The Wire (2002-2008)

Television has always been a volatile media for storytelling. All the shows that had managed to push the numerous limits of network TV as far as possible were nevertheless plagued by these very problems. Limits and restrictions like: censorship for language and violence, diluting “controversial” plotlines, removing unattractive characters, cancelling the show due to its poor ratings in the middle of the story, or unnecessarily prolonging it in the opposite situation, along with the obligatory annoying habit of network bosses “generously” giving their own clever and original creative input to writers and producers (read: More sex scenes please!). Most of these shows lasted too damn long, sometimes ruining the legacy of what made them great in the first place (The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Oz, Homicide anyone?). Sure, it’s easy to look at the flipside of the same coin; without the financial input of these very same institutions it would hardly be possible that these film or TV series ideas would ever see the light of day, while too much creative control of one artist can also be a bad thing, as history has proved it to be the case (the fallout of the New Hollywood era in the 1980s as one example in film history). You can pull out plenty of topics and themes in real life, including one as banal as this one, and draw parallels to the story The Wire offers to us - the story of institutions and corporations as the merciless, but magnificent final stages of a flawed capitalistic system that somewhere along the way forgot the essence of what created it in the first place; the ideas and needs of an individual and the society that made it happen in the first place.

There are people for whom The Wire is first and foremost a cop show. But it is far more than that. It differs from every other cop show in many aspects, firstly because of the fact that it looks at the other side of the law – drug dealers, smugglers, addicts, corrupt politicians (the word “corrupt” next to “politician” seems a bit redundant these days, doesn’t it?) – in the same detail as it does when it is concentrating on the police department. If one would have to sum up The Wire in one sentence – it is the story about the city of Baltimore, which in and out of itself is a microcosm of America itself. To quote the series creator David Simon: “it is the story of the America left behind”. The city of Baltimore has in relative numbers the second highest crime rate in the U.S. behind Detroit, its homicide rate is almost the 1000 time rate of the one in New York City, and although its crime problems may not be representative of every bigger city in the world, one can relate its problems with institutional bureaucracy, corruption, social and economic inequality to most of the global urban areas today.

Simon was a news reporter in the Baltimore Sun in the 80s and 90s, during which he closely cooperated with the Baltimore police, to the point where he stayed and worked for one year in the homicide department. Afterwards he documented the experience in his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, that was afterwards immortalized in form of the cult TV show Homicide: Life on the Street. Plenty of parallels exist between that show and this one, in terms that some real-life events and characters are similarly depicted in both shows. The Wire brings it even more to the table, since plenty of supporting roles are played by ex-cops and former drug dealers; one amusing trivia is that a small role of a communal philanthropic deacon is played by Melvin Williams, who was a drug kingpin in the 1970s in West Baltimore, on whom some characters in the show are based. The man who arrested him is Ed Burns, a former policeman who is along with Simon the creative writing force behind the show. The highly realistic fashion in the sense of how the show was written, both in terms of plot and dialogue (you’ll love the street slang), comes from the personal experiences of these writers.

The story – planned and sketched since day one from the beginning until the end – is told in five seasons, or five acts if you will; the first season concentrates on the drug trade in West Baltimore, the second on the port unions who, while facing probable extinction, turn to smuggling and cooperating with the mob to make ends meet, the third on the city hall and its inner political schemes, the fourth on the school system and educational setbacks and the fifth on the fallout and the continuing “tabloidism”of newspaper media. Not to say that the old plotlines are being abandoned while the new ones are being introduced; everything is interconnected in the world of The Wire, either directly or indirectly; thematic parallels are drawn between all of the worlds, in a sense that there is a much smaller difference between a policeman, a unionman and a drug dealer than one would think – all of them are slaves beholden to the aforementioned bureaucratic and corrupt institutions. The show is trying hard to demystify all the clichés about these kinds of characters; drug dealers weren’t born evil and cops are rarely the fierce supporters of justice who empathize with their victims. Take for example Jimmy McNulty, the closest thing the show gets to have a lead character, played excellently by the British actor Dominic West; McNulty is a talented and persistent homicide detective whose priority is not to clean the streets of West Baltimore from crime. This is barely a side-effect to the fact that, if the case does work, he will be able to prove he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s also a wild womanizer that ruined his marriage, let alone the fact he’s a pinky close to being a full-blown alcoholic.

The series itself is a slow-burn in the true sense of the word; its concept is purely novelistic, in a way that its slow pace leads to a terrific and well-deserved climax at the end of each act, but one that is “gained” through patience and concentration, because answers are rarely given in an open fashion – Simon and co. rarely underestimate the viewer and urge him to go along with the plot and make his own conclusions; you won’t find heart-felt monologues that explain the entire scheme or some character’s emotional state here. There are dozens of characters that are crucial to the plot, that disappear for awhile but then unexpectedly reappear. All of these characters are multilayered, breathing people who are far from perfect (or imperfect) and who mostly escape all the clichés that Hollywood and network TV is famous for, and whose journey throughout the show is as fascinating and important as the main plot itself. The Wire is so far the closest show to ever escape the aforementioned problems that were infecting all those shows before it (including Homicide: Life on the Street, whose best episode I’ve reviewed below), because it had a clear beginning and a clear end; all the cast members (most of them unknown, but terrific performances all around) stuck, and the writing crew remained being consistent, despite going out on a limb in some plotlines. Like all pieces of art, this one is not perfect as well; it suffers somewhat from some clear propaganda at moments, the dialogue or acting may sometimes seem a bit iffy and some parts do drag along, but it is probably the closest show to perfection in a long time.

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