“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
* To celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Wire, we’re republishing this post, which first appeared on The Killing Times in 2019.
The Golden Age Of Television. It’s something we’re repeatedly told that we’re living through. With the surfeit of streaming options now available it can be hard to remember that 20 years ago, the entertainment landscape was entirely different. For the shows that came before these halcyon days, it could be difficult to find any type of home for truly unique stories – and in the late 1990s, the only viable destination tended to be the cable television provider HBO, who drew critical acclaim (but few viewers) with shows like Oz before hitting it big commercially with The Sopranos.
HBO suddenly had a bigger audience share, keen to find the next big crime drama – and so they began casting their net ever wider for content. One result of this search resulted in The Corner, a mini-series written by David Simon, that went on to win multiple Emmy awards. Simon was an ex-journalist who had started his career with the Baltimore Sun newspaper, a journey that led him to write Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets – a book about his experiences shadowing the Baltimore Police Department homicide unit during 1988. The book was an instant true crime classic and led him to work as a writer on its fictional adaptation for NBC, which would become Homicide: Life on the Street.
Now we could write an entire other article about Homicide: Life on the Street, which was a police procedural quite like no other at the time. Simon’s experiences on the ground with Baltimore PD gave the show an authentic edge, following an ensemble cast that reflected the reality of law and order in Baltimore at the time. The show ran for five seasons across 1993-1999 before increasingly low ratings saw it cancelled, leaving Simon free to cross over to HBO with his new project.
To all intents and purposes, The Corner is less of a prequel and more of a companion piece to The Wire. While it shares some of the same themes and actors as its sister show, it has more of a rougher, documentary feel and focuses only on one side of the growing drug epidemic in Baltimore during the early part of that decade. However, the critical acclaim it received on its broadcast in 2000 led HBO to double down on Simon, and from there the idea of The Wire was born.
The Wire is, at its core, a heist movie hiding in plain sight. A disparate ensemble of police officers with specific skill-sets come together to steal an unusual prize – information – from an unsuspecting group of drug dealers. On paper, the subject of monitoring wiretaps might sound mundane – but in Simon’s hands, the script sang. Across five seasons, the show’s scope grew ever larger, exploring the minutiae of Baltimore’s institutions through law and order to politics, education and journalism. But throughout its entire run, the show never lost sight of the street level – and the stories it told across it’s sprawling set of characters were raw, uncompromising – and wholly mesmerising.
But you might not have known all that, because The Wire had one of the most circuitous paths to most viewers in television history. For British viewers especially, the show wasn’t even available on terrestrial television until it had completed its original run – and then it was buried away on a late-night slot by the BBC, a little unsure what to with this show about crack addicts and crooked politicians. Despite critical acclaim at the time, The Wire never attracted a huge audience or won any awards – and it came along before the culture of streaming was even a thing, where most people would have to consume it on DVD as cable television was an expensive extravagance few had. As such, it never really found its international footing until years after it’s unfortunately early cancellation, where word of mouth has led it to becoming widely regarded as one of the best crime dramas of all time – if not the best.
“The Wire was—is!—uniquely brilliant. It handled under-reported issues in a sensitive way and made the mundane into fascinating television. But it was not the end-all, be-all, final word on American public institutions. And yet for some reason, it has stood alone in the pantheon of brilliant television about American institutions. Most other shows don’t even try to put in the work to get close to The Wire, let alone surpass it.”
Sonia Saraiya, Variety
Why we loved it:
McNulty. Bunk. Lester. Greggs. Bubbles. Omar. Stringer Bell. Avon. Marlo. Snoop. Cheese. Herc. Carver. Clay. The list is endless – and if you’ve ever watched the show any mention of a character’s name will bring back to your mind a catchphrase, a line, a joke, a scene – because the strength of this show resides entirely in the power of its characters and their stories. In fact, it’s hard to think of another show that had the depth of characterisation that The Wire did, where even second-string players – often based on real-life counterparts – like Prop Joe or Sgt. Landsman always had a memorable line or three to deploy. Crucially, you felt invested in their lives in a way that few shows could ever hope to replicate – and even more so because all of them were flawed human beings, prone to mistakes and misunderstandings. The show also made no moral judgement on what side of the law a character fell on, but it did show the consequences of those choices (sometimes in explicitly gory detail).
