I’d been saving The Wire for years. Anyone who searches “greatest TV show of all time” is bound to come across The Wire, so I was well aware of its reputation before finally watching. It’s a terrible predicament for art to be saddled with a prestigious label, because most art cannot live up to the echo chamber of praise. The Wire does, though. It lives up to expectations even while defying them.
The city of Baltimore is the setting for the show, and it is also the main character. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) garners much of the show’s focus, but even he seems to realize he’s a small, churning pawn within the urban sprawl. There are major factions that comprise the city, including enterprising criminals, police officers, school teachers and students, dock workers, politicians, and more. Each season of the show shifts its focus, and a minor character in one season may end up being a crucial cog down the road.
But what makes The Wire so compelling? There’s the city of Baltimore itself; its exposed underbelly is as fascinating as the underside of a rotting log. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns ignore TV conventions like “police case of the week” to extend storylines to something more satisfying. Characters can follow the law or flout it, but all of them have moral shortcomings. The cast is diverse, featuring mostly black actors. And above all, the writing is excellent and grounded in the streets, projects, and back corners of Baltimore. The show doesn’t take great pains to explain every character and plot point to the viewer, and I understand if that frustrates some. I retreaded multiple scenes to pick up on things I missed, and even as a careful viewer I know I still missed important connective tissue. I appreciate art that makes me work for it. In that way The Wire is dense, challenging, and rewarding.
There’s no question The Wire is TV at its best. I could write a Key Character feature about most of its impressive cast (Lieutenant Daniels or “Stringer” Bell would probably be my first pick). The only question is, which season is its pinnacle? Season one is my favorite right now, but I’ve only watched through the show once so far. It’s a testament to its quality that after one viewing I felt the urge to immediately start the whole thing over again. That time will come soon enough, I’m sure. Omar comin’.