"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

As Balzac said, “There Goes Another Novel”

I’ve had at least ten people tell me that “The Wire” isn’t only their favorite show but that it is without a doubt, “the best Television show ever made.” I still haven’t seen it but plan to tackle it this winter.

Over at the New York Review of Books, check out novelist Lorrie Moore’s take:

Set in post–September 11 Baltimore, the HBO series The Wire—whose sixty episodes were originally broadcast between June 2002 and March 2008 and are now available on DVD—has many things on its rich and roaming mind, but one of those things is Baltimore itself, home of Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken, Babe Ruth, and Billie Holiday. Baltimore is not just a stand-in for Western civilization or globalized urban rot or the American inner city now given the cold federal shoulder in the folly-filled war on terror, though it is certainly all these things. Baltimore is also just plain itself, with a very specific cast of characters, dead and alive. Eminences are pointedly referenced in the course of the series: the camera passes over a sign to Babe Ruth’s birthplace, tightens on a Mencken quote sculpted into the office wall of The Baltimore Sun; “Poe” is not just street pronunciation for “poor” (to the delight of one of The Wire‘s screenwriters) but implicitly printed onto one horror-story element of the script; a phrase of Lady Day wafts in as ambient recorded music in a narrative that is scoreless except when the credits are rolling or in the occasional end-of-season montage.

…he use of Baltimore as a millennial tapestry, in fact, might be seen as a quiet rebuke to its own great living novelists, Anne Tyler and John Barth, both of whose exquisitely styled prose could be accused of having turned its back on the deep inner workings of the city that executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore reporter, and producer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore schoolteacher and cop, have excavated with such daring and success. (“Where in Leave-It-to-Beaver-Land are you taking me?” asks The Wire‘s homeless police informant Bubbles, when driven out to a leafy, upscale neighborhood; the words are novelist and screenwriter Richard Price’s and never mind that this aging cultural reference is unlikely to have actually spilled forth from this character; the remark does nicely).

So confident are Simon and Burns in their enterprise that they have with much justification called the program “not television” but a “novel.” Certainly the series’s creators know what novelists know: that it takes time to transform a social type into a human being, demography into dramaturgy, whether time comes in the form of pages or hours. With time as a medium rather than a constraint one can show a profound and unexpected aspect of a character, and discover what that character might decide to do because of it. With time one can show the surprising interconnections within a chaotic, patchworked metropolis.

It is sometimes difficult to sing the praises of this premier example of a new art form, not just because enthusiastic viewers and cultural studies graduate students have gotten there first—”Heroism, Institutions, and the Police Procedural” or “Stringer Bell’s Lament: Violence and Legitimacy in Contemporary Capitalism” (chapters in The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television)—but also because David Simon himself, not trusting an audience, and not waiting for posterity, in his own often stirring remarks about the show in print interviews, in public appearances, and in audio commentary on the DVD version, has not just explicated the text to near muteness but jacked the critical rhetoric up very high. He is the show’s most garrulous promoter. In comment after comment, even the word “novel” is not always enough and Simon and his colleagues have compared his five-season series to a Greek tragedy (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes are all named), Homer’s Iliad, a Shakespearean drama, a serialized narrative by Dickens, an historical document that will be read in fifty years, a book by Tolstoy, and Melville’s Moby-Dick. This leaves only journalist Joe Klein to raise the ante further: “The Wire never won an Emmy?” Klein is shown exclaiming in the DVD features on the final episode. “The Wire should win the Nobel Prize for literature!”


1 Jon DeRosa   ~  Sep 28, 2010 9:51 am

Season 3 was my favorite. I've also heard people give The Wire the "best ever" title, but I've never heard from anybody that didn't enjoy it thoroughly.

2 Toxic   ~  Sep 28, 2010 10:14 am

I'd be tempted to say it's the best - so far. Criminally under-viewed over here, amount of people I know haven't even heard of it, thanks to the cowards at the BBC. Maybe they were just scared of people asking why the Beeb don't produce anything this good themselves.

3 Just Fair   ~  Sep 28, 2010 10:34 am

I wish I had not yet seen The Wire so I could enjoy it all over again.

4 Matt Blankman   ~  Sep 28, 2010 10:45 am

Simon just won a MacArthur "Genius" grant, too.

I have yet to watch a minute of The Wire and I too have had folks tell me it may be the best show ever (I'm skeptical, but still expecting a great show). Alex, lemme know when you're going to dive in - maybe I'll do likewise so I have someone to jaw with about it!

