TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 1 – ‘The Wire’

12.31.09 8 years ago 50 Comments


I’ve always believed in the conventional wisdom of this gig, the one that says that as much as you’d prefer to always watch good TV, you’d also prefer to always review bad TV. It’s more fun and it’s just easier.
This 31-day project working my way through TV’s Best of the Decade has been a challenge because it’s been a month-long journey of well-deserved hyperbole, of trying to find new and increasing florid ways of expressing “greatness,” “awesomeness” and “hilarity.” And that was all writing about 30 shows that, from the beginning, were always runners-up. 
So now what? 
How do I find sufficient hyperbole to properly pay tribute to HBO’s “The Wire”?
In the words of Omar Little, “Come at the king, you best not miss.”
And make no doubt, “The Wire” is the king.
More, probably a lot more, on TV’s Best Show of the Decade, “The Wire,” after the break…
Created by David Simon and airing on HBO over five seasons from 2002 to 2008, “The Wire” is the great television achievement of The Aughts. That’s a start, but it doesn’t go far enough.
I just completed a hastily assembled list of the Top 31 movies of the decade and “The Wire” towers over any one of them and, as a 60-hour series, probably towers over the totality of my list of 31 movies. I didn’t do a list of my favorite books of the decade, but rest-assured that “The Wire” ranks above any novel I’ve read in the decade, especially as a piece of cumulative storytelling. So, keeping things neat and simple, I have no trouble saying that “The Wire” is the decade’s defining creative endeavor. 
Soon you start expanding the circle, though. Is “The Wire” the best series ever produced for television? I’d say “Yes,” while acknowledging that there’s competition.
But looking more broadly still, if I’m teaching a college course on the United States of America and the American Dream — it’s a big topic, so it’s probably an intro AmCiv class — I’m putting “The Wire” on the syllabus next to “Citizen Kane” and “The Godfather II,” alongside “Moby Dick,” “The Jungle,” The Great Gatsby,” “Invisible Man” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
That’s a start. But it’s also puffery.
It’s been written before by wiser men than I am (Sepinwall, mostly) that “The Wire” is a viable candidate or proxy for the ever-elusive Great American Novel. It’s not TV, it’s HBO? How about it’s not HBO, it’s “The Wire”?
“The Wire” cannot, under any circumstances, be watched casually, even if you’ve seen the episodes before. I find that the majority of the TV I watch can be zipped through why doing two or three other tasks. Like I can download images, cut and photoshop pictures and throw together a gallery while watching “Melrose Place.” The aspects I miss in terms of plot complexity and character nuance are mitigated by the amount I gain in not wasting my full attention. In the rewatching of “The Wire” that I’ve done for this list, I found that even knowing the fate of every character on the screen, I could barely chew gum and watch at the same time, much less attempt to return emails. “The Wire” is a full world and if you don’t commit to total immersion, you aren’t making enough commitment. That’s a lot for a TV show to ask.
Simon’s series focuses on the city of Baltimore, paying special attention to the drug pushers and the kingpins, the users and the abusers, the cops and the attorneys and the unions and the businesses and the politicians who all exist in a symbiotic web, each feeding off the other and each exploiting the other.
One of the series’ most telling moments comes in the second season in the episode “All Prologue.” Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), shotgun wielding stickup artist, is being torn apart on the stand by Maurice Levy (Michael Kostroff), defense attorney to generations of drug lords. Levy attacks Omar, who insists he’s never raised a gun at a civilian, for being a parasite who preys on the weak and preys on the elements that are already undermining supposedly civilized society. But Omar stops Levy dead in his tracks by telling him that they’re the same.
“I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase,” he says. “It’s all in the game though.”
If “The Wire” had an official slogan, it would be “It’s all in the game.” All of the show’s inhabitants, even the ones under the illusion that they have power, are just pawns being pushed around. If they aren’t slaves to Capitalism, they’re under the thumb of bigger pawns. 
And there are so many pawns.
“The Wire” is often called Dickensian because at any moment, Simon and his team of writers — including ace novelists like Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos — would be juggling (not literally) dozens of characters (literally) across three or four different levels of perceived power, from the pits of the project low-rises to the police squad rooms to the upper halls of justice to posh parlor rooms housing fundraisers for council members and politicians. A trail of money connects everybody.
