reddick giving a briefing. And then I could watch another full hour of him at home being debriefed by his wife. He listens as she walks him through the dilemma he’s in. “You can’t lose if you don’t play,” she explains. For an officious hotel clerk in John Wick and a sinister government agent in The Guest, it takes an actor who can listen as well as he can tell.

Okay, this is really dumb, but I might as well get it off my chest before it fades into technological obscurity along with phone cords, typewriters, and Crown Victorias. All of which appear in The Wire, by the way.

In the second episode, McNulty’s partner calls early in the morning. McNulty’s sleeping. “Have you seen the paper?” his partner asks.

These days, McNulty would open his MacBook to Google News without even getting out of bed. He’d read a headline and the scene would continue. In The Wire, he puts the phone down and goes to the front door of his apartment. “Really?” I’m thinking. “He gets the paper delivered to his home? A divorced workaholic homicide detective gets a paper delivered to his home? In 2008?”

But The Wire is careful. McNulty doesn’t have a home delivery subscription. He does get the paper. So he walks halfway up the stairs outside his door, peers over the lip of the landing above his apartment, and pulls himself up to snatch the neighbor’s paper. Very clever, The Wire. But here’s where I brace myself, because I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a shot of what McNulty sees in the paper. Yep, here we go:

I cringe. Prop newspapers. Movies and TV shows have prop departments to make newspapers like this. A handful of men and women whose job is to provide this stuff as the script calls for it. I had the privilege of being on a TV show once to play a doctor. I had one line, in one scene, with my back mostly to the camera. While the shot was being set up, I was taken aside by a guy from the prop department.

“We need to make your ID badge,” he said. He took a Polaroid of me. He sat at a computer to print out the badge. Everyone in the cast wore one of these. It was something invented by the prop department, because no one really cares whether an ID badge is authentic.

“What’s your character’s first name?” the guy asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. Was I supposed to know this?

“I mean what do you want it to be?” he asked.

“Uh,” I said. It’s like that part of an RPG when you have to name your character. You sit there at the keyboard, staring at the blank space, trying to think of something that isn’t too stupid, but also isn’t too serious.

“How about Joel?” he said. He didn’t have time to wait for me to come up with the optimal character name. “You look like a Joel.”

“Okay.” I was flattered. I look like a Joel? Really? Cool. He printed up the ID badge with the name Joel Weissbrot.

“You don’t really look like a Weisbrot,” he said, “but that’s in the script, so we can’t do anything about that.”

“Weissbroot means white bread,” one of the prop ladies offered. They thought that was pretty funny, probably because I did look like a Weissbrot after all.

He cut out my face from the Polaroid, pasted it onto the badge, ran it through a laminating machine, and then clipped it onto my lab coat. I don’t think the badge was ever even visible in the shot.

This is the same guy who would be tasked with printing up a newspaper if a scene called for a newspaper. He would be told what the headline should say, and how important it should be. Is it an important headline across the top of the page? Is it one of a bunch of stories? Is it something deep in the paper, on page six, under the weather forecast? He makes the fake paper and hands it to the actor.

So here’s Dominic West as McNulty, doing this cool thing where he pulls himself up the landing to steal a paper, then goes back to his phone call to react to what’s in the paper. Let’s have another look:

It’s one thing to let a prop department think up a character’s first name for a badge that will never even appear on camera. It’s something else entirely to let a prop department do something that has very specific rules, like the layout of a newspaper, to be featured in its own shot. Most people won’t care, but I was one of those nerds who worked on the school paper in high school. Journalism, we called it, although it was to actual journalism what arithmetic is to astrophysics. One of the things I was taught by the teacher, a cantankerous old lady named Ardella Lamb, is that you don’t put headlines next to each other. That’s a hard and fast rule in newspaper layouts. You don’t have to be Woodward or Bernstein to know it looks wrong. The front page of a newspaper would never look like what McNulty is reading. Not even a newspaper in Baltimore.

At least they didn’t do that even dumber thing of just sticking a few words into a big empty box, leaving a swathe of empty space. Here’s a screen grab from some horror movie.

Check out the Metro Daily story on soaring murder rates. Ardella Lamb is spinning in her grave.

Anyway, two episodes into The Wire. So this is why most people think Lance Reddick is so cool.

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