The Wire: The Greatest Television

[This endorsement of HBO’s “The Wire” is taken from an email I sent my friend in March. This is essentially a first draft, so expect it to be loose and informal and not representative of solid writing.]

I just finished the 5th and final season – it has has been the most satisfying thing I’ve ever watched.  I’d commend this series more fervently then any crime flick, Scorsese included. And rest assured, this is the only television drama I’d ever urge you to consider.

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

The show is about Baltimore, a bleak, largely African American, impoverished rust belt city ravaged by drugs and failed institutions.  You’ll hear “The Wire” described as a crime drama, but creator David Simon says it’s “really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how…whether you’re a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.”

Season 1 is introduces the audience to two institutions – The Baltimore Police Department and the Barksdale Drug Syndicate.  The show is a serial, and the season 1 arc presents the investigation of the Barksdale organization by a cop who games the system to coerce his department to support an investigation that higher-ups want to ignore.

What is compelling about “The Wire” is that, as far as the characters are concerned, the labels of good and bad are hard to apply. You’ll like and hate characters on both sides of the “War on Drugs”. And you’ll find your favorite characters behaving reprehensibly, and you’ll have sympathy at times for the most reprehensible characters.  You will not find richer, more profound or more internally complex characters in any movie. At the same time, the actors make their characters utterly human. The Wire, as described by its creators, is novel on film in 12 chapters and, appropriately, some episodes are written by celebrated crime novelists George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River).  “The Wire” runs several intricate, divergent subplots through a season and when they are deftly weaved together at the season’s close, it’s a thing of beauty.

Also, each season of The Wire is a self-contained story arc.  The episodes of each season should be watched in order, but there are no season cliffhangers and only minor subplots that bleed into new seasons. A new season means a new story arc and new sub plots.  In each subsequent season, a new institution is added to the fold and the meta-story gains new layers of intricacy and sophistication. Unionized labor in the form of Baltimore Longshoreman is introduced in season 2, season 3 adds City Hall, season 4 is inner-city schools, and the final season is print journalism manifested as The Baltimore Sun. And as they said in season 4 promos, “it’s all connected”.

Stylistically, the story weaves elements of literary realism, Sisyphean existential misery, Greek tragedy, as well as sharp social commentary on the horrors of inner city poverty and the crushing weight of fundamentally and fatally flawed institutions as it presses on individuals trying to act in their best interests. And it’s often funny as hell, with biting and witty dialogue.

SO WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?

1.) African American cast: Season two deals with the ports, which employs many of Baltimore’s Polish Americans. Other than that, I can safely say that 80%-85% of the major characters are Black. As I said above, almost all the characters are spectacular. But you will not find another cache of meticulously developed Black characters brought to life by a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Black acting talent. You wont find it on film or on TV.

2.) Gay characters: So, imagine a gay Black rogue murderous gangsta bad-ass who lives by a code of honor and shows shades of a Robin Hood complex. Yeah, it’s as good on screen as it sounds and is written so excellently written that it’s never contrived. This guy is just one of almost 30 great characters “The Wire” will introduce to you.

This show has had more gay characters than any other show on television or any major film (save for the occasional niche show/movie designed specifically for a gay audience). And it presents homosexuality as just another wrinkle in the complexity of life. There’s no didactic “gays are people, too” moments; the gay characters are treated as judiciously as any other. You get to see gay characters in situations where being gay isn’t a plot device or gimmick – very interesting, when you consider the context is urban street corners and a city police department.

3.) Emphasis on children: There are some great young actors on here, and “The Wire” shows how grown-up gangsters have no problem using, abusing, indoctrinating children into the life. It also shows how material conditions coerce these kids into making horrible, hopeless life choices.

4.) Grit –  I know you love the grittiness of crime flicks, whether it is 70s flicks like “The French Connection” or “Eddie Coyle” or “The Departed”. “The Wire” is unequivocally and unapologetically knee-deep in the nitty-gritty of Baltimore’s urban decay – residential and industrial blight, dangerous bar rooms, dirty lunch counters, grungy urban groceries/bodegas, secret police outposts, and most central, the corners. The sense of place is so palpable and the gritty aesthetic so authentic that I can taste the dirt from the streets on my tongue.

5.) Lucid social critique: Like I said, there are times when you fell horrible about the supposed “bad guys”. They don’t get that way by accident. There’s no smooth distinction between righteousness and evil.

6.) Story over character: It’s cliché to say about an ensemble cast that “there are no stars”. Well, there are stars of certain episodes and certain parts of certain seasons, but you honestly don’t know from season to season who will be featured, who will be killed, and who will fade into obscurity never to see screen time again. David Simon and his writers only care about the overall story and are willing to give new faces heavy dialogue at the expense of who viewers might consider a “star”.

WHY AM I RECOMMENDING THIS TO YOU?

There’s more to be said about how awesome “The Wire” is, but I’ll spare you. #1, this is a first rate work of cinematic art. It’s a fantastic filmmaking and story telling. Although “The Wire”‘s length makes it apples and oranges, I’d put this series up against any film.

Second, this is your genre and your wheelhouse. But it’s done in a way that we’ve never seen before. It’s dominated by African Americans and gangstas, but it’s not “Boyz in the Hood” or “Menace 2 Society”. It’s gripping like Scorsese, but it makes you work harder and you fight for resolution – I’m still thinking on things I saw three years ago.

Third, not only does it tie into your love of movies, I’d be willing to bet viewing this could tie into your academic pursuits. Some critics have said – and I don’t think it hyperbole – that “The Wire” will be viewed in college studies twenty years from now and be scrutinized for years to come by scholars examining urban culture.  “The Wire” combines film, social criticism, inner-city street culture, and artistic, dense story telling and will be referenced by those who scrutinize American culture for years to come. “The Wire” could be this century’s “The Jungle”.  If a movie is like a 110 page drama, David Simon’s cultural study is a Tolstoy-length novel.

So, I know 60 episodes/5 seasons seems like a big time commitment. It is. Let me also say I’ve been hyping this show for a few years to a couple dozen people and have not convinced 1 person to commit. So I’m not expecting you to run out and rent this thing. Season 1 is 13 hours long.  If you watch all of Season 1 and you can tell me that I honestly over-hyped this show, I will buy you a movie of your choice to make up for lost time. I’ve been told Season 1 starts slow, but I was hooked from the start.

Seriously man, to put a simple cap on this, I wrote 1,500 words on this topic because I think “The Wire” is a great American piece of art and I think it’s a natural fit for you. Take this information however you see fit.

My Grades: Season 1 A, Season 2 A-, Season 3 A++, Season 4 A+, Season 5 starts B+ finishes A.

Also, a last hint: Don’t read too much about “The Wire” online – spoilers abound. Especially the HBO site.

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One response to “The Wire: The Greatest Television

  1. I absolutely love this show!~ I concur with everything you have said here. You are quite right about it being more about American Cities than about crime. I live in a rust belt city in Ohio. Many of us are engaged in revitalization efforts and there are certainly many gems here, but there is still an underclass of crime and poverty and I believe The Wire portrays this very well.

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