In the show’s first two or three episodes, we’re introduced to almost all of the important figures for the first season and, it turns out, a goodly number of the figures who would play major roles for all five seasons.
“The Wire” is hardly the only show on this list to feature a large ensemble cast. I’d even guess a show like “The Sopranos” or “Lost” introduced nearly as many characters over their full run. The tendency on other shows, though, is to find a way to get every single person into the pilot and give them a broad and easily identifiable characteristic. That way, when we come back in episode two, even if you don’t remember a character’s name, you can do “Gay” or “Gambling Problem” or “Priest” or “Hot Chick.” It’s a product of shorthand, but it’s also a product of TV as an industry and actors as professionals with egos and complicated contracts. If you have a TV star and you’re making him a regular, he’s darned well going to want to be in the opening credits and the quibbling over who’s a regular and who’s recurring and who’s a guest star can often play a determining factor in how much we see different characters, often nearly as much as narrative necessity. 
In “The Wire,” there are 30+ characters introduced in the first two or three episode and if you watched from the beginning, odds were you didn’t recognize 99 percent of the actors (unless you watched “Oz” and “Homicide” regularly). It’s a mix of theater actors, television stars and total newbies and the first time I watched the show, the actor I found most recognizable was “Kids” star Leo Fitzpatrick as junky Johnny, who turns out to be a quaternary or quinary character at most. Nobody tips the pitch to let you know which characters are good and which are bad (unless you make the completely false assumption that just because somebody has a badge, they’re “good” or because they have a needle in their arm, they’re “bad”). Nobody wants to let you know who’s worth becoming invested in and who’s going to be shot in the next episode. A character with two or three memorable sequences in one episode might drop off the narrative grid for two, three, four weeks at a time. Somebody’s who’s barely been in the background might suddenly turn out to be the “hero” or a particular episode.
Simon and writing partner Ed Burns, a former homicide detective, were invested in building a case for each season, but that works on several levels. On the strictly plot-driven level, each season has an adversary or a target, beginning with Wood Harris’ Avon Barksdale in the first season and advancing. For four of the seasons, the cases are directly intertwined, each one involving the drug trade in West Baltimore and the group of detectives and good po-lice (much more fun to say that way) tasked with using the resources of a taxed department to bring in the case, whether that includes surveillance, cultivating informants or more unconventional motives. The second season is a jarring and fascinating detour into the city’s docks and various ethnic enclaves that still tie in with different levels of corruption and, as ever, with the seats of power. The third season begins the arc of Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen), ambitious city councilman and Great White Hope, learning the relationships and compromises necessary to become the city’s mayor. The fourth season makes a partial detour into the Baltimore educational system, again exposing the failures of a corrupt system doomed by financial motives over the welfare of the children. And the fifth season took on the dying world of print journalism where, once again, the ultimate culprit was the Almighty Dollar, with bleed-it-leads sensationalism and increasing lack of accountability and ethnics leading to the ultimate corruption of The Truth.
So to step back from that, “The Wire” can really just be taken as a terrific police procedural, a cops-and-robbers saga for the 21st Century urban wasteland. More actual realistic investigative and police work goes on in one episode of “The Wire” than in whole seasons of “CSI” or “Law & Order.” I wanted to add that, because I don’t want anybody thinking that just because “The Wire” is a novel, it isn’t a page-turner of a novel. Having Price, Pelecanos and Lehane on staff means that “The Wire” moves with the compulsive readability of any of their novels and if you’ve read those guys, you know they’re the best at what they do. And it does so with a realism and authenticity honed by location shooting and a visual template established by the late executive producer Robert F. Colesbury from the pilot on.
It’s almost a trick question to ask somebody which his or her favorite season of “The Wire” is. The correct answer is probably, “Oh, that one that ran between 2002 and 2008. You know? The one with 60 episodes?” I vote for the third season, with the return of Brother Mouzone and Hamsterdam and “Middle Ground,” which may be my favorite single episode. But if you want to say you prefer Season Four or Season One, you won’t get an argument from me. 
