Over the last year or so, Ben and I have watched the first four seasons of The Wire through Netflix. For a while, I thought that it was just something pretty okay to watch after we had exhausted every other HBO drama in existence. If anything, I found it a little hard to follow. But now, having finished Season Four last week and having just subscribed to HBO for the sole reason of watching Season Five in real time, I’m going to step out on a limb and say that it’s the best show on television.
To put it simply, I feel passionate about it. While watching a documentary on the show (on HBO On Demand, which comes with our new and more expensive cable package) one of the producers of the show pointed out that it had never won an Emmy. “Never won an Emmy?” the producer asks, “I think it should win the Nobel Prize in literature.”
I know that statement sounds completely ridiculous, but it sums up how I feel. Some other critic described it as “the best book I’ve ever watched.” And it’s true. The show has a very literary feel. More than that, I’ll go out on another limb – I guess this is maybe a smaller twig-like limb that juts off from the earlier limb- and say that the show seems Shakespearian to me. The language, the plots, the characters – they all reach for something higher and ring truer than anything else I’ve ever watched instead of read.
But let’s move on to some solid description and examples: at first glance, it’s a cop show that takes place in Baltimore. You’ve got your policemen, your drug dealers, and your lawyers. But this show goes so much deeper than shows like Law & Order (which I also enjoy watching on a different level) that the writers and actors succeed in creating a huge, complex universe in which every action follows to a necessary end. Each group and community has their own language and their own way of living and you can see how amorphous “the right thing” is – an individual’s moral code, a community’s moral code, and the code of the law can all be completely different entities.
In Season Four alone, Ben and I counted ten separate storylines that are followed in each episode – ranging from a mayoral election to a corner war to a stolen police camera to a group of four boys starting the eighth grade. And yet, slowly, the stories weave in and out of each other and bounce off of each other. Solid, deliberate connections aren’t made, but by the last episode you can begin to feel the huge inner workings of the city and the complexity of the problems that cities like Baltimore are facing.
What I’m trying to say is, The Wire doesn’t simplify anything. It might have an easier storyline to follow if it did, or it might even have a character who you could point to and say was all good or all bad if it did, but it doesn’t. Sure, it’s hard to understand the drug dealers’ street talk and the lawyers’ deposition talk and the policemen’s detective talk, but when it all starts clicking, it’s well worth it. And like Shakespeare’s tragedies, even though you see the tragedies of The Wire play out slowly and inevitably, you’re still riveted. I think it comes down to the complexity of the characters: each character’s strength is also their weakness.
Let’s take my favorite character in the series, Omar, for example. Omar is a black man who lives in an abandoned building and steals from drug dealers for a living. He is a living legend in the city. He carries a shotgun and wears a bullet proof vest. He’s a homosexual. He kills people in cold blood, although he never “works” on Sundays or swears. He never kills taxpayers. He never sells the drugs he steals to users. He’s in the game, but he doesn’t play by the rules of the game. You might say that he’s been alienated by others and treated as inhuman by his culture, and so he is inhumane – but that’s way too simple. It’s a lot of things. It takes about four seasons to halfway understand why Omar might do what he does.
I feel like I’m gushing a little, so I’m going to stop. I certainly can’t do the show justice in a blog post. Just do everyone a favor and rent the first season if you haven’t seen it.