The Wire is considered by many to be one of the best television shows of the century. It is on pedestal with The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and perhaps Mad Men in that regard. It is definitely the least well-known of those four though, and doesn’t get as much nostalgia it seems. Then there is the discussion of how to measure a television show’s (or a movie’s for that matter) greatness. Is it all based on a new fresh viewing, or does it take multiple passes? Is it reasonable to expect TV series to be viewed multiple times? It certainly seems more true that in the past, but it still is an incredible time commitment. Re-watching The Wire though, in the same vein as re-watching The Sopranos is a great way to truly realize it’s greatness.
Unlike the other great shows of the generation, The Wire is more an ensemble cast than one with a main star. Although Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) feels like the main character, he seems to carry that position in the thinnest way possible. Instead this show is comprised of an incredibly deep cast of characters that all seem to get their day in the sun at some point.
The show takes place in Baltimore, and focuses on the police department, and an on-again-off-again major crimes unit. All five of the seasons revolve around the drug trade in Baltimore, although season season offers a different spin/angle on it. Many of the story arcs, and characters, have a slow burn to them, and some of the payoffs take entire seasons to show up. This kind of storytelling is what makes shows like this, and The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad so great. It is not just the great moments within an episode, but the great storytelling along the way. Three great characters in the show introduce the world to Michael B. Jordan (Vince from Friday Night Lights), Michael K. Williams (Chalky from Boardwalk Empire) and Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones). But the list of solid supporting characters is too massive to list here.
Re-watching the The Wire shows off a great “bingeability” to this show. With all the characters and moving parts this show was probably different to track in real-time, especially before the days of weekly episode recaps online. One of the great ways that David Simon approached making this show was to give each season it’s own focus, while still tying that focus to the main story arc involving drugs. Season 1 focuses on the drug dealing at the housing projects. Season 2 focuses on the port of Baltimore. Season 3 focuses heavily on politics. Season 4 is on public schools. Season 5 is media, and more specifically newspapers.
Season 2 was never well received because it deters from what appears to be the main storyline, but ever future season is the same. There is a new set of characters front and center, still with ties to the established gang of drug dealers. Even in season 4 (largely considered to be the best) the drug story is told greatly through the lens of the school system. In retrospect season 2 gets a raw deal because even though it’s a weak link in the first four seasons of the show1, it’s not like it’s season 2 of Friday Night Lights, an absolute mess that should be left out upon future viewings. It’s like the 5th Chicago Bulls championship. It wasn’t the 72-win season, it wasn’t Jordan’s final year with the game winner, it was a season that most people kind of forget about in Jordan lore. But the team won 69 games and an NBA championship, so when held up against 99% of individual team’s NBA seasons in history, it’s still historically great. Season 2 of The Wire is on a similar plane. It’s compared to the rest of the seasons of the show, but the reality is that season 2 of The Wire is still better than almost every show’s current season.
The way each season’s backdrop seamlessly introduces new characters makes the show flow particularly well, and could have given the show a way to run for many years, but it was likely just a bit before it’s time.
Overall the show doesn’t not have many weak points. Just when it looked like things are getting a bit stale, along comes the spectacular child acting of season 4, or up pops Omar again and again. The technology aspect of things feels incredibly dated since season 1 revolves around payphones and beepers, but watching how the gangs stay one step ahead with new methods is a nice touch.
David Simon has never been shy about thoughts on politics and skewed agendas, so there is likely a group of people that would be rubbed the wrong way by this show. And these kind of things stand out much more upon re-watching. The political horse trading that goes on in and around the police department is frustrating at times, but it likely depicts something of a reality that most people chose to ignore.
The bottom line though, is that this is 60 hours of quality television. It is well written, and well-acted and this becomes more apparent than ever upon a second viewing. Unfortunately this show isn’t aging well, and 10 years from now it might be impossible to watch with where technology is headed. Until then though, it’s a masterpiece.
- Most everyone would agree season 5 was the weakest [↩]