For some reason, I never watched one of the best shows of all time until four years into its run. I missed out on the Wire for its first three seasons on HBO. It’s funny because until recently I’ve been an HBO addict, religiously settling in on Sunday nights. With shows like Rome, Carnivale, Deadwood, and of course the flagship Sopranos it seemed like there was always an excellent show waiting for me after the static-y opening graphic. So why didn’t I watch the Wire? I like cop shows, and by all accounts series creators David Simon and Ed Burns are masters of the form. I think it had something to do with missing the first season when it first aired on HBO. I vaguely remember watching an episode or two from the end of the phenomenal first season and being turned off by the sprawling cast of characters and intricate plotting. I know, I know. I was worried about being lost and a few feet behind the trolley because I wasn’t in on the ground floor. Remember, this was before the days when I could buy the first season on DVD, or have it shipped disc by disc to my door via netflix (as I have been doing lately). If I didn’t see the first few episodes of the Wire, I reasoned, then I would be utterly lost. That is a valid concern, but looking back I wish I would have had the will to dig right in. It would have been worth it.
But instead I held off. Every time a new season started, the critics would sing the shows praises. It seemed like you couldn’t pass a newspaper or entertainment magazine without reading an endorsement that The Wire is the finest creation in the history of the television set. “The Wire: The Best TV Show Since God Created Man” or “Can The Wire Cure Cancer With the Power of Its Greatness? Yes!” Still I held off. It wasn’t until earlier this year and the show’s fourth season that I finally came around and gave it a shot. I sat in my chair, nodding out on the awesomeness like Bubbles the hapless junky after a fix.
In the latest issue of the Believer, author Nick Hornby and Simon sat down and had a little chat. Simon said that he pitched the show “as the anti-cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit procedurals afflicting American television.” The Wire could not be further from shows like CSI or Law & Order, which is a bonus for me. HBO has a history of shows that expect more from their viewers, and the Wire is no exception.
My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.
That is an approach to storytelling that I can get behind. In the Baltimore of The Wire, Simon gives us an extended gray area. The show centers on the drug trade and the cops who fight the losing war against them, but both sides seem equally likable and despicable. The cops aren’t above brutal acts of brutality, like Officer Prez pistol-whipping and blinding a fourteen year old bystander. For most of the season, I found myself resenting the character and the act and feeling sympathy for his victim. Then, Simon reintroduces the boy who had lost and eye and reveals that he is a heavily involved in the drug game and a pretty despicable character. Nothing is ever easy on The Wire.
The backstage maneuvering that hamstrings the police department and the increasingly baroque machinations of the drug dealers make for a first rate drama. The show never strays from its bleak realism, foregoing many of the stylistic flourishes of other cop shows in favor of focused, solid storytelling. There are no flashbacks or montages, just a straight-ahead narrative that commands you to pay attention. But The Wire never sacrifices characterization to the purposes of tedious procedural particulars. Whether it is Jimmy McNulty drunkenly assembling an Ikea bed before his estranged sons come visit him or the young drug dealer Wallace taking care of a number of young boys in an abandoned building. And don’t even get me started on Omar.
At the same time, the Wire moves from issue to issue. Over the seasons, the show has explored not only different facets of the war on drugs, but the role of power politics and local corruption, unions, the breakdown of industrial labor, and the different aspects of capitalism. In the next season, I understand that he will be taking on journalism and the role the media plays in creating, reporting, and perpetuating social ills. It’s like the world’s coolest civics class.
I’ve been tearing through the seasons so far, and while I regret taking as long as I did to get onboard, I’m glad I finally did. The Wire has one more season to come, and I for one can’t wait the re-up.