It may seem ironic now that a gritty HBO miniseries called The Corner won the 2000 Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries. These days it’s mostly known for being sort of a prologue to The Wire, a TV show that is often called the greatest ever made… one which never won any Emmys. This is so stunning that it has in fact helped undermine the award itself. If it can’t recognize excellence in television, then what are the Emmys good for?
Fans have described The Wire as an ambitious American novel. Spread out over five seasons, it depicts a great city, Baltimore, from several perspectives. The first season introduced us to a number of police detectives who formed the core of the series, as they embarked on a mission to expose a local criminal, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), and his empire. Over the years, the focus remained on these cops and their continued efforts to destroy the Barksdale family and latterly Marlo Stanfield’s (Jamie Hector) drug gang, but Simon and his collaborators also took a wider look. In season two, they examined the problems facing dockworkers who far too often seemed trapped between either unemployment or working with the Mafia.
Politicians, particularly the ambitions of future Baltimore mayor Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), dominated round three. The two following seasons depicted inner-city schools and a local newspaper, the Baltimore Sun.
Never offering easy solutions
What all these institutions had in common was dysfunction, and the problems were described with perfect realism as the writers drew on their own experiences from the media, police work, ports and schools. This was an exceptionally strong crew, featuring among others crime novelists Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. They made sure to never offer viewers easy solutions; Baltimore as a whole seemed completely fucked, with a corrupt police department, a lying media, cynical politicians and a school system that was unable to rescue young black men from ending up in a corner serving drug dealers. If this was true for that city, wasn’t it true then for every other city in the nation?
Depressing – but unlike a later Simon effort, Treme, the show was also addictive. The hunt for Barksdale and his crew never offered the thrills of other cop shows, but the mechanisms behind criminal organizations, as well as police departments and political campaigns, were fascinating in all their dirty glory; social commentary splendidly visualized. Even when the show turned into satire in season five, as one of the cops invented a serial killer as part of a scheme to force the cash-strapped city into spending more money on police work, it remained uncomfortably credible. The location work was always top-notch, with real-life cops and gangsters filling out supporting roles. Another reason why The Wire worked so well was the cast. Dominic West got his breakthrough as Jimmy McNulty, an alcoholic but dedicated detective; it was easy to sympathize with his “fuck-it” attitude. Other stand-outs were Gillen as the smarmy Carcetti and Michael K. Williams as Omar, the gay hit man, drug dealer and all-round survivor.
There was a certain rivalry between The Wire and The Shield, another seminal police drama. Fans argued over which approach they liked better, the slower deliberations of the former or the more action-oriented attitude of the latter. According to Brett Martin’s book “Difficult Men”, even the writers were blunt in their criticism of the rival show’s perceived shortcomings. As a fan of both, I just want to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”. One approach doesn’t exclude the other.
The Wire 2002-2008:U.S. Made for TV. 60 episodes. Color. Created by David Simon. Cast: Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty), Wendell Pierce (William “Bunk” Moreland), Sonja Sohn (Shakima Greggs), Lance Reddick, John Dorman, Clarke Peters, Deirdre Lovejoy, Seth Gilliam, Domenick Lombardozzi, Michael K. Williams, Andre Royo, Jim True-Frost, Frankie Faison, Delaney Williams, Robert Wisdom (03-08), Wood Harris (02-04), Idris Elba (02-04), Aidan Gillen (04-08), Jamie Hector (04-08), Tristan Wilds (06-08), Chris Bauer (03), Clark Johnson (08), Tom McCarthy (08).
Last word: “We got the gig because as my newspaper was bought and butchered by an out-of-town newspaper chain, I was offered the chance to write scripts, and ultimately, to learn to produce television by the fellows who were turning my first book into Homicide: Life on the Street. I took that gig and ultimately, I was able to produce the second book for HBO on my own. Following that miniseries, HBO agreed to look at The Wire scripts. So I made an improbable and in many ways unplanned transition from journalist/author to TV producer. It was not a predictable transformation and I am vaguely amused that it actually happened. If I had a plan, it was to grow old on the Baltimore Sun’s copy desk, bumming cigarettes from young reporters and telling lies about what it was like working with H. L. Mencken and William Manchester.” (Simon, Believer Magazine)