It’s only a cliché because it’s true: there really are only two types of people in the world. There are the people who believe that HBO’s The Wire is the best damn show on television right now, possibly even the best so far this century. And there are the people who haven’t seen it yet.
If you live in the UK, it’s more than likely that you fall into the second category: The Wire, inexplicably, has never been picked up by any of the terrestrial TV networks, and currently hides in the backwaters of Space Telly on the FX channel. But right now, as I’m writing this, you have the ideal opportunity to join the first category. Last Monday (05/02/2007) the third season of the show was released on DVD, and can be bought – along with its two predecessors – in your local video store (or you could use the links at the bottom of the page if you fancy passing some commission my way). And next Tuesday (13/02/2007), the fourth season starts airing on FX at 10pm. So you’ve got no excuse. Join us. Join us now.
What? You want reasons?
History first, then reasons. If the 21st century is notable for people insisting that The Wire is the best damn show on television right now, then the 20th century’s equivalent would have been the fandom that gathered around Homicide: Life On The Street. NBC’s cop show was based on Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, a book by journalist David Simon, documenting the year he spent tagging along with the detectives of the Baltimore PD. The book’s notable for its detailed, no-frills reportage, and its ability to create fully-rounded characters out of the men and women of the police force: and surprisingly for American television, the TV adaptation did the same. Despite low ratings, a couple of fans in high places at NBC managed to keep the show on the air between 1993 and 1999. (In the UK, Homicide received less respectful treatment: season 1 finally makes it out on DVD later this month, a mere 14 years after its initial transmission.)
Initially, David Simon’s involvement with the TV show was limited to providing the source material: but as the series progressed, he came on board as a writer/producer, and apparently acquired a taste for the medium. Since then, usually in collaboration with writing partner Ed Burns (a former detective and schoolteacher), he’s continued working in television to explore the darker side of life in Baltimore. The Corner was an HBO miniseries based on a book by Simon and Burns, which put the Charm City street drug trade under the same level of scrutiny that Simon had used on the police several years earlier. And then, in 2002, came The Wire: a combination of the themes of Homicide and The Corner, but with a hefty State Of The Nation subtext added for good measure.
Five years after its initial broadcast, the opening episode of The Wire feels very much like post-9/11 TV. Not as explicitly as, say, 24: but the idea of a show about a police surveillance team has a different resonance as a result, even more so in the current atmosphere of phone tapping and overall paranoia. Plus, it makes for a neat explanation as to why the team is made up of such a ragbag of mavericks and no-hopers: who cares about the war on drugs these days, when there are bigger enemies to deal with? But over the course of that first season, as you watch that team slowly come together and form a strategy to track down the bosses of a Baltimore drug operation, The Wire separates itself from the pack of cops ‘n’ robbers shows in a number of ways.
For a start, even though the two rival camps are established very quickly, the story takes its own sweet time to get going. Simon has said that he wants the show to have the density of a good novel: each 12-13 episode season consists of a carefully-woven series of plot strands, which all tie up satisfyingly by the end. The other thing to note is that the dealers are given as much screen time as the cops, and – crucially – are allowed to be as smart and well-organised as they are, which makes for a much more interesting conflict. Plus, as we watch the behind-the-scenes rivalries of the police department’s top brass, as well as the internal power struggles in the dope gang, we can’t help but draw parallels between the two.
It’s written and shot very much in the HBO house style – not revelling in its freedom to cuss, shag and kill as other shows from the network do, but using it whenever necessary to give it a harsh air of real life. (In a Guardian piece on the show a couple of years ago, a 17-year-old Baltimore dopehead was quoted as saying “The Wire is the truth. The only unrealistic thing ‘bout The Wire is that no motherfucker in The Wire watch The Wire.”) Each series takes a particular environment – the drug dealers in season 1, corruption on the docks in season 2, city politics in season 3 – and takes you so far into it that by the end of the second season, you feel you’re an expert on container management. But at the same time, it doesn’t forget to give you an enthralling story, helped by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast. They’re so good that I don’t want to single out anyone by name, but it does amuse me how many of them are jobbing English actors doing a Baltimore accent (at least two of them can be seen in London’s West End this month).
Like Homicide, The Wire has been under threat of cancellation due to low ratings: but thanks to a fan-organised campaign, HBO have promised that there will be a fifth and final season to wrap everything up. In the meantime, season 4 starts on FX on Tuesday February 13th at 10pm, and rumour has it that this time Ed Burns will be drawing on his former experience as a teacher to take on the problems of Baltimore's school system. You can jump in at the deep end with season 4, or you can get the DVDs and get to know McNulty, Omar and the rest gradually: either way, you know what to do. Join us. Join us now.