Each month, we’re looking back at an extinct show that hooked our attention and changed television for the better. This time, we’re hanging out on the mean streets of Baltimore to discover how the The Wire re-invented the police drama.
How many cop series can you name? Exactly, there’s a lot. From Law & Order to Criminal Minds, CSI to NYPD Blue, it’s hard to flick through the channels and not come across at least one. It’s impressive that they all contain at least an essence of originality; as gripping as they are, though, they never really break the mould. Not like The Wire did back in 2002.
Created by ex-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, it grew off the back of his two previous TV ventures, Homicide: Life on the Streets and mini-series The Corner. These were based on Simon’s books, and offered a realistic portrayal of life in Baltimore on both sides of the law. Using his vast knowledge of the city and its inhabitants, Simon developed a show that would encompass every aspect of life.
Believe it or not, HBO was originally reluctant to include a crime series in its lineup, but thankfully agreed to produce the pilot. The Wire is always credited as a police drama, but Simon has explained that it’s ‘really about the American city, and about how we live together.’
‘It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals,’ he wrote in a public statement. ‘Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution to which they are committed.’ I’m sure a lot of people would agree with that sentiment.
The first season of The Wire focuses on a detail instigated by Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) – to start wiretapping the Barksdale family, who run a drug ring in a local housing project. The investigation sees various police divisions working together to build a case against the kingpin, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). The following seasons introduce new aspects of the city, such as the docks, school and newspaper, along with their respective characters.
Ever since shows about the law were first broadcast on TV, the audience has always been given the simple idea that police are the good guys and criminals are the bad guys. For years, viewers seemed happy with that set-up, but The Wire asked a question: What if it’s not so black and white?
We still follow the police’s efforts to end the war on drugs, but we’re given a more in-depth view into the lives of those breaking the law. We learn that these are real people who may not be doing what they do through choice, but merely to survive. Some have loved ones to take care of; others do their bit for the community. We’re exposed to this idea that they’re not always the bad guys and, more importantly, that those on the other side of the line are not necessarily good.
With corrupt politicians and a sketchy police force, the show is a grey portrayal of life, and we ask ourselves: who really are the offenders here? The young man dealing drugs because it’s his only means to support himself and his family? Or the wealthy and powerful Senator taking bribes, protected from the law because of his position? It’s a portrayal that feels very true these days, with the exposure and immunity of certain bankers and political figures.
Of course, this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the show’s most powerful and influential characters, Omar Little (Michael K. Williams). The way the writers developed him was a joy to watch. He went from a villain, to enjoying overwhelming popularity among audiences. Toting a shotgun, terrorising drug dealers, a homosexual with a dislike for swearing, Little was a truly well-rounded character who broke the gangster stereotype.
I could talk about this show all day as it’s definitely one of my favourites and had a huge impact on me. I’ve always felt the title could be an unintentional metaphor for the the thin wire that separates us all. We may dress differently, go about our lives differently, but deep down we’re all the same.
Next month, we return to the mysterious island to explore how Lost kept its audience theorising for years.