How does one begin to quantify what constitutes the greatest television show of all time? How does humour match against drama, how can one say definitively that an Al Swearengen trumps a Tony Soprano, how do you factor ratings success? I'm not quite sure. Ultimately, it will come down to an amalgamation of personal beliefs, which is inherently flawed for many reasons; the principal being that not many people have seen even close to the total amount of material that television history has offered viewers. In my personal history, I've seen many a great TV show. Dramas like The Sopranos
, and Mad Men
have attached themselves to me via great storytelling and acting. Others, such as Arrested Development
, The Simpsons
, Family Guy
, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force
have won my admiration by making me laugh. Some, like Battlestar Galactica
have won me over by being simply enjoyable. However, one show, in my mind, towers over all television I have previously seen, as well as much of cinema. I am speaking, as people have likely guessed, about the HBO drama The Wire
which ran from 2002 to 2008.
At its heart, the Wire
is a cop show. When you watch season 1, it is undeniably what it is. An extremely complex and well-written cop show, but a cop show nonetheless. But, as soon as the first scene of season 2, one realizes that it aspires (and becomes) so much more than that; as more and more plots completely unrelated to the police crop up, one realizes that the ambition of the show is no less than analyzing the entire city of Baltimore, which, more than any one person, is the show's main character. The scope of the show is far greater than any other I've watched; similar to the "Great American Novels", what's contained with in it applies to a greater America.
As a simplified explanation, The Wire
is an analysis of the institutions of the city of Baltimore. They are, in order of the five seasons, the West Baltimore drug trade, labour unions at the docks, city politics, public education, and the news media. Though, like I said, this is a simplification; although these are the predominant themes in each season, there are many smaller ones, and besides the second season, most plots between the seasons intersect.
Now, I should note for those who have not seen the show that there will not be spoilers until after I clearly mark them later. My love for this show is so large that I would not even dare to spoil it for others. This speaks a lot about the show; the plots are so well constructed, so meticulous, that I would consider it somewhat of a betrayal to ruin it for someone else.
I'm not quite sure where to start reviewing this show. The Wire
is a rather monolithic entity; unlike most shows, it does not break down into smaller parts all that well. Individual episodes are difficult to pinpoint, as they are all part of larger arcs, and for the most part start and end at arbitrary points; seasons are the smallest you can get when discussing plot. The plot, the style, the themes, and the characters are all inextricably interlinked. I suppose this comes from the "Big Picture" approach of the show to the institutions it studies; characters and plots are drawn from the very top to the very bottom, creating a very rich tapestry of interconnected stories as actions reach across profession, class, and race. For example, in the first season, the show follows what happens to the low-level slingers as closely as it does the kingpins. It makes for much more engaging television; rather than solely following the "big players" that are responsible for the progression of much of the plot, we observe (and sympathize) with those who have no control over their destiny. In this sense, and in many others, The Wire
is very much a Greek tragedy. Whereas books, television, and movies in Western civilization traditionally follow the Shakespearean tradition of storytelling, The Wire
follows the Ancient Greek.
Each season's plot was planned to the detail, often far in advance, resulting in an extremely cohesive and rewarding unfolding of the story. However, this leads to the biggest criticism of the show; that the show takes too long to get exciting. I'll be the first to admit that it took me 5 or 6 episodes until I was hooked; the Wire
, like a patient fisherman, reels in its watchers carefully, taking his time but also making it impossible for the fish to escape. After that, knowing how good the show was I could relish the slow build in each subsequent season.
The attention to detail in the show, both plot-wise and in general, creates a universe, in my mind, without parallel. Characters and plot points are often introduced far in advance of their purpose; for example, the wonderful character of Clay Davis, who is introduced as a corrupt state senator in season 1 long before he becomes important to the plot in season 3. Other examples include Stan Valchek, Proposition Joe, and Bunny Colvin. This creates a sense of a true universe, as involvement of characters or introductions of plot points never seem contrived or forced; they always seem natural because they have been established before. However, unlike other shows, this universe is undoubtedly our
universe. Unlike other dramas that take place in a fictionalized world, The Wire
takes place in the real
United States of America. George W. Bush is president, 9/11 did
change everything, and nothing is rose-coloured. And it's more than just superficial references; everything from clothing to cars to food to music is part of our world, not some place that looks and feels like it. It is a cultural connection unlike any other fictional show I've seen.
In the same spirit, the characters feel real. There are no shining white knights (with the possible exception of Colvin), nor are there pure demons. Characters are gray through and through, with good qualities being matched by bad. Take the lead Jimmy McNulty; an alcoholic, full-of-himself asshole with negligible Irish ancestry, who attempts to burn every bridge he crosses in the attempt to constantly maintain his self-perception as the smartest person in the room. Similar to Mad Men's
Don Draper, his social defects are a source of love for the viewer; but even Don Draper doesn't possess the same magnitude of flaws of some of the "heroes" of The Wire
. The only characters that stick out as somewhat larger-than-life are Omar, the gay, shotgun-toting robber who's a fan favourite for so many reasons, and his equally quirky counterpart Brother Mouzone. However, when either of these two characters show up on screen, all negative thoughts disappear, because they (Omar especially, who was even named by Barack Obama to be his favourite character ever) are just way too awesome. Otherwise, the realistic approach to characters makes them all the more endearing; and goes far beyond just their traits. The pure depth of character development is insane; the characters are so rich in this show that it is possible for one to name their top 100 favourite characters.
In the same vein, the depth of acting talent is phenomenal as well. I can only think of a couple characters that I wish were casted differently (Old Face Andre, to name one). And in a show with well over 200 named characters, that is amazing. Particular stand outs are the smooth-as-hell Idris Elba, Michael K. Williams, Larry Gilliard Jr, Chris Bauer, Wood Harris, Wendell Pierce, Robert Chew, Clarke Peters, Lance Reddick, the four kids (in what is hands-down the best child acting I've ever seen)... the list goes on and on. The only one I had recognized prior to watching was Amy Ryan; but now I've researched almost all the lead's IMDB pages for whatever other work they've done.
Along with the great actors, there are also a series of phenomenal non-professional actors who have parts in the show. The obvious standouts are Felicia "Snoop" Pearson who plays a vaguely fictional version of herself, and Melvin Williams as "The Deacon", the ex-kingpin who was the inspiration for Avon Barksdale. Also included are former mayors, police commissioners, governors... and surprisingly, unless you did some research, you would never have known.
The themes in the show are felt much wider than just in Baltimore, and this resonance is what allows me, a middle class white kid from suburban Canada, to connect with a couple poor black kids in a run-down public school. I can't do a good enough to job to properly analyze the themes in each season; many of them would merit an essay to be addressed in full. Multiple, careful viewings are required to get the most of each episode; the show demands attention unlike any other. Casual viewers should be warned about how much they will miss if they devote any less than their full attention.
I don't know how much more I can go on about this show. Not in terms of reviewing it, but the post character limit.
It's a show that has to be watched by anyone who appreciates the art of storytelling in the least. I can't do justice to its scale, ambition, and excellence. The best thing I could compare it to in its scope is the Godfather Part I/II
, or The Great Gatsby
or the Grapes of Wrath.
Yes, it's that good. And yes, you have to watch it.