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20 Years Later: Why "The Wire" Is (Still) the Best TV Show Ever

I've been obsessed by The Wire for 20 years and it's my mission to make you obsessed with it, too.

Bunk Moreland (left) and Jimmy McNulty on The Wire: The greatest show of all-time.

Bunk Moreland (left) and Jimmy McNulty on The Wire: The greatest show of all-time.

There is an old saying in the TV zeitgeist that has long circulated among critics and fans—"There are two kinds of people: Those who think The Wire is the best show ever made and those who haven't seen it yet."

Why is that so? What is so hypnotizing about The Wire (2002–2008) that it has invited so many people to write thousands of articles, blogs and even books about the show's creation, storytelling, characters and themes?

The Wire Is Taught at University

There are even university courses specializing in The Wire's social implications. In an article titled, "Why We're Teaching 'The Wire' at Harvard," professor emeritus William Julius Wilson explains, "In our course on urban inequality at Harvard this semester, we want our students to understand the roots of the social conditions in America's inner cities. To that end, we get some help from Bodie, Stringer Bell, Bubbles and others from HBO's The Wire."

On March 26, 2015, series creator (and former police reporter) David Simon sat down with President Barack Obama to talk about how the war on drugs informed The Wire. They discussed how the drug war changed both police work and the judicial system. Corrupt policing in Black communities led to sentencing disparities between White and Black criminals, and The Wire showed how all of it was connected.

This article, like many before it, will try to unravel what makes The Wire so damn special.

The Wire: Anti-Cop Show

The cop show has been a staple of television from the beginning. Every week, these series churn through new crimes, new victims and new suspects. There are shootouts, standoffs, car chases and serial killers. And yet, every week, order is restored.

Good Guys vs Bad Guys

Morality in the traditional police show is very black and white. Think Jack Webb and Dragnet, which originally premiered on TV in 1951. Police are the good guys, and criminals are the bad guys. In the '70s and '80s, we saw a blurring of the lines between right and wrong, but the police still always "won." Think Streets of San Francisco or Miami Vice.

Part of the appeal of the cop show—and they're similar to courtroom dramas in this way—is the love of the procedural. People are interested in seeing how law and order works, even if it's fictionalized. But you can't ignore the morality factor. Audiences traditionally loved cop shows because they were rooting for the cops. That will always be true, to some degree, but what if a cop show was rooting AGAINST the cops?

What If There Are No Good Guys?

This is where The Wire comes in. It's a cop show, but it isn't. It blatantly ignores the traditional rules of television—i.e. traditional notions of morality—in an effort to create something bigger and more meaningful than just another cop show. The Wire takes conventional TV tropes from the police procedural and subverts them to make a social and political statement.

Realism at Core of Show’s Identity

Many TV shows have tried—some successfully, some less so—to ground their stories in realism. From relatable, three-dimensional characters, to stories taken from everyday life, to larger social concerns, no series has been as realistic as The Wire.

Documentary Feel

However, we're also talking about realism as a stylistic device. The show had a documentary feel, and this was by design. In a post dated December 3, 2014, Simon wrote on his blog, The Audacity of Despair, that producer Bob Colesberry was instrumental in the look of The Wire.

Said Simon, "Bob embraced the 4:3 (aspect ratio) by favoring gentle camera movements and a combination of track shots and hand-held work, implying a documentarian construct. If we weren’t going to be panoramic and omniscient in 4:3, then we were going to approach scenes with a camera that was intelligent and observant, but intimate."

Minimal Music

What is fascinating and incredibly effective is the lack of music in The Wire. During its five-season run, there were maybe ten musical sequences, and usually as an epilogue of the season. These were almost like music video wrap-ups, emphasizing the themes prevalent in that season.

The lack of music can amplify emotions in key scenes, but it's more a celebration of smart sound design. Background noise, police sirens, shots in the distance and even dead silence serve the narrative perfectly, and these sounds immerse us in the city where all the action takes place.

And speaking of the city...

Baltimore as Protagonist

When you watch the first season of The Wire, you experience Baltimore through the eyes of Detective Jimmy McNulty. He wants to capture and arrest Avon Barksdale, bring down his crime empire, and make Baltimore a better place to live. The season finale provided catharsis when Avon was brought to justice. It seemed like the good guys "won," and viewers eagerly awaited the second season.

But when Season 2 started, we were thrown onto the docks of Baltimore, following the daily life of union leader Frank Sobotka. If McNulty was the protagonist of the first season, Sobotka was the protagonist of the second season. Instead of a procedural crime drama, The Wire was examining the nature of blue collar work in post-industrial America. You'd be forgiven if you stared at the screen early in Season 2 wondering, "Am I watching the wrong show?"

Death of the Industrial City

This confusion is actually the point. The protagonist of The Wire is not a rebel police officer operating on the edge of the law, nor a tough, but honest union leader who cares for his workers. He's not a young, ambitious politician who wants to change the city, nor a math teacher trying to save children from the margins of society. The protagonist is the city where they all live.

In The Wire, everything is about Baltimore. Baltimore is a rotten, corrupt and broken town in which our heroes—like the city itself—fight, but never win. In an April 2022 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Simon admitted that actor Michael K. Williams (Omar Little) came to him during Season 2 and asked him why they shifted from the West Baltimore streets to the Baltimore docks.

