Come at the king, you best not miss. (Omar Little)
There you go, giving a f*** when it ain’t your turn to give a f***. (Bunk Moreland)
You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f*** it’s going to take you. (Lester Freamon)
It would take days to transcribe all the classic quotes and thought-provoking lines from one of the finest television products any of us will ever see. I come to number four today in a state of crisis, writing this entry later than any before it. I had to make a decision on 2-4. I desperately wanted a three-way tie but I understand what a ridiculous cop out (sorry) that would be. The point of lists is to make decisions and go to sudden death overtime if that’s what the situation requires.
Ranking a list of favorites or bests is about as subjective as one can get. I just finished a rewatch of the entire run of today’s selection. How is it I can honestly say that my number four is probably the best show ever done and not have it atop my list? I’ll probably be asking myself that for years. Hopefully I’ve done enough to set this up, so now I actually have to place an absolutely breathtaking work of storytelling at a level that feels like a slight, but absolutely isn’t. If you’re in my top four, you’re so good it’s insane. Number Four isn’t what its winner deserves, but in the words of Snoop Pearson:
Deserve got nuthin’ to do with it. (S5E9)
NUMBER FOUR: THE WIRE (2002-2008)
The Wire was unique long before it became a cult classic and the source for Emmy vitriol due to its absurd annual exclusion. David Simon worked as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun and later became a staff writer on Homicide: Life on the Street. He saw the pitfalls in television from the beginning:
As a medium for serious storytelling, television has precious little to recommend it – or at least that has been the case for most of its history. What else can we expect from a framework in which the most pregnant moment in the story has for decades been the commercial break, that five-times-an-hour pause when writers, actors, and directors are required to juke the tale enough so that a trip to the refrigerator or bathroom does not mean a walk away from the television set or, worse yet, a click on the remote to another channel.
In such a construct, where does a storyteller put any serious ambition? (David Simon, 2009)
Simon’s gripping story of the “other” city, with Baltimore as its backdrop, couldn’t have existed anywhere other than HBO. It has very little to do with the gruff and at times jaw-dropping content. HBO doesn’t rely on advertising within its product. Simon wrote in the same introduction to his series’ companion book, “Truth Be Told,” that HBO’s content IS its advertising rather than the show being merely gift-wrap for commercial breaks.
In addition to its creator, the other lead writers had personal ties to Baltimore and to the same belief structure. Co-creator Ed Burns worked in the police department until he grew weary of the red tape and the practices of undermining and urban neglect. Rafael Alvarez’ father worked on the harbor as a union man. These were people with something to say, or as Simon himself put it about his show’s perspective:
These are stories that, in the end, have some chance of presenting a social, and even political, argument. And to be honest, The Wire was not merely trying to tell a good story or two. We were very much trying to pick a fight.
I’ve spoken of some of our listed shows throughout this series for Outkick being Trojan horses respective to what’s on a show…and what’s in a show. In no show is the strategy used more effectively than in The Wire. David Simon wrote a letter to HBO in 2001 as he attempted to sell his vision, and it’s clear he didn’t enter into things without a definite plan:
But The Wire is, I would argue, the next challenge to the network logic and the next challenge for HBO. It is grounded to the most basic network universe -€“ the cop show -€“ and yet, very shortly, it becomes clear to any viewer that something subversive is being done with that universe. Suddenly, the police bureaucracy is amoral, dysfunctional, and criminality, in the form of the drug culture, is just as suddenly a bureaucracy.
…And the idea – as yet unspoken on American TV – that no one in authority has any reason to care what happens in an American ghetto as long as it stays within the ghetto is brought out into the open.
In the most quotable show of my lifetime, the quotes I chose to share with you thus far are from the creator, the show runner, perhaps the most quotable of all. David Simon was angry at what he saw in his city. He was angry at his belief in the “two Americas” and the faults of capitalism. His rage was first thrown at print media and how his own newspaper had changed. He used his show’s final season to take aim at that shift.
The show is so important that it’s still to this day taught in universities, not in television or writing classes, but in sociology courses to illustrate the realities of the inner city and the challenges of modern society. Yeah folks, this one was straight up deep.
Throughout the last seven weeks, I’ve attempted to boil each series down to one word or one idea. With The Wire, I always had the feeling, but rewatching the series made it crystal clear. For all the dialogue and the one-liners and the death and the despair and the corruption, The Wire is about truth. More specifically, it’s about uncomfortable, brutal truth.
Police know what’s happening in the poor districts, but those crimes often have no leads. Clearance rates are what matter in Simon’s world. It’s a city where “Juked” numbers lead to headlines of a decreased crime rate when corner boys are taking each other out with regularity. Some of the officers care, but when they speak up, they end up in various states of punishment.
