Had your fill of summer re-runs? Bored with the trivial offerings in the new DVD releases? Unwilling to pony up a ten-spot to see another irrelevant remake on the big screen? If you think there’s just no relief from the mid-summer entertainment doldrums, maybe it’s finally time to check out one of the best television series of all time.
We’re talking about the five seasons of “The Wire,” the gripping and altogether realistic study of new millennial Baltimore that originally aired on HBO from 2002 to 2008. While the show isn’t for everyone (certainly not for those who are offended by foul language or graphic violence), it is as close as television broadcasting gets to pure art, while being highly entertaining at the same time.
The five seasons (each running 12 episodes) cover different aspects of life beneath the surface in the city. The plot lines thus developed deal with, in order, the city’s illegal drug trade, the corrupt port and its link to that drug trade, the political machinations (also rife with corruption) in elections and governance, the badly flawed and seemingly irreparable public education system, and the newspaper coverage of it all. The development of the stories that consume each season proceeds slowly, and characters are drawn fully so that by each season’s end, as many as two dozen are key figures whose fates matter to the viewer.
The series was conceived, and many of the episodes written, by David Simon and Ed Burns, and was based on their own experiences in the city. (Simon was a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun; Burns was a former homicide detective on the police force.) As is true of most great writing (and the writing on “The Wire” is great), the stories and the characters are all based on what the writers learned and experienced while they worked in the trenches.
Thus, every episode of the series is believable, even if specific events are shocking, both in their revelation and depiction. And, unlike most serialized TV series (“24,” being perhaps the ultimate example), the show doesn’t rely on cliff hanger endings. Rather, each episode, while leading to the next, is its own fully contained statement.
The recurring cast includes a dozen “main” characters, all played by character actors whose names will not be familiar to most viewers. Some of the supporting cast members are “real” people, including a former convict and a former police officer on the Baltimore force. But the acting, perhaps because of the lack of big name stars, is always spot on, never rising above the writing, but always portraying a real person, fully developed and deeply drawn.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the series is the positive identification viewers ultimately have with some of the seemingly less attractive characters. Many of these characters come from the criminal side of the city. But criminals are people, too, and in this series, they are shown to be people first. The reasons they turn out the way they do are suggested with a sense of life’s complexities that is rarely, if ever, seen in television or cinematic productions.
Thus, viewers experience a sense of real grief when a hardened criminal is killed and disappointment when another is sent off to prison. Political figures are shown to have multiple motivations as they struggle with personal ethical codes and public policy needs. Police officers and school teachers are similarly depicted. Indeed, no character of any consequence is portrayed in a superficial manner. They’re all interesting people, with traits that are all too recognizable in the real world.
And the stories of their lives, while surprising, are also shown with all the complexity those stories require. This aspect of the writing is one of the show’s many strengths, since the series is subtly educational while being highly entertaining. No one can view all 60 episodes without gaining a deeper understanding of “life in the big city.”
“The Wire” never received the following it deserved when it originally aired. Potential viewers may have been put off by the street language many of the characters speak or by the aforementioned heavy use of profanity and graphic displays of violence. Those “deficiencies,” however, are part of the art of the productions.
“The Wire” is television artistry at its finest. Catch up on it while you wait for the new season of network pabulum.
(Individual DVD episodes of “The Wire” are available and can be ordered on Netflix. A box set of DVDs of all five seasons, also containing commentary and other extras, has been issued by HBO at a retail price of $249.99, but Amazon.com offers the set for $100 less.)