Before I’d seen The Wire, every time I’d read a review of it, I’d always been struck by the fact that it didn’t sound like a particularly interesting story – cops trying to track down drug dealers (yawn!) – but despite that, the reviewer would be using phrases like “the greatest show on television”. How did that work?
So I decided to finally watch the series and find out what was going on. I can now understand what it’s about.
There is a sense in which this story could be quite pedestrian. It is, on the face of it, a cops/gangster drama. Over the course of 13 episodes, it details how a group of police from the Narcotics and the Homicide divisions of the Baltimore police were put together to catch a drug kingpin, Avon Barksdale. However, the story is much deeper than that.
Writer David Simon wanted to make a point about the social structures that we find ourselves part of and how, in our cities, that those social structures drag us down, despite our best intentions. So he presents us with well-intentioned cops who struggle with the corruption and politics in the police force, but on the other hand, he shows us quite smart young African-American guys who are caught in a tradition of drug-dealing and crime from which they cannot escape. Any time you think you have worked out how to peg somebody’s character, the next episode will show you a new layer that reveals something else.
What I liked most about this story was that it took the concept of episodic television and converted it into a large novel. Unlike a regular series, where there is a certain level of payoff in each episode, The Wire simply begins each episode where it last left off and then ends when the hour runs out – cliffhanger or no. This means that if you first start to watch it, and you find it rather slow going because that’s a bit like reading a few chapters of a novel and giving up. It’s only when you watch it in its entirety that it all comes together.
The other thing that struck me was exactly how little there was of the “protect and serve” mentality among the cops (except as a joke). In every other cop show, cops are driven by a desire to catch bad guys and see justice done. There’s none of the in The Wire. The cops are driven by, if anything, a satisfaction of showing that they’re more clever than the criminal out there and – above else – a desire to get their stats us. So it’s amazing how little enthusiasm there is among the top ranks for actually doing anything about crime. Sad to say, given that David Simon was a cop before he started writing for television, this is probably an accurate picture of the modern police force.
The other bit of artistry that struck me is that this series has no music (apart from the opening and closing credits of each exercise). And so, because of that, you have no way of gauging emotionally what you should be feeling about a scene – which is rather like real life, isn’t it? The only time they break this rule is over a montage at the end of the very last episode – which means that the use of music there is far more powerful.
The final warning that I should offer is that everything you’ve heard about the level of swearing in this series is correct. There is a lot and if that will offend you, then don’t even consider the series. But if you can get past that, and you want a series that will both entertain and challenge your mind, this is one of the great TV series of the last 10 years.
5 out of 5.