Apr 16

The Wire

It is often hard to sell The Wire to people. When people hear that it is about the drug trade in Baltimore, they are likely to immediately misunderstand it. There are a few ways such a show could traditionally go. It could glorify the drug trade and gangsters, like a classic Mafia movie parading around violent criminals as if they are all charismatic heroes. It could be a heavy-handed anti-drug show, depicting how the cops are nobly fighting a group of evil thugs. Or, perhaps, it could be a self-important leftist effort to show how drug dealers are misunderstood but good people who don’t deserve to be so maligned. But The Wire is none of those things.

Another reason people often feel drawn away from The Wire is that they have an assumption going in that they won’t be able to relate to these people. Maybe it’s good for what it is, but what do the struggles of inner-city gangsters and the cops that are trying to stop them from selling drugs have to do with me? How can I connect to such people, or care what happens to them? This problem is so drastic that the show was nearly cancelled because it’s focus on mostly black characters kept foreign audiences from giving it a try. But this concern is grossly misplaced. I have never cared half as much about any character on any other show as I do about even some of the most minor characters on The Wire.

Finally, many people who give The Wire a try give up after the first few episodes. It doesn’t feel like any show you’ve ever seen. There’s no soundtrack, the development seems astonishingly slow, and, for a show about gangs, the violence and drama isn’t filling every minute like it would in a movie. It isn’t until you get through about half of the first season that you begin to see that, as Lester Freamon puts it, “all the pieces matter.” The show doesn’t just unfold with careful character development and important stage setting like a novel does, the entire series is crafted to deliberately take the form of a nineteenth century serialized novel, and the writing is better than virtually any such novel ever written. At some point you start to see that what looked like unusual television is actually an art form never tried before and likely never to be done with such skill again.

When you read a great novel, you sometimes imagine what it would be like to experience it as a great film, perfectly acted and directed to capture all the realism and all the detail, yet somehow maintaining the depth and meaning that is so hard to transfer from the written word to the screen. Every episode of The Wire is like experiencing a chapter of your favorite novel perfectly brought to life and not only capturing what you thought would inevitably be lost, but enhancing it. With episodes lasting a full hour and the story stretching across Baltimore and embracing every level of the city, The Wire manages to be better written, more complex, more engaging, and far more satisfying than any literary work written in my lifetime. Watching it unfold feels like reading one of the great, serialized novels of the 19th century. It is an amazing work of art; indeed a better one than I thought we had it in us to make any longer. To say that it is a great show, or even the best show, or my favorite show, would be to drastically undersell it. The Wire is a phenomenal work of art. It is an unparalleled accomplishment in any artistic medium for at least the last three decades, and probably longer. Nothing else is even close. Don’t pass up the opportunity to experience it.

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