Why The Wire is One of the Most Brilliant TV Shows Ever

There were a lot of moments during my first view of The Wire when I realized I wasn’t watching the usual cop procedural. But the one that sticks in my head was when an obviously blitzed and blasted McNulty, the Irish-American detective that you *might* think is the hero of the show, leaves a bar, gets into his car and promptly totals it. In any other show this would have been the turning point for the character, either as a wake-up call, a reason for his boss to throw him off the case, or to gin up some suspense. But no. McNulty walks away from the accident and…it’s never really spoken about. The cops took care of their own.

Life does not follow the contours of a television drama, and neither did David Simon’s groundbreaking HBO series. Beloved characters get killed, or not, or they just transfer out of the show as in life. Nobody really gets what they want. Neither good nor evil wins.

As Simon told an audience at Loyola University, Baltimore in 2007: ““What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”

The Wire still feels recent despite premiering in 2002 and in 4:3 ratio, no widescreen HD here. It feels recent because the problems depicted in the show still exist: corruption at all levels of city government and governance, institutionalized racism, failed schools, a collapsing fourth estate, a gutted economy, weakened unions, and a general nihilism and despondency. Simon may not have seen the Black Lives Matter movement coming, but the recipe for it, the warning of it, is there in the show.

So there’s definitely a reason to give it a re-watch to see how we’ve changed. The above essay from 2019 makes the case for The Wire as a subversion of the usual cop show, with Thomas Flight noting it “doesn’t try to grab and keep your attention. It requires it. And if you give it your attention it will reward you.”

It also reminds us of the literary giants in the writers’ room: crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price were on the team, as was journalist Rafael Alvarez, and William F. Zorzi. That combined with David Simon’s years in journalism covering Baltimore and Ed Burns’ experience on the police force meant the show feels right, and the writers did research and actual Baltimore extras were encouraged to speak up if something didn’t.

If that video essay intrigues you, there’s more in the series, though with many more spoilers, such as this one on Character and Theme.

Not long after The Wire finished its fifth and final season, there were plenty of books published on the show. And now we’re nearly two decades in from its premiere, The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill and The Ringer’s Van Lathan decided to spend quarantine kicking off a podcast where the two black cultural critics give the show a spirited re-watch. Does the show feature too much “copaganda” as my leftist critics now contend? Does it hold up like white liberals (its biggest fans, let’s be honest, despite President Obama’s shout out) think it does? The hosts just wrapped up Season Three, but if you’re ready to start the show again with commentary, here’s their first episode:

Related Content:

President Obama Chats with David Simon About Drugs, The Wire & Omar

Revisiting The Wire During 2020’s Black Lives Matter Movement
“The Wire” @ Harvard

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (8)
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  • Travis Jones says:

    The show only feels dated in the use of payphones and lack of tech, and at times it is a large part of the plot. It is called the wire.

  • Jane Edwards says:

    I’ve just finished watching The Wire for the 4th time and that’s all the season’s! It’s the best I’ve ever watched with such powerful characters and amazing stories. Nothing gets predictable.

  • Elizabeth Rouse says:

    I have only seen this series once, about 10 years ago, but I can picture in my mind at least 50 scenes that were so compelling, that I see them in vivid detail and will never forget. The characters were so real, that I could not believe that all of them were actors. I remember thinking that Bubbles just had to be someone off the street that was filmed, just playing himself.

  • F. F. Winkel says:

    Only those who have never gone to sleep- night after night, year after year- with a lullaby of gunfire in a neighborhood where young men live in homes with mothers who would willingly fellate you for a small bit of the product their sons sell on the street could ever think there was something “brilliant” about the utter horseshit that was “The Wire.”

  • Zeke says:

    So based on the shows characters the only one who would enjoy the show would be people like Michael, then? Haha. You might not like the show but that doesn’t make it “utter horseshit” 😂

  • Zeke says:

    “The Wire still feels recent despite premiering in 2002 and in 4:3 ratio, no widescreen HD here”

    It looks like you’re saying the only version available is the full screen DVDs. This is patently not true because the last few times I’ve watched it from start to finish have been in crisp, clean 1080p widescreen from the Blu-rays. I recommend the article is corrected to reflect this.

    The show was clearly framed with 4:3 in mind, however it appears that when they shot it they also were smart enough to keep the edges of the frame clear for future proofing, because I don’t see any cropping in. This means you get the nice wide edges added to the original framing which for my money gives the show a better sense of ambience, i.e. because you can see more of the surrounding environment it’s more immersive.

    Years later I still find it to be the high watermark of television serials. There’s never a wasted scene, the dialogue for each set of characters ers has a uniqueness depending on their background which makes it feel real and raw, no character is perfect, no one ever really wins or loses. Politicians hide behind empty promises or have their ideology stripped away in the name of their careers, public services are always cash strapped and barely able to keep a lid on the crime problem, the “good guys” are often just as troubled as the villains. You cut the head off one snake (Avon), another more vicious rises up in its place (Marlo). Incompetence is rife on both sides and often causes strife or in extreme cases a loss of life. Characters do bad things for good reasons. There is so much to praise here and it really feels like “write what you know” taken to the extreme which is why it manages a level of realism beyond most shows. It’s more of a dramatic and accurate retelling of things that actually happened. The full circle conclusion seems to bring home the overarching message of the show which is “things never change”. No matter how you come at them, if you ignore them or you try to improve them, human nature just seems to dictate that it always has been like this and will always be like this because of the way people are. Its bleak and brilliant because it’s true.

    This is my personal order for seasons, ranked best to worst although even the worst one is still a solid watch and beats most other shows.

    Season 1 (Barksdale organisation focus)
    Season 4 (Politics of Baltimore/high school focus)
    Season 5 (McNulty’s serial killer plot)
    Season 3 (Hamsterdam and Carcetti’s mayoral run)
    Season 2 (Baltimore docks and the Greeks)

    Even though Season 3 might be second to last technically it has some of the best episodes of the show contained in it. I’m marking more on overall plot cohesion and sheer watchability as a whole.

  • Duarte Boaventura says:

    It doesnt matter that the tech is old. TBH, the tech they use in that show was already old and outdated when the show first aired. The fact that the drug dealers used pay phones and beepers seemed archaic even in 2002, the idea ks that people at the bottom use what they have and what they understand, and sometimes it can be effective against newer tech.

  • KJ says:

    Simply the best TV show ever. A masterpiece. There have been many great shows like Homicide, Breaking Bad, Sopranos but nothing quite like this in its cohesion and candor. Every couple of years I revisit to feed my soul and learn something new. It’s lessons in the American way and in general the world works – the strengths and flaws of man. The fact that it accomplished the enormous challenge of making something educational and entertaining is not unnoticed- I likened it to Nas’s illmatic masterpiece of an album in the way it paints a detailed picture of Baltimore and how all the different facets connect to one another and as a viewer it all makes sense and believable (with a few exceptions).

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