No one involved in the drug “game” has any false notions. Their truth is money, power, and if they’re lucky, escaping the needle or the pipe themselves. They also live with the knowledge, pure truth, that they are only required until they’re expendable. They lie to the cops. They lie to each other, but they understand every word could be their last.
The politicians care about their futures. Their concern is the bottom line, the public perception, and their next office. Young city councilman Tommy Carcetti wants to be mayor, takes on and defeats a strong incumbent, but immediately plans to run for governor two years later. The iconic state senator Clay Davis says “sheeeeeee*t” quite a bit but it’s always out of self-preservation and the kickbacks he routinely covers up, even to the face of a jury.
Drug lawyers live cushy lives at the expense of their clients’ many victims. They couldn’t care less about the reprehensible actions of those they defend. They simply hope to get that guy back on the street because it puts more cash in their own pocket. The word gets out that Levy can get you out of anything and all of a sudden he’s flooded with new clients.
Unions are full of corruption but also help save the families of the working blue collar American. Private industry, hoping to control public works and repurpose existing areas for consumption purposes, destroys lives. Everyone knows the deal. They know what’s true. They just don’t care.
“No Child Left Behind” is a crock. Education in the “other” Baltimore is an even bigger joke. What chance do kids left in the throws of group homes truly have? How about the offspring of drug addicts who steal the clothes of their kids and sell them on the street? The unwillingness to embrace experimental programs to educate corner kids in alternative fashions, to try and help, to realize the truth of what comes from doing nothing other than teaching to the test, these are the honest lessons of Season 4.
Editors, publishers, the parent companies for newspapers, know the truth, but would rather have the Pulitzer. They promote the equivalent of a Jayson Blair, manufacturing quotes for added impact, while disciplining or demoting the whistle blowers with journalistic integrity. Truth in print only works if the headline sells. Indeed, as Gus Haynes says, if it bleeds, it leads.
Watching The Wire requires patience. Television viewers, especially when the show aired originally, were trained for episodic structure and massive plot points and twists every five minutes. While there are plenty of quality examples of that kind of show, David Simon has no interest in them. His story unfolds carefully and does so in a way that promotes a documentary-style of realism. While it’s clear what we’re seeing is fiction, it’s the closest we’ll ever see to a blurred line. Several times while watching The Wire, it’s easy to get lost in the idea that someone just turned on a 35MM camera on the streets of Baltimore.
Ain’t no shame in holding onto grief, as long as you make room for other things too. (Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins)
The ultimate truth of David Simon’s world is that, for his subjects, results and possibilities are determined not by character or individual choice but by the circumstances and the social realities. The Wire calls the idea of the American dream just that, a dream, for those not born in the right part of the city and to the right people. It isn’t just race. It’s class and standing.
Simon and his crew execute one truly staggering accomplishment. It’s the only series where the following statement is accurate. The Wire ALWAYS made sense. It never strayed from its real world. It tested limits a bit with the fake serial killer angle in Season 5, but still tied that story back to the show’s foundation. Every word was chosen with precision. Every moment counted, no wasted shots, nothing that stands out as questionable. In the words of Detective Lester Freamon:
We’re building something here – and all the pieces matter.
Simon chose to shoot the entire series in fullscreen, even though widescreen was optional even from his first season’s airdate in 2002. He did so because he believed it felt “real” and less like a movie. It may be one reason, among many, that the show has never been released in Blu-Ray format. It’s supposed to look a little rough around the edges, but the camera moves, pans, and zooms are graceful and professional. It’s visual mastery.
It was never a ratings hit. It was a show that required careful attention and told its story in a different way. The Writers Guild ranked it the ninth best-written show of all-time and TV Guide last year ranked it sixth in their all-time rankings. The Wire never won an Emmy or even a major nomination. It’s still seen as the biggest travesty in television award history. Emmy voters who remained anonymous told Variety the reasons for exclusion were the challenging plot, the darkness of the subject matter, and according to the article, no connection with California. Unsurprisingly, Simon’s show was filmed in Baltimore. That last reason is maddening.
Season 1 focused on the futile systemic war on drugs, Season 2 on the abandonment of the working class, Season 3 on city government and bureaucracy, Season 4 on a broken education system, and Season 5 on political corruption and the slow death of print media. But all of it, every single episode, all of it, is about money. More specifically, it illustrates the lack of money in police and education budgets. It shows the fat stacks and rolls on the corners. Union wages, subscription bases, fundraising, political maneuvering, and the list could go on and on.
