The Wire: The Literary Masterpiece of My Generation

“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**k it’s going to take you”

-Lester Freamon

In August 2012 I started watching The Wire, a show that at this point needs no introduction. It’s been lauded by critics and fans alike as one of the best shows to ever air on TV and is considered to sit among the holy pantheon of TV shows that have set the tone for the current “Golden Age” of television. After several breaks, disruptions, and distractions I finally finished the show today(3-20-2013) and I have to say; what a journey this show has taken me on. I’m not going to sit here and regurgitate all of the critical fetishism for The Wire that I’ve already read over the years…that would be boring and redundant. Instead I’m going to(as briefly as possible) explain exactly what this show is, why I love it, and why I believe it is here to stay as one of the shows that will define my generation and the essence of what this “Golden Age” of TV is really all about.

The Wire 1

What is The Wire? Unlike most of the pulpy “no end in sight/mind” fiction that graces network and some cable TV, The Wire is a cable show that had very clear and definitive goals in mind when it began airing. Cable TV has evolved into something far more sophisticated than most of what is seen on networks;  the serialized stories seen from the likes of Game of Thrones, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and more recently True Detective have far more in common with novel storytelling than they do with network TV or the big screen.

The show as a whole is a story that begins by following an ongoing police investigation into the Baltimore drug trade using wire taps. As our core team from Major Crimes begins following the drug money as it is is moved into other industries, it becomes clear that the dirty money impacts various aspects of the city that include labor unions/urban poor, inner city politics/politicians, public education, and lastly sensationalist news media/journalism. The show takes a look at each of these areas of influence with each season building off of the one before until all of these threads conglomerate in the final season to tie each of these categories together to showcase how directly each institution is related and how their decisions impact the citizens of Baltimore.

The Wire not only falls in the category of novel storytelling, but in most ways rises above it as a literary masterpiece. Whereas these other stories emphasize characters, The Wire is setting its eyes on the city of Baltimore and the systems that make it run as its main priority. You follow a plethora of characters from all walks of life around and many of them do have their own character arcs(Prez, D’Angelo, McNulty to name a couple), but ultimately these character developments are meant to highlight specific points that demonstrate the city of Baltimore and the failures of the systems to serve their people.

This isn’t merely a TV show that should be watched for entertainment, but rather a complex piece of layered literature that tells the story of Baltimore,Maryland on both a macro and micro level. It’s about gangsters caught in the middle of a drug/territory war, it’s the story about how so closely connected we are to each other and how the choices of the weak and powerful impact everyone, it’s the story of how a young and inspired politician rises to power and falls to corruption, it’s the story of those who seek true justice are trampled; the list goes on and on. Like the works of Hemingway, Dickinson, and Fitzgerald, The Wire is a story that demands we pay close attention and bring our own reading to the text to draw our own meaning from this sometimes exciting, brooding, demoralizing, and tragic reflection on Baltimore and powers at large.

The Wire 2

The complex narrative and its multi-perspective story was a huge draw for me, but to be quite honest, this is not a story that grabbed me from the beginning and demanded I binge watch a slew of episodes(hints the 19 months it took me to watch 60 episodes). It’s a show that cannot be casually watched, but demands your full attention because of the interconnectivity of the subplots, the heavy use of street vernacular, and the density of the themes and issues the show are tackling. This is a show for pro watchers only…or people who want more out of TV than a fun ride and a few interesting ideas. Even though I watch a lot of fairly demanding TV, I was still off put and struggled to make it through season 1; not because the material wasn’t exceptional, but because the show demanded more of me than any other show I’d seen before. To really enjoy and appreciate The Wire you have to invest a fair amount of attention and energy, but the payoff and insight the show gives back is nothing short of life/perspective changing.

This is a show that challenges you to think outside of not only you own individual bubble, but also our institutional bubbles whatever they may be. Race, religion, profession, ect…the world is a lot bigger than these realms. There are larger things that are always at work and the things at work may be more connected to what  each of us do than we could ever expect on the surface. This is also a show that pushes us to understand how the institutions of society work, how they are flawed, how they can be manipulated, and the how the manipulation is fueled by compromise and corruption that shapes society from the top down.

