Setting the Scene: The Opening 164 Seconds of The Wire

Creator's Statement

The video essay “Setting the Scene: The Opening 164 Seconds of The Wire” is an in-depth analysis of the very first scene, the so-called teaser, of HBO’s groundbreaking TV drama. It consists of three parts: First, it compares and contrasts the scene as it appears in an earlier draft of the script (dated July 26, 2001) and the end result (the scene as it appears in the pilot that premiered in June 2002). Second, it offers a close reading of the visual realization of the scene, examining how it has been interpreted through cinematography, acting, and editing. Finally, the video essay explores the teaser’s thematic function, considering how key concerns are set up subtly and metaphorically so that the scene comes to reverberate throughout the series as a whole. Series creator David Simon has frequently noted that each season teaser is designed to serve as a symbolic entryway to what is to come. [1]

The essay may be seen to offer a formalist analysis in the sense that it seeks to expand our understanding and appreciation of the scene’s constructional principles. The first two parts, especially, are overtly craft-centred. The breakdown of the changes that were made to the script would possibly work reasonably well in a conventional print article too, while the study of the scene’s visual realization requires the video essay format for analytic depth, detail, nuance, and clarity. On the other hand, the decision to look at adjustments to the script and the “execution” of the script separately has been made for purely heuristic purposes. Ultimately, the aim is to put forward a fundamentally holistic view, to highlight how complexly collaborative and intertwined the various aspects of the creative process really are. While the argument is not made explicitly in the video essay, I hope to get across that such things as the performances of the actors and the camera-work too can be usefully seen as forms of “writing,” as they do not merely carry out the instructions of the written material, but interact with, and act upon, it. If the early version of the script appears slightly “over-written,” and the end result can be seen to have less text and more subtext, it seems likely that the reason is precisely that the creative team collectively found ways to convey the “content” of the screenplay by a broader range of formal and expressive means than words alone. 

Indeed, this video essay has itself undergone a similar transformation, as an earlier version spelled out the analytic aims in excessive detail. I am grateful that the peer review counselled me that there was not really any need to signpost the arguments and ideas. Frontloading the piece with exposition merely made the piece overly didactic, and the feedback has no doubt made the final version more organic and engaging. 


[1] See for example

Biography: Erlend Lavik is Professor of media studies at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen, where he is Head of the BA program in TV Production. 


Erlend Lavik’s video essay provides an illuminating account of the opening of HBO’s The Wire. The essay not only sheds new light on the introductory scene, making a persuasive case for this “164 seconds” as an exemplary instance of aesthetic techniques and thematic concerns present within the series as a whole. In the process, it also provides a master-class in method, offering a model for how one might conduct close formal analysis videographically.  

One of the essay’s most compelling aspects is its multimodal approach to argumentation, which combines voiceover, audiovisuals from the show, and, perhaps most strikingly, text from archival documents. In its first section, for instance, Lavik makes effective use of split screen to pair excerpts from the pilot’s opening with corresponding pages from an earlier version of the script, digitally annotating them as the scene plays to highlight changes that were made in production, and how they reflect the show’s ideology and ambitions. In the third section, Lavik puts The Wire in conversation with earlier film portrayals of “the modern metropolis as city machine,” drawing exciting connections between David Simon’s Baltimore and the urban dystopias rendered by Fritz Lang and Charlie Chaplin, glimpsed in well-chosen clips. If the second section has less of a distinct payoff, it nonetheless constitutes part of a persuasive argument about The Wire’s mobilization of visual style to advance its social commentary.  

Given its argumentative precision, clear organization, and meticulous execution, Lavik’s video would lend itself extremely well to the classroom. Although Lavik does not engage directly with other criticism about The Wire, his insights—about the “low-key lyricism” of its dialogue, or its critique of America’s “national mythology”—independently offer both students and scholars of The Wire a useful framework for thinking about the series.  

In 2017, I wrote a piece for [in]Transition reflecting on the comparative lack of videographic criticism about television, noting only two pieces in the journal’s first three years focused on the medium. In that essay, I wondered what type of videographic work might emerge that explores distinctly televisual forms and modes of expression, and hoped that the journal would see an increase in both the number and range of works about television. Thankfully, we have seen a notable increase in videos exploring television in the journal, covering a range of topics, genres, and videographic styles. Had my earlier essay offered a broader account of videographic television criticism at the time beyond just this journal, I certainly would have cited and celebrated one of the earliest and most exemplary works in this vein, Erlend Lavik’s 2012 video “Style in The Wire.” Thus it is quite gratifying to see Lavik’s follow-up video published here at [in]Transition, continuing this growth of televisual videographic criticism at the journal.

Lavik offers a compelling account of the iconic opening scene of HBO’s The Wire, marrying formal and thematic analysis to provide an engaging in-depth videographic scenic exploration. His voiceover is calm and assured, with clear writing and engaging delivery throughout. The use of images and composition is consistently strong, and the totality of the videographic work provides insights and perspectives that other forms of criticism would struggle with. While Lavik’s approach is certainly explanatory and straightforward in its argumentation, it never feels as if it is merely a written essay being read aloud with video illustrations—instead, Lavik’s ideas are conveyed in an organically videographic form. The use of the red-pen script revisions is a particularly effective device, conveying a detailed account of the scene’s dramatization that would be impossible to express in traditional formats. I also appreciated how frequently the analysis employs a mode of counterfactual hypothesizing, considering how the scene might have been different in following the earlier draft of the script. Watching this video both provides a great deal of insight into the details of this well-known scene and argues for its broader importance for one of television’s most celebrated and studied series.

It’s particularly notable that Lavik’s analytical approach is quite traditional in its ideas and approach: a close formal analysis coupled with production history and thematic reading. Oftentimes videographic criticism embraces its poetic and experimental possibilities to such a degree that the resulting works might be seen more as artistic expressions than scholarly analyses, and certainly many works featured at [in]Transition tend toward that direction. Yet I believe that one of the great strengths of videographic criticism is the breadth of its rhetorical possibilities, allowing for experimentation to co-exist alongside rigorous and compelling conventional analysis. It is in this latter realm that Lavik’s work serves as an exemplar, and we should celebrate the accomplishments of such videographic work as much as videos that break with conventions. “Setting the Scene” thus serves as a strong companion to Lavik’s earlier video on The Wire, a now-canonical early example of one of the first (and best) videographic works about television; this new entry offers another compelling take on the series, and serves as an excellent addition to the journal’s growing body of television criticism.