HBO’s The Wire is a special beast. I know I’m late to the party here, but as with a lot of television these days, many of us only dive into tested waters once a show’s onscreen running time and been and gone. When the critical acclaim brings a show to the top of the pack.
I like crime dramas. But it’s usually the ones that have some unusual twist to them. There’s only so much CSI or Law & Order one can take. I prefer the strange. Like Life on Mars, where a cop travels back to the 70’s. Like Fringe, where paranormal cases are on the menu. And Torchwood, where alien life is always causing trouble.
These show are not The Wire. The Wire focuses on believable events in a real location. Dramatic mind you, but believable. It’s the only crime drama of its calibre that’s managed to take me away from my beloved sci-fi-crime hybrids.
And I haven’t even finished watching the two remaining seasons.
Like most shows The Wire has a cast that moves with the show from season to season. But that doesn’t mean the characters remain static. They are constantly changing their jobs or their position of power in the show. And it’s not always on their terms. Some seasons you might see a lot less of some characters. I won’t give anything away for those who haven’t seen the show yet, but don’t be surprised if you see some of your favourite Baltimore cops get promoted or demoted from one season to the next. Like real life The Wire evolves and shapes itself according to the story. There is no status quo.
The so-called criminals aren’t free from this change any more so. Death or imprisonment catches up to everyone eventually. It’s really these guys that make The Wire so special. It’s not another cop show where we see everything from the law enforcement point of view. We meet Avon Barksdale and Russell “Stringer” Bell, the major players of Season 1. We see the guys dealing on the streets. We see how they operate and even begin to feel something for these drug dealing “baddies”.
Both camps are on display. And as the back of the box of Season 1 so proudly declares, “On the drug-infested streets of West Baltimore, there are good guys and there are bad guys. Sometimes you need more than a badge to tell them apart.”
Corruption in the government, and crime on the streets. Everyone is abusing a law of some kind.
Changing things up is a big appeal of The Wire. So many shows go seven or eight seasons doing the same old thing. And sure that may appeal to some, but I need a change in the diet every now and then. The change in power also changes the focus of the story.
Season 1 spends time in and around “The Pit” with the cops using a wire (hence the series’ name) to tap the much used payphones around the area.
Season 2 moves to the docks of Baltimore, where a cop’s grievance pulls the gang back together. Not to mention a grisly homicide case.
Season 3 focuses on one cop’s idea to clean up the streets by creating a controversial safe haven for drug trafficking. Most of the criminal underworld have moved to using disposable cell phones.
Season 4 takes another turn and heads to the classroom. Everyone’s paths lead back to the fate of four “corner kids”.
And Season 5? Well, that’s my homework for the month.
Each episode of The Wire will make you laugh, make you gasp, make you question. Ideas about ethics and morals, doing bad to do good, loyalty, addictions, love, hate, ego, greed… I could go on. It’s not just about solving the crime, and sending folks to the jailhouse.
It’s also the story that really gets you. The thrill of the chase, and the characters we hang out with; a gung-ho lesbian detective, an alcoholic addicted to case work, an organised thinker that just can’t operate in the field, and a cop that’s too clever for his own good. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. In a serial narrative like this we really get to know these people. Even shotgun-toting, whistling Omar is a show stopper.
For me The Wire has changed crime television.
And I don’t know if I can ever go back.