In a 2004 interview, Norman Mailer claimed, “The Great American Novel is no longer writable.” He was wrong about that, although he may have been looking in the wrong place. HBO’s The Wire, the best television show to air during the decade, is a large, sweeping tale about the American inner city and its institutions. It’s set in Baltimore, Maryland, but could take place anywhere because the characters and stories are universal.
Created by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former police officer and school teacher Ed Burns, the series expands and combines their previous work set in the city, Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Street and their collaborative effort The Corner. The first season focused on the Baltimore police department and its investigation of the drug-dealing gang led by Avon Barksdale. The second season expanded to include the involvement and struggles of the city’s longshoremen. The third season dealt with politics, from Stringer Bell trying to reform the Barksdale gang and its relationship with its competitors, to white Councilman Tommy Carcetti running for mayor of a predominantly black city, and Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin’s radical idea of controlling crime by creating a free zone for drug dealers in an abandoned part of the city.
The fourth season, recently released on DVD, examines the education system. The viewer is introduced and follows the plight of four young boys. Michael and Dukie both have parents who are junkies. Michael is quiet but tough and helps raise his little brother. Dukie is smart but socially awkward and is constantly picked on because he is weak and has poor hygiene. Randy is a foster child who has learned to get by as a hustler, selling snacks and information to try and stay one step ahead. Namond is the son of Wee-Bay, who went to jail for the Barksdale gang in season one. Namond’s mother expects him to step up and work the streets slinging drugs, but under all his bluster, Namond isn’t equipped for it like his father. These plotlines are based on Burns’ time as a seventh-grade schoolteacher and show from where the corner boys come.
Familiar characters from the series cross the boys’ lives. Colvin works a program for disruptive youths at the school. Another former cop, Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski finds his calling as the boys’ math teacher. Former drug dealer enforcer Dennis “Cutty” Wise stays on the straight and narrow as he runs a local boxing gym, which interests Michael. Homeless, drug addict Bubbles does his best to help out and show the ropes to Sherrod, a teenager living on the streets. Previous storylines from season three about the mayoral primary race and about up-and-comer Marlo Stanfield’s gang filling the void in west Baltimore after the demise of the Barksdale gang continue throughout the season.
The strength of the series begins with the writing led by Simon and Burns. The staff, which includes noted authors Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, presents realistic characters that are complex, allowing their actions to be believable in the situations they find themselves in. The viewer develops rooting interests regardless of whether the character is a cop or criminal. The harsh reality of the effects of crime and drugs is rough, but is occasionally offset by a twisted sense of humor required by those who deal daily with such grim circumstances.
The depth of the writing also requires the viewer to pay attention, not just to an episode where there’s no telling when a moment in a scene is going to come back and have relevance, but also to the larger story, the actual story taking place in our lives. There’s no direct preaching, but the message about the corruption of institutions, the War on Drugs, and No Child Left Behind rings through loud and clear.
The cast is fantastic, some of the best acting on television. There are no leads as it is one giant supporting ensemble, interacting with one another as these characters lives intersect throughout the city. The series has been a great showcase for African American actors.
The bonus features include six commentary tracks by crew and cast members and two documentaries about the show. All provide great insight to the creation and execution of the show from pre- to post-production.
It’s a shame that season five of The Wire, starting Jan. 6th on HBO and Dec 31st on HBO On Demand, is the last time we will be visiting this world. Thankfully, it can be revisited at leisure on DVD, which would be equally at home in your video or book library.