The idea, as I interpreted it, is speak truth to power, except when that truth costs someone stronger than you. No one would dare tell Marlo Stanfield he wasn’t a true gangster, despite how many bodies his lieutenants left in vacant houses while he never touched his crew’s own dope. No one would bump Mayor Royce until it was a done deal and the reelection bid was over. No one would listen to McNulty and Freamon’s pleas for added help to take down their big fish, leaving them to actually invent a serial killer preying on the homeless simply to get the rest of the department to care.
In the finale, the story comes full circle. As in each season finale, The Wire ends where it begins. Some people go down, some people stop breathing, some jobs are lost and some loyal folk end up promoted. But nothing really changes. Nothing will ever change in that world. Small victories, that’s it. Circumstance trumps ambition and extinguishes hope.
The Wire is less about the actors than it is the collective acting. I won’t list them all because IMDB does have some reason to exist. Here are several though. Idris Elba’s work as Stringer Bell ranks way up there on my list. That character’s depth and growth was fascinating. J.D Williams gives both humanity and loyalty to Bodie, another personal favorite. Jamie Hector was frightening in his smooth dominance as Marlo Stanfield. Larry Gilliard Jr. played a conflicted Deangelo Barksdale with care. Wood Harris provided all the ammunition to root against his character of Avon Barksdale. Dominic West owned Jimmy McNulty, just as Wendell Pierce was The Bunk and Clarke Peters controlled the role of Lester Freamon. Isiah Whitlock Jr makes you laugh and simply entertains as the supremely corrupt but politically astute Clay Davis. Sonja Sohn exhibited the heart and strength of Kima Greggs. Seth Gilliam dominates the screen as Carver. Lance Reddick kills it as Cedric Daniels, just as he would years later as Phillip Broyles in Fringe. Last but certainly not least in this incomplete grouping, Michael K. Williams became a superhero and a household name as Omar Little just as Andre Royo’s portrayal of drug addicted and later rehabilitated Bubbles could stop you dead in your tracks and force your attention.
Bubbles was the emotional pulse of The Wire. A criminal informant completely controlled by heroin, who tried to beat it, failed, lost a friend to AIDS, tried again, accidentally killed a second friend, this time a teenager, stayed clean through it, sold newspapers on the highways and various wares from a shopping cart, and always just wanted his sister to trust him enough to unlock his “home” in her basement so he could spend time upstairs. Royo, in the role, is incredible.
The other side of the coin was Omar Little, a gay “stick-up boy” who robbed the re-ups of the Barksdale and Stanfield drug empires, but not to sell it himself. Incidentally, he was Barack Obama’s favorite character. Obama called The Wire his favorite show during the 2008 campaign. Omar was Robin Hood…in the hood. He wanted to hurt those guys. He also wanted to be feared. He wasn’t a saint. He terrified everyone outside of his tight base of friends. Kids and adults ran from him. “Omar comin” became the cry that meant, “run for your life.” He wielded a shotgun and killed plenty of people. But he had a code. He was some bastardization of a street Dexter while Michael C. Hall was still helping embalm corpses on Six Feet Under. Williams is unforgettable as the character.
Maurice Levy: Why’d you shoot Mike-Mike in his, um, hind parts, Mr. Little?
Omar: Let’s say we had a disagreement.
Maurice Levy: A disagreement over?
Omar: Well, you see, Mike-Mike thought he should keep that cocaine he was slingin’ and the money he was makin’ from slingin’ it. I thought otherwise. (S2E6)
It could be funny but the laughter was short-lived. It was a brief moment to exhale before Simon’s next lesson.
See, that’s why we can’t win. They f*** up, they get beat. We f*** up, they give us pensions. (Carver, S1E13)
Every performance in The Wire is beautiful and tragic in its own way. Not a single person who uttered a word on the show was miscast. And just like the story, they all had a place. They were all needed. Most weren’t big names, as a matter of fact almost none. The Wire changed everything for them, though few have gone on to major careers. But their work for HBO is enough for a standing ovation, with no exclusions.
One final sentence from David Simon that again underscores the concept of increasingly inescapable truth:
In practical ways, America was becoming the land of the juked statistic -€“ the false quarterly profit statement, the hyped school test score, the non-existent decline in crime, the impossible campaign promise, the hyped Pulitzer Prize.
What bears mentioning is I personally disagree mightily with David Simon and his depiction at many junctures throughout both The Wire and his follow-up show, Treme. What also bears mentioning is that’s entirely irrelevant. He made me think. He challenged my opinion at every turn on every conceivable issue. He pushed me to ponder what I was taught. He poked holes in my arguments. He landed some haymakers to my paradigm. My brain needed a cut man. It still does.
The Wire didn’t change my mind, but it opened my mind.
All five seasons of The Wire are available on HBO GO in addition to DVD.
(All excerpts from David Simon courtesy of his written introduction and the prologue to show co-writer Rafael Alvarez’ book, The Wire: Truth Be Told (2009))
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