TV Heaven – The Wire

April 20th, 2008

Finally, I complete my epic trilogy. Of short pieces of TV commentary. And how should one close but with – to my mind – the best thing on TV, The Wire. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that HBO have changed the face of TV drama since the turn of the millenia. Let me count the ways. The Sopranos. Six Feet Under. Band of Brothers. Deadwood. Rome. Many more. But I don’t think they’ve done anything more consistent, more daring, more compelling and thought-provoking, than The Wire.

In theory it’s a show about policemen trying to catch drug-dealers on the mean streets of Baltimore. But it’s about an awful, awful lot more than that. Story arcs generally last at least a series, often much longer. Catch one episode, then another a few weeks later? Forget it. You’ve got to sit down and work through a series at a time. After four or five episodes you’ll probably feel confused, mildly repelled, vaguely intrigued, but slightly wondering what all the fuss is about. After ten episodes you’ll be utterly gripped. After a whole series you’ll sit amazed at how the whole thing comes together, and it will stick with you long after the end. For me, at least, the more you watch, the better it gets. And better, and better.

Each series tends to be a single, extended, fiendishly complex case, which gets at least partly wrapped up after 13 episodes, but they take the show in different directions each time. The first series sets the scene, and follows the effort of the police to take down the city’s biggest gang. The second shifts attention to Baltimore’s once-proud docks, finds time to investigate urban decay and the collapse of the American working class. The third examines the prison system, and the rehabilitation of criminals, at the same time broadens the scope into the upper echelons of Baltimore’s administration. The fourth changes up again and focuses on four young kids and their chances, looks at education, and through a race for the Mayor’s office the chances and disappointments of power. It’s a fiendishly complex show with a giant cast. I tend to watch each series on DVD as it comes out, usually within about four days, and I think that adds considerably to the experience. I don’t know if you’d be able to follow it so well spread out over 13 weeks. Certainly it would be pretty damn frustrating…

The police force are endemically lazy, almost uniformally incompetent, occasionally outright corrupt. The few good officers are always swimming against the current, usually getting ostracised to some bullshit duty as a result of being too effective and making trouble for everyone. The senior officers are obsessed with statistics and self-aggrandisement rather than meaningful results. The whole city operates on a system of favouritism and back-room dealing, where promotion is nothing to do with ability, and all about who’s “got suction”, meaning the right friends. For Chief of Homicide Rawls (one of my own favourite characters from a galaxy of brilliant ones), a big win isn’t solving a case, but managing to palm it off on another department.

Obviously, I’m neither a police nor a gangster, but there’s a feel of authenticity about near every element of this show. Real police work is shown to be more mindless drudgery than kicking down doors. Sitting for hours listening to wire-taps, following paper trails, squeezing informants, lying on roofs in the freezing cold taking photos. McNulty, probably the most central cop (though it’s always an ensemble piece), has drawn his gun once in four series, and even on that occasion never fired it, just ran around ineffectually in the dark looking scared. His partner then shot a bystander. It’s all about the confusion, the pointless complexity, the randomness, the waste and corruption. When criminals are caught it’s more often because of small accidents, treachery, or their own failings than some stroke of crime-fighting genius on the part of the police.

It’s a grim vision. Really, really grim. I very much doubt it’s done any favours to Baltimore’s tourism industry – the place looks like an endless, lawless slum of boarded-up houses, rusted playgrounds and collapsing tower blocks. The gangsters, who are followed just as closely and are just as sharply drawn as the police, usually end up dead or in jail for a very long time. The police usually end up busted, sacked, divorced, and/or constantly drunk. Those looking for happy endings or neat resolutions best run in the other direction. Unflinchingly harsh, determinedly unglamourous in its treatment of cops, criminals, drugs, violence, politics, urban decay and everything else. But at the same time it’s not unremittingly black by any means. There’s occasional nobility, honour, charity, often from the least expected quarters. Some folks try to do the right thing, in spite of the odds, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Things very rarely turn out exactly how you expect they will. Usually they turn out very badly.

Above all, though, the characters feel like real people to a degree that I don’t think I’ve ever felt with any other film or tv show I’ve seen. And the sweep of different types of people it encompasses is immense. From the young kids trying to find their way on the streets of Baltimore, to the gangsters who work the corners, to the police and their bosses, to the community leaders, to the politicos at the Mayor’s Office, it’s almost impossible to imagine that these people are actors. I can scarcely think of one weak link in the whole thing. You don’t think to yourself – great performance by Dominic West. You think to yourself – oh, there’s McNulty, I love that guy. It goes beyond great scripting and acting to a whole other plane. Much though I love, say, The Shield, it’s full of disposable, interchangable latino gangsters. In The Wire, despite there being probably hundreds of different runners, dealers, soldiers, gangsters, bosses across the four series, they all seem like real individuals, even ones who appear for moments.

In many ways, The Wire strikes me as the exact opposite of CSI Miami. Utterly real, convincing, courageous, subtle, with important points to make. It is the anti-CSI Miami. I quite like CSI, but I don’t much care for CSI Miami. I’ve never much cared for David Caruso, and I REALLY don’t care for him in that. He’s like a caricature, of a bad joke, of an idiot’s idea of what a really, really terrible over-actor is like. CSI Miami is supposedly the most successful TV Show in the world. The Wire most definitely isn’t. Now there’s a crime that needs investigating.

