The Wire: Much Needed Relief for the Summer of TV Suckage

The Wire is the best drama on TV, and certainly the best show of the past five years that nobody is watching. Nobody I know, at least. Up to about three weeks ago, that included me. I had heard all about how good it was, watched a few episodes, and, being the standard bearer of an American male short attention span, lost interest quickly when I discovered that there were no hot chicks, car chases, things blowing up, wisecracking hot chicks, amiable and quirky Italian gangsters, wisecracking aliens, or wisecracking aliens occupying the bodies of hot chicks.

And then, in the middle of summer and the complete, total lack of anything on television, and motivated by the instinct to avoid writing, I actually sat through a few reruns of some episodes from the most recent season (season three, for those of you keeping track), and it started to grow on me. I watched a few more episodes, then ordered the first disc of season one from my bestest friend, Netflix. And then I was hooked.

I know the Wire isn’t even really on right now. But neither is anything else, and today is TV day, so here are the reasons you should be watching, or should have been, or should talk to your friend Netflix or Tivo or On-demand about The Wire:


You won’t find Trishelle or Flavor Flav or Bobby and Whitney on The Wire, but you will find a world that looks and feels remarkably real. That’s because The Wire was created by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who made his mark with the nonfiction book Homicide, in which he spent a year shadowing real Baltimore homicide detectives. Homicide the book became, of course, Homicide the TV show. Simon followed that book by partnering with Ed Burns, a former Baltimore homicide detective, to write The Corner, in which they shadowed the real life of a Baltimore street corner for a year. That critically acclaimed book was, of course, made into the acclaimed HBO miniseries. Are you seeing a pattern here? Following the Corner, Simon and Burns collaborated on The Wire, which brings together expertly the world of the cops and the street.

Simon has repeatedly said that The Wire isn’t so much about the drug war as it is about the life of the city. The world of The Wire is not my world, thank god, comfy suburban softie that I am, but it looks and acts like the world that exists in any modern American city.

Really, Really Great Writing:

Not only do Simon and Burns have the credentials mentioned above, but they’ve enlisted a shortlist of American literary crime authors that includes George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Richard Price. As a result, The Wire plays out like a novel. It moves slowly, things happen one episode that may not be fully explained until two episodes later. Characters are dark and complex -- the drug guys are not all bad, the cops are not all good, and everybody is conflicted.

Dialogue is realistic, with occasional lapses into oratory that don’t so much slow down the action or detract from the realism, but put a point on it. For instance, D’Angelo Barksdale is a truly tortured soul in what can only be called a Shakesperian dilemma -- yearning to break free from “the game” and go to “a place where I can breathe free,” imprisoned for his role in his druglord uncle’s crew, forced to stay in the game, or as his mother implores, “stay close to the family,” eventually...well, you’ll have to watch and see. As part of a prison study group (led by Richard Price), D’Angelo talks about the Great Gatsby: “The past is always with us. Where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it, all of this shit matters ... you can say you somebody new, you can give yourself a whole new story, but what came first is who you really are. It don't matter that some fool say he different 'cause the only thing that make you different is what you really do.”


The Wire has to have the largest cast on TV. There are maybe thirty regular characters. Thirty. At least. While this can make getting acquainted with The Wire a rather daunting experience, it also rewards dedicated viewing. Characters change, grow, screw each other, get screwed (by each other and the department), screw up, keep on screwing up, and keep on keeping on.

But nobody is "redeemed." There are no jive-ass revelations, no kiss and make up, no tidy endings where the good guys get the promotion and the girl/boy by thwarting the bad guys and everybody lives happily ever after.

The Wire’s characters are as likely to be motivated by personal or perceived slights -- the police major who is shown up by the local dockworkers union, the junkie whose friend is beaten over a fake ten dollar bill, the cop who is driven by boredom to track down the real name of a girl found dead and floating in the bay, the bureaucrat looking to jump a rung on the company ladder -- as those old stalwarts "good and evil." Good and evil are out there, but these aren't superheroes, they're real people, and that's not what is driving them.

Relationships are intricate and complex. Some of the best relationships on the show are between cops and what on any other show would be called “bad guys.” When cop Kima Greggs is shot, the scene in which her street informant Bubbles, a streetwise junkie, is told about Kima’s condition (critical) is much more moving than the scene in which her partner (that’s partner as in life-parter, rather than police partner) is told. We like Bubbles more. We like Bubbles and Kima and their hard-boiled, street-tested, symbiotic relationship. As played by Andre Royo, Bubbles is a classic Wire character -- tragically, monumentally flawed, self-interested, streetwise, realistic, funny, sad, smart, dumb, and completely compelling. We root for him, even though we recognize him as all too real to break out of his situation for good.

Detective McNultey seems both surprised and disturbed to find that he may be more comfortable bullshitting with Omar, the openly gay stone cold killer and 'hood Robin Hood (he robs drug dealers, keeps the money and hands out the drugs to local junkies) than the soccer moms who populate the suburban world occupied by his wife and children. When Omar is asked to become a police informant, he sums up the realism and complexity of the Wire and its characters: “I'll do what I can to help y'all. But the game's out there, and it's play or get played. That simple.”


Mike said...

What, you don't like So You Think You Can Dance? Or Dancing With the Stars? Or Dancey McDancerson's Good Times Dance-Off and Soft Shoe Revue?

I was briefly into The Wire, which is a really good show. But then I didn't have HBO for a while and it doesn't take too long to feel like you've missed lots of important stuff. I may have to catch up via Netflix.

aaron said...

What a great post, Dave. I was into the Wire when it first came out, then I moved and had no HBO like Mike, but then I moved again and had HBO for the end of the 2nd season and the whole 3rd season and was hooked again. But now the drug has worn off, and I've passed on renting The Wire DVDs at Hollywood Video more than once in recent weeks. But no longer, thanks to you.

I think that even those of us who don't have Netflix owe a debt to them by having their business be so successful that other brick and mortar video franchises ahave drastically revised their late fee policies. I had two movies overdue for 5 days and only had to pay 8 bucks, when i was expecting more like $20.