David Simon might have been the rising star of crime drama scriptwriting at the time, but he was not one for hoarding all the accolades to himself. In fact, The Wire boasts a jaw-dropping guest selection of some of the best modern crime writers around – including Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Richard Price to name a few. But Simon was also committed to bringing through his previous partners from older writing projects to help steer the ship – notably long-time collaborators David Mills and Ed Burns, who had both been involved with The Corner or Homicide. “I tend not to hire people who are trying to become television writers,” he said in 2015. “I tend to hire novelists or people who have never written television.”
It’s this attitude that lends the series its literary qualities, with its novelistic structure having been compared with everything from Balzac to Shakespeare. Simon himself called The Wire a “Greek tragedy for the new millennium” – and certainly all the modes of persuasion are there to be seen, especially pathos.
The Wire switched up its scenarios on a seasonal basis, with some storylines faring better than others (the fifth season’s serial killer hoax being one of the poorer examples), but each season always unpicked the same core element – that there was an enormous grey gulf between right and wrong. Justice was a malleable concept, both in the courts and on the streets; oftentimes bad people did not suffer whilst good folks did. Likewise, characters were never one thing or another – on both sides of the law, there were those who merited compassion despite their actions. Moreover, those characters you did love would often infuriate your investment by doing stupid things (McNulty every time), or reach to succeed only to fail again and break your heart (Bubbles, arguably the only character that gets a happy ending of sorts). Within this, was something about the futility of human existence and how we strive to create change – both in ourselves and our institutions – often with less than desirable results.
However, it’s not to say The Wire was some unrelentingly dark drama. It is also funny. Admittedly the humour might be of the darker kind, but some of the visual gags, one-liners and set-ups are hilarious (Landsman’s photocopier/lie machine springs to mind), with a lot of the content coming directly from true-life stories Simon picked up on from his experiences with the real Baltimore PD. Similarly, the wisecracks and riffing that ripples through the dialogue of the street players – especially Omar’s dry wit – has a cadence all it’s own that talks to the way people use humour to cope in desperate situations and environments, adding an additional layer of realism to a show already one step shy of being a documentary.
The Wire would also prove to be a testing stage for some of the best character actors of the past decade. A then-unknown pairing of British actors Idris Elba (Stringer Bell) and Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty) would both use the show as a springboard to bigger careers, but the show produced a huge number of stars – Michael B Jordan, Lance Reddick, Michael K Williams, Seth Gilliam, Aidan Gillen, Wood Harris and Jamie Hector to name a few. Unusually for the time, The Wire had a predominantly African-American cast, which crucially filled roles on both sides of the law – and the show was also progressive in its depiction of gay and lesbian relationships, with both Omar and Greggs love-lives treated with normality rather than sensationalism.
The Wire has become a watchword for quality television drama, just as that aforementioned Golden Age was glittering into view. In many ways, it retroactively helped usher in that era; certainly, it’s propensity for slow-burning, character-driven drama has been replicated many times since. But few shows could hope to match the size of The Wire in terms of both story and depth – it’s as much a show about the city of Baltimore itself as it is it’s inhabitants. Perhaps its greatest legacy is in how it commanded a different type of attention from viewers for a television show, something that is considered commonplace now. In Simon’s own words “The first thing we had to do was teach folks to watch television in a different way.”
In that, he succeeded.
Did you know?
For a crime drama about the tough gun-riddled streets of Baltimore, it might be hard to fathom that only one police officer discharges his service weapon throughout the entire 60 episode run of the show – Roland Pryzbylewski, AKA ‘Prez’, who barely managed to shoot a wall before being relieved of duty (and going on to become a far better teacher than he was a cop).
What they said:
“The Wire rewrote the rules of television drama with regard to tone, subject matter and narrative scope. The show that was once a tough sell is now both a benchmark of quality and a social document that is taught in universities.” Dorian Lynskey, The Guardian
12 thoughts on “The Wire: Why it mattered and why it still matters”
I only recently was able to watch The Wire. Oh wow! It is so good I watched it twice in quick succession & will watch again. I’ve even, unusually for me, bought the blu ray box set.
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I’m happy to hear it has a fan in you! I remember watching the first season on DVD way back when and hating it! It was slow and that pace wasn’t something I was used to as a viewer. Then a few years later I was laid down with flu for a week and didn’t have anything to watch, so I picked it up again. All of a sudden it clicked, and like you I watched it back to front twice over! Even now when I’m lacking in something decent to watch, I’ll stick on a season. I only do this with The Wire and Spiral, it’s something about spending time with the characters in each show, you get invested in their lives. It’s kind of comforting in a weird way, like spending time with old friends.
