Perfection is a label that is easily used but almost impossible to execute. The word would have no meaning without proper backing, or suitable prowess and merit. Something would have to come along that is just so undoubtable in its ability to convey an idea or emotion, something that not only entrances you in its scope and subject, but rattles you in the themes it explores and the depths that it is willing to dive into. Something so crazy in idea and impossible in ambition that the mere act of execution is praiseworthy, something that stops you in your tracks, and forces you to reexamine your idealisms and perspectives. Something so astonishing, so heartbreaking, and so masterful, that when you finish it, you have nothing else to say but, “Wow.” Something like HBO’s “The Wire.”
Before I begin this review, I want to make sure that I express something that I tell everyone when I recommend this show to them: Do not stop watching until the fifth episode. Everyone has their own opinion, and not everyone will like this show. But, like me, you may watch the first episode and think, I have no idea what just happened and I don’t care enough to keep watching. If you still feel this way by the fifth episode, please stop watching. But, I assure you, you will likely begin to understand what is going on and have a better perception of what the show is like.
“The Wire” is, in essence, the answer to one man’s question of “What can I do to change something that doesn’t work?” David Simon, the show’s creator and one of its head writers, worked at The Baltimore Sun before writing “The Wire.” In his time writing on city homicide and police activity, he became so frustrated with the system of racism and corruption involved with criminal justice that he decided to stand up against it through the power of television. After a few failed shows on cable networks, Simon pitched “The Wire” to HBO, a network that he believed would allow broader scope with their dedication to free expression. The show is loosely based on the experiences of Simon’s writing partner Ed Burns, a former homicide detective. After seeing so much corruption from an inside and outside perspective, Simon and Burns developed a revolutionary piece of television that forces all of us to stop pretending like we’re good because we don’t see color, or like we’re smart for fighting against drugs.
“The next time the drug czar or Ashcroft or any of these guys stands up and declares, ‘With a little fine-tuning, with a few more prison cells, and a few more lawyers, a few more cops, a little better armament, and another omnibus crime bill that adds 15 more death-penalty statutes, we can win the war on drugs,’” Simon said when asked what he hoped the show would accomplish. “If a slightly larger percentage of the American population looks at him and goes, ‘You are so full of shit’…that would be gratifying.”
“The Wire” is a series revolving around the Baltimore Police Department and its efforts to fight the war on drugs, mainly focusing on the major crimes unit. And at first, it seems to be a simple crime drama: cops and robbers, good versus bad. However, as the show progresses, some bad guys become good guys and some good guys become bad guys and some are just people. Your perception of who is doing what and why becomes so warped and so unclear that by the end of it all, you may be questioning what anyone was ever fighting for in the first place.
The show has a plethora of excellent cast members, who will be discussed in later parts of this review, but for now, the show’s most complicated characters will be discussed for the sake of exploring the themes of the show.
At the forefront of the show for most of the series (more on that later) is Detective James McNulty (Dominic West), the classic caricature of someone who is far too dedicated to his job. He is an alcoholic, sex-addicted, wry detective who rarely listens to his superiors if he believes that he’s right (and almost immediately, he pays for his disrespect for the chain of command). Along with this, McNulty is racist. You may not be able to tell at first, but McNulty bases a lot of his detective work on a racial bias. This is difficult to perceive because of how not-racist McNulty seems to be. Most of his fellow detectives are black, and he treats everyone with the same amount of sarcasm and camaraderie. He doesn’t hold any racial aggression toward the drug dealers he chases after, and even speaks to them with the exact same amount of respect he has in speaking to anyone else. But at the core of his investigative skills, he views black people in inner-city Baltimore as people who are probably going to commit crimes all the time. So why is McNulty still the show’s troubled hero?
Simon and Burns have endowed the show with realism. Besides perfection, real is the best word to describe “The Wire.” There are many realities that are explored in this show, which will be explored in more detail in later parts of this review, but the main hard truth that the creators convey is the same one that McNulty faces in his police work: either stand up for what you believe in and fail, or comply with the broken system and get results. No one on this show is perfect. At all. Some of the “best” cops are extremely crooked. Some of the “worst” criminals are just trying to survive.
The greatest example of one such criminal is Omar Little, played by Michael Kenneth Williams known for starring in “12 Years A Slave” and as an HBO mainstay appearing in series such as “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Night Of.” Omar may be the most blatant criminal on this show, but he is simultaneously one of the most well-liked characters; as a gay black renegade who kills those who insult him in broad daylight, takes their drugs, sells them, and gives back to the community, he is a Robin Hood in a black hoodie. And as one of the most prime examples of how complicated and ambiguous this show may be in its relationships, Omar is one of McNulty’s greatest resources in catching the drug kings.
“The Wire” is complicated. It’s real. It’s perfect. Classes should be (and are) taught on it. A series of books should be (and are) published examining it. Another show could be made about this show. It’s incredible, tragic, depressing, frustrating, and leaves you empty. And it may be the best show that has ever been made.
This article is the first installment of a multi-part “The Wire” review, and is also a part of a weekly column called “Revival Reviews.” (Click here for Part Two.) The column is primarily focused on shows that have aired over the past 10 years and intends to explore shows that may have been too mature at the time of their premiere for current Wes students.