Every few years we get a TV show that gets designated “the greatest TV show ever”. A few years ago it was The West Wing, The Sopranos, then Mad Men, and now it is either Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
All very fine dramas, and proof that this is in fact the golden age of television, when the medium realised its core movie-beating strength as the place for long form story telling.
Then, of course, there’s The Wire. Now, here’s a show that has received more hype than almost every other show, and I’ll be honest: I was sceptical. As I write this, in fact, I’m not even finished its final fifth season.
But I can still say this: the hype is deserved. The Wire is quite possibly the finest TV drama ever made. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not for everybody. In fact, the first time I tried to watch it I gave up, finding it slow, turgid and very difficult to get into. It is the very definition of slow burning. But it is worth it, because as a means of telling a complex story, this is the text book.
What’s it about? Nominally, it’s a cop show, about an ongoing investigation into drugs, but in reality, The Wire is about how a modern racially-divided American city (Baltimore) works, warts and all. What’s interesting about it is that there are actually relatively few baddies in it, just people ground up by a relenting economic system forcing them to making choices between ugly options.
On top of that, the story goes from the lowest rung of the social ladder, from the story of a vagrant drug addict peddling tee shirts all the way to the mayor of the city, and how all are connected and seemingly equally powerless. It goes from the police to politics to education to the media. If it wasn’t called The Wire, it should have been called “The Web” because it is a magnificent picture of how modern society is so interconnected.
Finally, you can’t talk about The Wire without talking about the characters and the actors who portray them. I’m not going to name a single one, because that would do a disservice to the literally dozens of superb performances. But if we don’t see more of these superb actors around the place, there’s no justice.
This is the gold standard. That does not mean that everybody will enjoy it. It won’t be to everybody’s taste. But as television drama goes, The Wire is now the bar to be exceeded.