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I loved Homicide, especially the early series. So many great scenes with Pembleton in the box, and never allowing Bayliss to let go of Adena Watson was a good choice by the writers. I recently rewatched that episode where they’re investigating the murder of a guy (played by Vincent d’Onofrio) while he’s still alive but stuck between a train and the platform in a subway station – quite an exceptional episode.
Loved The Wire too, of course, but binged it at some point well after it was broadcast, and as a consequence don’t remember as many details as I would have done otherwise. Very much enjoyed Clarke Peters performance.
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Homicide was definitely a breed apart from most shows at the time, some incredible episodes. I am definitely overdue revisiting it! I love Peters as Lester. In many ways he’s the lynchpin of the entire show as it’s his vision that drives the case really. He just played him to perfection, a super cool, seen-it-all detective who takes no BS. Fantastic.
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As far as I can remember the show wasn’t actually cancelled prematurely. The show runners had intended that there should be only five series, each focussing on a particular Baltimore institution.
I particularly remember the humour in the programme. A favourite moment was when McNulty went undercover in the guise of a posh Englishman but adopting a very poor posh English accent. This must have been an in joke in the light of West’s Old Etonian background!
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A fair point Tim, it had a finite arc. I think they struggled to even get to a fifth season. I recall Simon saying in interviews they practically had to beg HBO to do the final season as it just wasn’t making the numbers in terms of viewers. McNulty is a great character! West was unsure about taking the role as he didn’t want to spend X amount of years away from his family in Baltimore filming, but his agent convinced him saying the show was obviously going to be cancelled after the first season so not to worry!
As the article says, David Simon was responsible for maybe the two greatest cop shows ever. The Wire, of course, was marvelous because it allowed the viewer to stretch out and delve into these people.
But Homicide: Life on the Street was in some ways the greater achievement. For one, it took ensemble work into hyperspace, building on the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues approach and refining it by focusing on one detective division. For another, it introduced us to actors like Andre Braugher’s Frank Pembleton, one of the most contrary and contradictory characters ever to appear in prime time, or anywhere else. There simply had never been anyone like him on TV, ever.
Perhaps its most honest depiction was the character of Al Giordano (“G”), a black cop who had started when being a black cop on a force like Baltimore’s was brutally difficult, but who still rose to be a supervisor. Yaphet Kotto perfectly captured what was not an unusual type in such police forces: The old timer black officer who fought his way up, but who understood his white fellow cops who were indeed racist, and often brutal, but who went after thugs irrespective of race and likewise approached black victims with compassion and sensitivity.
It was set in Baltimore, but it could have been Boston, or Philly, or Chicago. The Street is the Street, only its names differ. There are thugs, and victims, and witnesses just trying to survive, and the profane and weary police who talked like Klansmen, but would hold a weeping black mother who’d lost a child and never let go, often bawling themselves. It was this contradiction these shows captured, as well as the moral dilemmas and ambiguities, that made us watch. And it’s a world that did, and does, exist. There are no calendars on the Street.
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It just may be my weekend joy!
First watched it, borrowing DVDs from Town Library!
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It’s definitely a slow burn so be aware of that – but well worth it! I’d be interested to know your thoughts on it Zeke, if you do get a chance to watch it :)
Just finished it, and whilst I can certainly appreciate many of the things that was highlighted above, such as great acting, the intricate characters, the throwback of people so you felt it was all one big universe and some good story lines, I was underwhelmed by it (maybe because I had such high expectations). It was painfully slow at times and towards the fifth series I was praying for it to end (although the last couple of episodes were very good) but I much prefer Line of Duty or The Shield. One thing I did note and I am not usually quick to notice these things was the lack of women. There didn’t appear to many in the BPD as I never saw them in the Comstat meetings, rarely other than Greggs in the homicide unit until the fifth series and throughout the series there were only two female main characters. Even the excellent Beadie became a plus one. Perhaps that contributed to the whole meh feeling I have about the show.
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A great analysis Elaine. And I agree wholeheartedly on the presence of women (or lack thereof) in the show. Not just on the legal side, but the streets side too. It definitely fails the Bechdel Test! I’m still a bit sore how they developed Beadie’s character arc to this day. The show has a reputation built from a time when modern television was changing, it has been very influential on shows since but it’s not without it’s failings. I know plenty of crime drama fans that can’t stand it! I’m glad you watched it and enjoyed some of it, and it’s also refreshing to hear a different perspective on a show like this.