In an era where more scripted shows are being produced than ever before — why aren’t we trying to make more shows like the HBO classic?
“The Wire,” simply put, is one of the best shows ever made. But 15 years ago, when it debuted, most of us didn’t appreciate it: In what remains one of the most perplexing oversights in the Television Academy’s history, it never won an Emmy, and was nominated just twice for writing awards. Now, though, it’s near-universally held up as one of the most brilliant dramas of the contemporary era — and one of the foundational shows in TV’s new golden age. “The Wire” took one of the most basic forms of television drama — the cop show — and turned that lens into an atmospheric, broad-ranging examination of how institutional bias and systemic power structures affect the individuals within them. Because of creator David Simon’s background in journalism, “The Wire’s” details and complexity carried with it the ring of tough-minded truth — one that offered a completely different lens on inner city life than what you might catch on the evening news. Considering that the show managed to balance all of this with a wicked sense of humor and dozens of heartfelt performances, it is no wonder that the show became a modern masterpiece.
At times, though, “The Wire’s” immense reputation gets in the way of its own themes. Looking back over the last 15 years, it’s intriguing to chart how dialogue around the show has evolved and expanded. “The Wire” transformed from a niche show that few were watching to a symbol of intellectual superiority. The fact that the show was only available on HBO — without the options of HBO Go and HBO Now — necessarily limited its audience, as did the time required to invest in such a Dickensian construction of city life. And the people who were likely to learn the most from “The Wire” were viewers with enough privilege to have avoided the pitfalls of endemic crime, inner city life, and/or addiction. As a result, “The Wire,” a show about the difficulties in policing crumbling inner cities, became a symbol of elite worldliness. Critics loved “The Wire.” Other TV shows loved “The Wire.” Even President Obama loved “The Wire.” In fact, the cachet around the show is what inspired the young creators of the blog Stuff White People Like — a collection of urban, liberal, hip, expensive tastes.
For the past three years, whenever you say “The Wire” white people are required to respond by saying “it’s the best show on television.” […] If you need to impress a white person, tell them you are from Baltimore. They will immediately ask you about The Wire and how accurate it is. You should confirm that it is “like a documentary of the streets,” the white person will then slowly shake their head and say “man” or “wow.” You will be seen in an entirely new light.
In our retrospective admiration of it, it’s easy to put the show on a pedestal as some kind of perfect, comprehensive document. But as David Simon will happily tell you himself, “The Wire” is a dated story with significant limitations. Simon and co-creator Ed Burns worked as, respectively, a reporter and a cop in Baltimore in the ‘90s. “The Corner,” their nonfiction book about one intersection in the city, was published in 1997. “The Wire,” which debuted June 2, 2002, took pains to stay current with Baltimore’s evolution —including the redevelopment of the city’s waterfront and the frustrations of newspapers approaching the digital era. But it has been a tumultuous 15 years since then. There’s plenty more story about the American city left to tell.
Take, for example, the most obvious revelations of “The Wire” — the technical strategies that drug dealers use to avoid the police, and the titular wiretaps that the police use to try to pin down the dealers. In the first season, the police are trying to understand how kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) is communicating to his lieutenants and moving product without leaving a digital footprint. After weeks of careful observation, they realize that his network is using pagers and pay phones. In the third season, they alight upon the burner phone system. These are dated technologies. It would be fascinating, and educational, to see how advancing technology changes the landscape of narcotics law enforcement — especially if, as some security experts contend, using old technology is still the best way to avoid prosecution. But considering the story of policing has now been inherently complicated by smartphones, heightened mainstream awareness of police brutality, and nationwide support for less strict drug laws, the fundamental pillars of “The Wire” look very different today from what they did in 2002.
“The Wire” was—is!—uniquely brilliant. It handled underreported issues in a sensitive way and made the mundane into fascinating television. But it was not the end-all, be-all, final word on American public institutions. And yet for some reason, it has stood alone in the pantheon of brilliant television about American institutions. Most other shows don’t even try to put in the work to get even close to “The Wire,” let alone surpass it. It’s not about content — after all, drugs and crime and cops are all over TV — it’s about scope and context. “The Wire” is a show about intersecting structures of power, told in a rigorously researched story about one specific place. It’s hard to locate that wide-ranging sense of mission in most television dramas today. There are more television shows than ever before, but none are as wide-ranging, honest, revolutionary, and educational as “The Wire.” And that is a shame, because there should be. 2017 begs for brilliant storytelling about who we are and what we’re doing. “The Wire” can’t be the one show about American institutions that we point to forever.
In contemporary television, there are a few standouts that come close. John Ridley’s “American Crime,” which ended in May after three seasons, was an attempt to tell a story of American institutions through the lens of an anthology series. It didn’t quite have the earthy vulgarity of “The Wire,” and certainly lacked the older show’s cutting sense of humor. But it certainly tried to tackle big issues, and in its third season especially, admirably succeeded. Similarly, Fox’s “Shots Fired” attempted to take on police brutality through the miniseries lens. “Gomorrah,” the Italian series airing in the U.S. on SundanceTV, consciously mimics “The Wire” in its exploration of Naples.
And yet for each of these, there are a dozen mediocre shows set in Los Angeles or New York City taking up space on even the most high-minded and prestigious networks. Peak TV has not translated to Peak Quality, even though the television industry collectively has more resources and technology than ever before.
Of course, television shows don’t all have to be about the big issues — they can be about single characters or unstable relationships or a particularly odd time and place or a dystopian future. But looking back at “The Wire” from here, it feels like too many television shows are not even trying to cut more deeply into the heart of American life.
Television writers, consider this your call to action. “The Wire” was brilliant for 2002. But the foundations of American cosmopolitanism — of multicultural, multifaceted life — are under more pressure than ever before. If the long afterlife of “The Wire” is any indication, producing the next great show about American institutions could ensure a long lifetime enshrined in the television hall of fame.