Four years ago, the final episode of David Simon’s television masterpiece, The Wire, was aired on HBO and put an end to arguably the greatest dramatic series ever produced. Over the course of its five-year run, Simon’s Dickensian storytelling of the city of Baltimore was poignantly and authentically conveyed through complex, yet compelling relationships between the city, its inhabitants and its institutions. Every season delved into new institutional layers of not just Baltimore, but the American city in general, and provided an invigorating social commentary on their faults and flaws that individuals have to live with. Never before has a television series provided such a vast socioeconomic scope and conveyed such powerful messages as The Wire did.
Since the end of The Wire back in 2008, there has been an ongoing conversation and reflection upon the impact of the show on society. Colleges and universities have begun to offer semester-long classes that use The Wire as a visual textbook, not just for film courses but for social and criminal justice classes as well. Numerous academic conferences, essay anthologies and special issues of journals have been centered on the series. Few TV shows have had this kind of insurmountable impact upon academics and scholars in multiple fields.
Diverging into a deep analysis of The Wire could take days, months, even years. The social, political, economic, educational and media plights and pitfalls of Baltimore are portrayed accurately and honestly, primarily through the lenses of creator David Simon and producer Ed Burns.
Simon, who worked for the Baltimore Sun for 12 years, and Burns, who was a detective and school teacher in Baltimore, poured their personal experiences into each episode of the show. Season four, for example, which focuses on the education system in Baltimore, portrays just how flawed the educational institution is and how difficult it is for inner-city children to escape the streets and pursue education.
Technically, The Wire is classified as a police series, but it is much more than just that. The entire police department of Baltimore is conveyed as a faulted system corrupt with individuals who simply want to push their way up the career ladder and are shown allying with muddled politicians while disregarding what it means to be real police. On the other hand, the police who want to do meaningful police work are pushed aside.
Season one focused on a slow-paced wiretap case where a meekly assembled detail group worked in a bare basement to pin down a major drug dealer in Baltimore. All the paperwork, the legal mumbo jumbo, the stakeouts and other minute, yet important aspects of the case were shown throughout the entire season. Most police procedural dramas have a different case for every episode. The Wire, however, shows the painstaking, patient, but accurate process of how police really catch “the bad guys.”
However, these cliché “bad guys” are often hard to decipher. The characters of The Wire are just as complex as the storylines. Some of the cops were tainted with personal troubles while some villains were painted with moral characteristics. The simultaneously loveable and terrifying Omar Little, for example, is a shotgun-wielding rogue who robs, and even kills, drug dealers. Surprisingly, Little has a strict code in which he only murders people involved in the drug dealing business. He is also a homosexual, adding more intrigue and dimension to his overall character. The concept of black and white is not prevalent in the show; everything is coated in a shade of grey through an objective lens.
Amazingly, The Wire does not have a human as the main character; the city is the main character. It’s a show about the poverty stricken American city and all of its socioeconomic and political factors. It taps into the tragedies that cities are shrouded in and the heartbreak of its institutions.
The tragedy with The Wire, however, is that not enough people know about it. Walk onto a college campus and ask students walking by if they’ve seen or heard of The Wire. Chances are they haven’t. Television is saturated with superficial twaddle designed to deflate minds and archetypal procedurals that get repetitive. That’s not to say that there are not high-quality, engaging, compelling and well-crafted shows out there, because there are. It’s just a travesty, at least in my mind, when people browse through the TV landscape and choose to view shows on MTV and E! rather than looking through some of the more intuitive programs on AMC or HBO.
It isn’t entirely fair to compare dramas to reality shows, but it is fair to compare dramas with other dramas. No cop show has the complexity, authenticity and intelligence that The Wire offered. During the course of its airtime, there was a minute but devoted fan base that followed the series. It’s a tough show to get into because of its slow pace, but at the end of the day, it’s a series that will likely have the most impact upon your life and how you perceive America.