If you haven't seen the show you may not know this, but these are two of the greatest TV characters ever.
Whenever I hang out with my friends at a bar or a party or in somebody’s living room, sooner or later we wind up talking about what TV shows we’re watching – that, probably, is why I’m friends with those particular people. Everybody will gush about whatever it is they’re marathonning at the moment – Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Community, Homeland – and everybody else in the group who’s been watching those shows too will join in the gushing.
Sooner or later somebody will turn to me and say, “So Truman, what are you watching?” And these past few months it’s been my sincere pleasure to answer that question by saying ever-so-nonchalantly, “Oh, I’ve just been watching The Wire.”
The Wire is a police procedural that ran for five seasons on HBO. Practically nobody watched it, but since its conclusion in 2008 the show has garnered such pervasive critical acclaim that the only thing most people do know about The Wire is that it’s supposedly the best TV show ever made.
What this means for me is I get to be incredibly smug as everybody asks me about the show like I’ve just gotten back from Shangri-La, or a weekend of playing flag football with Jesus.
“I’ve heard great things about that show – I really want to watch it!”
Well, you really should. It’ll completely change your outlook on life and American society – at least, it did for me.
“Isn’t it Barack Obama’s favorite show?”
Oh – you hadn’t heard?
“Everyone says that show is incredible but I’ve never gotten around to watching it…”
Why not? Don’t you want to appreciate good television?
The reason that lots of people want to watch The Wire but haven’t gotten around to it is because it’s a really fucking hard show to watch. It’s slow paced, the story is extremely complicated, there are well over 100 recurring characters, it’s depressing as all hell, there’s so much street slang that you need to watch it with subtitles and an Urban Dictionary search window close at hand, and most of the main characters spend their time trying to navigate crushing bureaucracy instead of getting into shootouts or car chases. Hell, the vast majority of the police characters never once fire their weapons in the entirety of the series.
Don’t get me wrong – the show is exciting, enjoyable, full of fascinating characters, darkly hilarious, and deserving of all of its praise, but it is not fun to watch.
Even at its darkest and most depressing, Breaking Bad was always fun in some sense – Walt and Jesse had a very enjoyable way of solving problems, even if it wasn’t necessarily enjoyable for the two hundred-odd people who got killed along the way. That was what that show was about: Walt and Jesse solving problems with science and violence.
The Wire is a very different show. It’s not meant to be fun to watch – series creator and asshole-genius David Simon has said as much in multiple interviews – but rather to showcase everything that’s wrong with the city of Baltimore and, by extension, America.
Spoiler alert: There are a lot of things wrong with the city of Baltimore and America.
Watching TV has never been this much work for me before. Even when I was in the thick of the series, fully wrapped up in the show’s world and obsessed with its characters, I still had to psych myself up to watch an episode. This is because terrible things happen to good people on virtually every episode of The Wire, and some nights it was more appealing to just not watch an episode and spare myself the emotional trauma at the expense of not knowing what happens next.
Honestly, The Wire is less of a TV series and more of a pilgrimage. It requires your full attention – there are no flashbacks and precious little exposition, so you have to listen closely and be prepared to rewind, and forget about trying to surf Facebook while you watch. It also requires patience – the Baltimore Police Department doesn’t even start running the eponymous wiretap until halfway through the first season.
But like any good pilgrimage, in good time your efforts will be rewarded.
Well, actually, that might not be true – I’m not an expert on pilgrimages. For all I know, thousands of people could’ve gone on pilgrimages and thought they were bullshit afterwards. I’ve never been on a pilgrimage and only have a conceptual idea of what one is so I probably shouldn’t be comparing it to a TV show about cops and heroin dealers. Let’s try this:
The Wire does not go out of its way to be welcoming or accessible, but if you commit to it and watch it the way it wants you to and put up with some of the slower season 2 subplots about the stevedores, it will absolutely draw you in and entertain the shit out of you with an epic story about complex, well drawn characters on both sides of the law.
Better still, when you’re done you can join that elite, hallowed society of people who’ve watched The Wire and say ostentatious things like, “If more people watched The Wire, America would be a better place,” or “I think if we sent six million box sets of The Wire to Haiti we could really make some changes down there.”
Truman Capps hopes to Christ somebody reads this and watches The Wire so he can have somebody to talk about The Wire with.