We started blogging after “The Wire” aired its final episode in March, so I (Ben) never got a chance to praise it in this space. With the complete box set releasing today, I guess now’s the time.
My friend Stephen has his own lawn care business, and he passes the day by listening to NPR on his headphones. This past spring we were discussing the Fresh Air interview with Richard Price, whose book Lush Life had just been published. Terry Gross let Price talk about the book for the first fifteen minutes of the interview, then promptly switched over to “The Wire” and spent the rest of the hour asking Price about being a writer for the series. Stephen couldn’t believe it. “He just wrote a book, and all she wants to talk about is a stupid TV show,” he said. “She’s obsessed with it. I’m sick of hearing about ‘The Wire.'” That interview was just one of several during the show’s final season: Gross also interviewed Michael K. Williams (Omar), Clark Johnson (Gus), and David Simon, the show’s creator.
Then in September, Stephen finally gave “The Wire” a try. He finished all five seasons in under a month.
Every “Wire” fan I know is like this. I don’t know anyone who has started the show and not finished it. It was the primary reason we joined Netflix, since season one was always checked out at Blockbuster. (We have since dropped both Netflix and Blockbuster. Yes, public library system!)
Even non-fans probably have a rough idea what the show is about. It’s set in Baltimore and started out as a gritty procedural about the war on drugs. The cops weren’t all good and the dealers weren’t all bad. In fact, they were a lot alike. Both existed in worlds of institutional dysfunction. As you get to know the main players on both sides, you realize everyone has ulterior motives. And everyone’s playing the game the best they know how.
Each of the five seasons focuses on a different aspect of Baltimore. Season two takes place on the docks, and it’s the only one that doesn’t quite fit in the big picture. (Each season builds on the ones before it and folds into a larger story that expands almost exponentially each year. The cops and dealers from season one carry through to the end, but none of the dock characters play a major role later on.) Season three delves into politics and the dealings at city hall, with a return to the streets and a controversial (but police-sanctioned) lawless zone called “Hamsterdam.” Season four, the best and most heartbreaking season, goes into the schools, following four twelve-year-old boys as they figure out what it takes to become men on the streets. Season five finishes on a subject close to Simon’s heart: the media, with a fictional Sun being the backdrop for much of the action.
Probably because the material was so personal, I thought season five was the weakest. Simon’s long-simmering anger has been well-documented, and the chip on his shoulder is one reason the series is so great. But the media subplot in season five — unlike virtually every other character and storyline throughout the series — was riddled with caricature: Enterprising, cynical, street-smart reporters good; soulless corporate editors bad. The heroic crusader Gus was clearly a stand-in for Simon himself, fighting the same wars Simon fought when he worked at the Sun. (Simon even named one of the bureaucratic stooges from season four after his former editor William Marimow.)
This doesn’t diminish the fact that the season delivered a very satisfying conclusion to the series, or that — as numerous commentators have already noted — the show is the closest TV has come to recreating a literary experience. (Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate, “No other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.” See link below.) The word “Dickensian” becomes a sort of in-joke during the final season, but that word does justice to the breadth and scope of “The Wire.” It was the rare television show that could entertain and provoke you at the same time. It made you think about the unsettling realities of our world — city life, politics, media, the war on drugs — in a way that did justice to their complexity. And while it could be exceptionally bleak, the show was laced with dark humor. In season one McNulty and Bunk analyze a crime scene using only the f-word, inflected and emphasized a dozen different ways. Season five begins with several cops pulling a ruse on a dim suspect by taping his hand to a copy machine and making him think it’s a lie detector. (The cops feed YES and NO copies in beforehand and choreograph their questions accordingly.)
If you really, truly consider me as a friend, perhaps you’ll consider splurging on the box set for me this Christmas. Pretty please. I can think of much worse ways to spend 3600 minutes than watching it all over again.
For further reading, Jacob Weisberg penned this ode to the show on Slate.com; elsewhere, the staff of Slate (but primarily David Plotz and Jeffrey Goldberg) kept a running dialogue of season five (David Simon blusters into the conversation with this post); the site stuffwhitepeoplelike.com turned its satiric eye on Wire fans here; Sudir Venkatesh watched the show with some real street gangs and got their impressions; Simon and co-creator Ed Burns, along with writers Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, advocate a legal but controversial tactic for fighting the drug war here; and and the official HBO site is here.
“Wire” fans who are also readers of this blog are, of course, encouraged to spread the love by commenting below.