There’s a feeling or a perception that Season Two might be a weaker season. The shift to the docks is abrupt and, after learning a new vernacular in Season One, Simon and company force a whole different language on you in Season Two, a language which ceases to be spoken for the last three seasons. Season Two is the strange outlier.
While I’m not going to take it on as my favorite — my favorite season is the one that ran between 2002 and 2008, the one with the 60 episodes — my recent rewatching of Season Two has only added to my appreciation of its take on race, one that’s probably unique for the small screen.
“The Wire” is a show about race. If I had to list the show’s Top 10 themes, I’d go with “Race” at No. 2 with a bullet, behind only “Class” (which gets “social stratification” and “The American Dream” lumped into it). It’s a fair guess that no show has ever contained more skin tones and more different racial mixes. And with that general diversity, it’s also fair to say that no show has ever presented more varied shades of the African-American characters. Look at Burrell (Frankie Faison), Daniels (Lance Reddick), Carver (Seth Gilliam), Bunk (Wendell Pierce), and Freamon (Clarke Peters) and Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) on the police force alone. I’ve seen strange comments on message boards in the past talking about how this character or that character from “The Wire” is a stereotype. If you find enough characters and distribute enough personality traits, some of them are probably going to be familiar, but you’re also going to eventually populate the world.
[Note that while there were some concerns in early seasons about the number of African-American roles being written by white men on “The Wire” not only were there more than a couple minority scribes over the years, but the number of minority directors, starting with Clark Johnson on the pilot was impressive.]
If anything is stereotyped in the first season, if anything isn’t depicted with diversity, it’s *whiteness* (popular culture is a panoply of depictions of whiteness, so I don’t think I was feeling insecure). In the first season whiteness is almost exclusively the color of power, of cops and judges and attorneys. 
In the second season, though, with its focus on blue collar dock workers and Polish and Greek ethnic communities, we get the idea of whiteness as a stratified minority community, with different variations of class hierarchy  and different cultural markers. We see the way different groups of people usually lumped in as “Caucasian” distinguish between cultures and the ways in which poverty and crime can foment in those subcultures. Because whiteness is hegemonic, pop culture depictions of whiteness as Racial Other is hard to come by and it’s the kind of extra layer of diversity that only a show like “The Wire” could even attempt.
But it isn’t just racial economic territory that “The Wire” mines with a depth and dedication that few works of art could even contemplate. In Omar Little and Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), “The Wire” produced two of the most complicated and layered gay characters imaginable, sexual and confident characters in lines of work that can be decidedly hostile toward any kind of difference. The show also featured the intriguing androgyny of Felicia Pearson’s Snoop, plus at least one other character who was revealed to be on the down-low, even if it was never mentioned again.
[Heterosexual femininity was one of the few things “The Wire” didn’t do quite so well with. Amy Ryan has a great arc in the second season. Deirdre Lovejoy’s Pearlman is mostly good, though I have some reservations. The show’s best straight female character may by Brianna Barksdale, played with fierce intensity by Michael Hyatt.]
Even if you don’t take them as exemplars of race, class or gender theory, the characters in “The Wire” are a lovable, colorful lot. The more I go on about how Important and Smart and Rewarding “The Wire” is, the more you could lose how hilarious it is at times and also how emotionally shattering it is. “The Wire” is not medicine. It’s also the most entertaining TV show of the decade. The characters with five-season runs almost all get compelling arcs. Some reaffirm the show’s underlying concern that the game is rigged and some offer hope that it’s possible to change your life, albeit sometimes only in small ways.
Favorite characters? As the marvelous Isiah Whitlock Jr’s Clay Davis would say, “Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet.” How’re you supposed to choose?
Obviously it starts with Omar. Are you making a list of TV’s best characters? Omar, with his trench coat, with his scars, with his string of pretty boyfriends, with his creepy-assed whistling of “The Farmer in the Dell,” with his familiar and repeatable speech patterns (“Oh, indeed!”), with his rigorous and vicious sense of right and wrong has to be tops. Omar makes Tony Soprano look bland and socially well-adjusted. Favorite Omar moment? I’d probably go with Omar on the witness stand in “All Prologue.”
