As a lifelong resident of Baltimore there is a certain interest I took in The Wire; simply because it is set, and was filmed barely an hour from where I live. The location of the show plays a major part in the show’s progression as it is partially based upon the accounts of the show’s creator David Simon who was a Baltimore City reporter during the 80s and 90s. This basis in reality makes it more than a disposable cop show. In fact, it really isn’t a cop show, as much as it is a show where a large percent of the characters are cops. The drug dealers are focused upon very extensively as well, making the show a well-rounded experience.
The Wire details the ordeal of the Baltimore City Police Department and their struggle to bring to heel the illegal operations of drug dealer Avon Barksdale (who was based on a real Baltimorean kingpin). Various people are introduced throughout the series, all of which receive a satisfying amount of development. There are no disposable characters in The Wire; each serves as a driving force to the progression of the story, a cog in the machine of the narrative. There is Jimmy McNulty, a detective, and the show’s main character for the most part. He is a man motivated by a desire for justice, but increasingly frustrated with the bureaucracy of the city’s law system. Almost parallel to him is D’angelo Barksdale, nephew to Avon Barksdale. His arc is a fascinating one. He feels a need to “get out of the game” and leave crime altogether, a feeling that strengthens as he sees more and more the horrors of Baltimore. Also providing a fascinating performance is Idris Elba, as Russell “Stringer” Bell, Barksdale’s right hand man. Bell seeks an exit to the dealing operations, but less because of moral obligation, than desire for entrepreneurial legitimacy; we see him working at a printing and copying business and taking business economics classes in his spare time.
Slightly outside the main story progression, is the arc of Omar Little, a stick up man who targets the gang men in Baltimore, but lives by a code that doesn’t allow for the hurting of civilians and innocence. When one of his associates is brutally made an example of by the Barksdale organization, he embarks on a rampage, no longer using his sawed-off to rob the gangmen, but to kill them. His haunting whistling of “The Farmer and the Dell” is genuinely intimidating, as is the way he casually strolls down a street in a trench coat while residents hurry away shouting “Omar’s Comin'”.
The Wire is what Simon calls, a “Visual Novel”. The show’s episodes are like chapters in a book. The first seven episodes or so are rising action, setting the stage for the main events. The middle five are hectic and action packed climactic chapters, and the final episode is the falling action, and the closing off of all these loose ends. As each episode is not in itself a story, but only a fragment of one, the larger story is made all the more impactful. The show is also devoid of artificial stimulation of any kind. There are no voiceovers, or on-screen texts. Any music the viewer hears comes from a car radio or a restaurant sound system somewhere within the scene. I’m not opposed to these things necessarily — as a matter of fact, my favorite movie of all time is almost always accompanied by background music, and begins with the mother of all onscreen texts floating through space — but their absence in this case adds to the story’s realism and authenticity.
Despite being made in 2002, The Wire somehow still feels fresh, and new. Far from growing irrelevant with age, its deep story transcends time. Simultaneously, it can also works as a period piece, reminding viewers of a time when cloning a drug dealers pager, so they could know when they were going to a wiretapped payphone was cutting edge police work. Low-res box-shaped computers frequent the BCPD offices, and in some cases, reports are done with type writers. The focus on technology of a decade past adds an entirely new layer of interest to the show’s events fifteen years later.
The Wire follows all of its characters through a three-dimensional lens. Even the drug dealers — whose actions are nothing short of despicable — are given layers that make them interesting to the viewer. Even though we hate what they do, we sympathize with them, and their plight. The city really does trap people, and for many, the only way out is criminality. Nothing illustrates this better than a conversation between D’angelo Barksdale, and Stringer Bell. Stringer orders D’angelo not to pay their employees for a week, since he suspects a mole in the gang’s midst. When D’angelo suggests that a man may not work without pay. Stringer smartly retorts, (I quote from memory) “Where are they gonna go, college?” We emphasize with the police and their pursuit of justice, but also with the men they hunt, trapped by circumstance in a viscous cycle of violence and illegal activity. We condemn their action’s but in an odd way, understand the motivations behind them. Nonetheless, the Wire draws a line of morality, never in any way shape or form unsure about what is right or wrong. It has been often hailed one of the best TV programs of all time, and while the truth of this is debatable, it is certainly worth consideration.