I’m years late to the party, but I just finished watching HBO’s The Wire. I’ve never seen a show like it, and it was fantastic.
For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a police drama about trying to catch drug lords in Baltimore in the early 2000s (2002 to 2008). It was created by David Simon, who co-created another Baltimore-based crime show, Homicide: Life On the Streets and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore homicide detective. The two also created the mini-series The Corner and HBO’s Generation Kill. The show was named after the device the police employed to capture the drug dealers — namely, a wire tap on telephones.
What could have been a generic police procedural turned into a much deeper, much richer show. Part of that I credit to HBO not needing to abide by American network TV broadcast standards. That is, characters swear, there’s violence, nudity and other instances of ‘adult content’. Another part of the richness of the show I credit to the talented cast of writers, producers and actors.
In most shows, the viewers have to suspend an element of disbelief to accept the premise. In most police procedurals that includes almost instantaneous lab analysis work, the willingness of lawyers and judges to give and execute warrants and conveniently timed plot points (like finding financial trails just before the suspect flees the country). There’s also a clear division between the good guys — the police — and the bad guys — the criminals. The Wire, however, doesn’t rely upon those tropes.
From the outset there’s an almost documentary-type feel to the show. Never once in the show did I think something like what was shown couldn’t have occurred. A drunken cop who doesn’t respect authority? Sure, totally believable. A corrupt politician working with anyone who will donate — even a criminal — perhaps fleecing them of more money in the meantime? Yep, I can see it. Leaders who are more concerned with making statistics look better than actually solving the root problems? An everyday occurrence! One of the actors told a story about the impact he was having, and the responsibility he felt at portraying a character on the show.
I was also struck by the humanity all the characters had. The police — the nominal protagonists — weren’t just do-gooders with no flaws. Some were just coasting through their last few years to retirement. Some were angry and took it out on criminals. Some were frustrated with the system and its inefficiencies. The criminals — the supposed antagonists — had real depth and character, too. Some dealt drugs in an effort to gain power and attempt to change the situation for the better (ie: the ends justified the means). Some were just power or money hungry, or sociopaths. Some resorted to dealing drugs because of the situation they were given in life — it’s all they knew and if they tried something different, they were forced to conform. There were almost never truly ‘bad’ people, just as there were almost never wholly ‘good’ people.
It was ahead of its time in many respects, as well. Two of the main characters were gay — one a gay man and a criminal, the other a lesbian woman and police detective. In the criminal world there were plenty of homophobic references, if not downright hostility, to the gay man. There’s was also plenty of acceptance of his lifestyle, too. In the police world, the character is upfront about her sexuality and its never an issue. In fact, outside of the first episode where she mentions it — basically ‘coming out’ to her new colleagues — it’s never brought up again with any real context. These characters were gay, but it didn’t define their whole existence. They were normal people, doing their job. There are few other shows that take the same approach to dealing with gay characters, even now, and especially not ten years ago.
It also showed racial and class tensions. It depicted how a middle-class white male running for mayor of a predominantly African-American city tried to appeal to those voters. It showed mostly black families living in poverty in the inner city. It dealt with the decline of a white, blue-collar industry.
Everyone had a code they lived by, too. Some of the worst criminals of the show — the murderers and thugs — wouldn’t hurt kids or those who didn’t deserve it. Some of the best police officers wouldn’t lie even when it would help the investigation. These people saw and believed in the consequences of their actions.
Back in 2015, President Obama talked to series creator David Simon about the show. In the exchange, they discuss the challenges the War On Drugs had on law enforcement and the effects on real people. They talked about how hard it is to change a broken system.
The show has sparked real change, at least in the Obama administration, regarding mandatory minimums. Those are the minimum amount of jail time certain crimes, usually drug related offences, carry. They are almost always racially biased and, in the end, provide no real deterrent. They also crowd the prison system, costing taxpayers obscene amounts of money for, relatively speaking, minor crimes. Police are out arresting someone on a possession of drugs charge; time that could instead be spent trying to catch killers or the cartels.
The show never won any major awards. Episodes could rarely be taken out of context and really needed a whole season to make sense. The show was intricate, complex and compelling. It was rarely ‘happy’, and it could be argued, actually stretched the definition of ‘entertainment’ because it seemed so real. That sort of show is not conducive to an award industry content with easy wrap-ups and happy endings. The Wire didn’t deliver that type of show. It challenged viewers. It made them think that this sort of reality was possible. It wasn’t pretty, by any means, but it was intriguing and worthwhile. In the end, isn’t that the sort of programming we want from television, anyway?