A Trip Through The Wire

The great David Frost once said “Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home.” After recently completing all five seasons of HBO’s The Wire, the same goes for places you wouldn’t want to call home.

Throughout all of my television watching endeavors, I’ve never seen a more ambitious, realistic, patiently-written, and better collectively acted series.  From beginning to end, creator David Simon challenged the standard conventions of the medium by consciously producing a work that cared more about being sociologically important than culturally relevant.

Despite never winning any Emmy Awards during its 2002-2008 run (the show only received two writing nominations during this period), The Wire is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest TV dramas of all time. Contrary to most scripted programs, David Simon’s series avoids a glamorous central setting (New York, Los Angeles, Miami, etc.) and instead focuses on the struggling port city of Baltimore.

To most outsiders, Baltimore is best known for its beautiful harbor, Cal Ripken Jr, and as Bradley Cooper so eloquently put it in Wedding Crashers, “CRABCAKES AND FOOTBALL!” With other neighboring cities and districts receiving more tourist and media attention (like our nation’s capital), it’s easy to misunderstand and overlook Baltimore’s true, tormented identity. The Wire represents a bold effort to illuminate the greed, chaos, and corruption that have consumed this forgotten city for years.

In addition to its unconventional location, The Wire’s relatively unknown cast also helps distance the series from more traditional dramas. The city itself, is essentially the star of the show, as Baltimore is never overshadowed by the actors portraying its inhabitants (the same cannot be said of the CSI locales).  Still, the diverse and talented ensemble makes its mark.

Characters like Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Robin Hood-like gangster Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) and junkie Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins (Andre Royo) resonate because they are raw and believable, not because they are likeable. McNulty, surely one of the most interesting (and flawed) TV cops in history, makes Dennis Franz’s NYPD Blue protagonist seem like a mormon.

While McNulty is usually the smartest guy in the room, he has no problem acknowledging this with an authority-challenging addiction only matched by another to Jameson Whiskey. While he’s not as dirty as Michael Chiklis’s Vic Mackey on The Shield, McNulty shares his ability to circumvent rules and manipulate others into following his lead (often unknowingly). Still, his superiors concede that he is perhaps the city’s most intuitive lawman.

During my Wire experience, I couldn’t help but see parallels between McNulty and the series as a whole. Both are in-your-face renegades that are surrounded (for the most part) by inferior company. Neither The Wire or its lead character were highly decorated, but both ironically stand out for the very reasons they couldn’t be publically honored. Just as McNulty watches conservative, less competent officers rise up the departmental ranks, The Wire got spurned by supporters of  more universally-appealing (and commercially viable) programs that played by the rules.

While many of the show’s core themes and main characters remain, each of The Wire’s seasons highlight different underlying forces contributing to many of the city’s problems (urban drug trafficking, labor shortages on the docks, policymaking conflicts, educational shortcomings, and vanishing journalistic integrity are some of the primary subjects explored). This helps paint a comprehensive and frightening picture of a population killing itself  from within.

I believe each Wire season is better than the preceding one. As our exploration of Baltimore widens, our understanding of the characters (both good and bad) also grows deeper. By examining the flaws within the city’s public school system (Season 4), we begin to understand how neglected students enter “The Game” and begin to follow the paths of violent criminal leaders like drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). Our close observation of a hostile mayoral campaign (Seasons 3 & 4) helps explain why certain issues are buried behind others that can help generate more votes.

Individual greed inhibits collective growth, and this fact is painfully articulated by countless Wire characters. David Simon & Co. do an excellent job of asserting that they’re very few differences between drug addicts,ambitious politicians, weasel criminal defense attorneys, business savvy gangsters, and crime statistic-altering police leaders. Nobody is truly innocent.

As an aspiring writer, I appreciated Season 5 most because of its concentration on the influence of The Baltimore Sun. Much of the season dealt with a clash between an old school news editor named Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) and journalist Scott Templeton (Thomas McCarthy). Haynes believes Templeton is fabricating stories to better his career, and alienates himself while pursuing the truth. In an age where important facts are constantly being obscured, we need more series like The Wire to shed light on what others are too busy or ignorant to understand.

Perhaps the most famous quote from this groundbreaking series is “A man’s gotta have a code.” Whether cop, con, supplier, buyer, reporter, or bystander, one must have a fundamental grasp of morality to get by. No series in television history has provided us with a more stark and eye-opening reminder of this than The Wire.

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