I could go on and on, but no-one’s paying me to, so I think I’d better close out and do some actual work. That or play Civilisation all day. You may have gathered that I think The Wire is rather good. That if you haven’t seen it, you should see the whole thing now.


Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on April 20th, 2008. Tags:

20 comments so far

  • Elena says:

    The thing about CSI Miami and Caruso is, they aren’t supposed to be good. Maybe they started the spin-off seriously, but it very quickly became evident that what made people watch it is how entirely ridiculous it is. CSI Miami is like renting a bad movie. Like MST3000 mocked it bad, except without having to go rent anything. Realism isn’t wildly popular…it’s popular with a certain group. I think HBO has done a brilliant job of tapping into that market, especially through the DVD medium.

    Have you watched any of Dexter? I think that one is Showtime’s, definitely not HBO’s, but I find it pretty genius.

  • Vixen says:

    I agree with you both. I would even go as far as saying Caruso is an idiot with no talent at all.

  • I know what you’re saying, but stuff can be ridiculously over-the-top and still be good. Early 24 would be an example for me, before it got REALLY ridiculous. But Caruso, as far as I can tell, is over-the-top AND utterly lame. The gritted teeth. The narrowed eyes. The raw daggers of emotion exploding from every wrinkle when he checks his watch, has a piss, or looks out of the window. Watching him in that show just makes me want to hurt myself for being part of the same species.

    And yeah, the first season of Dexter is on terrestrial in the UK at the moment, about half way through. It’s very good so far, and as you say, though not HBO, it has some of the feel of their stuff. I really liked Michael C. Hall in Six Feet Under, and I think he’s excellent as Dexter.

    Nip/Tuck, actually, I feel is another interesting non-HBO show with some of that feel, though it’s sometimes patchy, it can be excellent.

  • Anonymous says:

    That time when McNulty drew his gun, and his partner shot someone? The partner shot an undercover cop.

  • harvb says:

    Band of Brothers was most definitely milestone television, I don’t think we can argue about that. It just delivered something people hadn’t really experienced until then. Such great direction and production, such passionate storytelling.

    I wish I’d seen The Wire and could comment, but, sadly…

    Early 24 was pretty good, until every member of his family started getting into more and more trouble. Honestly, at that stage, wouldn’t it be quicker to just shoot yourself and be done with it?

    Really enjoyed season one of Dexter, so much so that I downloaded and watched them over a weekend.

    I’d like to say I see as much in Heroes as everyone else, but I’m finding it very average at the moment, punctuated by moments of above-average. Personally.

  • THE-VLG says:

    I’ve watched the first 2 seasons of the Wire & totally agree with you, I’ll be getting the next 2 shortly & I’m really looking forward to them. Just a further point on them is that they also use the excellent Tom waits song – Down In The Hole as the credit music.

    Enjoying Dexter too.

  • MB Lanyon says:

    Big love for the Wire indeed but still awed by Dexter – recently completed Season 2 and the arc is excellent – you can see the first season as his childhood and the second as his adolescence, so the third should be particularly interesting.

    Also with Dexter, it is the only TV show I’ve chatted with people about for years that emits *very* strong reactions from – to the point that some have argued with me, on moral grounds, that the show is downright abhorrent.

    Personally, the moral objectivity of Dexter is fascinating and I love the fact that it can make you feel so right about something so wrong…and so on.

    The aesthetics of the Wire are compelling too – as so with Dexter (the intro sequence is delicious) – the visual elements make everything so much more fleshy and unpleasant. I think Baltimore should be proud..

  • Anonymous,
    Good point. I’d forgotten that.

    Band of Brothers was indeed very good. Totally film-like in the way it was shot and edited.

    And yeah, early 24 was absurd in places, but just as you were thinking – hold on, though, that doesn’t seem to make much- something would blow up and they’d distract you with a crazy plot twist. It was also genuinely ruthless and nasty. The most recent series I saw seemed to be taking place in a parallel universe where nothing anyone except Jack did made any sense at all. I dropped it once LA got nuked.

    I like the first series of Heroes a hell of a lot at times. When they were all discovering their powers it looked like it could be truly brilliant. But as they started to fight each other with those powers, it all started to come a bit unstuck. The effects budget didn’t really seem up to it. One minute Sylar’s quick enough to stop a bullet with his mind. The next he stands there while someone wraps a lamp-post round his head. Not terribly convincing. But nicely plotted. I hear the second season is a bit disappointing, though.

    The VLG,
    You lucky so and so, still 2 of those bad boys to get through. I particularly like the way they use a different version of the track for every series.

    That title sequence on Dexter has got to be one of the best of recent years. Love the Deadwood one myself, as well. And yeah, I didn’t really talk about the way the Wire is shot and edited. It has that slightly gritty, dirty, shot on video feel that adds to the feeling of reality.

