We are living in the Golden Age of American television, the surge of multi-stranded long running story lines, the television DVD industry, the internet, and the plurality of modern television channels all interconnect to bring us the current climate of high quality, high production dramas with international audiences and critical appeal. Also importantly we are living in the age of the HBO series, starting with the brutal prison drama Oz, and evolving into The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Deadwood and many more. All of which in their unique ways represent the peak of the modern US drama series. With this in mind we must note what an astounding achievement it is that The Wire has surpassed them all in terms of dexterity, subtly, craftsmanship, performances, plotting, social relevance, and nuance and in this sense is the greatest American television series ever made by a wide margin. This is a big statement, and I’m aware of its implications, not to mention the many of you who would contest it, if for no other reason than its pure audacity. Of course as always this is only my opinion, but in this episode I will attempt to make a case for this proclamation, to back it up rather than just let it stand alone. Also for those unfamiliar with the series, or who know about it but have never watched an episode I will completely avoid spoiling major plot points, and will only be discussing the show in broader terms, so hopefully if you’ve not seen The Wire you will be convinced to give it a shot.
So what makes The Wire stand apart from its contemporaries or even its predecessors? Well in order to answer that question, it is probably best to examine both of them. Starting with the latter; this is the brain child of David Simon, a former investigative journalist who wrote the excellent, and deeply honest: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which if you’re a fan of true crime literature then you need to read. From this book the NBC television series Homicide: Life on the Street was commissioned and ran for seven troubled series, narrowly avoiding cancellation on numerous occasions it was an inspirational series which dared to not be shot in Los Angeles but to actually be filmed on location in Baltimore Maryland on the other side of the North American continent. Simon was continually frustrated with the show as it walked a dangerous line between artistic integrity and commercial viability. Competing with the car chase, and shoot out cop dramas of the day like Nash Bridges, and its more accessible rival NYPD Blue, which was shot in L.A and never had the same energy or realism as Homicide. It is remarkable that the show ever survived past its unusually short four episode second season, but survive it did - through compromising some of its gritty, dingy style for more sensational story arcs like as season four plot line about a sniper killing people in the streets indiscriminately (a two parter which doesn’t seem so far fetched anymore post the Washington Sniper of 2002 six years after the episodes were first aired).
Although the show is excellent the majority of the time, the restrictions imposed by network television in terms of language, violence and nudity; and the requirements imposed as well, more action, pretty female detectives etc. meant that the show was most definitely before its time, it eclipsed all of its competitors, with the latterly exception of Oz which was made by the same producers. Homicide is almost a test run for The Wire which uses many of the same crew, also takes heavy influence from Simon’s books, both Homicide and his follow-up The Corner, and also uses many of the same actors. Not an episode of The Wire goes by in which you can’t spot an actor from Homicide, the same goes for Oz, and together they form a family of gritty east coast dramas with something different to say.
