If there was justice in this desperately grasping world, those two words would resonate with just about everyone in the western hemisphere. That’s because The Wire—HBO’s seminal, scathing drama from former crime reporter David Simon—had every societal archetype figured to his socks, resulting in a work of fiction felt bruise-black truer than the evening news.
By now, you may have heard that the series has been deemed the “best show of all time” by various cultural shot-callers. In my humble opinion, that’s not hyperbole. But you also probably expect The Wire to be a dense slog that goes down like the worst kind of medicine.
That’s a damn shame. Because you’re only missing out on the most incisive, devastating and unexpectedly riotous experience you’re likely to digest through a screen.
The series, which aired for five seasons beginning in 2002 (and is re-airing in HD on HBO Signature this weekend!), never found the audience it deserved. It had less cultural cache than HBO’s other prestige fare of the era, like The Sopranos or Sex and the City, and was set in a predominantly black city that TV viewers didn’t seem to care about.
NBC learned that lesson when it adapted Simon’s nonfiction book about Baltimore homicide detectives into the critically lauded, viewer-ignored Homicide: Life on the Street way back in 1989.
As a huge fan of Homicide and as someone who read and then watched the HBO adaptation of Simon’s heartbreaking follow-up book, The Corner, I was primed to worship The Wire. But the show still snuck up on me in the most unexpected way.
Looking back on it now, I realize how clever Simon & Co. were by dressing Season 1's early episodes in the familiar threads of your standard procedural: a rule-breaking cop, a wise-cracking sidekick, a crafty criminal empire and short-sighted bosses—it’s practically derivative.
But Simon was simply establishing sound terra firma on which to build an ambitious, sprawling narrative that deconstructed multiple institutions and anticipated numerous debates: how a failed, insincere drug war ruined police work; the demise of the blue collar workforce; the modern slavery of urban poverty; children left behind by takeover-cowered schools; career politicians chasing the next office while their communities crumble; how profit-minded publishers and prize-chasing newspapers crippled journalism.
Yet the show, whose writing staff included a murderer’s row of crime novelists and ex-journalists, never sacrificed the propulsive drama of an expertly curated, pulpy crime tale.
I recently re-watched every episode on On-Demand. While it’s funny to see how quickly technology has changed (beepers!), the themes might be even more resonant now. Incompetent bureaucrats, craven politicians, failing schools, decimated families, neglected children—this is a show in which the good guys lose. Repeatedly.
A series this bleakly cynical doesn’t have a right to be so caustically funny and painfully humane. It’s the best show of all time, yeah, but it will also likely change how you see the world.
Bonus: You’ll finally get all your cooler friends’ Omar references.