I never knew how important The Wire was until I was in the gym a few weeks ago, and the creator of the show, David Simon, flashed up on the television. They’re showing The Wire on regular television? you ask. No, Simon was an interviewee about the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore! Art imitating life imitating art? Or can we just agree that some stories are stranger than fiction?
The groundbreaking HBO show, which took narrative television in a different direction, ran from 2002 to 2008. (Surprisingly, it’s taken this long for the company to deliver the complete series on Blu-ray/Digital HD – out next Tuesday.) Spanning five seasons and sixty episodes, the series is ripe with characters and story lines that, quite frankly, sprawl throughout several of Baltimore’s major ‘sections,’ individually tackled in its own season. Starting with the drug trade, the first season dives into an investigation of the ports, the government, the schools, and the media.
At the center of the show is Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West, 300, John Carter), a personally dysfunctional human being whose insubordination ticks everyone off, but ultimately proves necessary for getting to the bottom of cases that others would ignore. Initially, he works with his partner Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce, Suits, The Odd Couple), but ends up assigned to a team no one wants, headed by Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick, Lost, Fringe, John Wick) that includes Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Lester Freamon (Clark Peters), and “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost). They open up an investigation into the drug trade that the government and police above them seem to have turned a blind eye to for their own benefit.
While the narrative often seems to meander, which makes it more realistic, it’s a laser focus on the drugs that are ruining the city that both sides of the trade seem to care about. Simon wouldn’t call it good versus evil, but different sides of the same coin. On the other side of that coin are the drug dealers. The biggest fish on the block is Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris, Remember the Titans), Barksdale’s righthand man, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba, Thor, Prometheus, Luther), and Barksdale’s chief competition, Omar Little (Michael K. Williams, Boardwalk Empire).
It’s clever, and intricate, drawing us in with subtle clues and plot moves, not over-the-top steady violence like more over-the-top shows. That’s thanks to Simon’s own understanding of how things work, and his collaboration that had previously lead to Homicide: Life on the Streets and before he would make Treme.
Simon said in 2002, “Ed Burns and I wrote The Corner together. That book is a subtle argument against the drug war. But we both felt that since the book was for the most part a microcosm of that war in the tale of a single open-air drug market, there was more to be said about the nature of the disconnect between law enforcement and the drug culture. And we felt that this could be accomplished through a narrative like The Wire.”
The big name actors wouldn’t have made their mark if it hadn’t been for some of the ‘little guys’ over five seasons. They’re actors you might know now, if you’re watching Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or other gritty dramas, with names like Lawrence Gilliam, Chad Coleman, Seth Gilliam, Domenick Lombardozzi, J.D. Williams, Amy Ryan, Pablo Schreiber, Maestro Harrell, and Aidan Gillen, but they weren’t well known before their ride on The Wire. And, best of all, there’s a young Michael B. Jordan of your upcoming Fantastic Four.
Watching current shows, like Game of Thrones or True Detective (ironically, both on HBO), I see whispers of The Wire. But, you ask, how can that be so, when one’s pure fantasy and the other is a quick miniseries? Of course, it’s about the storytelling that flows less-than-episodically, that dares to kill off characters you care about, or pound you with frustration after frustration over your favorite’s inability to rise above their situation. It’s about recognizing that we live in a world of gray, where what we believe or think about is dictated by nature and nurture, where right and wrong are a sliding scale based on where you stand. It certainly helps keep us guessing that Simon (like George R.R. Martin) wasn’t sentimental, but he was telling stories he saw play out in real life, examining people and their motives.
Simon again: “We are not selling hope, or audience gratification, or cheap victories with this show. The Wire is making an argument about what institutions – bureaucracies, criminal enterprises, the cultures of addiction, raw capitalism even – do to individuals. It is not designed purely as an entertainment. It is, I’m afraid, a somewhat angry show.”
Years later, packaged with four documentaries about the show, with the Season Five mini-prequels, and a taped event that was a reunion of sorts, the show holds up to scrutiny in ways that even current shows don’t. I imagine there’s a short stack of television I’ll revisit in ten years: Lost, Game of Thrones, The Wire. The shows that pack powerful punch and refuse to let you settle for simple answers.
It’s easy to see “drugs bad, cops good,” but we know that life isn’t like that. We might not be able to imagine a life where drug sales seem to be the only way up, or a world where cops seem out to get us. But watching the news, we should be able to see how broken the world is: it doesn’t work right, and for some people, based on location, class, or the color of their skin, this is their reality. Like Simon said, it’s not just entertainment but it’s an angry commentary on the injustices of the world we live in today.
Shows like this are fascinating, but there’s also a sadness there, if we think about it long enough. What made these people act this way? What robbed them of their innocence and stole their hope? What made the world work this way? Where I’m sitting, it’s endemic of the fallen world we live in. Maybe it makes us angry, or maybe it makes us apathetic. But what if it would make us re-examine our expectations of the world and the people who live in it? What if we recognized in stories like this, that the people we judge on the nightly news have more complicated lives than we thought? What if we recognized that it was on us to help try and change the world, not judge the people who don’t live in it like we think they should?
The Wire just might entertain you for days. Or it might make you think. It probably depends on how willing you are to look with new eyes and examine the possibilities.