In terms of The Wire’s contemporaries it is easier to make the distinctions; I don’t think it’s particularly fair to compare HBO drama series to programmes produced for networks like ABC or Fox, as their content is dictated by an entirely differing set of rules and establishments, but when compared to another HBO dramas like The Sopranos the differences are clear. The Sopranos examining the same set of characters more or less over its six seasons and only gently tuning its thematic explorations as the seasons pass. If the Sopranos brings Shakespeare kicking violently to the turn of the 21st Century, Richard III and MacBeth as literary touchstones for Tony Soprano, then the allusions that can be brought to The Wire as them of the doomed Greek characters, the myths and tragedy which is played out wholesale through its institutions. Those indifferent Olympus Gods being captured in every commstat meeting in season 3. No character is bigger than the story. The focus shifts ever so subtly on The Sopranos however everything ultimately rests with Tony, where as The Wire has no hesitation at shifting its focus almost entirely from one season to the next. The first time it attempted such a shift was its bravest move, between seasons one and two. Season one focuses on the procedurals of a police investigation, and a drug dealing organisation; by presenting us with a fifty fifty split in terms of screen time, between the law enforcement and the law breakers. It examined issues surrounding the corruption of impoverished youth, the internal and external politics of policing, and US’s abandonment of the war on drugs in favour of the war on terror. From this in season two an entirely new case is given to the team of detectives, this time corruption at the city harbour and an operation to bring down the union leader who’s been using his position to steal cargo and get illegal cargo past the port authorities in order to siphon money into his union. The themes explored in the season involve the death of traditional industry as man is replaced by machine, and the working class made increasingly desperate, not given enough work to survive. This change in gear was startling, original, and totally at odds with the traditional television series. Shows often change story lines from one season to the next, but they generally don’t change location, energy and characters in such an abrupt fashion. The tone of the show had changed, and it would again and again until the final episode, the creative team cunningly changed the performance of its title song: “Way down in the hole”, keeping the song but using a different artist with a different style for each of its seasons, basically stated that the show is the same but the pitch has changed. This style of television is what perhaps contributed most significantly to The Wire being compared more to literature than its own medium or cinema. This would come as no surprise to anyone reading the names of writers who have contributed scripts – George P Pelecanos, Richard Price, David Simon and Dennis Lehane all celebrated novelists and authors in their own right. They bring a unique sense of plotting, interaction and dialogue to The Wire that is not found in even the most brilliant of television. The humour which pervades The Wire also is an aspect which comes from its inherently literary outlook, the humour is always character based and each character is fully realised. The Wire is a literary creation at its heart, densely plotted, character driven.
Character is an important and integral piece of the puzzle, officially Detective Jimmy McNulty, a petulant, arrogant, narcissistic, intransigent, Irish copper is our main character who is deeply fond of recalcitrance. The unpleasantness of his character is not unusual for HBO, who with Tony Soprano managed to make a racist, sexist, cheating, murdering gangster likable; but where Tony is clearly the head of his family, McNulty often takes the side lines and only really the main character in Seasons one and five, in seasons two and four in particular McNulty became a recurring supporting character at times, especially season four which had almost totally disregarded him from the narrative. Imagine Jack Baur not appearing in four or five episodes of the next season of 24 if you will. But the expanse of characters grows with each passing year as the focus changes, the addition of the harbour workers and harbour police officers in season two; the focus changes to City Hall and the failure of politicians in season three with additions like Major Colvin, Mayor Royce, Councillor Carcetti, and many more. Season four switches again to the failure of the School system, introducing possibly the largest amount of characters with teachers and students a like. Season five switches to the local newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, this time examining the failings of the media in relation to the urban criminal environment with even more characters from reporters to editors.
This all culminates in a vast tapestry of faces and places which produces a Dickensian style and world (although the show would mock the use of that word in its fifth season, I think it remains an accurate adjective). Through the vast nature of long running television, Simon and company have managed to paint possibly the most accurate picture of inner city America, using their multi-faceted narrative and characters which are inextricably complex and also completely engaging. Individually the characters are achievements in themselves, the aforementioned McNulty whose lecherous ways often leads to infidelity and loss of personal dignity. He is not an action man, in fact not once does McNulty engage in a fist fight or shoot out in five seasons, the most danger the man is ever in is when he’s behind the wheel of his car after drinking a pint worth of Jameson’s whiskey. He is only just a centre piece for the show, but his is also a necessary narrative force, a catalyst that brings key pieces of the picture together through his insensitive and obstructive tendencies. In fact Jimmy McNulty on the surface seems to be another clichéd police officer, however The Wire is not a drama which rests on its laurels but rather outdoes expectation at every turn. The character is a rebel who is not above the self destructive tendencies however he is also a character whose pride is his undoing; McNulty is naïve enough to believe doing the right thing will save him in the end. A great deal of credit must go to Dominic West for his spirited and fearless performance as McNulty. Also from the world of the police is the Major and later Colonel Rawls, a sarcastic, temperamental, flawed, occasionally human often infuriating police chief who along with the Commissioner Burell manages to give an insightful commentary on the nature of running a police department and the immeasurably complex politics involved with crime statistics, and quick fixes to appease politicians and the general public. Often forced to opt for the easiest and cost conscious solution to a problem rather than the most effective. This is an aspect rarely scene in police drama, and one which has certainly never been tackled so well.