5 ms october   ~  Sep 28, 2010 11:45 am

it's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come.

[3] haha, indeed.

6 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Sep 28, 2010 12:11 pm

Alvi Singer.


7 The Hawk   ~  Sep 28, 2010 2:20 pm

When I finished the Wire finally, last week, I just wanted to start it again. The only drawback to the show is McNulty's godawful accent. Even that I got used to after a couple seasons.

Anyway it's hard to compare shows that have different parameters. But generally I'd say the Wire is definitely in the top, top, top, top tier. It's just soooooo good.

8 cult of basebaal   ~  Sep 28, 2010 2:42 pm

Great, GREAT show.

The novel comparison is quite apt, though I could see David Simon's hyperbalic self-promotion wearing thin.

So many wonderfully conceived and written characters, that feel so intrinsically lifelike and thoroughly human that I could discuss them for hours (and have).

The Wire is an enormous jigg-saw puzzle, that reveals and reflects and refracts the condition of so many Modern American cities: drugs, crime, poverty, addiction, corruption, the collapse of American manufacturing and the Urban Middle class, blight, gentrification, the failure of our schools, the stifling affects of bloat and entrenched bureaucracy that prevents change in city goverance, the school, the police, the hopeless abandonment of the homeless: the addicted, the poor, the mentally unstable.

All achieved through the weaving of an such amazing tapestry of characters that it rarely feels forced or didactic, and the spread of the story, the reach and drift as the plot begins to spiral farther and farther from its beginnings, feels utterly organic, as inter-connected as an ecosystem.

[1] I'd go:

Season 4
Season 2
Season 3
Season 1
Season 5

Season 4 might just be the finest season of drama I've ever seen on television.

9 cult of basebaal   ~  Sep 28, 2010 2:55 pm

[7] Wait a while and then watch it again. It's worth it, I found myself noticing things I never had the 1st time through and admiring the spinning of the web even more because of it.

re: accent

A friend played a clip of Idris Elba, who plays Stringer Bell, on a British daytime talk show, now I can't hear Stringer talk without hearing Idris which is funny, since I'd not have guessed that he wasn't American the 1st time seeing the series.

An interesting melange of casting, American actors, British actors, 1st time actors who used to be in 'the game'.

10 The Hawk   ~  Sep 28, 2010 3:16 pm

[9] Yeah Idris Elba was fine. Even the guy who played Carcetti, it was weird but it didn't sound foreign to me. But Dominic West just can't do it.

The interesting thing I took out of that article was Simon's thing about it being about the "death of work" ... So true. It's just so much about bullshit and red tape - on the professional, legal side anyway. It really shows how bogged down things are, how superficial, phony, etc.

But yes, too - such great, realistic characters. You end up talking about them like they're real! And the only one that has a kind of heightened fictional feel is a character for the ages, Omar Little.

11 Matt Blankman   ~  Sep 28, 2010 3:32 pm

[7] Great point. How do you compare The Wire to, say, The Mary Tyler Moore show to, say, The Twilight Zone? They're all shows commonly thought of by critics and audiences to be among the very finest and they have almost nothing in common besides being television shows.
That's why I said I'm not going to expect the Wire to be the greatest thing I've ever seen - but with all this praise it had better be damned good!

12 seamus   ~  Sep 28, 2010 3:36 pm

I am one of those people who talks about The Wire as the best show ever. Well, I haven't seen all shows, and my opinion is obviously somewhat subjective. It's almost too thoughtful and gray to be more popular than it was. I recommend it to everyone who lets me.

13 Raf   ~  Sep 28, 2010 9:27 pm

The Wire is a very good show. It's quite a complex show as well, there are a lot of subtleties that you'll pick up upon repeated viewings.

14 cult of basebaal   ~  Sep 29, 2010 2:10 am

Yo String ... where Wallace at???

Where Wallace at?!?!?!?

15 jalepa   ~  Sep 29, 2010 5:19 pm

I have trouble picking between The Wire and The West Wing (which had a precipitous drop in quality after Aaron Sorkin was ousted post Season 4).

My solution to this small dilemma has always been to tell anyone who will listen that there are two shows that they must watch, because they are the greatest of all time.

The Wire is excellent in every single way. It is deliberate, but never boring. Thoughtful, without taking sides. Except for the side that continues to scream that things aren't so great in West Baltimore. The show is beautiful and epic. I love it. Just wish more people would've loved it too.

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