If Deadwood is HBO’s vision of the rapid civilization of America and the creation of institutions to raise order from chaos, then the same network’s The Wire complements it as a chronicle of the eventual failure of those institutions and America’s entropic return to disorder.
There is little difference between the nascent gold rush town of Deadwood and The Wire’s decaying Baltimore. Both are marked by lawlessness in the absence of an empowered and moral government, both populated with essentially good-natured people whose compromises with society have stripped them of any aspirations but survival.
But whereas hindsight allows us to view Deadwood as the temporary and messy beginnings of the American empire—and therefore imbued with hope—there is little redemption found in the looking-glass America of The Wire. Together, the series document the beginning and end of twentieth century America, and capitalism’s raising and ultimate abandonment of its cities.
The Wire is some kind of miracle. Ostensibly a show about a police investigation into the drug trade of just one of Baltimore’s kingpins, the series burst from the ordinariness of its trappings from the start. As created by David Simon, ex-police reporter and creator of Homicide: Life On The Street, and written by ex-detective Ed Burns and a who’s-who of serious crime novelists—including Richard Price, George P. Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane—The Wire is a brilliant marriage of investigative journalism and a novelist’s characterization and dramatic rhythm.
The series is described as a television novel, each season a different chapter of one large tale: the story of the American city. Though the series shows an acute understanding of the locales and machinery of Baltimore, its tragedy extends to all of America. And therein lies its ambition.
The show’s theme is the failure of the institutions created to ensure safety and prosperity for the city’s inhabitants—whether it be the police force, the work force, politicians, or the schools—and the compromises and battles within the institutions one is committed to. Hence the first season, in which we witness a ragtag group of detectives assigned to follow and take down the operations of West Baltimore’s resident crime lord. When the detectives get deep enough, they see how far the criminal empire extends, and they begin to touch some people who would rather not get dirty. They’re ordered to back off.
The Wire is remarkable in its evenhandedness. It gives as much time to both sides of the game, cop and criminal, and blurs the line between them. There are no absolutes: the drug dealers are neighborhood kids who might easily have ended up on the police force if cops recruited the way criminals did. And the policemen themselves are flawed and compromised—thuggish, misanthropic, and deceitful.
The characters draw the viewer in. There are a lot of them, many drawn from real life people and experiences, and all written and acted with a commitment to verisimilitude. There are no heroes or even main characters. There’s no telling what each episode will focus on or who will live to the next one. The show’s producers have a loyalty to the story and the fight, and the characters—as affectionately portrayed as they often are—are all in service of the investigation.
The series is frequently sublime: The characterization of Omar Little, a homosexual gangster with a code—he robs drug dealers and swears loyalty only to his murdered lover. The Scorsese-like musical montage at the end of season two, an emotional wallop that tied up the storylines and marked the end of a way of life. Or, most memorably, the creation of “Hamsterdam”, a section of the city where drugs were legalized, and the positive effect it had on the community.
Its dark and dense themes and commitment to unearth a story whether the viewer can keep up or not has made The Wire a difficult show for new viewers to come to. Add to that a high price for its DVD sets and a failure to break away from its cop show image in a market saturated with good cop shows, and there is little surprise that the show has had a shaky run. Credit must be given to HBO for continuing to finance the series. Unsuccessful as it is commercially, it endures as the best show on television. Its fifth and final season is currently in production.