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:
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.