Illustration by Jody Hewgill
For most of this decade, The Wire has been both the most overrated and underrated show on television, a neat trick that usually means the more underrated it is, the more overrated it becomes. This is to say that as The Wire has cruised along below the radar of audiences and award shows, the protests of the show’s champions have taken on greater urgency, until it has become the Greatest TV Show Ever. At the same time, the case for The Wire becomes more daunting. To someone who’s never seen the series, its narrative complexities could sound labyrinthine to the point of incomprehensibility, and its vaunted verisimilitude has begun to resemble sociology, especially since the show is set not in L.A. or Manhattan or Miami or Vegas but in Baltimore, against which even The Sopranos’ New Jersey sounds sexy, especially with a Bada Bing stripper or two thrown in. You would think The Wire was running not on HBO but on PBS. Over the duration of its five seasons, no one’s hip credentials have ridden on it much, and there may seem not much point trying to catch up now. In fact, with the final season just concluding, there’s no better time.
When The Wire premiered, it didn’t have the conceptual dazzle of mobsters getting therapy or people waking up on a strange island or anarchists in the Wild West speaking an argot that crossed Shakespeare with Scorsese. It’s never given the viewer a sense of entering uncharted territory; rather it’s been a smarter, more explicit variation on a tried-and-true genre that goes all the way back to The Naked City and Dragnet in the ’50s, and has been updated over the years by Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Homicide: Life on the Streets. As it happens, The Wire is the creation of former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon, who produced Homicide and wrote for NYPD Blue. From the beginning, you get the feeling it’s been a point of pride for Simon and writing partner Ed Burns, formerly a cop himself, to sidestep concessions to show business made by those earlier hits in the form of stars like Dennis Franz and Andre Braugher, both of whom have the sort of charisma that comes less naturally to cops than to TV stars. As Detective Jimmy McNulty, The Wire’s Britborn Dominic West is about as charming as his Spartan senator in 300 raping the queen while hissing in her ear, “You will not enjoy this.” The “wire” itself was more literal early on—a unit of cops tapping the communiqués of savvy drug dealers who converted the city’s neighborhoods into badlands where the law was overmatched and whatever order that held chaos at bay was imposed by the lawless. Thus law-and-order was an oxymoron, the two not allies but at odds with each other. Since that first season The Wire has listened in on more than just street corners; it’s listened in on shipping yards and union halls, corporate and prison corridors, the local school where the principal crosses herself in prayer before the opening bell, and the local newspaper, where, to the dismay of the city editor, reporters watch the city burn from behind the newsroom windows. Politics rage everywhere, from police precinct to town hall, and treachery marks everything, from criminal cabals to family relations.
The prevailing cliché of its admirers is that The Wire is like a novel. High-cachet crime writers from Richard Price to George Pelecanos to Dennis Lehane have written for it, and the show’s vast population recalls Hugo, Dickens, Balzac, or Tolstoy, with fascinating characters both good and bad, each morally nuanced and fully realized, tumbling out of every broken window or through every empty doorway before it gets boarded up by assassins hiding bodies there. Whatever other claims The Wire does or doesn’t live up to, this certainly is the best collection of characters ever written for television; it includes the rising police lieutenant who’s an uneasy mix of ambition and idealism, the suave and ruthless narcotics kingpin who’s studying Adam Smith economics, the footloose junkie who’s part small-business man and part police spy. No Tony Soprano or Al Swearingen provides a center of gravity for all the narrative orbits: Detective McNulty was barely to be seen in the fourth season (maybe West was off shooting 300 while onscreen girlfriend Amy Ryan was busy giving her Oscar-nominated performance in Gone Baby Gone), though he’s more prominent in the fifth season than in the second. Over the course of more than 50 episodes, two figures in particular have gotten our attention every moment they appear. Lester Freamon is a cop once relegated to bureaucratic Siberia for his maverick tendencies, resurrected as an electronics savant with a tendency toward casebusting epiphanies; he’s long past the point of worrying about his career. Even if he’s cranky enough to recoil from the idea, there’s nothing left to him but to be the conscience of the show, until his conscience becomes obsession and leads him to cross the lines drawn by what he considers a bankrupt system. Omar Little is an even more striking creation: a gay outlaw playing every end against some evermoving middle, as an independent agent relieving the drug lords of their treasure. Like a throwback to a noir picture, Omar is the only one who has a code, and as such he’s one of the few characters in The Wire who can be trusted by both the other characters and the audience until, in the final episodes, he becomes the series’ avenging angel.