Simon told him, “I think the show you thought we were, we’re trying to be more than that. We’re trying to tell the story of the city and why American cities have reached this impasse: the death of work, automation, and deindustrialization. A lot of forces are fueling this drug culture that we showed in the first season, and we need to now demonstrate that.”

The Wire as Literature

The Wire's creator, David Simon, admitted that the show uses the same raw material as other police procedurals. However, The Wire masquerades as a cop show to tell a more complex narrative. In doing that it takes complexity to a higher level, especially in terms of social context, showing a social order in sharp decline where the “police” are one of many toxins polluting a dying city.

Police as Agents of Systemic Decay

It also deviates from the standard narrative structure to which most police series still adhere. It spends as much time focusing on the criminals as the police, and as seasons progress, it documents a city’s systemic decay. Traditional police dramas are nearly always about fighting the tide of decay, rather than contributing to its demise.

To be sure, the show draws upon a number of cop show traditions. There is criminal activity, investigative work, interrogation and forensics. We get memorable courtroom scenes. But, The Wire uses these traditions like a piece of literature—Greek tragedy, in particular.

The Wire as Dickensian Parable

David Simon has referred to The Wire as a televisual novel, which is certainly reflected in the show's ambitious narrative structure. This is way beyond cops and robbers. In Down in the Hole: The unWired World of H.B. Ogden (2012), authors Joy DeLyria and Sean Michael Robinson argue that The Wire is comparable to Victorian serialized fiction (British fiction during the second half of the 19th century).

In an interview with The Atlantic, DeLyria notes that, "Serialized novels came out a chapter at a time. The novels sometimes highlighted a single protagonist with a single through-line (think David Copperfield), but even these featured large casts, multiple plotlines, and a sprawling narrative focused on many different aspects of life." DeLyria also notes that Dickensian fiction "tended to focus on social problems, possibly because the format lent itself to such exploration (due to length), but also probably due to a general zeitgeist."

Meanwhile, David Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns, a former homicide detective and public school teacher, used the serialized, one-hour TV drama to tell a sprawling, multi-season story about systemic inequality. Each episode was a chapter, each season was a novella, and the entire series was a collection of novellas in the style of War and Peace or the aforementioned David Copperfield. Like Dickens, Simon and Burns tapped into the bleak reality of the times to document and deconstruct what was happening.

Every Season Matters

The Wire is constructed to illustrate the death of an American city in five acts. Each season represents one part of the larger narrative, exposing the corrupt structures—police, unions, politicians, schools and the media—that perpetuate the city’s problems rather than solving them.

Season 1: The War on Drugs (2002)

The 13 episodes tell the story of the Baltimore police vs Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, two of the most powerful drug dealers in the city. Actually, Baltimore PD fights itself as much as the Barksdale Organization, and it's that inability to get out of its own way that mirrors the city's dysfunction.

Season 2: Death of the American Worker (2003)

The 12 episodes continue to track the Barksdale Organization, but that's a subplot. The main storyline is about Baltimore's dockworkers, the working class representing the city's industrial past. Increased automation and neoliberal policies have devalued dock work, so they turn to smuggling, racketeering and prostitution because at least that's profitable.

Season 3: Rotten to the Core (2004)

The 12 episodes return the focus to the Barksdale Organization, now in a turf war with the ascendant Stanfield Organization, and in a echo of Season 1, at war with itself. However, the drug dealing in Season 3, as well as the police work, exists in the shadow of Baltimore's corrupt political machine, particularly the City Council and Office of the Mayor.

Season 4: Think of the Children (2006)

The 13 episodes focus on Baltimore's mayoral race, especially when juxtaposed against the city's perpetually underfunded school system. The show examines the Stanfield Organization (now controlling most of the West Baltimore drug trade), and we learn about Dukie, Randy, Michael and Namond, four boys entering the eighth grade.

Season 5: The Media Will Save Us (2008)

The 10 episodes focus on the media, specifically a fictional version of the newspaper, The Baltimore Sun. Faced with budget cuts and a profit-driven management culture, newspapers lay off reporters who might've investigated Baltimore's political corruption in years past. Now, newspapers are just as compromised as the politicians, cops and drug dealers.

The Wire as Greek Tragedy

I watched every season of The Wire hoping THIS season would be the one where Baltimore is saved. Maybe someone will save the docks, give people some honest work and revitalize the Baltimore economy. Maybe Carcetti will turn into the city's saviour, sacrificing some of his ambition to make a difference. Maybe a public school will miraculously innovate and reach underserved inner city kids. There was always a maybe in the back of our heads as viewers, clinging to any chance of hope for Baltimore.

But, Simon, Burns, Colesberry and the rest of The Wire team were too honest to give us a false ending. The show is an autopsy of an already dead city. Which is to say, Baltimore has died, is dying, and will die again and again. In this sense, the greatest tragedy of The Wire is that the characters feel doomed to fail, almost before they start. And the most important character is Baltimore herself.

In the immediate wake of the 2008 series finale, Simon told Variety, “We were always adjusting where characters were going to end up, what parts of Baltimore we were going to depict, and what we wanted to say with the overall theme of the show. It was a Greek tragedy done in a modernist urban way, with the city as the main character."

© 2022 Ante Delija