Readers Write In #255: Why ‘The Wire’ is the finest show ever made

Posted on August 30, 2020

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(by Sudharshan Garg)

Ask 10 people about their personal top 5 list of TV drama, and 4/5 will have Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Madmen in their top 5, but will not have the Wire in it. The Wire which in my books ranks as the finest piece of entertainment ever to make it to the screen sadly, like the other HBO unsung, Rome was and remains very low key and died an unceremonious exit. This is a pity and I hope through this write up, like the one I did on Black Sails, get more people to watch this superb quality show and enjoy it as I did.
What is The Wire all about?

It is a show about a city, Baltimore. While most other crime shows are about people, this is about the living, breathing ecosystem of Baltimore, the characters merely appear stage right and exit stage left, the city is what remains centre stage. It has 5 seasons and each season takes one particular aspect of the city and analyses it threadbare.

Season 1 – Sets the stage, it talks about two institutions, The Baltimore Police Department and it’s bete noire, the Barksdale Drug organization. We also get exposed to the entire ecosystem of politicians, media, shipping & logistics that enable these two organizations to live and thrive

Season 2 – the Primary focus are the Docks, the secondary foci are the dying Unions & manufacturing industry tied in Crash (movie) like to the drug trade. The Macguffin is a murder case involving some 20 dead hookers (hooked?)

Season 3 – Politics! How can you talk about a corrupt city and the drug trade without the key enabler, the Politicians. Again the underlying connecting piece is the Police department, how the Politicians use crime stats to make their careers & the underlying Cops vs Robbers with the Barksdale organization continues.

season 4- Examines with clinical passion, the Education system in Baltimore, how it feeds like a conveyor belt willing but left with no other choice raw material into the crime organisations that populate Baltimore.

Season 5 – the final season that brings together all these elements covers in detail journalism and how it intersects with all these disparate (crime, police, politicians, shipping etc) elements covered in Seasons 1-4

The show was proposed as a standard Cops vs robbers piece by its show runners to get HBO to sign off but it then subverts every single trope.

There are no quintessential bad guys or good guys, you only have circumstances. So the rogue loose canon Detective McNulty (the sort of protagonist) and Stringer Bell (the sort of antagonist) are like the Yin & Yang of each other and it is pure circumstances of birth that determined who the cop was and who the drug dealer was. The only consistent villain in the show is the System itself, it keeps one in its station, never ever allowing anyone to break away from their pre determined role.

To do all this the show assumes that the viewer is intelligent, and consistently only shows but never tells. Many actions, like Karma have consequences many seasons down the line. You have to constantly pay attention to where happening on screen because aside from the script, a lot is unfolding visually. So for instance in a stakeout the Judas character will give one glance at a cop, and that’s it. No orchestral crescendo, no Nolanesque exposition…1 glance. If you were looking away from your screen, you miss it.

This show also never has any posturing or moral lecturing, it takes you the viewer and sticks you on a wall as a neutral observer, simply observing what is happening in the room as a fly in the wall and it works. After a point moral conditioning begins to break down and you start sympathizing with hardcore gang bangers because you see them as Human, trying to work with and in a system so systemically gutted that one wonders if you could scrap it all and begin afresh.

Rarely does any show or movie get everything perfect, the Wire takes perfection as the base and builds on top of it. The script, the extensive background research and interviews…a small aside into the show runners

1) David Simon – was a hardboiled crime journo reporting in the city of Baltimore, with close to 3 decades in covering the crime beat.

2) Ed Burns was a homicide detective in the BPD,

These two don’t just walk the talk but they walk, breathe and sleep the talk and the sheer authenticity they bring to the table is what sets the show apart.

The piece de resistance is the acting. From Idris Elba to Michael Jordan (the Hollywood star, not the NBA Star) they give you characters that stay on in your mind long after you have watched the fade to black of the finale.

If you wanted to watch a thought provoking, intelligent, well scripted, well plotted, exceptionally acted show? Well this is it.