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The Wire Redefines Series Television

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I've already reviewed the excellent first season of this series, hoping to turn more people on to this criminally overlooked show. Since then, I've given it as a gift on two occasions and lent it out on another two in the hopes of spreading the message, but I think I only managed to convert two people to the show as a result.

I declined to review subsequent seasons under the assumption that people who have never seen the show wouldn't be particularly interested in reading a review on later seasons, but now that the show has finished its fifth and final season, I figured I'd take one more crack at convincing people to give the show a chance with this spoiler-free overview of the entire series, starting with this statement: At five seasons and 60 episodes long, The Wire is the absolute greatest televised drama I have ever seen.

That's not to say that The Wire is a show for everyone, because it simply isn't. I've never watched a show that demanded as much from the viewer as does this one. There are no wasted scenes, every detail matters, but very few are highlighted in a fashion that tells you of their importance.

Every season starts off slowly, drawing you in with atmosphere like the opening chapters of a book, without dramatic chapter breaks to grab your attention (partially due to the fact that there are no commercial breaks). It is a show that requires your full attention, without obviously demanding it, meaning that it is not a show you can watch with your attention divided between it and a book or the Internet, even if its less exaggerated pace suggests that it is.

If you're not paying attention, following the densely plotted world presented by former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon and former Baltimore police officer and teacher Ed Burns is all but impossible. Simply keeping track of all the characters requires more thought and involvement than almost any other TV show I can think of. By the fourth season, I'd guess that around 50 or so characters play a significant recurring role, which should give you an idea of the sheer ambition of the show. Juggling all these personalities and stories, with all of their complex ambiguities and interconnectivity, challenged me as no show has ever challenged me, and luckily, rewarded me for that effort like no other.

Which isn't to say that the show is a grind, or merely an intellectual exercise. It exhibits a gallows humour that provides a lot of laughs, and a genuine humanism that drew me into the lives of the characters, even if they are as far from my own experience as any I've ever watched on TV. That said, it is anything but escapism, which is what a lot of people are looking for from their television shows. Instead, the show strives for an unmatched level of verisimilitude that shines a light on the black underclass that most people would rather ignore than invite into their homes for an hour a week.

So no, it isn't a show for everyone. If it were, it wouldn't be half the show that it is. Instead, it is a show that redefined what television could accomplish, presenting the struggles of Baltimore with an uncompromising vision; bringing the viewer from the police department to city hall, down to the level of the streets, with a grit that disguises the traditions of Greek tragedy that inform the show. Characters are continually struggling against forces beyond their control, unable to overcome the obstacles the "gods" put before them or escape the whims of fate (only in this case, the gods and fate are the forces of bureaucracy and capitalism).

The first season of the show plays like a superior version of a familiar television staple — the police procedural. The season follows a small Baltimore police unit's pursuit of a drug kingpin via the use of a wiretap (hence the name of the show), following the investigation from both sides of the law, from the top to the bottom of each organization. The season set itself apart with obsessive attention to detail, patient storytelling, and unique setting. Season two then changes the script, radically changing the scope of the series by moving from the streets of West Baltimore to the shipping docks of Baltimore Harbor, introducing a whole new set of characters while slowly reintegrating established characters into the main narrative. A lesser show would have gotten the gang back together by the end of the season premiere, wiping away the consequences of the first season in order to give fans what they want. But on The Wire, consequences matter and everything is connected.

By shifting the focus so radically in its second season, the show reveals it has greater ambitions than merely being HBO's idea of a cop show. By expanding the cast and spreading its original characters apart, the show reveals that its true star is not Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), or criminal Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). Instead, the true star of The Wire is the city of Baltimore itself, with each season expanding its view of the city and offering up another piece of crumbling infrastructure, be it the police department, unionized labor (season two), city hall (season three), the public school system (season four), or the fifth estate (season five), as explanations for Baltimore's ills.

The show is uniquely Baltimorean, filmed on location and written by natives Simon and Burns, culled from real life experiences. That said, it could just as easily be about any second-tier American city, be it Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, etc. The show is concerned with institutional decay, and how it has contributed to the decline of America as a whole, and the diminishing role of the individual in modern life. This makes the "wire" of the title less about surveillance equipment, and more about a common thread that connects all elements of a modern city, with the show successfully integrating all the connecting elements of its five seasons. It's this ambition that combines with superior writing and the best cast on television to make the show so vital.