Second favorite? If there weren’t an Omar, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) would be a clear winner. To this day there are still people shocked when Elba starts talking and his British accent comes out after becoming accustomed to Stringer, Avon’s cold-hearted right-hand, a future kingpin taking business classes at the local junior college in an effort to someday go legit, or at least to someday become a legitimate mogul in addition to his nefarious doings. Favorite Stringer moment? Probably his attempts to run a meeting of a Baltimore drug consortium according to the rules of parliamentary procedure.
How about Jimmy McNulty? On the surface he’s probably the show’s hero, largely because Dominic West is one of the few cast members who looks like a movie star. Sure, he cheats on his wife and drinks to disgusting excess and he’s self-destructive in everything he does, but you’ve gotta admire a guy this determined to do the right thing, even if everything he does is driven by his own ego. Favorite McNulty moment? I just love how everything McNulty does in Season Five, even if it’s outlandish by the show’s standards, feels like it’s an organic choice for a character we’ve gotten to know so well.
How about Bubbles (Andre Royo)? I haven’t spoiled any major plotpoints in this article, because if you haven’t watched the show before, I want you to still have surprises. But let’s just say that Bubbles, slave to his addictions and nearly powerless to change his life, is probably the true hero of the show. He’s certainly the person you become most determined to root for as the series progresses.
What of Det. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewsk (Jim True-Frost)? Introduced as the ultimate screw-up, a potentially dangerous cop protected by nepotism, we see Prez find his purpose. We see him try to do good and even sometimes succeed. Yeah, we become pretty determined to root for Prez.
How about the four kids from Season Four, Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), Randy (Maestro Harrell), Michael (“90210” star Tristan Wilds) and Namond (Julito McCullum)? Talk about a risk, basically turning the heart of a long-running show over to four new characters played by four inexperienced actors. The amount of support for Season Four among fans proves that Simon did everything right.
And what of Tommy Carcetti? You can watch the three seasons of Carcetti’s arc and I defy you to tell me at the end of any given arc how much of what he says he actually believes in, how much is political posturing and how much is total bull-plop. The character’s motivation — upward mobility — isn’t in doubt for a single second, but he could go from True Believer to Total Fraud within a scene or two.
Here’s where I either keep going forever on characters (and the amazing actors who played them), or I leave things off, though it would be a true pity not at least mention the remarkable performances by Larry Gilliard Jr., J.D. Williams, Lance Reddick, Wendell Pierce, Chris Bauer, James Ransone, Robert F. Chew, Michael Kostroff, Hassan Johnson, Jamie Hector, Chad Coleman, Michael Potts, Robert Wisdom, Gbenga Akinnagbe, John Doman, Delaney Williams and many many more. 
All of that is said and I haven’t even gotten into the biggest “Wire” question of all: Which version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” is your favorite.
Me? I’m going straight to the source and getting behind Waits’ version, which played over the opening credits of Season Two. If you want to support the Blind Boys of Alabama’s version, as a Season One purist? I can’t insult that choice. I’ve got no problems with the Season Five version from Steve Earle (and not just because he played recovering addict Walon in multiple episodes) and even the DoMaJe Season Four version has its moments. For me the Season Three cover, by the Neville Brothers, is way, way overproduced.
As everybody knows, “The Wire” never won a single Emmy in five seasons and was only nominated twice, for scripts by Simon and Pelecanos. It was never nominated for a single Screen Actors Guild ensemble award and, in a crying shame, it couldn’t even win a single NAACP Image Award. Always a critical darling, it was nominated for multiple Television Critics Association awards, including Program of the Year on three occasions, but for all of that love, it only won a single TCA award, the 2008 Heritage Award (typically given to our favorite show that’s going off the air).
But what does that really matter? Scholars will be studying “The Wire” for as long as it’s hip to count television as art and viewers will be discovering the show for as long as those five DVD sets are in print.
If you haven’t seen “The Wire,” Netflix it. Make sure you get the first two disks at once. “The Wire” is an immersive experience and it may take two or three episodes to get in complete synch with the rhythm and the pacing, to figure out who the characters are.
Give it a chance and you won’t stop until you get to Episode 60. 
To say it one last time: 
“The Wire” stands at No. 1 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade. 
Oh, you best believe.
Coming up tomorrow? It’s a whole new decade. Time to start looking for the next big thing.

A full explanation of the parameters for this list. 

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