Saying something is ‘the greatest thing ever’ can be quite contentious, particularly if you can’t back those convictions up. Fortunately The Wire has plenty of back up.
Since its premiere in 2002 The Wire has become a yardstick for making a quality TV show. It has become so influential, claims of it being the ‘best thing since sliced bread’ can only be rivalled by the magnum opus that is The Sopranos.
But it’s been over fifteen years since it first aired, so why is it still held in such high regard?
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One of the main things The Wire has is the illusion of a bog-standard police show – as creators David Simon and Ed Burns originally pitched the show to HBO – which is then completely blown away.
However once you pick away at the surface you’ll find there’s something much deeper and intricate at work. Throughout its five seasons you start to build an understanding of America’s flawed war on drugs and why it has become so futile. As Detective Ellis Carver says in season one: “Wars end.” The one on drugs isn’t finishing anytime soon.
Set in a post-9/11 United States, you’re taken to the city of Baltimore where you discover how deeply the sale and trafficking of narcotics impacts different parts of the city. From the streets of ‘B-more’ to its docks, from the schools to local newspapers and the city council, each entity is equally impacted and implicit.
What Simon and Burns brought to the table with The Wire was not only a sense of realism but a feeling of empathy. Before The Wire I always had a jaded look at those who sold drugs and those who ‘used’ and became addicts.
However after I lost that contempt it gave me an understanding that becoming a product of your environment can be a tragic inevitability.
Another important aspect of the show was that both creators had first hand experience of living in Baltimore; Burns was a former Baltimore police detective, working cases in the narcotics department before becoming a public school teacher. As for Simon he spent 12 years as a journalist working for the Baltimore Sun.
From there, the two were able to draw upon their experiences from walking the beat, the school systems, the court houses and attending city council meetings and mould them into something uniquely fresh and daring for its time.
The Wire did what no other cop drama, or any other drama at the time for that matter, dared to do – tell America its system is flawed.
Simon and Burns don’t offer answers on how to fix it – that wasn’t their job. What they were tasked with was creating a series to engage you from the jump.
Admittedly when I started season one it was hard for me to get into, things were slow, and I couldn’t keep up with the ‘B’more’ lingo. In that moment I stopped watching.
But seven years after its original release in the States, when it debuted on BBC 2 with all five seasons playing back-to-back each night, I gave it another opportunity and I’ve not regretted it since. In fact the only thing I regret from watching The Wire is now having to compare it to other so-called ‘great TV shows’ like Mad Men or Game Of Thrones.
The Wire may have had colourful characters who you loved and hated – and then cried for when their time came – but the standout character has to be the city itself. Never has a show’s cast been made so secondary to the actual setting, each episode is a tour of the many faces of Baltimore, you almost feel like you’re living there yourself.
That’s not to say the characters themselves weren’t memorable, in fact there are almost too many to choose from.
From big schemers like Proposition Joe to unlikely hero Roland Pryzbylewski everyone felt authentic. Again due to the first-hand experiences of the creators, they were all based on real people who experienced Baltimore’s plight in real life. They were characters with their own existences.
It also introduced two little known British actors, Dominic West and Idris Elba, both of whom would go onto become crown jewels of British acting. At the time two-thirds of the audience didn’t even know they were British!
West as Detective Jimmy McNulty was so organic, yes it was bit cliche to write him as the officer who could be a straight up degenerate and was only good at one thing – solving homicide cases – but he played it with such aplomb. You fell in love with the character once you realised behind the steely-eyed (and often drunk) detective, there was something really sad about his destructive personality.
It was a paradox to Elba’s Stringer Bell – smart but ruthless, cold and calculating, always seeing the future and thinking about long term gains and investments.
The east London-born actor played Bell with such precision you could shudder at his mere presence when he entered a scene.
At the same time you would marvel at how these ‘Street Kings’ were so adept at keeping ahead of McNulty and ‘The Detail’.
In the end it was his desire to get out of ‘The Game’ which proved to be his downfall.
Which leads us nicely onto The Wire’s best character of all, Omar Little, played by Michael K. Williams.
Based on real life Baltimore stick-up artists Shorty Boyd, Donnie Andrews, Ferdinand Harvin, Billy Outlaw and Anthony Hollie, who operated between the 1980s and early 2000s, Omar is a shinning example of excellent character writing and the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’.
Nothing beats his iconic whistling of A Hunting We Will Go as he brazenly walked through the tenement houses, shotgun in hand, robbing drug dealers of their product and anything else he saw fit to take. William’s calm, ‘no effs’ given portrayal was effortless and brave.
While probably not special in today’s media landscape, at the time it was a bold move for Simon and Burns to craft a character who was both balls-to-the-walls gangster and openly gay.
It says a lot when President Barack Obama named Omar Little as his favourite character in the series.
He clarified his statement, saying:
That’s not an endorsement… He’s not my favourite person but he’s a fascinating character.
Glen Weldon from Decider went as far as claiming Omar ‘Was One Of TV’s First Gay Superheroes’.
Also let’s not forget the show gave us Michael B. Jordan!
Another thing the show did brilliantly was giving viewers a sense of realism, at times it almost felt like you weren’t watching a scripted drama.
The infamous ‘f*ck scene’ where McNulty and Bunk are investigating a murder scene is nothing special, you see it in all cop dramas.
But it’s given gravitas as the only word said between the two detectives is the word ‘f*ck’.
In fact the four-letter-word is said 31 times (not forgetting the four motherf*ckers). It’s hilarious but is also gives a deep insight into how real, ‘natural PO-lice’ work is carried out.
In ‘The Pit’, which is dwarfed by Avon Barksdale’s infamous Towers, his nephew D’Angelo breaks down how being at the lower end of the food chain in the drug game is the equivalent of peeling potatoes at McDonald’s.
Furthermore the way he expertly breaks down the drug operation via a chessboard is a standout scene that has been lauded over and over again.
Upon further reflection The Wire isn’t even a show about the war on drugs.
It’s a show about the life you live and the environment you’re born into. Do you become a product of it, and eventually its victim like Bodie, Frank Sobotka and Dukie? Or will you make it out alive with scars and a tale to tell like Bubbles?
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The Wire is a show that needs to be watched by any self-respecting TV addict. Hell if I was Education Minister I’d make it required viewing in schools up and down the country.
Honestly if you haven’t watched it yet, close this article and get the boxset, your life will change forever.
The Wire’s co-creator David Simon new show, The Deuce, is out now on Sky Atlantic and HBO. Check out the trailer below.