I just finished up what was, possibly, the best show I have ever watched. Gritty, real, suspenseful, and complex, HBO’s The Wire has more to offer the average TV viewer than nearly anything on TV today.
The show primarily follows the Major Crimes Unit of the Baltimore Police Department as they try to crack several high-level cases. This is as simplistic of a description as you can possibly get. The show is incredibly layered, and in reality, it is about the overall social institution of the modern American city and the competing institutions within it. There are several aspects of this show that blew me away as I watched, mainly because it was very challenging. This is no network cookie-cutter TV show. As the viewer, you are thrown into a world you might know nothing about, and expected to keep up with the lingo, a huge array of characters, a deep web of plots that continually intersect and affect each other. I don’t think I’ve ever been challenged so much by a television show, just simply to keep up with what’s going on. With this in mind, it’s certainly a tough show to get the hang of, but once that is accomplished, once the language is learned and names are remembered, you dive into the world headfirst and are shocked by what you see.
We begin with Jimmy McNulty, an alcoholic murder detective in the Baltimore Police Department, and the story follows the events that occur due to his desire to bring in real criminals. From there, you’re introduced to police officers, police commanders, politicians, drug dealers, drug soldiers, drug addicts, longshoremen, stick-up boys (I had never heard the term stick-up boy until I watched The Wire), elementary school kids, journalists, prisoners. This barely starts the list of the cast. You meet so many characters, all of them different, fighting the particular system they are in, trying to change it rather than be changed by it. That’s the difficult part about watching this show. Each season deals with a different urban institution: the police department/drug trade, the harbor union, the local political structure, the school system, and the media. Each system is made up of individuals who are figuring out how best to survive. To me, that is what is most hopeful/depressing about the show, that at the core, it is about survival, and how Americans can do nothing but do their best to survive with what they’ve been given. No one chooses to be born in the poor neighborhoods to parents who don’t stick around or who can’t provide. Often, the people that we see are people trying to get out of their particular situation, and by doing so they compromise ideals or blend into their system in order to find their way out. It rarely works. This show breaks down the stereotype pushed on us by the American Dream, that if you just push, work hard, keep your nose to the grindstone, you will eventually succeed and be happy. This show takes that concept of success and completely turns it on its head. There are characters who you think find success, but what have they given up to get there? How do they view that success once they find it? The natural instinct in every human being to survive is shown to be innate yet flawed, as so many of us don’t have the means to survive, or the concept of survival is far different than we originally expect.
There is a realism in this show that I’d never seen before. Right out of the gate, you are thrown into this world. There is no set-up, no checklist of character names/professions/relationships that are marked off in the first two episodes to ground the viewer into the environment. From the very first episode, the viewer is treated like just another citizen on the streets of this Baltimore, as someone who has lived this life and understands the names and the looks and the language of these people. Which is definitely a difficult thing to wrap your mind around when you’re a white, male Iowan. It was a challenge to keep up with this show. We constantly had to pause and discuss what we just saw, or rewind a scene to catch dialogue. But if you can catch up and learn to follow along, holy cow is it rewarding. I’ve never seen a show that felt so raw. There isn’t sugarcoating in this show. It’s violent, it’s visceral, it’s authentic. Nothing feels out of place, or made-for-TV. And that’s why when things happen that you don’t expect or didn’t think could happen, it’s jarring. It’s easy to look at a city’s low-income school system and hope that the teachers are all just trying their best to teach the kids, or that the politicians are actually attempting to make good on their campaign promises to bring reform. Is it really happening that way? It shocked me to see assumptions and conventions I had in my head about how society runs flipped and turned around, and the reason it was really shocking was because I believed the show. There isn’t any doubt as you watch that this must be how things are done. Obviously, it’s still a TV show, so real life will prove itself to be somewhat different. But it’s a testament to the show how incredibly real you feel it all is. Things don’t seem faked in The Wire.
