TV series: The Wire (HBO)
Originally aired: 2002-2008
Over the years I’ve heard so much about The Wire. Idris Elba was in it, don’tcha know? It’s consistently listed as one of the best TV shows that have ever been made, and sooner or later a show like that ought to be seen – even if the topic of it isn’t particularly to one’s personal taste, right?
Seeing as how I could watch it through Sky On Demand, I decided in 2020 it was finally time to see what it was all about. Granted, I had also found a new actor to geek out over, which is admittedly what finally tipped the scales and finally convinced me to start watching. But I have watched a lot of things because I like an actor in it, some better than others, but none of them tend to be hailed as one of the best shows ever made. Was The Wire as good as everyone keeps saying?
Yes. And no. But also yes. Mostly yes.
The thing is, it genuinely is a terrifically made show. The writing is solid, the acting is solid, the direction is solid, everything about it is top notch. I’m just not in love with it, you know? But just because I’m not in love with it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it.
The reason I’m not keen on it is only that it’s not my cup of tea, because I like escapism and The Wire is too real and far too depressing. There’s so much despair and corruption and social problems that it becomes overwhelmingly sad to watch, because the situation feels so hopeless, and when you do see the light at the end of a tunnel it’s nearly always an oncoming train. That’s particularly the case in season four, when the plot is centred around a bunch of school kids.
So no, The Wire is not a happy show. There are occasional glimpses of something lighter, but they’re brief and not necessarily meant as comedy. It’s just that they end up being amusing because they’re more lighthearted than everything else around them. Most of these I think centred around officers Carver (Seth Gilliam) and Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi), who ended up sounding like a bickering old couple at times.
Okay, first episode didn’t grab me. A couple of episodes in I asked people on Facebook why I should continue watching – without using arguments like “it’s one of the best TV shows ever made” (yeah, thanks, people keep saying that) or “that actor you like is in it” (arguably a very good point, but is there more than that? Despite Sam Neill being in it, I didn’t watch season two of Peaky Blinders). Someone pointed out that the characters are all shades of grey, and that had me listening. In episode three or four there’s a scene where the cops burst into an old lady’s home looking for someone. What made me sit up and go “ohhh, okay, you have my attention” was that one of the cops, Herc – hitherto portrayed as nothing short of a thug – sat down and apologised to the old lady for barging in on her like that. “I didn’t expect that,” said my brain, “but fair play. That’s different, I’m now curious.” Plot twist? Turns out it wasn’t even in the original script!
That’s the kind of “shades of grey” that the Facebook friend referred to, and it’s an aspect that I daresay makes The Wire unique. You tend to have shows starring cops or shows starring criminals, you don’t tend to get both being the protagonists at the same time. You get shows where the cops are the good guys and the criminals are the baddies, or you get shows where it’s the other way around. The Wire turns that on its head. The cops aren’t necessarily the good guys, and the criminals aren’t necessarily the bad guys. Everyone is shades of grey. Kids turn to crime in order to provide for their siblings, or are relegated to the “problem kids” corner in school instead of being helped – or credited with being clever. At the same time you get cops that deliberately manufacture evidence of a serial killer in order to get the department more funding, or who steal money from drug busts. And get away with it.
Not just that, you also have standout characters like Omar Little (the late great Michael K Williams), a feared criminal who acts as a sort of Baltimore version of Robin Hood – and who is openly homosexual, showing loving tenderness toward his boyfriend right there on the stoop. It’s turning black masculinity on its head, or so I’m told (hey, I’m a woman with DNA whiter than sour cream, how would I know?), and it’s magical. A character with solid morals, despite also being a killer. I do like my criminals layered, after all.
Another stunningly great actor is Andre Royo who played Bubbles, a junkie and police informant. I read about how he played his role so well that there were several occasions where people tried to help him get off the streets, not realising he was an actor playing a part in a TV show. Like so many other characters Bubbles has a heartbreaking story arc, but you never stop rooting for him.
The only complaint I have – because “it’s just not my cuppa tea” isn’t an actual complaint – is that the ensemble cast is so vast that you don’t get to see any of the characters as much as you could have with a smaller cast. They all need screen time, so characters that would have been cool to see develop a bit more don’t really get to do that, but at the same time you could also make the argument that they’re simply cogs in a wheel, so it’s not about them as individuals as much as it’s about everyone as a whole.
I struggle to remember names at the best of times, so a lot of characters kind of became variations on “THAT guy” (Port Dude, Port Cop, Stained Glass Window Cop, and so on). Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) was in my head as “Robert Zane” (the character he played in Suits) for most of it. McNulty (Dominic West) quickly earned the nickname McNumpty, and while he was relatively stable in season four (?), he definitely lived up to the name again by the final season. Oh, and of course Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) – I can’t see him on screen without wondering what schemes he’s up to, because he clearly won’t be innocent whatever he does.
Most of the cast was male, with a few notable exceptions: Sonja Sohn and Amy Ryan as cops (the latter being aforementioned “Port Cop”, the former Kima Greggs), Deirdre Lovejoy as an assistant state’s attorney, and Felicia Pearson as Snoop. There were others as well, obviously, but they’re the most prominent. Would there be more women in big roles if it was made today? I’d certainly hope so.
Who’s my favourite character? Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters). He keeps himself to himself, makes wooden doll furniture, and is good at his job. I dig that. He was probably one of the least shady cops around as well, along with Port Cop. I’m too much of a goody-two-shoes to have a favourite on the other side of the law, although I had most sympathy for the kids – which includes a very young Michael B Jordan.
There are too many great actors in this that I’ll be here for days if I’m to give everyone a mention, because they’re all excellent. That’s a good thing about the sprawling cast – everyone gets a chance to shine. I wish more shows would cast as many black actors as The Wire did, but I’m hoping times actually are a-changing now.
There have been nearly 20 years worth of people writing incredibly well-written and clever articles praising The Wire and everyone involved for what they did with this show, so I’m not going to talk about the many ways in which The Wire was groundbreaking, because that kind of analysis is not my area of expertise, nor is it really the scope of this blog. It may have changed its name, but I still don’t really go deeper than “it’s well good innit”, because some people have to swim in the shallow end of the pool too.
One thing that surprised me is that you saw the seasons change – spring, summer, autumn, winter, they were all represented. You don’t often get that, mostly because of tight filming schedules. Either they’re in a nondescript sort of season, or it’s perpetual summer or winter. Rarely both. That was nice too.
I think I’ve long since reached the stage where I just ramble, so let’s finish off by saying that while The Wire wasn’t the kind of show I enjoy (drug-related narratives and I have never been friends) it’s still one hell of an achievement as a series. It’s superbly made, and it still holds up today. There’s a reason people are still talking about it, almost 20 years since it first came out, and I’m glad to have finally watched it.
I did get invested in some of the characters (at one point I was stress eating Polish Jaffa cakes because one of them was in trouble), thought people were surprisingly inept at putting together IKEA furniture (IT’S NOT THAT DIFFICULT, SERIOUSLY, THE INSTRUCTIONS ARE MADE TO BE SIMPLE TO FOLLOW! Have you tried putting together flatpack furniture from other stores? You wish you had IKEA’s instructions!), and everyone with The Wire on their CV can be proud.
Its creator, David Simon, is currently back filming in Baltimore. We Own This City is not related to The Wire, but we’re set to recognise a few faces from it. Will be interesting to see the result when it comes out on HBO (or Sky Atlantic in the UK) next year.