The Wire – an exaltation

I think I am going to have to be hubristically blunt – the message needs to get across. The Wire is very likely the best television drama of all-time. It is definitely the best television drama that the vast majority of Australians have never heard of, or seen. Despite making its way through five critically acclaimed seasons in the United States, the show is screening only on ABC2 currently in Australia, and in fact the first season has only just kicked off screening last month. It is difficult to succinctly summarise the depth and extent of the critical acclaim we are talking about here, but let’s consider just a few typical reactions:

Variety: When television history is written, little else will rival “The Wire,” a series of such extraordinary depth and ambition that it is, perhaps inevitably, savored only by an appreciative few.

San Francisco Chronicle: The breadth and ambition of “The Wire” are unrivaled and that taken cumulatively over the course of a season — any season — it’s an astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and filmmaking in the modern era.

Slate: The Wire, which has just begun its fourth season on HBO, is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America. This claim isn’t based on my having seen all the possible rivals for the title, but on the premise that no other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.

That’s just a fractional taste of the praise you will find if you go looking. The Guardian has even devoted a blog specifically to the television show, with its authors lumbering through the process of producing an individual post for each and every episode recorded. That blog is going to be published in book form. The show also was rated the best television show of the ‘noughties’ in an (admittedly dubious) online poll conducted by the same newspaper.

Never mind the spin and the pap – how can I possibly justify this somewhat absurd level of praise? How can I compress somewhere in the vicinity of 60 hours of quality drama into a paragraph or two here, in a way that sells the show to you as the diamond it is? I can’t. This show speaks so eloquently for itself. In the absence of any substantive commitment from the “quality” television programmers we have in Australia, you are really just going to have to trot on down to your local purveyor of DVD box sets and get stuck into the first couple of seasons – or, be inconceivably patient with ABC2. Let me just list out just a few points that I think summarise precisely what it is that makes The Wire so great (don’t worry – no spoilers!), ignoring for just a moment the peerless production values and consistently convincing performances:

1) Finally, an intelligent crime drama.

I am not a crime drama fan. I regard practically every crime drama on television today to be appallingly concocted rubbish. Typically speaking, viewers of the average crime drama are lead by the hand on a merry, shiny superhero cop story through implausible plotlines, chasing absurd criminals. The characters, or should I say narrators, are constantly explaining what is going on to the viewer, who is assumed to be approximately as intelligent as a leaden bar.

The Wire stubbornly refuses to do this. Its creator David Simon previously worked as a police reporter in Baltimore, where the show is based. His collaborator Ed Burns was a former homicide detective. The stories are grounded in reality. It does not hand-feed the viewer. You need to watch the show quite closely to understand what is going on, as cogs that started quietly turning at the start of a season eventually hammer the show’s multiple, intersecting plotlines towards their conclusions. The good guys are sometimes bad. The bad guys are sometimes good, or at least, understandable. Sometimes the bad guys win, and the good guys suck at what they do. That’s just the way life actually is.

2) Crime is not the be-all and end-all

The Wire is not simply a ‘cop show’ – as its seasons progress, the show morphs into a socio-political narrative that takes in crime, drugs, race, homelessness, politics, education, and the media. Its central characters – and across the show’s five seasons there must be upwards of 30 of them – are forensically cross-examined as human beings. What is even more impressive is that all these themes are blended together seamlessly to form a cohesive narrative. Most television shows struggle to maintain one credible theme, a theme that is regularly signposted in capital letters during each and every episode. The Wire is more organic. Themes tumble out of the show effortlessly as the story meanders towards conclusions that it is often difficult to see coming.

3) Smashing barriers

A male homosexual assassin lead? Check. A female homosexual cop lead? Check. A cast that is dominated by talented African Americans? Check. Ex-crims who know how “the game” works starring in the show? Check. Eminently fallible heroes? Check. Genuinely likable villains? Check. Male and female full-frontal nudity? Check. Unexpected and confronting setbacks for main characters? Check. The show’s creators have effortlessly smashed most of the modern television barriers that bear any thinking about.

I thought The West Wing was great, but quite frankly, The Wire tramples it completely in terms of realism and the sheer breadth of its vision and the depth of its story. It is virtuoso stuff. Frankly, you need to watch this show.

ELSEWHERE: Here is another local view from The Australian.