In the world of crime, we have Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, a complex power dynamic and differing values, street credibility verses business and profit, make their relationship one of the most interesting to follow especially during the third season. Perhaps the greatest performance on The Wire comes from Idris Elba playing the complex Stringer Bell. Bell is a merciless killer when necessary, a part time economics student and a comsummate businessman at all times. Stringer is a character who believes that he can out run, out maneuver the world he comes from. Ironically his system of business would lead to less murders, but to achieve this utopia for drug slinging he must commit more murders. At one point he’s advised that what kills more police than bullets and booze is bordom. “Keep it really boring String.” He tries as hard as he can, but his own mistakes and the trigger happy tendencies of those around him make it impossible. The Barksdale/Bell relationship is often immoral, but also human, remorseful and occasionally kind hearted. This illustrates another strength of The Wire, the lack of heroes and villains. With a few exceptions, a season two character called The Greek being one such, no character is beyond a sense of humanity and if their actions are immoral or amoral then it is because of the environment they’re formed within. Even season four and five’s lead drug dealer Marlow and his ruthless lieutenants Snoop and Chris are explained to a certain extent. Sometimes committing brutal murders as kind hearted favours or showing the lightest twinges or remorse at killing helpless victims.
Elsewhere in this crime infested world, we have Frank Sobotka, the leader of harbour union, one of the more tragic of the characters in The Wire, an interesting and extremely watchable creation. The storyline of the death of heavy industry strikes a chord throughout any industrial town whether it be Baltimore, Maryland or Glasgow, Scotland. Sobotka brings a face to this industrial collapse and a sense of personal loss to the ever evolving storyline. His family concerns only add to the sense of melancholy – without the shipping industry neither his son nor his nephew will have a life they could. They will spend it drinking in a bar, listening to old men telling stories of the past, committing petty crimes. Disaster hovers around them like a curse. Councillor Carcetti, who at once is an idealist, a hypocrite, and weasel like politician. Truly a rounded character who starts out with the promise of reform but is contorted and distorted through the political process and his own private ambitions. (This storyline is extremely interesting in the current climate, Barack Obama is an obvious touchstone: moving from the candidate who stated unequivocably that he would talk to Iran and Cuba in his first term if elected then like Carcetti when he saw he could be elected rather than keeping the more favoured candidate honest his outspoken principles have been slowly eroded. His character reflects a great number of politicians – a television standard bearer for the collapse of New Labour if you will – Carcetti is The Wire’s conscience and like any good conscience he is corrupted by his own ego.) Police detective turned school teacher Prezbuluski, who has one of the widest arcs of any character, starting out as a trigger-happy worthless police officer who only survives because of a high ranking in-law and becomes a kind hearted advocate of the troubled youth of this impoverished city. Prezbuluski, like Ed Burns (the other major creator of The Wire) himself a former school teacher, is our guide into the adult world of school, children failing the school and the school failing the children. He is one of a number of major characters that in Season 4 attempting to provide the corner children with a viable alternative to slinging drugs. Dennis “Cutty” Wise – an ex con who battles to stay straight after a long jail sentence by opening a boxing gym; and Bubbles the erstwhile junkie drug offender takes a young boy under his wing. Bubbles, the drug addict and police informant, he has the hardest battle of all the characters as he wrestles with addiction and tries to change his ways. You will be hard pressed to find a more human portrayal of a man belonging to the perceived least important part of society. Bubbles could well be The Wire’s finest creation. He is a philospher, a junkie, he is wise, a coward, a hero, a lost boy, a teacher and a middle aged man. His character arc being one of the most sustaining things in The Wire. And of course, my favourite character, gay-gangster, lone gunman and professional drug money thief – Omar. Possibly the most interesting of all of the men and women involved in the full five seasons, he is a stray bullet, the odd one out who belongs to no side but his own. Like the drifter from a Western, an illusion which the shows creators capitalise on a number of times. Omar gets the best scenes, one season one episode features Omar in court as witness for the prosecution, accused of being a pariah on society by the defendants lawyer, he turns the entire argument on its head in a hilarious scene by accusing the lawyer of being the same: “I’ve got the shotgun, you’ve got the briefcase…” Omar brings a sense of romance to the game. He is at once sensational and believable and utterly engaging. Little details of the character brings him to life like no other, his affection for his male lovers, the transparency of his tragic flaw (a thirst for revenge), even his outfit makes him look like a modern day shooter from Once Upon a Time in the West; brown trench coat, bullet proof vest and of course a large shotgun.
