Re-Viewing: The Wire

This isn’t a review. I’m not going to give a score. I’m not sure how to do that with film and TV – particularly with TV, where different episodes and seasons of the same show can be so different from one another in style and quality. This is just… I recently re-watched this show, and wanted to put my thoughts down while I remembered them. Because before long, memory turns into myth, and you think you remember whatever you expect to remember. And then some time later you actually see the show again and think “wow, this is really good after all!” or “oh dear, not as good as I remembered”. A good example of the former is Friends – after years and years of watching repeats of mediocre and repetitive Friends episodes from the later series, and occasionally catching an early episode I’d seen fifty times before, and being told by everybody how awful the show was, how tame and predictable it was, I finally sat down for some reason and watched the first season: took a while to get going, but all of a sudden it was sheer genius. I carried on watching straight through the first four seasons (aaaand… then a cliff approached). Not only was it sharp, witty, versatile and creative, it was also – which I hadn’t expected at all – edgy. Not Bill Hicks edgy, but edgy for mainstream sitcoms, with a lot of very explicit jokes and quite a few rather dark ones too. I, like everyone else (including the writers, I think) had bought into a myth of what the show was meant to be like that had clouded my memories of what it had actually been like when I first saw it.

So anyway, recently I re-watched the whole of The Wire, and I’ve decided to state for the record what I think about it.

I’m trying to mostly avoid spoilers, and I’d appreciate it if any commenters did likewise.


Sometimes, talking about the quality of The Wire is a bit like talking about God. People make bold statements and feel justified in doing so, but still at some level feel they may be using the wrong words. In the case of The Wire, I want to say its the best thing ever, but I’m not entirely sure why. I’m not sure I’m comparing like with like.

First off, let’s get rid of one myth: The Wire isn’t a monolithic entity, it’s five separate seasons, and each is a very different programme. You can like one but not the others. And another myth: the seasons aren’t all about particular things. That idea got added on later, I think.

Season One is the best place to start, not just because it’s first, but because it’s the most conventional. It’s clear what it is: it’s a detective show. A murder has happened, and they have to solve it. That’s all. It’s unusual in spreading a single case out over an entire season, but aside from that it’s perfectly conventional. And it’s as much about the bosses who don’t want the case to go ahead as it is about the guys on the street, and it’s as much about the criminals as about the cops, but aside from that, it’s perfectly conventional. It’s an unusually intelligent, unusually slow, unusually well-written, unusually novelistic cop show.

For anyone who’s been living on another planet: D’Angelo Barksdale, nephew of a Baltimore kingpin, has killed somebody, with a lot of witnesses. It goes to court, but witnesses recant their testimony and D’Angelo is found not guilty. Infuriated by this is Jimmy McNulty, a hard-drinking natural-born-anarchist homicide detective – it wasn’t his case, but others were, and now he’s seen the Barksdale gang get away with one murder too many. Out of a confused collage of altruism, vanity, stubbornness and a desire to get one over on his bosses, he recruits the help of the judge (unhappy at seeing his court played around with by the Barksdales at will) to try to force  his superiors to seriously investigate Barksdale and his cohorts – all the way to a wire-tap if necessary. Unfortunately, nobody is interested – nobody has even heard of the Barksdale crew, busy as they are with street-level arrests and dodging work. Only McNulty, “giving a fuck when it ain’t your turn to give a fuck”, is determined to get to the bottom of it – not just this murder, not just this crew, not just the drug trade, but the whole of what is rotten in the state of Baltimore, and by extension the whole of America. Although of course it’s less about justice, and more about the Jimmy McNulty show – proving to everybody that he’s the smartest guy in the police force. Meanwhile, as McNulty struggles against bureaucracy, his counterpart on the street, D’Angelo Barksdale, struggles with a similar position of impotence – forced to rule over his thuggish, short-sighted crew of hoppers and dealers, while at the same time dictated to by the drug-gang hierarchy, in particular his uncle Avon Barksdale, and Avon’s more intellectual right-hand man, Russell “Stringer” Bell.

If you can get used to the slow pace, it’s actually pretty accessible. Humour is omnipresent to lighten the mood, and the tone is often larger-than-life, even cartoonish. Less so than in other shows, perhaps, but not the sort of dry, precise, uncinematic realism that the show became famous for. Famous scenes like Dee explaining chess to Bodie and Wallace (they’ve been playing checkers on a chess board, not knowing the rules; the following discussion morphs from chess rules to the nature of society – “the king stay the king”) and McNulty and Bunk Moreland (“The Bunk”) investigating a murder scene with five minutes of dialogue consisting of nothing but “fuck”, “fuck me” and “motherfucker” in a variety of intonations are hilarious and well-written, but fundamentally big, obvious, storytelling showboating. As a result, the first season is the most enjoyable, and also the most conventional.

