Widely regarded as the finest drama in modern TV history — if not all of TV history — The Wire needs no introduction to its fans, while those who haven’t seen it are probably baffled what the hype is all about. It’s just a cop show, right?
Well, yes and no. It’s a long-form show about crime — the people who commit them, the people who try and stop them from being committed. It’s about the drama and fallout from crimes, and the many people they affect.
But it’s also more ambitious than a procedural on a couple of levels. The first, and obvious, one is its structure: The Wire has a sprawling cast of dozens, and it tells long-form stories that span a whole season. It employs the “slow cook” method of plotting — episodes will often have very little resolution early in the season, while numerous plots will come together all at once later in the season. “Television novel” has been used as a term to describe this.
(There is a very long article, or perhaps series of articles, that I’d like to write about the pros and cons of this type of serial plotting on television, but rather than use this article as a referendum on that format, I’ll stay focused on the show itself.)
The Wire also a very ambitious show in terms of its complex and pointed ethics. Simply, The Wire is a show ABOUT something — quite a bit, in fact. It’s largely about the failure of institutions in urban America, and how the rare glimmers of hope are lone rangers willing to sacrifice everything and break rules to get things done.
Above: Presented without comment…
One common refrain of fans trying to convert skeptics is to say that The Wire is a slow, meticulous, boring start, but it’s worth it if you can power through 4 or 5 episodes. It worked: My expectations going into the first couple episodes were low, and I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it from the get-go. My appreciation of the show built throughout that first season to its explosive conclusion. I basically consider the first season of The Wire one of my favorite seasons of television over.
The first season’s story focuses on two parallel, but opposing people, each constrained by the systems they’re in: Jimmy McNulty, a homicide cop, wants to bust a drug ring responsible for many murders, but is hampered by red tape. D’Angelo Barksdale, a low-level dealer in the ring, which his family runs, is beginning to question the brutal practices of his organization.
I love the story of the season so much because it’s so full of ups and downs. The plot feels like a complex machine, where each gear and cog moves something else. Every character you meet plays a role, and it’s marvelous to watch everything eventually come together.
Beyond the plot, the dialogue and writing are just fantastic. So many scenes stand out as little miracles of TV writing, something you want to watch again and again because they’re funny or heartbreaking or tense or all three at once.
Consider this scene of D’Angelo teaching two of his teammates, Wallace and Bodie, to play chess.
Just think about everything we learn about those three characters and the world they live in during these few minutes. There are five or six brilliant turns of phrase (“the king stay the king”), with a great flow of dialog. You run into a scene like this pretty much every episode.
What really elevates the show are the characters, and the way they grow and change. Omar is the most famous and beloved, and he lives up to the hype. He’s a badass, gay Robin Hood of the streets, living by his own law and killing scumbag dope slingers.
My favorite character of the season, though, would have to be D’Angelo. In fact, I’m happy to call him one of my favorite TV characters ever. I’m a sucker for the trope of a character who is “born bad” but gradually finds their conscience. Think Zuko from Avatar. Out of context, it doesn’t seem like much, but this scene of D’Angelo repeating “Where’s Wallace?” is one of my favorites ever. D’Angelo is standing up to something so much bigger than him, deciding to live by the rules he values rather than the ones imposed upon him (which don’t care about the pawns).
It’s a tragic season, but a beautiful one, too: full of as many small victories as there are big defeats.
The second season is an abrupt change. We go from drug dealers to dock workers. We meet a whole new set of characters, with everyone we knew from the first season pushed to the periphery.
The show plunges us into a new criminal investigation. This time, it’s a smuggling ring fronted by a mysterious figure known as “The Greek.” A shipping crate full of suffocated prostitutes appears on the docks, and thus begins the cops’ quest to bring him down.
The story and characterization are not quite as classic, in part because the season also spends time brewing some plots back in the season one setting. The docks-focused (more generally, unions-focused) plot only takes up about three quarters of the screen time, the rest on the Barksdale gang. This makes the season feel a little bit disjointed.
(And, of course, the best scene of the season is unrelated to the docks, Omar’s testimony in a murder case.)
That’s not to say it’s a misfire at all. It’s a step down from Season 1, but there’s a lot to love. In particular, I enjoyed the gradual evolution (and divergence) of two younger dock guys, cousins Ziggy and Nick Sobotka. The same dedication to complex, slow-churn plotting and a vast web of characters remains.
But there’s also a lot of thematic rehash in Season 2: a bitter ending that sees some bad guys fall, but not the ones you want. People stuck in broken systems. No heroes, no hint of progress.
I stopped watching after Season 2, but not because of drop of quality. Simply, my schedule made it difficult to keep going at that time. My wife and I started the show again and watched the first season again, so maybe we should pick up where we left off.
Almost everyone says the third and fourth seasons are the best, and if those people are right — if later seasons manage to top the incredible first — then The Wire will definitely skyrocket up this list.
But in the meantime, this fantastic drama gets a prominent ranking on my Top 100 but an incomplete grade.