The Wire

“No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.” – Roland Pryzbylewski

I know I’m late for the party.

The Wire: I love it and despise it.

I love the gritty HBO drama for all the memorable characters it gave us from Avon to Omar to Proposition Joe. I was told the question to ask while discussing your favorite Wire character is, “Who is your favorite character besides Omar?” and while I can appreciate that, I still found myself rooting for Proposition Joe more than any of them including Omar. You could name your three favorites and I wouldn’t argue.

Yet, I despise the Wire because it set a ridiculously high bar for future TV dramas to the point where I find myself comparing everything I watch to it and finding nothing outside of Mad Men and Breaking Bad are in the ballpark.

I’ve now watched every episode at least twice.  It’s that engrossing and layered and often shocking. It’s also sad and funny, and many nights I to went to bed bothered by what I’d seen, but unable to stop thinking about it.

One of my favorite scenes takes place in the first season when D’Angelo catches Wallace and Bodie playing a game of checkers on a chess board. Like an older brother, he explains the rules of chess, comparing each piece to people –mostly thugs, they can relate to.  It’s early enough in the story that it’s easy to overlook the fact that D’Angelo is spelling out far more than a game. As each season unwinds, you realize he’s describing Baltimore and all its social and economic failings as well as their role in the “the game”.

The Wire depicts police officers and detectives desperate to make their superiors look good which often includes “juking the stats” to give them what they expect. The police and politicians talk a good game when it comes to crime. But they care more about the appearance of fighting it, even when that means moving cases around jurisdictions to keep them off the reports.

Wall Street plays the same game with different financial vehicles. Remember how Enron was able to keep debt off their books by temporarily assigning it to fictional entities? We see the same games being played in the Wire but with violent crime stats. Everyone knows it’s wrong, but few have the guts to stand up and say, “This is wrong.”

There are so many great scenes and memorable quotes that run through my mind. Avon and Stringer on the rooftop, the Omar and Brother Mouzone confrontation, and Bubbles being allowed upstairs for dinner. Only during season five did I get a bit restless watching McNulty concoct the phantom serial killer.

The Wire discourages casual viewing, yet rewards those who are in it for the long haul. Seemingly insignificant characters return in later episodes (even seasons) to help paint a full picture of Baltimore and its people working in and outside of the law. The Wire has more in common with a great book that unwinds slowly than a TV crime drama. What other TV drama have you heard of that’s taught at Harvard?

The Wire is the best television show I’ve seen, yet I’ve only recommended it to a few friends I knew would like it. It’s a major time investment and it won’t appeal to all. I had difficulty understanding a lot of the slang, and keeping track of all the characters can be mind-boggling. But is worth it?

In the words of Omar Little: “Indeed.”