The second season sees much of the action move to the docks, dealing with the decline of American industry, and is probably the weakest season. Attention has to be split between three forums – the police, the dockers, and the drug crews; the latter two aren’t sufficiently connected, while the police investigations feel like a half-hearted addition. What’s more, the series suffers tonally: the magnificent American tragedy of the Sobotka family is one of the crowning arcs of the show, but its journalistic dreariness and subtle agonies sit uneasily beside the flamboyant, Hollywoodesque elements of the seventeen corpses in a box, and the Bond-villain Greeks. It seems clear they didn’t know what direction to take things, and as a result its not really fully anything. Its still worth watching, but it’s disappointing – in particular, it takes a long time to get going.

The third season learns from the mistakes of the second. Action is mostly closer “to home”, and more controlled, and centres on a tragedy that could have been taken from Shakespeare, in its intensity and timeless themes, if not in its contemporary relevance. It’s perhaps the slowest and dullest of the five season, and the pay-off seems a little weak and personal compared to the flashy business of the second season. Yet it’s a vital season, not only for the majesty of its central story, but also because of its striking thematic ambition. This season is not “about” any part of life (it’s certainly not, as claimed, about politics!), but it does have a central theme: change, and those who try to institute it. Change is explored through the characters of Stringer Bell, a tired crime boss who would rather be a businessman; Denis “Cutty” Wise, a drug-gang hitman finally out of jail after a long time inside; “Bunny” Colvin, a senior police offer who wishes he could reverse the slow decline not only of his city but of his police force; and Tommy Carcetti, ambitious young city councillor, disgusted by the corruption and inefficiency of the political elite, determined to sweep them all aside and bring in a new daybreak. This season sets the stamp on what The Wire wants to achieve, and sets up important storylines. And it’s probably the most psychologically acute, most precise, of the seasons – many of the key scenes feel like they’ve been adapted from the theatre. Possibly from Shakespeare.

Those storylines come to a climax in the fourth season, the greatest season of any TV series ever filmed. It’s “about” the school system, and has an incredible cast of young actors, but more than that, it’s about what’ wrong with America. The writing is superb, the young cast (and Carcetti’s charisma) bring a refreshing vitality and fun to scenes even when little plot is apparent, and the architecture of its construction is simply awe-inspiring. By my count there are more than 60 significant named characters in the dozen-or-so episodes, not counting many minor roles, and they all feel real and accessible and tortured, and somebody’s calculated that in some episodes the hour of action advances approximately 100 different plot-lines. Even leaving aside the actual content of the story, the construction of it ought to be studied in every writing school as the pinnacle of the art. And the content itself is devastating; simple, always simple, and direct, and all painfully inevitable.

After the heights of season 4, season 5 was bound to be a let-down, particularly as there’s a distinct change in tone. At this point the show goes in a more absurd direction – not beyond the bounds of reason, but more obviously ‘TV’ than what has gone before. And yet – having watched through the show more quickly this time (my third time), and thus having its origins more firmly in mind, S5 seems less like a departure and more like a return, to the more conventional, more focused, and more funny first season.

The Wire is not perfect. Sometimes it struggles to follow so many (sometimes unrelated) plots simultaneously; in particular, for the middle three series the cop section often feels superfluous, tacked-on. There are a handful of badly-written moments – mostly (and again, the cop sections are the worst offenders) when the writers try to push a dramatic line more quickly than is realistic, leading to out-of-character outbursts. Sometimes, the writers were too cowardly, clinging too tightly to convention, keeping some characters alive too long and killing others off too soon. On the other hand, sometimes it is too pretentious, too wilfully contemptuous of plot and pace, and bogs down in long hours of nothing happening at all; I watched the first season and a half in a one-a-week format, and the first season’s taut, tense plot made it compelling, but the later seasons really need to be watched on DVDs, because sometimes waiting a week only to have nothing happen just isn’t worth it. Sometimes, particularly toward the end, and above all in the final series,  the writers are too full of their own brilliance, and the ‘subtle’ self-congratulation scenes are a little cloying. It’s not totally tonally coherent, with dark realism and cartoonish comic moments, both brilliant, sometimes working against each other rather than in harness. And now and then the writers are self-indulgent – this is a massive problem with Season 5, where for the first time we have an unimpeachable hero (David Simon’s Mary Sue alter-ego) and (for not quite the first time) unredeemable villains (David Simon’s former employers).