Lester and Omar are played, respectively, by theater veteran Clarke Peters, who conveys an intelligence that’s several steps ahead of everyone else and a gravitas more irreverent than overbearing, and Michael Kenneth Williams, whose scar down the length of his face is real (from a real razor in a real bar brawl) and to whose performance it lends a dangerous nobility. Other standouts are Idris Elba (like West, another Brit) as the Machiavellian Stringer Bell, and Jamie Hector as Marlo, the E.T.-faced upstart gangster whose nihilistic cold-bloodedness gives even the other gangsters pause. The scene this season in which he dispatched a rival boss with almost a lover’s tenderness will be in your head long after you want it to. All these actors and most of the rest of The Wire’s cast, it might be mentioned, are black, which will convince you like nothing else that there are a gazillion brilliant black actors out there just waiting for parts half as good as they are; many in the series have never acted before, and some have been criminals not unlike those they’re playing, while others were cops who once arrested those same criminals. This brings us to another of the many remarkable things about The Wire, which is how race so suff uses the show that by halfway through the first season, it became at once incidental and the unavoidable truth that defined everything. It isn’t that no one talks about race; on the contrary, everyone talks about it as casually as if they were discussing the weather. People in the Baltimore of The Wire don’t tiptoe through the minefield of race, they stomp through it, and in a city that turns black and white upside down, racism is turned upside down, too. Both the city’s upper power structure and its most dispossessed citizens are black, which leaves whites, who fragment into Irish, Poles, Greeks, and Russians, occupying a strange purgatory, never to rise too far above the middle stratum or sink too far below it. The campaign of a white mayoral candidate, for instance, is a crazy impossibility, until two black candidates split the black vote.
The season just finishing now, and bringing the series to a conclusion , is the most problematic. At the center is the city’s newspaper, by nature a more passive vantage point than the streets, docks, and schools that dominated the show earlier; newspaper people are professional observers, not movers and shakers. The narrative thread—McNulty and Freamon’s conspiracy to shock the city out of a financially induced paralysis by creating a crime spree that doesn’t exist—is by turns tedious and not completely convincing. Finally there are the burdens placed on the season simply because it’s the last: Almost every major and semimajor story line and character from the preceding years is revisited in a way that sometimes feels obligatory and perfunctory. The show’s creators and writers are doing a lot of tidying up, when one of The Wire’s virtues has been the sense that these stories were happening before the camera was turned on and will continue happening after it’s off .
Of course, every TV show should have such a high standard to fall short of. The problem with pieces like this is that, God, it all sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Forget Hugo and Tolstoy—it’s more like something by Theodore Dreiser or John Dos Passos. So let’s add that, as novels go, The Wire has been a page-turner: There are laughs, at least one good one every episode, and suspense; there’s intrigue and melancholy; there are revelations absurd on their face and profound on refl ection. There are explosions of violence, and people having sex with people they shouldn’t; there are plot twists that avoid contrived shock or the tying up of loose ends. There are subversive ideas (more out of complete frustration than any reformist impulse, a police major creates an open zone called “Hamsterdam” where drug abuse and drug enforcement reach a truce, a notion so appalling to city leaders that, if they care at all, they never notice that it works, sort of) and a great theme song by Tom Waits that every season gets sung by someone new. The Fall of the American Empire has never been this much fun. If it seems overwhelming, well, it is, but in the best sense; and in a DVD age, you can see the decade’s most overrated and underrated TV show from the beginning. The first season, fine as it is, may put you on the “overrated” side of the equation. But the knockout second season, followed by the blow-you-away third, the can-they-top-this fourth, and the no-butthey- can-come-damn-close fifth, will move you to the “underrated” side and leave you there for good.