by guest blogger Sandeep Chauhan
“… and all the pieces matter.” – Freamon, The Wire
Sunday March 9th marks the end of HBO’s The Wire. If you’ve never heard of The Wire then please do crawl out from under that shady rock and rent or buy season one of what many critics — yours truly included — have called the best television show ever.
At a casual glance, The Wire looks like any other cop show — TV’s bread and butter. Based respectively on their careers as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun and as a homicide detective with the Baltimore Police Department, show creators David Simon and Ed Burns have created a cop show without equal — not only a police procedural but also the story of a city. They use their show as a flashlight, not to shine light on an unfamiliar world, but to reveal the flipside of ours; the characters they’ve created are not concerned with champagne wishes and caviar dreams but whether they will have frank and beans on the table. Simon and Burns are more concerned with how the institutions we allow into our lives ultimately destroy us. In an oft-quoted statement, Simon has said, “We are not selling hope, or audience gratification, or cheap victories with this show. The Wire is making an argument about what institutions — bureaucracies, criminal enterprises, the cultures of addiction, raw capitalism even — do to individuals. It is not designed purely as an entertainment. It is, I’m afraid, a somewhat angry show.”
That anger is evident from the series opener, “The Target,” to last Sunday’s episode, “Late Editions.” Over the show’s five seasons, Simon & Burns along with their team of writers — including novelists Dennis Lehane and Richard Price — have attacked the American Dream and left it a bloated, rotting corpse.
They choose subtlety over bombast. The Barksdale crew from season one is more Enron than cartoon villain — a microcosm of corporate corruption rather than purveyors of chaos. Detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lestor Freamon’s anything-goes war against drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield in the current season echoes the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, and the casualties of such a war.
For me, the best was season number four, where the writers challenged the notion of self-reliance and individualism by following the lives of four underprivileged West Baltimore youth as they confront their futures. Instead of pat, happy endings, The Wire rendered the realistic — and all too grim — options these kids face. The show has never been afraid to stare at the truth.
In season one, the writers not only focused on the horrors of the drug trade, but argued that America’s drug war was a war on the poor. Anyone who has visited Vancouver’s downtown eastside can attest to the casualties our own drug policies have created. Season two focused on the betrayal of the working class and season three on reform in institutions calcified through corruption and apathy. The current season examines news reporting and media manipulation.
It’s hard to be a fan though. In fact, it can be downright frustrating. The show is one of a new breed of heavily serialized dramas that have turned up over the past six years. Each season is slow to start, only really picking up by the sixth or seventh episode, at which point everything moves like lightning. Salon.com has called it “a visual novel,” and, in fact, each episode works like the stripped-down narratives you find in a lot of contemporary novels. Not one line of dialogue is wasted, and because there’s no exposition — flashback, dialogue, or otherwise — everything onscreen matters.
This Sunday, as the credits roll on the final episode, “-30-,” I’ll be toasting the creators of The Wire, a show that for the past five years argued that all the pieces matter, and that all people matter too.