Wishful thinking: There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the voters of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will collectively look back at The Wire and say with regret, “Oh, my God. The best show in American television history has ended and we never once gave it an Emmy Award. What were we thinking?”
To be sure, The Wire has had some serious competition during its four years on HBO (a fifth and final season will begin January 6). Certainly its cable network-mate, The Sopranos, represented rare excellence on TV, but no other series has matched The Wire‘s broad, complex and sensitive depiction of life in a decaying American city (Baltimore), the perfect tone of its writing or the remarkable expressiveness of its ensemble cast.
The release on DVD of The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season (four discs, HBO Video, $59.99), a collection of 13 episodes filled with one unforgettable scene after another, gives viewers—and even latecoming Emmy voters—another chance to catch up on the series. The Wire was created by former Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon (the man previously behind NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s The Corner) with the major assistance of producer and co-writer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police detective and middle-school teacher. In addition to the writing of Simon and Burns, top-ranking novelists such as Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane contributed teleplays this season.
Season 4 takes on the issue of Baltimore’s failing public education system, but like every season of The Wire, it’s about much more than one topic.
While the focus is indeed on four boys of middle-school age—Michael (Tristan Wilds), Namond (Julito McCullum), Randy (Maestro Harrell) and Dukie (Jermaine Crawford)—and what they encounter at school, at home and on the mean streets of the city, the plot lines weave through many different areas.
So, in the course of Season 4, The Wire explores a heated mayoral election, struggles between rival gangs of drug dealers, the work of police detectives to bring down the dealers, political machinations among the police department hierarchy, the efforts of well-meaning teachers and educators to reach their students despite facing many obstacles, the long-running case of disappearing bodies of murder victims, and various intriguing characters whose own stories are developed.
This latter group includes a homeless drug addict and snitch named Bubbles (brilliantly portrayed by Andre Royo), an ex-convict running a boxing gym for kids (Chad L. Coleman) and a renegade outlaw named Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams) who’s gay, a devout Christian and prone to rip off the gang leaders.
Simon has said on various occasions, including here on the DVD documentary The Game Is Real, that he views each season of The Wire as a novel told in 13 episodes, with a beginning, a middle and an end, which allows him and his creative crew to develop stories and characters over time.
And if the story calls for a central character to meet an untimely death, so be it. That was case during Season 3, when Simon and Co. killed off Russell “Stringer” Bell (played by the charismatic Idris Elba), a leader of the Barksdale Gang who was attempting to move his gang’s criminal activities from drugs to construction and redevelopment.
Although many critics have hailed The Wire the series has, unforgivably, received a cold shoulder from Emmy voters.
In the DVD documentaries and in his audio commentaries, Simon doesn’t hide his exasperation with the Emmys. He seems particularly bitter, for instance, that the gifted Royo failed to get even a supporting actor nomination for his amazing portrayal of a drugged-out street person. But he does offer some explanations.
“We have to remember we’re in Baltimore, Md. It’s a long way away (from Hollywood),” Simon says in his commentary on the season-ending Episode 13, along with co-executive producer Nina Noble.
And to this one can add that not only is The Wire made by non-Hollywood people, but its cast is perhaps 70 percent African American and its stories confront issues of societal neglect that many Americans—including those in the TV industry—would prefer not to think about.
The Wire also doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter pattern of network TV. Although some have criticized the series for showing the seamy side of Baltimore, from vicious drug barons to callous cops to corrupt politicians, the series actually attempts to present characters as complex individuals.
As Simon puts it, “The Wire is really not interested in good and evil. It’s interested in economics, in sociology and in politics.”
But the series is hardly academic or dry. The stories and settings have so much power because they’re largely based on real people and real events, and they’re filmed in real locations. Credit for this goes to Simon and Burns, but also to the many Baltimore insiders they’ve recruited in advisory capacities and for cameo appearances, including a former mayor, a former police commissioner, a former drug dealer and a bunch of onetime cops and teachers. These amateur actors are part of the finest large ensemble cast we’ve ever seen on television.
Above all, The Wire is a dramatic attempt to raise awareness of what is going on in every major US city but is out of view for most of us. And while that of course means that the series explores the brutality, even the barbarism, of life in the city, it never is hopeless or overly cynical.
As Wendell Pierce, the fine actor who portrays police detective William “Bunk” Moreland, says in the DVD documentary It’s All Connected, “Our show reflects on the humanity of the people who are struggling to deal with the neighborhood they live in.”
Now if only Emmy voters would open their eyes and take a look at the neighborhood, as well.