HBO series is down to ‘The Wire’

[7 January 2008]

By Chuck Barney

Contra Costa Times (MCT)

When thoughts of the writers’ strike and the havoc it has wreaked start to bum us out, it’s encouraging to know that we still have “The Wire.”

For at least a little while longer.

On Sunday, David Simon’s brilliant tale of inner-city politics and sociology launches its fifth—and final—season on HBO. Then, after 10 scintillating episodes, it will go away and leave a big, gaping void in prime time.

Even sadder than seeing the show depart is the fact that much of America never discovered what a towering television achievement it was. Despite being showered with critical adulation, “The Wire” has failed to attain iconic pop-cultural status along the lines of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” In fact, during its previous season, it only averaged a measly 1.6 million viewers.

We’d like to think that with many television shows out of commission because of the strike, more viewers might be willing to sample “The Wire” this season as it examines the role of the media in society.

OK, that’s probably a pipe dream, but just in case there’s still a chance to win you over, we’ve called upon our powers of persuasion and hereby offer five reasons why we love “The Wire”:

1. It’s like a riveting page-turner: By now, it has become almost trite to describe “The Wire” as “novelistic” and/or “Dickensian.” But the fact remains: Simon’s work has the feel of great literature.

With its intricate tapestry of interlocking plot lines, sprawling cast of characters and ambitious intentions, it resists the simplistic storytelling structure of a typical crime procedural, which tends to wrap everything up in tidy fashion at the end of each commercial-packed hour.

Instead, “The Wire” takes a panoramic, chapter-by-chapter approach, building momentum and adding layers as it goes. Yes, it can get confusing, and even difficult at times, but the dedicated viewer is always richly rewarded.

2. It contains a worthy message: Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has often described “The Wire” as an “angry” show, and in this case we don’t mind a little rage.

We admire how “The Wire,” unlike any other show, takes up the cause of the overworked and the underclass, and courageously shines a light on how they have been betrayed by institutional inertia and public officials who are predominantly driven by their own self-interests. Yes, it’s an entertaining show, but it also has a lot of important—if harsh—things to say.

And, as cast member Wendell Pierce (“Bunk”) told the Washington Post, “If at the end of an hour of watching `The Wire,’ you don’t feel bad, you should.” In a good way, of course.

3. It has a vivid sense of place: Just as Dickens used Victorian London as a stage for his tales of social injustice, Simon deftly deploys his home town of Baltimore to do the same.

The city becomes a primary character as he takes us into the city hall offices, the police headquarters, the newsrooms and the taverns. Mostly, though, he takes us into the dilapidated housing projects and plops us on the cruel corners where drug dealers dispense their wares. And he does so with the kind of obsessive eye for detail that only a native could possess.

Through it all, the feeling of authenticity is so strong, it’s chilling. Give the show major points for street cred.

4. It embraces diversity: Though improvements have been made in recent years, prime-time television is still no melting pot. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a show that features such a vast array of complex black characters residing on both sides of the law.

The trend hit a high note last season with a foursome of middle-school characters played by previously unknown youngsters who were so affecting and so natural that it didn’t even feel like they were acting. It’s frustrating to think that they might never have come to our attention if not for “The Wire.”

5. It wallows in ambiguity: In the introduction to Rafael Alvarez’s 2004 book on the show, Simon states, “We are bored with good and evil. We renounce the theme.”


While so much play-it-safe television programming feeds us heroes who are undeniably heroic and bad guys who are emphatically bad, “The Wire” gives us a world of nuance and shades of gray. It’s a world where flawed characters are constantly forced to make choices between right and wrong, and often fail to emerge wearing angel wings.

It’s just one more way that “The Wire” manages to keep it real.



“The Wire” just might be television’s best show you’re not watching. While we’re on the subject, here are a few other highly acclaimed but underappreciated shows that deserve your attention:

“Friday Night Lights” (NBC): This small-town drama is about so much more than high school football. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton make for the best couple in prime time.

“30 Rock” (NBC): Tina Fey’s uproarious workplace sitcom won the Emmy, but it’s still no Nielsen powerhouse. Alec Baldwin’s performance is reason alone to watch.

“Battlestar Galactica” (Sci Fi): Set to embark on its final season this year, this intelligent and provocative series could be TV’s best science-fiction show. Ever.

“Brotherhood” (Showtime): This offbeat—and riveting—family drama recently completed its second season. Our advice: Start with Season 1 on DVD and become immediately addicted.

“The Riches” (FX): Minnie Driver shines in this drama about a family of con artists trying to steal the American Dream. Season 1 is about to arrive on DVD. Season 2 is set for summer.

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