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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