As an aspiring writer interested in all things pop culture it is not my place to preach and tell people what to watch, read or listen to. It is not the duty of a critic to tell readers how to spend their time but rather make suggestions, however, every once in a while I find that it is important to inform people about certain parts of current popular culture–be it a stellar new band, an unknown indie film treasure, or a captivating television drama–that have floated under the radar for too long and quite frankly, are too good and/or important to be missed. HBO’s monumental original series, The Wire, is one of these examples. Consider this a plea to anyone interested in quality television who is dying to find a replacement for The Sopranos or who is tired of the mindless reality or sitcom dribble that currently fills the airwaves.
It may seem a bit peculiar to praise a show that has been around since 2002 and next month enters its fifth and final season. The Wire is hardly a breakout series, however, season after season the show remained relatively unwatched by the general public, despite universal critical acclaim (seriously some people have labeled it the best show on television, ever).
In the realm of HBO, The Wire has never brought in the same viewership figures as the network’s more popular landmark shows such as The Sopranos (11.9 million viewers for its series finale), Six Feet Under (average 4-5 million viewers over its five season span) and Sex and the City (about 3 million viewers average per season). During The Wire’s long awaited third season the show brought in a whopping 1.6 million viewers, a series high.
But enough of the numbers. Why am I so adamant about this series? Why devote an entire column to a show that is hardly recognized at the Emmys (one Outstanding Writing nomination in 2005), does not sport a cast of superstar actors, and for the most part is unrecognized and overlooked? Because people, television doesn’t get much better than this.
On the surface The Wire is a cop show, often poorly labeled as “HBO’s gritty police drama.” At a quick glance the show’s main focus is the never-ending narcotics war between the police department and the criminal underbelly of urban Baltimore, Maryland, a struggling American city that is as overlooked and ignored in this country as this show itself.
With a description like this it’s easy to categorize The Wire with other good guy, bad guy cop shows such as the highly mundane slew of Law and Order or CSI series (seriously how many of them are there?). Upon a closer look and investment in the show one will quickly realize that The Wire is not interested with these primitive good versus evil themes. The Wire is interested at examining pure capitalism in action, focusing on the social, economic, judicial and political struggles and the overall downfall of the modern American city. Baltimore is its backdrop and there is a definite level adoration for the city seen on the show, however, one can’t help but look at Baltimore as merely an example of modern America and the dire civil problems that have been stewing for the past century.
The show’s creator David Simon, an ex-Baltimore Sun newspaper crime reporter, knows the city he’s lived in all his life like the back of his hand and sees The Wire as an expression of his anger for what it’s become–the political corruption, the deterioration of the many social institutions, and above all the notion that in this day and age the majority of people living in this country are worth less in the grand scheme of things. From the addicts struggling with addiction, the corner boys struggling with the hopelessness of avoiding life on the streets, the rogue cops struggling with a corrupt and unjust system above them, to the ambitious mayor to be realizing the mess of things, The Wire deals with the growth of a corrupt social infrastructure and the downfall of the individual or common man.
While fiction The Wire has always been rooted with in-depth investigative journalism, an aspect that truly sets it apart from other shows in the same genre, even though The Wire should create a genre of its own. The show’s writers, currently made up of crime fiction novelists such as Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane among others, research their subjects with great care and detail, tapping into every sector of the city, whether it be life on the streets to life at city hall, no stone is left unturned. The shows producer, Ed Burns, served as a Baltimore homicide detective for years and later taught in an inner city middle school, experiences which lent themselves to the show’s continuing themes bringing a level of harsh realism seldom seen on television. This quest to tell it like it is can be hard to watch (The Wire is often devastatingly real) but it is meant to serve as an eye opener for the sheltered eyes of the average American.The show’s premiere season focused mainly on the ineffectiveness of the drug war, introducing the series’ core characters–the narcotic and homicide investigators and street level drug kingpins, soldiers and pawns. Above all the show’s first chapter showed the hard often unglamorous work that goes into a true police investigation. On The Wire, unlike the formulaic police dramas most people are familiar with, cases take months and often years to wrap, with paper work a mile long.