One huge element of the show that really adds to that feeling of authenticity is the music. Aside from five instances in the entire run of the program (a song played over season ending montages), all music in the show is diegetic, or environmental music. If you hear a song in a scene, it’s because the song is coming from a character’s boombox, or from the speakers of a passing car on the street, or the house music from a strip club. There is no atmospheric music, no musical score in the traditional sense. And even more so, the music supervisors of the show added that much more credibility by choosing songs that would legitimately be listened to by citizens of the city. There is a lot of rap in the show’s soundtrack, and very East Coast, Washington D.C. area rap. Not lots from New York. The program showcases popular songs from Baltimore artists, things that the people of that city would be listening to. I didn’t notice it for a long time either, which is really interesting seeing how much music can add or subtract from the video medium. It just adds an entirely new layer of realism to the show that I love. And the theme song, holy cow it is an awesome one. The song is Way Down In The Hole, originally by Tom Waits, and it is performed by a different artist for each season of the show*. It is a powerful song, and one that wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as the best choice for this show’s theme song. But that’s what makes this show great, there are parallels and painted pictures and metaphors all over the place. As the viewer, you’re encouraged to piece things together and make your own opinions about how things are done, how the characters interact and live their lives, and catch on to a vague sense of what the show is trying to say. There is no easy solution or wrap-up at the end of each episode. There are symbols that just barely point to what the show might be trying to communicate; it’s up to the viewer to really bridge those gaps.
On the whole, I’d classify this show as a bit of a downer. There are moments where hope shines through, but this is a show where characters (main and peripheral, there is no invincibility spell even for some of the show’s most important characters) meet untimely ends, characters fail, efforts to do good or to succeed or to survive absolutely fall flat. This is a show with very few heroes, yet at the same time you find yourself rooting for a wide variety of the characters at different times. The Wire takes the normal procedural cop show format and turns it inside out. In those shows, you have good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are the cops who have to solve a crime perpetrated by one of the bad guy criminals. And at the end of the hour they’ve solved it and somebody is in jail. Nothing like that in this show. You know how as you grow up, you begin to see things less in terms of black and white and more in terms of a gigantic spectrum of colors and circumstances and finding real truth is difficult? In The Wire‘s Baltimore, characters seem to be born with that knowledge. And having that knowledge doesn’t make life any easier. These are all people who are just trying to find personal success in what they do, and it is very nearly impossible to do so, because in life, there are almost always things that keep people down. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re born, or what you try to do, there are forces beyond your control against which you constantly have to battle. McNulty wants to solve crimes, he wants to be “good police”, but what can you do when the mayor puts pressure on the police chief to juke crime stats so that it looks like there is less crime than there really is? The police are told to whatever is necessary to make the stats look good rather than solve real crime. Go for the low-totem, easy-to-bag criminals and make good numbers rather than bring down the kingpins who are responsible for the real, society-affecting crimes. Everybody is looking for a way out of their own personal hell, their own undesirable situation, and the lines begin to blur on who is really succeeding. It’s powerful stuff you see in this show.
And that’s why I’m labeling it the best show I’ve ever seen. It tells the best story, and in the best way. This is a story that really matters to people, because whether they know it (or believe it), these cultural issues affect them. It shows how important survival is, but really tests you to figure out what is acceptable to give up in order to survive? We clearly cannot do it on our own power. I think this is a very alien concept to the modern American mind; we can’t do it ourselves, we require some outside power to come to our aid. We grow up being told that we can do it, we can achieve all our dreams, as long as we just work hard and apply ourselves. And I think the message that we are incapable of that on our own is a tough concept, but ultimately, a real truth in life and important to remember. It’s a struggle to work through too, because the next question is inevitably: where do we find our help? None of these characters ever seem to hit upon it the right way, but it’s incredibly entertaining and challenging to see them struggle with the question. Also, there is lots and lots and lots of sex, violence, and language throughout this show. Like I said, no sugarcoating. Be forewarned.
* The version by the Blind Boys of Alabama (Season 1) is far and away my favorite.