Is a few hours of movie-watching simply not enough for you? Michael Armstrong urges you to settle into your couch cushion with this new TV classic
Where to begin? It may be a bit of a stretch to review sixty hours (and 30 minutes) of television in a blog reserved for a weekly film review, but I’ll give it a go. After all, if watching The Wire over the last few months has taught me anything, it’s that success or failure isn’t what matters. It’s the story that truly counts.
And what a story it is. David Simon’s bittersweet eulogy to his beloved city of Baltimore begins as a cop drama like no other. Swapping traditional episodic storytelling for a narrative that spans the entire first season, we see a case develop from a glint in the eye of meddling Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) to an extensive surveillance investigation. But while we follow the police on the hunt, we also delve deeper into the West Baltimore drug cartel that is the target of their investigation, learning about the day-to-day realities of the bosses, dealers and drug addicts. From there the story expands with each season to cover every aspect of a broken city: the decline of the industrial working class at the docks, the corruption and brokerage of city politics, the failing schools letting children slip through the cracks, and finally, the city press too beholden to commercial interests to report the truth of what is really going on.
A truly phenomenal cast humanises every aspect of the city’s shattered society, with far too many amazingly written and performed characters to mention here. A straw poll of the most popular characters yields unusual results, as far from the typical heroic figures presented by other shows (no Horatios here, thank god), the characters that capture hearts and minds are those with the most tragic flaws: McNulty, with his alcoholism and penchant for self-destruction; Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), the drug lord who wants nothing more than to escape the ghetto and become a legitimate businessman; Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a veritable Robin of the hood who lives by a strict and often unwieldy code; and, last but never least, Bubbles (Andre Royo), the dope-fiend with a heart of gold. Just try not to fall in love with the man the first time he mispronounces “McNutty.” Just try.
When The Wire focuses on a particular person, the actor makes the show his or her own, but a superb supporting cast provides ample opportunities to develop other storylines, allowing the show’s creators the confidence to resolve character arcs exactly when they need to, and avoid stretching popular characters’ lifelines out to placate fans. Often characters who at first seem like comic relief, such as officers Herc and Carver, and the odious Senator Clay Davis, become fully rounded individuals who feel like real people by the show’s end. And when a character makes their exit, whether by death, defeat or promotion, the moment never feels too rushed, or too drawn out, but is always affecting, and often devastating.
Perhaps the reason for the rawness of emotional response The Wire produces is that for inspiration, series creators David Simon and Ed Burns used their experience at the Baltimore Sun newspaper and the Baltimore Police Department respectively. If the characters feel real, chances are they are based on someone who lived and died in Baltimore, or on a composite of actual politicians, journalists, and cops, good and bad. For the major characters’ arcs the two unlikely co-creators borrowed from Greek tragedy, separating the characters from the responsibility for their own fates and replacing the Gods of classic mythology with the competing institutions of a modern city. For this reason, The Wire is a unique achievement: a story bigger than any one character, or theme, or institution. It is the story of the world we all live in, but one that we rarely confront: one of mercenary self-interest, broken communities, and acceptable lies. David Simon summed it up best in one interview, when he spoke with concern about a future we all face where “fundamentally, people matter less.”
Fascinating and important as these themes are, it must be remembered that in spite of its brutal honesty, the show is enormously fun to watch. From the moment the bombastic theme music swoops in (“Way Down In The Hole”, performed by a different artist or group for each season) to the atmospheric and funky instrumental piece that plays over the closing credits, the show exhibits a vibrancy and imagination in every element of its creation. For every devastating death there are hundreds of hilarious moments of character interaction, from McNulty and his partner Bunk’s drunken escapades, to the offhand banter of cops, crooks and civilians alike. Rewarding in every sense of the word, The Wire immediately grabs the viewers’ attention at the start of every episode, with a quote from one of the characters said at some point during the hour. Not only does the quote often promote further reflection on its context and the major themes of the show, it’s also a tip of the hat to the wiretap surveillance work that gives the show its title. All in all, from the opening ‘snot boogie’ story to “Larry, let’s go home,” David Simon & co. built something truly special, where all the pieces mattered. With all five seasons now on DVD, there’s no excuse not to track it down. Happy hunting.