Over the course of five seasons, The Wire offers scathing social criticism using narrative techniques so sophisticated that it practically reinvents the possibilities of serial fiction storytelling. It delivers this scathing indictment through the voice and eyes of characters usually undermined and ignored by popular culture, bringing us into the lives of unique characters to craft some of the most affecting moments I've ever experienced on TV. I consider it a privilege to have experienced this show, and highly recommend it to anyone, provided you are willing to challenge the way you look at television and the world.

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About Andy Sayers

  • great

    an excellent review of the best tv show i’ve ever seen. you don’t have to say it, but i will. this is a show for intelligent people who can pay attention and really think about the world and how it works. how “all the pieces matter”

    i discovered this show a few months ago because of someone like you who wrote an article. and it’s been life changing. made me so interested in politics and education and making a difference. it’s so funny when you look at all the popular shows after seeing The Wire and realize that nothing else remotely comes close in terms of story, acting, cast and writing. i’ve watched this show, particularly the heart breaking season 4 over and over agin since i discovered it.

  • Thanks for the comment. I just got into the show this summer, after continually reading how it was the best show ever. At first I thought that might be a hyperbolic, but now I realise those critics speak the truth.

    I also completely agree how watching this show changes your opinion of other shows. I think it will be hard to watch any street level investigation show or movie and not feel like it fails to live up. When I watched American Gangster, all I could think about was how much I’d rather be watching The Wire.

  • I agree with your sentiments. Consistently best thing I have seen over five seasons in terms of writing and acting. When I hear people use “best show” about Galactica or Sopranos, I start to laugh at them.

    “like the opening chapters of a book, without dramatic chapter breaks to grab your attention”

    I consider each episode a chapter. To me, it’s the visual equivalent of the Great American novel Norman Mailer talked about.

  • great

    agreed, and honestly, it is so ironic to me that not only does the story itself present the real troubles of America, but the success (or lack thereof) of the actual show also highlights the root causes of our problems.

    this show requires patience. it requires attention, not passive viewing. it requires logical thinking and remembering history and putting pieces together. and it is not simple.

    and so, in a country where more people vote for american idol than american president, i am not surprised that this did not have massive commercial success. our wars, our corrupt political system, our failing healthcare and education systems. this is only allowed to persist because the american public is too lazy to look around them and put in the time and effort necessary to figure out what is going on and put the pieces together. actually decidiing to do something about it is the next step, but hell, we can’t get most americans to even realize what the problem is.

  • Congratulations! This article has been selected for syndication to the Advance family of websites and toBoston.com, which will allow even more readers to enjoy it.

  • RJ

    I have only seen the first 2 seasons but I loved it, been meaning to get the rest.

    Another excellent show that doesn’t seem to be getting the recognition it deserves.

  • RJ, I assure you that the best is yet to come.

    I love seasons one and two, but season four is the best season of television I’ve ever seen. It is absolutely devastating.

  • Leslie Bohn


    I envy you that you have all of season four totally fresh in front of you. It’s just about perfect, and wouldn’t wanna ruin one second of it for anyone by describing it.

    It’s hard to talk about the Wire without resorting to hyperbole.

  • KevDog

    I Agree with your sentiment entirely. I remember watching season 3 and thinking that TV couldn’t ever be better than this and then season 4 came along and simply blew season 3 and every other season of every other dramatic TV series out of the water.

    I think the show is not only the greatest TV show of all time, but stands alongside the greatest works of literature and art in human history. It stands with MIlton and Shakespeare and Melvin and Twain and Ellison and Morrison et al.

    It was THAT good.

  • Black Sox


    The problem with The Wire is what do you watch after it? There isn’t anything. So having watched Series 1 to 5 on DVD, in order, I’ve now started back at Series 1, Episode 1.

    I’d love a recommendation for something else.

  • While I haven’t watched anything as good as THE WIRE, MAD MEN has taken up its mantle as the best show on TV.

    THE SHIELD and SONS OF ANARCHY each deliver some of the quality and impact of THE WIRE, but it might take you a little time to get used to the reliance on exagerration and coincidence after the tight realism of THE WIRE. BREAKING BAD is another excellent show, which shares some of THE WIRE’s attention to detail and obsession with the smaller elements of a criminal enterprise.

  • Sox, Andy has it right with “Mad Men.” make sure you try the miniseries “Generation Kill” by Simon and his New Orleans show “Treme” is coming soon