  • Easydog says:

    God, I love ‘The Wire’. It’s an odd one though; a lot of my friends end up borrowing the box set from me and half return it, saying that they had watched 3 or 4 episodes and couldn’t get what the fuss was about, whilst the other half thanks me profusely and then I find they’ve taken my season 2 set without asking. Bastards.

    I think I fell in love with it from the scene where they use the word ‘fuck’ a bunch of times, with different innotations, to describe a ‘fucked-up’ little crime scene. Pure class. And even with one word it’s the best writing I’ve seen on TV, which got me reading some of George Pelecanos’ (a guest writer for the series) books. This lead to discovering ‘The Big Blowdown’ which was fantastic.

    The more people who see ‘The Wire’ the better, it really deserves some time in the spotlight. Glad you gave me another little forum with which to rave about it 🙂

  • Swainson says:

    No tv at home any more since a two week experiment that lasted a year and a half so far. So always on the look out for dvd series. As you say so much better to watch the whole lot.

    I’ll look up The Wire.

    csi miami was always called “glasses on, glasses off” in our house.

    Heroes was a real struggle to watch the last half as they just got so dull.

    Deadwood on the other hand has to be one of the best series going, but sadly gone. I got cheap thrills from Lovejoy swearing so eloquently.

    Band of Brothers made me look at what the USA has/can do in a different light.

    I’ll keep my eyes out for Dexter.

    Any other recommendations??

  • Anonymous says:

    Avatar the Last Airbender. It may be a kid’s show, but it’s an excellent kids show.

    Also try ‘Rome’ and, if you can find it, ‘Cracker’.

  • Swainson says:


    thanks for that, i’ll check them out.

    I can remember shouting “you bastards” at the tv when cracker ended in the second season; (my mum was not pleased.)

    while we are on the oldies, The Sweeny was brilliant. Shut it you slag!!

  • Elena says:

    SOOOOOOOOOOO off the subject, but, Joe, I think the guys over at mail order comedy are fans. Cause I’m pretty sure their new Wizards Never Die rap is about Bayaz, or at least features him as a guest guild-banger.


  • Easydog,
    Yeah, I love the way so much of the dialogue in the Wire is in the little glances, the expressions, the intonation. It’s part of what makes it feel so real. Everyone has their own way of expressing themselves.

    Other recs? Hmmm – the Sopranos, obviously, though it dipped a bit in the middle, is generally pretty amazing. I love The Shield, also. Beautifully made and very, very nasty at its best. Michael Chiklis has to be about the best actor of angry going, now that Russel Crowe seems to be obsessed with showing us his sensitive side. It’s not as clever or challenging as the Wire, but its still pretty clever and pretty challenging, mean streets ahead of most cop stuff out there, and packs a hell of an action punch which is the one thing the Wire doesn’t really have. Rome too. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but some great characters and some great moments, and does manage to convey a feeling of the unfathomable alien-ness of ancient Roman society.

    Hmm. Amusing, but I’ve got to say I preferred the Star Wars one. The quality of the rhyming was WAY higher.

  • Elena says:

    Oh, there was without question an extreme disparity in quality, if not amusement. Wizards might not die…but they can’t rap, either! 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    I am through season 5, and, Joe, I have the same feeling I felt when reading the last 200 pages of your last book…This is ending… will I ever meet again with Mcnulty, The Bunk, Omar????.
    But I think poeple who watch the first season completely, just can’t wish to see the rest of the series, but those first episodies of s.1 are the hardest to watch.

    And I read an Interview with David Simon telling that they had all the cooperation from the Baltimore Mayor and City Hall through the whole 5 seasons.

    I thought the same as you that The wire will never do anything for the tourist office of that city… but, well, I think medium cities just has to do something to scream their problems, and if Days Of Glory gave tghe pensions that arabs war veterans fully deserved… well, the wire, hopefully will help their cause…

  • nashmeister says:

    Hi Joe,

    Now this is what we should have been talking about at Eastercon, instead of . . . er . . . whatever it was. I forget.

    Agree entirely: The Wire is the best show on television (followed closely by Battlestar Galactica. One thing you didn’t mention that struck me, especially during series 1, was the fact that rather than taking the lazy way out, the drug gangs had a much better work ethic than the cops – and a few of them were much nicer people, too (the pushing and the violence notwithstanding).



  • Anonymous says:

    Wire fans: check out the crime fiction of George Pelecanos.He worked as a writer and producer on the series. His novels are lyrical,heartfelt and tough; The Sweet Forever is a near perfect work.

  • Alex says:

    The wire is quite simply the best show ever. Its not easy to watch, which is why i think some people struggle to get into it, but its just so rewarding, deep, moving, funny.

    I think my two favourite quotes are:
    1. When Omar appears in court and is accused of being “a parasite who leaches off a culture of violence” to which he replies to the corrupt lawyer “Just like you man. I got the shotgun, you got the breifcase. Its all in the game tho rite?”
    2. Lester’s line – “Life is the shit that happens while your waiting for moments that never come”

    And of course the “fuck” scene in series 1.

    Glad you like it Joe, the multiple perspectives, the power of “spin” and the morally ambiguous characters in your books reminded me of The Wire.

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