"It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how…whether you're a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you've committed to." - David Simon
I'd like to start things off with a quick poll. How many of you are watching HBO's The Wire?
Show of hands?
Those of you who didn't raise your hands should be hanging your heads in shame. Because, while I know that sometimes I have a predilection for exaggeration, I say this sincerely and without hyperbole: The Wire is the best show on television. It might actually be the best cop show in the history of television.
Seriously. Let me explain why. I'm not going to give a recap of the four seasons that have been shown so far, because I don't want to ruin anything. Instead, let me just explain why you should be watching it. The Wire, for the uninitiated, is the complicated story of cops, criminals, politics and education that takes place in Baltimore, MD. The show was created by David Simon, a former police reporter from Baltimore, who wrote the book that another excellent show "Homicide: Life on the Streets" was based upon. Much of it is based on the experiences of co-writer Ed Burns, a retired Baltimore homicide detective (not the asshat in that stupid time travel movie who married a model). By combining the wealth of experience of these two, they've succeeded in creating perhaps the most realistic portrayal of the perils of city living in the history of television.
Because the truth is, The Wire is grim. I mean... really grim. It takes a mostly sparse methodology of portraying its events. There are no special effects. There are no explosions. There is little romance, and there is absolutely no pretense to it. It is brilliant in its simplicity. By ignoring the jokes, the car chases, and the other artificial sociological creations that affect so many other cop shows, it is allowed to focus on the events and the people, making it so starkly real that it is at times uncomfortable. Many of the scenes were filmed on location in Baltimore public housing projects. Normally, given that it's my line of work in the real world, I'd avoid the term "projects", given its stigma. But here, that's what it is. It's what people think about when they think about low-income housing. It's low-income living at it's worst, which for decades, Baltimore was renowned for. Along with Philadelphia (where I once worked), Chicago, New Orleans and Detroit, it's one of the harshest urban living environments out there. For them to film the scenes involving poor families and drug dealers on location there truly gives those scenes a sense of desperation and desolation.
In addition to the setting and the vibe of the show, the cast is what truly makes it great. There are no saints in The Wire, but there are plenty of sinners. There are no heroes, but there are those who do heroic things. Everyone feels real, because everyone is flawed. If you like them, you like them in the way that you like your alcoholic uncle. Sure, he's funny and he tells a great story, but you also know that when you leave his house, he's going to drink himself into oblivion... and possibly do much worse. The show is rife with alcohol and drug abuse, people cheat on their significant others, the good guys lie and cheat, and sometimes the bad guys will show remarkable compassion. All of these things can be found in other shows. But the reasons they do it is rarely explored as fully as they are here. There is a sense of despair that permeates the show... even the most noble character feels it, and as a result, even the most noble character succumbs to the temptation that can come with it. The cops are jaded, they cut corners, and they plant evidence. Some of them are simply burnouts that are running out the clock until retirement or death - whichever comes first. The police administration is filled with back-stabbers and political animals that will gladly sacrifice a subordinate, regardless of talent and ability, in order to progress through the ranks. The crooks are dangerous and volatile. But they're also, at times, vulnerable and scared. But while the vulnerability that will be shown in a scene that makes you tear up and sympathetic, will also be the reason that they shoot someone in the back. Their loyalty is admirable, until you realize that it's just as selfish and tenuous as the lives they lead. The humor, while clever and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, is harsh - from the sharp, slang-filled dialogue of the drug dealers to the gallows humor of the cops and politicians, it feels real and unburdened by the wisecracking pseudo-jargon of many of its contemporaries.
The cast is brilliant and pretty much completely unknown. Some of them have become known since the shows inception, but mostly they are still relatively obscure. The presence of a number of character actors, as well as the fact that many of the smaller parts are played by non-actors, and in some cases, actual Baltimore residents, gives it even more legitimacy. They are rarely beautiful people, but instead the cast looks like they bear the scars of the wear and tear of a difficult, harsh city life. What's interesting is that each group in the show, be they cops, dealers, or politicians has a group of seasoned, grizzled veterans that are trying to play the game to survive, and a group of hungry young bloods who are trying to change the game altogether.