All of these characters are brought together, through the shows intricate interwoven plotlines, two characters might never share a scene together, and yet each of their choices affects the other. The Wire demands a great deal of patience from its audience and in return it treats us with a profound respect, a respect that doesn’t assume that we want the same thing from every season, a respect which eradicates formula and cliché as best it can. Often The Wire’s plot lines take whole seasons to mature and reach their crisis points, sometimes two or three seasons, sometimes the big gun battle or the dramatic arrest scene is snatched from us before we can know the satisfaction, and when it is, the drama is its own reward, like the climax of No Country for Old Men, or the last scene of The Sopranos we appreciate the unexpected, we enjoy having our preconceptions shattered and most importantly we respect the show in return. In this sense we get more from the anti-climax than we do from the climax.
It’s sprawling, epic and yet paradoxically minimalist story line is unlike anything else on television. It is an entire city, the city of Baltimore, and along with Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire has put this deprived, violent, and ethnically diverse metropolis on the map. Perhaps more than anything else Baltimore is the main character of this show. Dickens had London, Chandler had LA, James Joyce had Dublin. Baltimore is the most important aspect of the tapestry. It is brought to life from the corners where drugs are dealt to the city hall where governing policies are formed; this is not a back drop nor a stage but a living, breathing character which impacts on everyone. The Wire feels more real than any other discourse on modern life, watching characters who speak like real people walking through real streets. It gives The Wire an immediacy, a potency. The plot does not rely upon monumental coincidences but rather the cut and thrust of the plot is woven naturally, novelistically, through the episodes that make up each season. The realism of the show is mirrored in the realism of the setting. Baltimore is haunted by a broken social system, at every section of the city capitalism has destroyed the ties that bind. Every institution is corrupted, the police force caring more about statistics than solving crimes, the stevedores co-operating with criminals in a hope to save their industry, the politicians selling their souls for power, schools failing the most dependant of children. This is about the few weighed against the many. Baltimore may be brought to life like no other setting in the history of moving pictures but make no mistake these themes are about America as a whole.
There is so much more to say about this show perhaps the only subject missing within the show is religion or spirituality. However, I could continue to discuss the lack of non-diegetic sound through five seasons, I could further examine its commentary on the culture of violence or its main thesis: that capitalism is the root of all evil which is what every season boils down to. The use of excellent local talent, theatre actors from Baltimore, and how the traditional circles of so-called beautiful people from the city of angels are irrelevant here, with this realistic, non-plastic, and ungroomed world. The lack of tokenism, the hilarious one-liners, there is so much more to say that I could literally do an episode about every episode if I were so inclined. But the best advice I can give is to see it: start with season one, its self contained enough to watch it by itself and if you like it continue because it just gets better and better. As the apathetic, sardonic, sloth like Homicide police sergeant Jay Landsman states forthrightly “we are all here sharing a dark corner of the American experiment.” The collapse of the American dream is at the heart of this programme. Neither hermetic nor transparent; the dreams rotting foundations in capitalism have never been so astutely critiqued.