Created by: David Simon || Written by: David Simon, Ed Burns
Starring: Dominic West, John Doman, Idris Elba, Michael K. Williams, Wood Harris, Wendell Pierce, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Aidan Gillen, Chad Coleman, Jamie Hector
No. of Seasons: 5 || No. of Episodes: 60
My first introduction to HBO was my blessed welcome into the world of quality television. Although quality cable channels, such as AMC (Breaking Bad [2008-2013], Mad Men [2007-present], and to a much lesser extent, The Walking Dead [2010-]), do exist, the vast majority of basic cable is full of the same boring, sterile, unimaginative narratives every year without fail. The presence of bad crime dramas in particular is strong on channels like Fox and CBS, where the endless production of shows like Crime Scene Investigation (CSI; 2000-2015) and its many derivatives clog the airwaves and fill people’s heads with formulaic, uninspired narratives with characters that are either cardboard cutouts or cartoony caricatures.
Thankfully, one crime drama makes up for all the other crime narrative wannabes out there. That show inspired neither stupendous ratings nor won many awards during its run-time, but since its completion has been recognized as one of the greatest television shows of all time. That show is called, The Wire, created by David Simon.
If your idea of an exciting police-procedural is CSI, Criminal Minds (2005-2020) or Blue Bloods (2010-), then prepare to unlearn everything you’ve seen and heard about TV crime narratives. One can analyze The Wire from many perspectives, either as a straightforward police drama, a sociopolitical analysis of modern urban America, or they can view it in relation to the plethora of other inferior crime shows that populate basic cable. For lack of better words, David Simon’s The Wire is the “anti-CSI.”
HBO’s premiere crime narrative is a show that defies episodic nature and conventional storytelling techniques. While shows like CSI are well known for telling contained, separated stories within each episode, The Wire is built more like a Dickensian novel, or what I consider to be the natural format of television narratives. The Wire is full of storylines that unfold over multiple seasons, not episodes, and each narrative grows, expands, and interweaves with others from one season to the next. Every episode in The Wire is connected and presents new information with every scene. No episode is wasted or can be dismissed as “filler” — everything is important. Every storyline contributes to establishing the overarching narrative of the city of Baltimore, deepening and expanding its characters into detailed constructions of real people with real emotions with real conflicts.
An invaluable characteristic of the show’s narrative is that each season introduces a new theme and setting into the overarching main story of the show’s master-setting, which is the city of Baltimore itself. However, the characters and themes introduced in each season recur in every season thereafter, so no new concepts are ever wasted or fizzle out before their time. Every subplot leads somewhere and adds something critical to the Baltimore-diegesis. Season 1 is the leanest and most focused season of the bunch. It’s a straightforward police-vs-drug-lords investigation, introducing the primary sociopolitical themes of the show, which include (among others) crime and punishment within the justice system, urban decay and poverty, as well as how these elements affect the lives of citizens from all walks of life.
Season 2 expands the show’s narrative focus to the blue collar workers of Baltimore’s docks and the international trade system. Season 3 shifts the magnifying lens to the city’s policy-makers, leaders, and politicians, analyzing the inner workings and bodily functions of the political structures that serve as the brain of the city. Season 4, easily the most tragic and heartbreaking of the series, studies the school systems and the failure of the education system to protect and educate Baltimore’s youth. The fifth and final season of The Wire focuses on the journalistic side of urban America, telling intricate stories about how the press and media function, both for good and ill, in the urban metropolis. Each season focuses on corruption within each institution, with the failure of unencumbered capitalism as a substitute for social policy serving as the focal point of The Wire’s thesis.
The other main selling point of The Wire is, of course, its characters. The show is legendary for depicting an honest, truthful portrayal of urban life in the forms of many types of characters, ranging from drug-riddled slums to middle-class neighborhoods to secluded, pampered lifestyles of the rich and famous, from African-American to white-American to international residents, from gay to straight and everything in between, from the young to the old, from the honest to the corrupt, from the compassionate to the violent — The Wire depicts people from all walks of life in the city of Baltimore striving to find their place in the world. Every character is fleshed out and receives ample screen-time, allowing the entire cast to develop over the course of the series. Officially, the series’ lead is Dominic West’s Detective Jimmy McNulty, but the series is in truth an ensemble-piece. Particularly famous individuals from The Wire also include Idris Elba as the gangster and co-crime lord of the Barksdale crew, Stringer Bell, and who could forget the shows’ most famous and popular character, Michael K. Williams’ Omar Little? I’m telling the truth when I say that every character in the show is interesting. All of the characters are relatable in some way, all of them feel real, and each character is either likable or fun to hate. The characterizations in this show are fantastic.
Almost as impressive as the film’s telewriting is its dynamic visual style. Though The Wire doesn’t master the Spielbergrian oner like fellow HBO great, The Sopranos, does, its cinematographic approach is both more and less stylized with a broader tool set. The show arguably looks best with low-key lighting, as most of its memorable sequences occur either outdoors at night or in low lit interiors. Its shadowy aesthetic flaunts its thematic symbolism, stylizing stickup crews as apex predators of the drug world, and drug rackets as warring tribes. Still other sequences are dominated by handheld camerawork and documentarian techniques, along with fast-edits and jarring cuts, to the point where even basic ensemble dialogue sequences are riveted with energy.
One of the most notable visual elements of The Wire’s cinematography is its use of surveillance footage. Unlike most cinematic attempts to capture digital technology before or since, the series’ thematic dependence on technology on both sides of the law makes sense and is used to elevate both characterizations and themes, as well as progress an overarching narrative. Much of the show’s technology is dated now, but its use within the context of The Wire’s criminal underworld and new millennium law enforcement strategies are captivating, almost meta-commentary.
The only major weakness of the series is the significant drop in quality from its best season, season 4, to its “worst” season in season 5. The main problem of the final season is that its major premise is based on an unbelievable scenario in which Dominic West’s lead attempts to manufacture a phony serial murderer in order to receive funding from the city and funnel that cash into an investigation to bring down another drug syndicate. This is the lone story arc in the entire series that feels forced. Simply put, this scenario and the way it is executed are ludicrous. It is far from a crippling blow to the series, but it’s enough to knock it down a notch.
Still, even in the face of this glaring weakness, The Wire remains tightly orchestrated to delivers thrills time and time again. The detailed, sprawling narrative of an entire city is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Forget the fake, over-stylized action of the CSIs of the world — enter a real crime drama and appreciate a television narrative that critically analyzes the sociopolitical structures that underline and overcast all human life. This is the great American story of a great American city.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Wire portrays a detailed, layered story encapsulating a sprawling ensemble cast of unforgettable characters. Each season is unique and adds new and exciting conflicts to the story of Baltimore. The show’s production feels almost workmanlike to a fault, utilizing effective handheld techniques as well as noir lighting, diegetic recording devices, and unforgettable soundtrack montage sequences. The show looks as great as it feels.
— However… the main premise of the fifth and final season is unbelievable at best and plain silly worst. It is an unfortunate stain on an otherwise near perfect television experience.
—> The Wire comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
? — Detective: Well, if Snotboogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play? || Witness: Got to –— this America, man.
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