There are, so far, three main groups who have been shown throughout the series. I'll give you a brief rundown, as well as a quick example of the fan favorite character:
The Cops. The cops are, in many ways, the heart of the show. But these aren't your glamorous CSI cops, or even the much grittier NYPD: Blue cops. Never before have I seen cops portrayed as realistically as these. The scene that always springs to mind is when one of their own dies in the line of fire, they gather together at the local cop bar to mourn him... except that they bring the body with, which is the tradition. He's placed on a pool table with a glass of whiskey in his hand, and everyone toasts him and drinks with the kind of hopelessness that is usually reserved for third world countries. At one point, two detectives are sitting outside on the curb, leaning on each other in a private moment of lament. Another one comes staggering out the door, vomits into the gutter, and then hands them each a shot glass. It's this kind of scene that shows the grim realities of the show. Most of the cops pile drunkenly into cars and careen off, only to get up the next morning with heads full of hornets and hearts full of sadness, and get back to it.
The fan favorite has always been Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West (most well known as the traitorous Theron in 300). He's renowned as one of the best cops in Baltimore, except that he's got problems with women, alcohol and authority, and not in that order. As a result, he spends the seasons getting busted down to uniform, then back up, depending on the political climate and the case. My personal favorites have always been Herc and Carver, a pair of young detectives who, while not the brightest knives on the Christmas tree, in some ways understand the streets far better than their subordinates.
The Dealers: There are several different factions of dealers, and each season deals with a different group that must confront another, be it for "corners" which they deal their product on, or for bragging rights, or simple revenge. Heavily regimented into Leaders and Soldiers, the dealers wage a constant struggle with each other, as well as within, for survival. One of the great things about The Wire is that the gang wars are rarely the stylized, drawn out gunfights you see in movies. They're fast, and clumsy (most drug dealers are hardly practiced marksman), with bystanders going down and even the bravest of tough guys running when it gets too hot. The fan fave here was always Stringer Bell, the educated businessman of the Barksdale gang, who went to night school and tried to apply the business practices he learned to drug dealing (is your product weak from being stepped on too much? Simply change the name to get people interested again). The other favorite (and my favorite) is Omar, the lone gunman of the series, a scarred, dangerous stick-up man who specializes in robbing drug dealers. Omar, while perhaps the most unrealistic character on the show (when he leaves his house to go to the grocery store, people start yelling that he's coming and everyone goes into hiding), his character is so remarkable that you can't help but be riveted by him. He's perhaps the most honorable character on the show, although it's common knowledge that he'll help you if it serves his purpose, but if you cross him later, or get in his way, all bets are off.
The Politicians: Perhaps my favorite group in the show, if only because it's an element of city life that is rarely explored seriously in either film or television. As someone who's had some experience working with (or around) politicians in large urban areas, I can only say that they are startlingly well realized. They scheme, they form and break alliances. You can tell that many of them probably started out as well meaning and with good intentions, but they just can't let go of the power they've come to have. And they will do anything to protect it. The main power players are the mayor and the city councilors, as well as their competition in the elections. I'm not sure if there is a fan favorite politician, but mine is Tommy Carcetti, the new blood city councilor who wants to be mayor. It's no small feat for him to run, since he's an upper class white man running for mayor in a predominately black city with a popular (though crooked) black mayor. He's written incredibly well, somehow managing to be young and idealistic, while simultaneously scheming, smarmy and willing to make almost any deal to get what he wants.
The truth is, there are so many characters that it would take up pages to list them and adequately describe them. On of the many standout things about the show is its ability to richly detail even the most inconsequential of characters. Just watch a scene where detectives question the mother of a missing drug dealer - you'll probably never see the mother again, but in those five minutes, you'll know everything you need to know about life as the mother of a child who, in reality, you lost years ago. There are many other groups you'll come to know and love (and mourn, in some cases) - the kids who live in the city, on the knifes edge between school and the drug trade, the dockworkers who are trying to compensate for a failing shipping trade by smuggling, the teachers who want to teach the kids, but instead have to settle for attempting to maintain a semblance of order instead. All of these groups are realistically and brilliantly rendered.
The Wire has always been special to me, in particular because I have some experience with the subject matter. Having worked in public housing for the last eight years, it's refreshing and surprising to see it rendered so impressively on screen. And while life in the low-income housing isn't always the desolate wasteland that The Wire depicts it as, it's important because it breathes life into a frequently neglected part of the American urban landscape. And to be honest, anything that makes us aware of the people and issues in these places is inherently valuable, even without its other (substantial) merits.
So, that's my case for it. I hope it worked. The Wire is currently in its fifth and final season, and along with Firefly and Veronica Mars, I'll miss it more than any other television show. It's the only show worth watching, and if you're missing it, then stop reading, don't even comment. Just go get season one, because you might be missing the best show you'll ever see.