But: The Wire is landmark TV. Probably nothing on it is wholly original or groundbreaking (the more cynical look at the police may be unusual in America, but seems tame by UK standards, I think), but when you put it all together it’s an incredible statement of artistic intent. The novelistic approach – many characters, many stories, all stretched out slowly, thematically and tangentially linked – is sometimes breathtakingly bold. The attention to detail, the determination to push ahead and tell the story even if most viewers don’t understand what’s going on, the refusal (mostly) to speak down to us, are inspiring. It’s a show that forces its viewers to step up. The devotion to unflinching, serious social critique that educates rather than preaching is illustrative of the power and scope of television. The plots are cleverly intertwined and combine frequent unpredictability wit crushing inevitability, and are sometimes truly shocking. The writing is timeless, sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful, sometimes hilarious. So many characters, down to the most minor, feel real and living and almost all in some way sympathetic.

If I were to create a list of the greatest scenes in television ever, a serious percentage would come from this show. In fact, that’s one of the incredible things about it: whereas most shows have key scenes and filler, this is almost all key scenes. If you ask ten Wire fans for their ten favourite scenes, you’ll probably get at least 80-90 scenes named. The quality, scene-by-scene, is so high, and the characters, themes and situations so diverse and complete, that different people can latch on to entirely different scenes as their favourites in a way I don’t think any other show can really match. Even if you ask for ten top scenes from one season, you’ll still get massive variety. [And yes, I’ve tested this in person and on-line].

And then there’s the acting, which is simply out of this world in places. The actors range from the mediocre and acceptable to the simply sublime. There are too many great roles to mention, but the crowning performances in my opinion come from Idris Elba as Stringer Bell (Elba is able to show us simultaneously a likeable, even heroic, embodiment of the American Dream, somebody who could have been a great man in any other walk of life, and at the same time one of the darkest, coldest, most calculating hard-men in the series, and on TV, while at the same time not being a mary sue, but actually deeply flawed, even weak – an enthralling mix of fire and ice that reaches out to us while at the same time remaining perpetually inaccessible), Aiden Gillen as Tommy Carcetti (the perfect politician: we are left wondering to what degree he is a slimy rodent out only for himself, and to what degree he is a deeply passionate man enraged by injustice, forced into deceit as the only way he can change the system); Michael K Williams as Omar (a larger than life character who could easily have been ridiculous and out of place, but transformed into a wounded, gentle, psychotically audacious crusader/war-profiteer); and above all Andre Royo as Bubbles, street addict and informant, whose searing presentation of the self-love and self-hatred of drug addiction manages to be humorous, charismatic, and devastatingly tragic all at once. Off the top of my head, I think Royo’s big speech in the final season of the show may be my single favourite moment of them all. Special mention must also be made of the Sobotka family – Chris Bauer’s Frank, the indomitable, good-hearted union leader who is forced to get his hands dirty but never for a moment loses sight of his moral standards, Pablo Schreiber’s Nick, his sensible, level-headed, opportunistic, embittered, morally questionable and fiercely loyal nephew, and James Ransone as Ziggy, Frank’s rash, pathetic, stupid son – possibly the most incredibly obnoxious (and at the same time somehow perversely sympathetic) man on TV.

It’s rare to have even one performance like these, let alone a handful, and let alone having a fantastic ensemble cast (of mostly-unknowns, sometimes even children), let alone having near-flawless supporting actors numbering in the dozens.

It’s hard to know what else to say about The Wire. It should be said that for all its brilliance, it never made me love it – not in the sense of a mature love. My love for it is a bit more like an adolescent crush for something so sexily smart and cool and brilliant. It’s not a series I want to cuddle up to at night.

That said, it’s still brilliant. It’s not all hype (though there is a lot of hype). It is one of the best things ever shown on TV. In fact, I’d say that it’s the best-made full-length TV drama ever – scene by scene, episode by episode, the consistency and originality is overwhelming. There are no dud episodes, and very, very few, if any dud scenes. There’s rarely even a bad line. It’s not the most entertaining TV, and it doesn’t set out to be (although it’s certainly not dry or dull – in particular, there’s a wonderful jet-black humour always lurking beneath the surface). It’s unsettling, off-putting, and wearying, and although I’ve enjoyed re-watching it, it was at another’s instigation, and I don’t see myself returning to it for quite some time. It’s just not that sort of “ooh, I know what I want to watch!” programme. But it is endlessly quotable, and endlessly memorable, and it may make you a better person for watching it. Certainly, if anyone wants to be an actor, or write scripts or otherwise in any way create TV shows or films, The Wire must be at the top of their list of things to see.