The Wire has grown on Diarmuid Carter, and now it will grow on you
Another cop show. Another shady cityscape. Another unorthodox detective who doesn’t play by the rules, but still gets results. Another tough as nails boss who’s always on his ass, but grudgingly respects him. Throw in some drug raids, a few chase scenes and, say, the murder of a witness, and you’ve got a mildly entertaining but strictly formulaic Sunday evening cop show. A poor man’s NYPD Blue.
This preconception – the generic label of ‘cop show’ – meant that The Wire took a little while to really make itself known as a quality TV drama that could rival the best HBO had to offer. While it was generally well received by the critics when it first aired in June 2002, it took a few years for it to really capture the public’s imagination. They needed time to look beyond the donut-eating detectives and see The Wire for what it really is – one of the greatest portrayals of the world we live in today.
The Wire is not just about the cops and the robbers, it’s not even just about the dock-workers, politicians, journalists, school children (the list goes on), that make up the rest of this meticulously detailed construction of a city. It’s about society. It’s about all the institutions, all the hierarchies and the power plays that we, no matter who we are, negotiate every day. Be it a low-level drug dealer or the city’s mayor, everyone’s got somebody to answer to. It is an examination of the defining structures that go to the very root of society, and it is ‘society’ that is The Wire’s main concern.
That’s not to say that it’s short on characters. One of its greatest achievements is to create a huge range of individual players, crossing all sectors of society, with none of them appearing thin or one-dimensional. The most likeable characters – such as Omar, a shotgun-toting gay anti-gangster who robs drug-dealers – are generally the outsiders, fighting outside institutional boundaries. These characters, none the less, are intrinsically linked to the society in which they exist – however hard you fight, you’re still stuck in the maze. The Wire offers no easy answers.
While it may have taken a while, The Wire now gets the kind of praise usually reserved for medical breakthroughs or The Sopranos. A weekly column in The Guardian analyses each episode and Harvard uses it for curriculum material on their urban inequality course, but apart from all that it’s also really, really enjoyable to watch. I defy you to watch an episode and not want to watch another.