Revisiting is a new series where TV writers watch, or re-watch, popular TV shows they missed when airing in their prime. Writers will retrospectively review these shows and determine if they still live up to their hype years after their peak success.
Toward the end of “All the Pieces Matter,” Jonathan Abrams’s fabulous new oral history of “The Wire,” Chris Bauer (“The Deuce”), who played stubborn union leader Frank Sobotka in the second season, remarks that “the show asked a lot of anyone who watched it.” You couldn’t, he says, “make a casserole and watch ‘The Wire’ in the background.”
That’s precisely what makes “The Wire” so striking to revisit in 2018 — a time when streaming platforms have made passive television watching easier than ever, and about a million things are competing for our limited attention.
It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to make a show like “The Wire,” which threw all the rules for “watchable television” out the window. The pacing could be glacial, details easy to miss, dialogue peppered with slang and undeciphered police jargon, but “The Wire” wouldn’t dumb itself down or explain itself or clean itself up because it didn’t have to. It’s just that good. The show’s brilliance, rather infamously, was never recognized by Emmy voters. And creator David Simon (“Treme”) admits that every season of “The Wire” was close to being its last, given the unimpressive ratings.
Somehow, though, its legacy has endured. Years after it left the air, it has rightfully carved a place for itself as one of the best television shows — maybe the best — of all time. Why? It’s a show that has — save some pagers and boxy computers — aged unbelievably well. Just a few themes it managed to cover in its five-season run: the futility of the war on drugs, the decline of American manufacturing, political corruption, underinvesting in schools, modern media consumption. Sound familiar? “The Wire” speaks to our current political moment in a way no other show from that era could ever come close to.
Who, after all, can bear to watch “The West Wing” anymore? Who can look at that world, with its starry-eyed idealists and orchestral grandeur, without it all feeling painfully naive? If “The West Wing” was institutions at their purest, guided and evolved by people dedicated to service, “The Wire” is the opposite — institutions at their worst, crippling, corrupt and stagnant. Anyone who tried to reform them, or find some agency in them was embarking on a Sisyphean task. To quote the thoughtful drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., “The Walking Dead”), “The king stay the king.” You could try to change things in Baltimore, but you sure as hell weren’t going to succeed. Strangely, it’s Barack Obama’s favorite show, an odd pick for someone whose presidency was characterized by an almost frustrating belief in the fundamental goodness of American institutions.
Obama told David Simon he liked the show for its empathy. Every season of “The Wire” focused on different institutions in the city — the first season on the drug trade, the second on stevedores at the Port of Baltimore, the third on local politicians, the fourth on public schools and the fifth on the media. The transitions could be jarring, but by the end of the show, we see so much of a city and so much of its people.
It makes “The Wire” one of the most fascinating character studies on television. Everyone on the show, no matter how morally corrupt, is also so deeply, strangely human. Wee-Bey (Hassan Johnson, “ER”), an enforcer for the Barksdale crime organization, has no qualms about killing people, but he’s also a doting owner of several pet fish. Stringer Bell (Idris Elba, “Luther”), the Barksdale organization’s stoic second-in-command, audits econ classes at City College. When Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West, “The Affair”) searches through Stringer’s apartment, he finds a copy of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” on a bookshelf and asks, “Who in the fuck was I chasing?” It wasn’t a warm show, but there’s a real affection for each character that shines throughout.
“The Wire,” with its narrative elegance and careful rhythms, has sometimes been thought of as a work of literature. Dickens is the easy parallel here — the street urchins of West Baltimore in all their squalor, with names to rival Pip and the Artful Dodger, made palatable to the bourgeois audiences of HBO. But Simon doesn’t think the show was Dickensian; he thinks Tolstoy a more appropriate comparison, and that certainly rings true in the sweeping canvas of characters, the soul of a nation told through the people who inhabit it. There’s even a hint of inner-city Steinbeck to the “The Wire” with its lucidity and reverence for the downtrodden. In so many ways, the show functions as a rich, sprawling novel. Here are some of the best chapters:
“Cleaning Up,” Season 1, Episode 12
Maybe one of the reasons “The Wire” has the feel of a novel is because many episodes were actually written by a novelist. George Pelecanos, a detective fiction writer, gave “The Wire” some of its most gripping stories, and was brought in to write the penultimate episode of each season. “Cleaning Up,” written by Pelecanos, is the first episode of “The Wire” that confirms what you’ve suspected all along: This show is going to break your heart. Wallace (Michael B. Jordan, “Black Panther”), the 16-year-old drug dealer who has come to be the heart of the show’s first season, is shot by his two best friends on Stringer’s orders. It’s both one of the most chilling scenes in the show and also just the tip of the iceberg.
“Middle Ground,” Season 3, Episode 11
This show is really about whether individuals can find a way to change their circumstances. Spoiler: They can’t. The third season is all about the idea of “reform,” the most ambitious of these projects being Hamsterdam, a sort of experimental free-drug zone meant to reduce the violence that accompanies the drug trade. In “Middle Ground,” Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom, “Ballers”), a major in Baltimore’s Western District, has to face the music and admit to his enraged supervisors that he has essentially been sanctioning drug dealing. And at the Barksdale organization, Stringer Bell, who has spent the season trying to elevate the game, meets his heartbreaking end. The episode’s title is a little tongue-in-cheek — there’s no such thing as middle ground in “The Wire”; nobody can have their cake and eat it too.
“Final Grades,” Season 4, Episode 13
One of the most rewarding things to witness in every season of “The Wire” is the transformations characters make from the beginning of each season to the end. “Final Grades,” the fourth season finale, is maybe the best episode of “The Wire,” and it’s also the best example of these transformations. The last 12 episodes have followed four boys in the public school system in Baltimore, and by the end of the season, we’ve watched them all lose their innocence. In true form, the show showed us four bright, funny, smart kids, gave us a little hope that they might have a future, and then pulled the rug from out under us.
This month marks 10 years since “The Wire” aired its season finale. Could a show like it survive today? “The game done changed,” reformed criminal Cutty (Chad Coleman, “The Walking Dead”) tells enforcer Slim Charles (Anwan Glover, “12 Years a Slave”) after a long stint in prison. The TV landscape has shifted dramatically, and it’s hard to imagine a network taking a chance on something like “The Wire” today. But there’s still — and will always be — an audience for powerful, critical storytelling. “Game’s the same,” Slim Charles replies. “Just got more fierce.”