The show is written so that we see not only the larger powers at play, but also how individuals across the board react to the corruption. It doesn’t paint any of the characters as good or bad, but as fighting to survive in the world that they are being brought up in whether it’s within the limits of the legal system, in a failing school, rising in the ranks of city politics, or on the corners selling drugs. Nobody in this show is painted as the true hero or villain which I believe brings a realism and relatability to the characters that so very few shows have. Characters are portrayed as less individualized and instead painted more as products of the system that are trying to make the best of their situations. They make decisions..good or bad the way most of us actually would; in attempt to move on to a better place in society.

I could sing praises of this series all day long, but despite all its greatness it’s still not a flawless masterpiece. The last season succumbs to many of the tropes of high energy TV and goes off the rails with a questionably unrealistic main plot line that almost breaks the very grounded feel the first four season has established. Its other issue is that despite many of its emotionally charged subplots, the show as a whole feels a bit calculating from time to time when it gets a little too swept away into its larger vision. The calculated longer term planning seems like a necessary evil that creator/executive producer David Simon embraced so that the larger ideas could be fully fleshed out and realized, but I think it’s a noteworthy as it showcases the challenges of capturing a show with this level of ambition.

There have been others called the best show to ever air on TV(which means in the last 5-10 years) that include Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and more recently Game of Thrones. More than these other shows, I believe The Wire will stand the test of time as the great american narrative of this generation of Television.

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The first three shows follow very specific characters in very specific settings and thoroughly explores those character in those settings, how the two impact one other, and ultimately the consequences of how those characters interact with those settings. They may cover a lot of ground by relating their main character to a wealth of issues, but ultimately the story is only following one man and his immediate circle of influence. Unlike the other three mentioned, Game of Thrones is taking on a much grander scale and is following a slew of characters and how they fight for power and survival in a fantastical world that isn’t too far removed from our own, but in retrospect I believe it will be thought of as a show that is reflective of a politically war driven world inspired by the medieval era that exists in its own pocket universe rather than a reflection of the time it was written in.

The Wire does something much different by following a multitude of characters that span across different races, genders, professions, and social classes during the very era it was written(2002-2008). It captures many of the issues that we have become most concerned with in the post 9/11 era of justice and tells a story about how our fears are actually part of a more systematic problem. It’s not about one person or one people, but describes how we’re all in this world both together and on our own; trying to fight our way to a better position than we are currently in. The crimes and shortcuts we commit will to some degree leave an impact because everything is so connected, controlled, and flawed. It may be fiction, but it’s a mostly grounded narrative that isn’t unlike the reality of inner city issues that is still every bit as relevant today as it was when the show aired. It’s something that captures our voice, our setting, and our fears through the stories of people not too unlike you and me. This is our definitive story concerning society on a macro and micro level, and even though it is only looking at one city, it speaks to the issues of our generation that can be found find in any state, city, or town. In the same way that M*A*S*H defined the post-Vietnam generation of TV by exploring the issues concerning the War, The Wire is telling the story of our generation that is fueled by postmodern doubting in the systems we have built to take care of us.

The Wire concludes on an incredibly bittersweet note that left me with an uneasy feeling. We see the issues,we understand how broken the system is, and we see how it has on perpetuated the problems and set our society up to repeat the failures and mistakes of our past generations. David Simon creates all of this commentary and criticism through his story, but leaves it on a note without any real solutions which leaves us,the audience, to ponder how we can change the cyclical nature of corruption the institutions create. I believe that the legacy of The Wire is the challenge it leaves its viewers with in its final moments and I believe the impact this show has left on myself and many others will raise awareness of the systematic corruption and to my greatest hope…give us the compassion, critical minds, and selflessness to begin addressing the issues that have plagued so many generations before us.

There’s countless pages of material that could be written about with The Wire(some universities offer classes on the show) and I’ve hardly scratched the surface and instead focused on a big picture look at the show. To deepen your understanding of what I’ve been writing about, I challenge everyone who is into TV to watch this show even if it takes extra time and perseverance. Like classic literature, this isn’t something you can kick back and take lightly, but once it’s all said and done this is a show that I believe should be watched by everyone who takes TV as something more than lax entertainment seriously.  It’s the show that will be remembered for decades to come as one of the greats of 21st century literature.

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