Long having languished in the shadow of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, HBO’s The Wire has suddenly seized the attention of the media. Newspapers are lapping it up—even Stephen King has written a column on it for Entertainment Weekly—and with good reason, since no drama has deserved its also-ran status less. Critics have been virtually unanimous about The Wire’s quality since it began, but few viewers have actually watched it. That needs to change.
If you didn’t know better, you might lump The Wire in with the many regular police dramas cluttering TV airwaves. You might expect the endless police procedurals of a CSI, with only HBO’s lack of censorship to distinguish it. But The Wire’s cops-and-crime agenda is only one facet of creator David Simon’s goal of comprehensively portraying the plight of the American city, using Baltimore, Maryland as a representative example. While cops do indeed investigate criminals, the similarities to network crime shows end there. Just as Six Feet Under wasn’t just a family drama and Deadwood wasn’t just a Western, The Wire is a world away from network crime fare, not just through its rejection of weekly formula, but because its concerns are wide-ranging and willfully unglamorous. As an indictment of American society it is more consistent and encompassing than The Sopranos and as a crime drama infinitely denser in characterization, wit, and dramatic pay-off than any police procedural in TV history.
The show doesn’t restrict itself to crime, aspiring to be a comprehensive exploration of urban institutional failure. We are certainly not meant to guess whodunit or to revel in the mystery that crime fiction provides. There is certainly no catharsis of a case solved, as we see week to week in Law and Order. Instead, each season of The Wire investigates a different urban theme. For the first three seasons, the show has followed the Barksdale drug ring, an operation run from Baltimore housing projects. In the first season, a ramshackle police unit is assembled to investigate their deeply rooted enterprise after having long been ignored by apathetic police administrators. The second season shifted gears and focused instead on the decline of Baltimore’s ports, its workers, and the compromises the American working class as a whole has been forced to make. The third season returned the Barksdale case to prominence and introduced City Hall machinations and ambitious councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen). The fourth season will take us into Baltimore’s schools and track the job change of Prez (Jim True-Frost), a detective in the first three seasons, who has become a teacher trying to make a difference in students’ lives, even though statistics—and the kids themselves—say they’re fated to become embroiled in the drug world. (This mimics co-writer Ed Burns’s real-life career path in Baltimore, where he was both a detective and a high school teacher.) The fifth season (just announced this week, surprisingly early) will present a sustained analysis of the media’s culpability in urban destruction.
This might sound like heavy going for a TV drama. But Simon rarely foregrounds his theses, instead letting events he chooses to dramatize speak for themselves. Nor is The Wire insidiously righteous either, never advocating specific solutions. As Simon admits, the show is just profoundly angry about how the American city has slid into spectacular dysfunction, and to mirror this, the world of The Wire is as morally murky as any you can find on television, constructing this ambivalent environment without resorting to cop-show clichés. The Wire works to present its characters non-judgmentally, giving criminals as much screen time and depth of characterization as cops.
If stereotypical bent cops and sociopathic criminals aren’t the focus, it’s because The Wire is not an attack on individuals. Nearly every character has moments of kindness and determination. As Simon has explained, “We are bored with good and evil. We renounce the theme.” Instead of aberrant psychology, the show explores how the urban world makes people what they are, and how governments, through their labyrinth of bodies and jurisdictions, have failed the people they serve, on both sides of the law. In an America consumed by media-stoked fears of international terrorists, The Wire (which began in 2002) consciously returns the focus to the indisputably real but glossed-over crisis on the home front, showing how immediate domestic problems are so urgent in cities like Baltimore that the larger specter of terrorism is subordinated.
Rather than shoot for gritty finesse, like pioneering shows Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, The Wire draws on past innovations to its advantage, focusing its desire for originality on plot, character and theme. The Wire asks viewers to look past visual flourishes and be entranced by pure drama. Eschewing visual tricks allows the show to aim for an almost timeless feel, which in turn suggests how the problems of American cities like Baltimore may not be short-lived crises, but an entrenched problem that not only has lasted for years but will be with us for decades to come.
This all may make watching The Wire sound like homework, and granted, it’s not something you’d flick on straight after a stressful day at work. As Simon admits, “Americans regard their television sets as a means of relaxation rather than a means of provocation.” But it’s not turgid. You can see Simon struggling against preconceptions about TV and trying to demonstrate how television can make domestic issues more accessible. Once you give the show a couple of episodes to get you into its unique groove, it becomes a breeze to watch. Though you will certainly miss some narrative details the first time, that doesn’t sabotage the experience. They just make the DVDs a worthwhile investment.
But by sitting down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and taking in an hour of The Wire’s drama, do we degrade the plight of families in cities like Baltimore for purposes of entertainment? Actor Sonja Sohn, who plays Shakima Greggs on the show, voiced this concern soon after the first season, relating her difficulty reconciling her own troubled urban background with the fiction that she contributes to: “This stuff needs to be divulged, but it still ends up being entertainment, and that bothers me.”
It’s a troubling question, but one cannot watch The Wire voyeuristically. It’s too introspective, too multifaceted to be light entertainment. The joy of the show comes from embracing its narrative and characterization in equal measure with its social conscience. And besides, there is a distinction between mere entertainment and art. Not to deride entertainment, but art provokes a separate instinctive reaction. As playwright Amiri Baraka defines it, art is that which makes us proud to be human. This highlights the fascinating contradiction within The Wire. The show’s mission to highlight how the governmental institutions we have created have eroded into a negligent mess hardly makes us proud of our accomplishments. However, once we take that plunge into despair with The Wire, its determination and compassion rescue us. We get a glimpse into how individuals can react against bureaucratic injustice, and it’s thrilling to watch. This challenging of prescribed moral boundaries elevates the show into the realm of art, and that achievement itself gives us hope. And could there be a better way to spend your Sunday night than that?