Amy and I just finished watching all five seasons of The Wire. While we were doing this, I was surprised by the number of people I mentioned this to who had never heard of the show. “The what?,” they’d ask. “The Wire?”
Yes — The Wire.
The Wire was an HBO series that ran from 2002 to 2008. You’ve heard of The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, right? According to this list at Nerve.com, The Wire is better than both of them. It’s better than any other HBO drama, ever.
Best TV drama
When we finished watching the three released seasons of Boardwalk Empire back in April, I started hunting for something we might love nearly as much while waiting for the fourth.
We tried House of Cards, figuring it for a sure thing, given all of its acclaim and our strong interest in politics. Instead, I absolutely hated it. It was weakly written, poorly staged, and badly lit. Kevin Spacey’s South Carolinian accent was laughable. The thought that the per-episode cost of House of Cards is reportedly the same as that of Boardwalk Empire strikes me as a crime worthy of a Senate investigation. Boardwalk Empire is 20 times the value.
My sister and brother-in-law kindly lent us three seasons of Game of Thrones. We made it through a season and a half before I had enough of the excessive CGI, the gore, the disturbing sex, and the confounding collection of clans and dynasties.
That’s when a Google search led me to the above-mentioned list of HBO dramas, which seemed reasonable enough. Personally, I would be tempted to put Deadwood in the Number 1 spot, even though it did get terminated prematurely.
The Wire is a series we did begin once before. Episode One was as far as we got the first time, before I decided I didn’t need to see yet another drama about police busting drug dealers.
Boy was I ever wrong.
The Wire is set in Baltimore, Maryland. It was created by David Simon, a police reporter at The Baltimore Sun from 1982 to 1995. His book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets became the basis for the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street, for which he wrote and produced.
In 1997, David Simon teamed up with Ed Burns</>, a former Baltimore police detective and public school teacher, to write The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, about the intersection of West Fayette and Monroe Streets in Baltimore. That book became a six-hour HBO miniseries, also called The Corner.
On this foundation, Simon and Burns went back to HBO and created The Wire, along with producer Robert F. Colesberry, who had also worked on The Corner.
The Wire is about Baltimore cops vs. Baltimore drug dealers. The first season is a 13-episode story about police efforts to bust these drug dealers through the use of wiretaps. Succeeding seasons venture into the worlds of Baltimore’s port, its politics, its public schools, and its newspaper.
What makes the series so great is the complex interplay between these organizations and the people in them. Bit by bit, the episodes assemble a detailed model of an American city on a rich variety of levels. Each character’s motives and actions are dependent upon and can potentially affect others in ways neither of them may even realize. The organizations themselves exert a crushing pressure on individuals. Random chance opens or blocks opportunities with pure caprice.
As in life, the whole beautiful struggle produces mixed results. There is little, if any, poetic justice. Valient efforts may end up thwarted. Heinous crimes may ultimately go unpunished. Year follows year, and cycles repeat. The end effect is an intricate overview of a part of one city and the people in it who get up each day and do their things — and by extension, your own city, and neighbors you may never even have considered.
The writing on The Wire is as good as a fine novel or great movie. Its characters are three-dimensional, with distinct personalities, aspirations, ambitions, and demons. There are no absolute heroes, no neat formulas, no comforting catchphrases. The language rings with authenticity. The situations sometimes mix harsh tragedy with a tinge of comedy, and rarely offer an easy solution.
The show’s cast is outstanding, even though few of its actors are broadly recognizable from other work. Michael K. Williams, who plays the lone wolf bandit Omar Little, is now also known for his prominent role as Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire. Idris Elba, an entreprising drug dealer named Stringer Bell on The Wire, has since starred as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Amy Ryan, seen on The Wire as Port Authority Officer Beadie Russell, has also been featured on The Office and in a number of strong movie performances.
Mostly, though, The Wire‘s stars are not instantly familiar. Wendell Pierce is fantastic as Detective Bunk Moreland, a playful, cigar-gnawing bulldog with deeply-rooted principles. Dominic West is both thrilling and agonizing as frustrated rebel Detective Jimmy McNulty. Clarke Peters portrays the wise and patient techie detective Lester Freamon with an elegant cool that’s shocking when it’s lost. Andre Royo plays a striving junkie-informant called Bubbles with more tenderness than many Oscar winners can muster. Over time, the cast grows to include a whole team of young actors, any one of which can arouse anger, hope, or heartbreak with a well-delivered line or just a look.
Is The Wire better than The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, or Deadwood? I can’t say.
Since “The HBO Collection” is now on Prime Instant Video, Amazon Prime members can stream these and other HBO shows online. You can also start a free 30-day trial of Prime to try out its streaming and shipping benefits. (Disclosure: I’m an Amazon.com associate.)
If you’re not already familiar with The Wire, you’ve got 60 episodes of television genius awaiting,