Season two proved that the series was truly interested in covering the city as a whole, radically changing the target and focus to Baltimore’s struggling and corrupt shipping port unions. Think On the Waterfront meets Traffic with some Greek tragedy thrown into the pot. It’s hard to imagine a 13-hour season that focuses on a group of disgruntled stevedores but take it from me, never before has an examination of this extremely overlooked and forgotten populace been so captivating.
The third season tackled the issue of reform, particularly of the drug trade seen on the street level and the drug war, seen through the political infrastructure. The show expanded its coverage of the city adding a political element and showcasing the fascinating vertical chain of command of the police department all the way up to the mayor’s office. If you thought The West Wing was intricate with its coverage of the presidents cabinet, check out The Wire’s take on the inner workings of an American city’s underbelly. Above all season three begged the question, is this war on drugs a battle we can realistically win?
Last year’s fourth season was the most critically acclaimed and again branched its focus out even farther covering Baltimore’s failing school system (a scathing look at “no child left behind”). This season was undoubtedly the bleakest and most sobering of them all because of its theme of hopelessness, its look into the corruption in the city’s political arena and portrayal of just how ruthless the streets have become, seen through the eyes of a group of naive middle school students living in a world gone terrible wrong. A homicide detective sums up the season and really the show in general when he says, “It makes me sick how hard we done fell.”
Little is known of season five’s plots other than the fact that the main theme tackled will be the media (the aspiring journalist in me is dying in anticipation), a fitting closer for a show that has served as a fictional looking glass into the happenings of one struggling American city.
For those who write praise for the series, it has become a bit cliché to liken The Wire to a great American novel, with every season adding a new chapter to the epic story. Like great literature this unique aspect of the show allows for the development of a large group of characters (the impressive cast of fairly unknown actors and their wonderfully crafted characters deserves its own column of praise), minor and major story arcs, and requires a level of patience and devotion that may discourage casual viewers but pays off for those willing to commit. The show has never been preachy and its messages are never presented up front. Similar to the shows diagetic use of music and lack of emotion stirring scoring, nothing on the show is spoon fed to the audience, which makes viewing the series so rewarding.
Like HBO’s other niche dramas, the mysterious dust bowl era set Carnivalé, the “gritty western” Deadwood, or even the newest sensation, the “polygamist lives next door” family drama Big Love, The Wire is a show that requires a certain level of sophistication and patience that will no doubt turn away passive viewers who find comfort in “anything but” reality television or formulaic cops and robber crime shows. HBO has long been the true bastion for original no holds barred series that rivals the in-depth quality and style seen on film but has always had a leg up to its cinematic counterpart due to the vast possibilities of having a multiple season, countless hour platform to work with.
The Wire is a program that will not appeal to everyone. Its honest look at what is happening to the American city is harsh and difficult to stomach at times, however, it is this foray into the realties facing our country that makes it an important series. A friend of mine once said that he feels like a better person after watching the show because of its window to the world we really live in, the one we don’t see or read about on a daily basis.
I wrote this column because next month the show enters its fifth and final chapter, and unlike The Sopranos, a pop cultural phenomenon that will without a doubt go down in history, The Wire may be one of those overlooked gems that will be forgotten in time. Despite its wonderful cast of actors (it has the largest African American cast of leading actors of any show period) and first-rate writing, the show has never received any love from the Emmys (an awards sweep next year, honoring the show as a whole would be refreshing, but is unlikely). This past week marked the release of the fourth season on DVD (it should be noted that this show works best on the DVD format where viewers can soak up multiple episodes at a time), and HBO subscribers will no doubt be treated to aWire marathon before the final season premiere. And with the cold of winter here to stay now is as good a time as ever to dive in.
Like I wrote earlier, it is not my place to tell people how to spend their time, but for those who don’t know about this series give it a shot. In my humble opinion it is the best show currently on TV and quite possibly the best series television has ever seen (sorry toSopranos fans). So the next time you find yourself at a video store or searching aimlessly through the majority of the trash being broadcasted on TV, unsure of what to watch consider The Wire. I wouldn’t lie to you. Quality, captivating television drama has never been better.