The Wire @20: The legacy lives for ever


It never won an Emmy, its bingeable contemporary, The Sopranos, eclipsed it in viewership numbers, and it faced the threat of cancellation after each season. Many years and much paeans after it went off the air, an HBO show that ran from 2002 to 2008 to mild acclaim, has been voted the greatest TV show of the 21st century. The choice was made in 2021 by a BBC Culture poll of 206 television experts, including critics and scribes, from 43 countries. The Wire was picked from among 460 shows.

The show could be credited for breaking many moulds and pushing the boundaries of narrative complexity and world-building, on television.

The first episode of The Wire premiered on June 2, 2002, on HBO. Over the years, it has aged in the best possible way, establishing itself as the cornerstone of and benchmark for great television and being counted among the pioneers of the new golden age of TV.

The Wire was centred around the drug-infested city of Baltimore, where a ragtag team of cops who try to bring down a drug kingpin and his henchmen—modelled after real-life gangster Nathan Barksdale—and the rotten systems that perpetuate the drug menace. The show that began as a run-of-the-mill police procedural metamorphosed into an audacious, exhaustive exploration of the systemic failures that result in a nefarious, endless loop of misery and desolation, and the hapless folks who are trapped in this mess. In show creator David Simon's words, The Wire was about “the triumph of capitalism over human value.”

Simon, who was a crime reporter with The Baltimore Sun in the 1980s observed how the unimaginative war on drugs in Baltimore was consuming time and resources of the police department while leaving youngsters arrested in buy-bust cases with a bleak future. He shadowed a homicide investigation unit of the Baltimore police for his 1991 book 'Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets', which was made into an NBC show. Simon also teamed up with Baltimore Police detective Ed Burns and worked alongside a few addicts to research his book 'The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood', which he co-wrote with Burns. The stories that Simon covered and cases that Burns worked on were tapped into for creating The Wire. Simon had once said the show “feels like an extension of some honest piece of journalism”.

Over five seasons, which looked into the drug trade, vanishing jobs and struggles of the blue-collar workers, amoral political manoeuvres, vindictive bureaucracy, indifferent educational system and media amnesia, the show painted a world so joyless and demoralised that even the proverbial poetic justice had no place in it. It offered no happy endings for its characters, there were no denouements; there was no pure villainy either, but only vehement abdication of morality by every person who has a shot at power and profit.

The show was arguably well ahead of its times and could be credited for breaking many moulds and pushing the boundaries of narrative complexity and world-building, on television. The cast was largely African-American, many of them first-time actors. One of the leading characters, a cop, was a lesbian. The show was never about one or more characters, unlike its contemporaries The Sopranos and The Shield; the only central character was the city of Baltimore.

The makers never chose to adhere to the middle-of-the-road television entertainment, even at the risk of cancellation, and gave a miss to usual cinematic techniques like voice-overs, dream sequences, or monologues, justifying Simon's claim that it is more of journalism than entertaining television.

Despite being compelling fiction that had possibly the best fictional outlaw, Omar Little, The Wire, was not binge-worthy television that offered cliff-hangers at the end of every episode. It was literature televised; a dispassionate study as well as a scathing indictment of deteriorating institutions. Former US president Barack Obama, while interviewing Simon, had praised the show, saying: “It is one of the greatest, not just television shows, but pieces of art in the last couple of decades.”

“Everybody, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Marxists, free-market capitalists, they all eventually got to The Wire, and found something that validated their pre-existing notions,”Simon had once said. The writing room of the show was as diverse as its themes—Ed Burns was a cop, Simon started off as a journalist, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane are novelists and Kia Corthron is a playwright, to name a few.

The show has been part of academia and literature over the years. The show's depiction of “systemic inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling (than) that of any published study,”William Julius Wilson, professor emeritus, Harvard University, had told The Slate in a 2010 interview when asked about his decision to include the show as part of the course he offered at the varsity. Wilson’s book 'When Work Disappears' inspired the second season of The Wire.

While it may be argued that nothing like The Wire has ever been dropped on television after Jimmy McNulty and his fellow cops made one final futile attempt to make a difference, it has inspired good television. The influence of The Wire was visible on The Shield, another gripping police procedural about corrupt cops, gangs and bureaucratic misdeeds, that aired from 2002 to 2008. Shows like Gomorrah (Italian) and Top Boy—hailed as Britain's answer to The Wire—took much inspiration from it. Nonetheless, The Wire did not have a truly spiritual successor, until Simon turned his lens on Baltimore again, to chronicle the true story of the Baltimore Police Department's Gun Trace Task Force in the 2022 miniseries, We Own the City.

Besides giving career breaks to two major stars, Michael B. Jordan and Idris Elba, the show also inspired television creators to focus on world-building, something that later shows like True Detective and Better Call Saul excelled in. The analysis of the degeneration of a city that the show portrayed may be a malady of the times in which it was set. But the broader narrative of the show—of the struggles of the honest few to reform corrupt systems and the collective abdication of responsibility by institutions—continue to be a sempiternal trope in all forms of fiction.