Ask someone to make a list of American crime drama shows, and the CSI franchise, Law and Order: SVU and NCIS are likely to figure at the top, with good reason. These series’ recipe for success is simple and effective: intelligent and relatively attractive good guys catch the oftentimes-unexpected bad guys who have committed unspeakable criminal acts. Along the way, writers may also add a dash of romantic storyline and the odd personal shake-up to the regular good-guy characters. After all, what would CSI be without the complexities of Sara and Grissom’s relationship amidst the organised chaos of TV’s most famous forensics lab? Viewers love the formula and consistently provide such shows with positive ratings, hiking up the demand for them. There’s a reason why CSI and Law and Order have been airing for 10 and 11 years, respectively.
Another show of the same genre has, however, quietly risen since 2005 to compete against the established ratings powerhouses. The Wire, created and written by American author and journalist David Simon, delivers a strikingly different take on the crime drama we have become used to. Set in the American city of Baltimore, The Wire resembles other series in its dedicated focus on one geographical location. CSI has capitalised on its Las Vegas, New York City and Miami spinoffs, while the focus in Criminal Minds remains in Quantico, Virginia. But that is where the similarities between The Wire and other crime dramas stop. Simon wisely broke away from the tried-and-tested, and based each season of the series on a different facet of Baltimore’s crime scene instead of inventing a new bad guy and heinous crime for every episode.
HBO-produced The Wire has gone beyond what is expected of a crime show. It delves into deeper social and political issues as opposed to just nitpicking the relationships between characters. The first season generally introduces the theme of Baltimore’s illegal drug trade. The four following seasons then explore the economics of the trade and its impacts on individuals, especially within the working class. David Simon also made sure to detail the way schools, politicians and the media can either play a role in or be affected by the goings on of a drug empire. In The Wire’s fourth season, which examines how a drug gang’s activities permeate to the Baltimore school system, Prez, portrayed by Jim True-Frost, abandons his career as a police officer to become a middle school maths teacher. Through his efforts to keep a number of his students off the streets and out of gangs, we are presented a sobering chain of problems, ranging from school budget deficits to the students’ parents’ drug and alcohol struggles, which prevent the teenagers from fulfilling their full potential.
Another difference between The Wire and the rest of the crime drama group is the former’s thorough exploration of each character as they become integral to the storyline and each season’s general theme. The show’s main characters, notably those of drug ring leader Avon Barksdale and homosexual hold-up man Omar Little, are kept for as long as they are relevant and needed. Simon kept the show flowing by ending storylines before they became uninteresting, creating a five-season masterpiece instead of an increasingly desperate ploy for ratings. Sure, we love Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni on Law and Order: SVU, but how many more sexual offence cases can their respective characters, Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler investigate, let alone mentally cope with?
With the fifth and final season of the series, Simon concentrated on how the media exposes – or fails to expose – the harsh realities of crime in Baltimore. He reached into his 13 years of experience as a police reporter at The Baltimore Sun to illustrate the rise of the “impact” headline and the subsequent demise of analytical news. “It made sense to finish The Wire with this reflection on the state of the media, as all the other problems depicted in the previous four seasons will not be solved until [their] depth and range is first acknowledged,” commented Simon. “That won’t happen without an intelligent, aggressive and well-funded press.” And what better way to round things off than with an analysis that comes straight from the creator who knows best, instead of some heavily scripted fairytale ending?
Ever since The Wire’s last episode aired in 2008, the show has continued to garner critical acclaim, including the accolade of being US President Barack Obama’s favourite TV series. It has been praised as much for its unpredictability as for its unforgiving realism. Yet, though The Wire has raked in all the critical glory, it remains markedly absent among the swathes of CSI, 30 Rock and Lost Emmy nominations and wins that have prevailed over the past five years. This begs the question: does a show like The Wire need prestigious awards to distinguish itself among other crime dramas?
The answer is obvious: The Wire’s lack of Emmy distinctions is precisely what sets it apart from all the other high-octane and generously budgeted shows. It is great in its modesty. The Wire is a series that you hear of by word-of-mouth, that people who have already watched promise will not disappoint. The show is a truly intelligent and well-produced masterpiece that tactfully does not offer the simplistic and cookie-cutter entertainment of many other American cop series. If it does not appear on that list of conventional crime dramas, it is because The Wire is American TV’s best-kept secret, its hidden gem. And if there still are sceptics about this show because of its lack of hotshot awards, well, they’ll just have to take President Obama’s word for it.
Buy the DVDs at Amazon:
Season 1 Season 2 Season 3 Season 4 Season 5 Box-set, season 1–5