This is a written version of a video I made that can be found here. While the video is free of major spoilers, the written version is safer for viewers who want to learn about The Wire without reveal much about the story.
The Wire is a special show. Few television shows inspire a stack of books about it’s creation and themes, even fewer inspire a collection of college courses examining those same things, and only one has inspired sitting the president of the united states to invite the show’s creator to the White House for a conversation.
What is it that makes this show so special? In this video, part one of my series about The Wire, I’ll be exploring why The Wire is brilliant, without spoiling the plot, so even if you haven’t seen the show yet, you can learn why it’s so special.
Not A Cop Show
The Wire is not a cop show. Yes, a series of police wiretap investigations is the spine around which the show is constructed, but The Wire starts out, at the very least, as a subversion of the standard cop show, and only becomes more from there. Where in most police dramas the moment of chasing and arresting the suspect is the dramatic climax, these are often the very moments The Wire skips over. But The Wire is much more than a subversion of the classic police drama.
Season One establishes a failing, corrupt institution, the Baltimore Police Department, and a band of rebels within its ranks that are fighting desperately to eek out any semblance of “good police work.” But what our detective are up against, is not a clear cut set of “bad guys” but a rival institution, a Baltimore Drug Gang, made up of real humans. An institution complete with its own set of rebels, hoping to swim against the system.
Each of the following seasons adds another layer of the city, examining the institutions above and below the two featured in season one. Season Two adds in the decaying port economy and labor unions, season 3 sees the addition of political realm, season 4 adds the school system, and season 5 journalism.
If all this sounds a bit dry and academic, it certainly is when placed beside your average episode of Hawaii Five-0. The Wire doesn’t try to grab and keep your attention. It requires it, and if you give it your attention it will reward you. But it’s still entertaining, the show tells this story of the city and it’s institutions, not through dry exposition about the institutions but through the individual stories of an incredible cast of engaging characters within those institutions, fantastically acted and brilliantly written by a team dedicated to realistically portraying the city of Baltimore.
All The Pieces Matter: Good Writing
The Wire has a great acting, cinematography and sound design, but what stands above everything else, the key element, is the writing. The Wire reaches a bar for quality of writing reached by few television shows. Write what you know, is a basic directive commonly issued to writers, and few TV writers have exemplified this idea as well as show creators David Simon and Ed Burns.
David Simon was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for 12 years. He covered crime and the police department extensively, and eventually went on to write Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood both of which Simon adapted for television. Collectively all this can be seen as nearly two decades of writing experience closely focused on the topics that would largely be covered in The Wire. David Simon spent years examining the worlds The Wire explored before one episode was even written.
While he was still a journalist Simon developed a relationship with Ed Burns, who spent 20 years working as a Baltimore City Police, before joining forces with David Simon to write The Corner. If Simon had spent 20 years reporting and writing about the topics that The Wire examines, Ed Burns spent 20 years living them. Including spending time as a public school teacher in Baltimore, direct experience, on which much of Season 4’s story is based.
As Police Detective and Crime Journalist turned Television Writers, these two were interested in far more than making another cop show to entertain the masses. They aspired to put a contemporary american crime novel on the screen.
And the writers they brought on to help them do this came, not from the world of television, but from the literary scene. Novelist Denis Lenhane, George Pelacanos, and Richard Price would all become a critical part of the writing team. Authors who didn’t have much experience writing for TV, but who were all well versed in Urban Crime-Fiction. And when Simon and Burns expanded the show to subjects they didn’t feel they knew as well, they brought in people who did. Rafael Alvarez, another Baltimore journalist, joined the writing team bringing his knowledge of the Baltimore docks for season 2. William F. Zorzi, a Political journalist in Baltimore, joined to help write a lot of the political story that starts in season 3.
With their experience as authors and journalists, these writers brought to the show a greater expectation for the audience. They required a level of attention from the viewers of The Wire, not normally demanded by television shows, but a level a step closer to the level of attention you have to apply to reading a book.
This expectation of attention allowed the writers to include many blink-and-you’ll miss it details.
Blink and You’ll Miss It.
An example of the type of quick and subtle storytelling you’ll encounter in The Wire happens in a scene from Season 2, episode 3 that shows stickup man Omar doing reconnaissance for a job, while he does, he notices that two ladies are doing the same thing. And attentive viewer will see what’s happening in the scene, and understand Omar’s recognition of what’s going on. But one glance at your phone, and you might miss the entire 25 second, dialogue free scene.
This level of subtly is used frequently throughout the show. Very quick scenes, often won’t payoff until episodes later. One of the things that makes The Wire’s storytelling so powerful, is that while characters sometimes do express ideas directly, the most important and central themes of the show are all developed through this type of “show don’t tell”, storytelling.
Season one is largely about establishing the institutional similarities between the drug dealers and the police officers, but no character ever comes out and talks about this on the show. Instead the show relates the two by slowly building up a collection of parallel scenes. Like a scene in season one that shows the police willing to bend the rules, while a few scenes later we get an example of gang members adhering closely to their rules. These two simple scenes progress the plot, but more importantly their juxtaposition shows us how both institutions have rules for themselves, but that the motivations around following those rules lead to different behavior within the institutions. These types of parallels are also used to show the similarities between individuals. Gang members need a judge to mediate their differences, just like detective McNulty and his wife.
Over time this collection of mirrored scenes accumulates to showcase the similarities in these different institutions, and how individuals behave differently within them. It creates a powerful argument, one that appears to the viewer as self-evident through the experience of watching the show.
But it wasn’t just the writing team’s experience as writers that made the show what it is, they utilized the team’s experience as actual teachers, journalists, police officers to create one of the most realistic fictional shows that’s ever been put on TV.
A Man Must Have A Code: The Commitment to Realism
David Simon and Ed Burns had an extreme level of commitment to realistically portraying Baltimore and the institutions within the city. Let’s look at the steps they took to make sure they portrayed the character of the city as accurately and realistically as possible.
Their backgrounds as a journalist and investigator played a role in their approach to writing. When they came up against a subject that they didn’t know inside and out, they conducted extensive research.
Whether you’re talking about the interviews with dozens of stevedores, immigration officials, port personnel, customs inspectors and steamship agents that were conducted before writing about the ports in season 2. Or the extensive interviews and ongoing relationships with Melvin Williams, real life Baltimore drug king, who reformed after a long stint in prison. They clearly weren’t willing to write about topics they hadn’t experience first hand without extensive research.
And the commitment to realism extended beyond the writing staff to the cast who often went to great lengths to accurately portray the lives their characters represented. Andre Royo, who played Bubbles, the show’s beloved heroin junkie said: “We were inspired by the city of Baltimore, by the people in Baltimore, of how these characters were supposed to live and be portrayed.” His portrayal of a junkie was so refined, he was once chased off set by the show’s security, who thought he was a real addict, and on another occasion was handed drugs on the street by an actual addict, who mistook Royo for the real deal.
While Simon and Burns both insist that no character is a direct correlation to a person in real life, almost no character exists on the wire that doesn’t have elements of one or more real life people.
Bubbles was inspired in part by a long standing informant of Ed Burns, Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell were both informed by actual drug dealers like Mevlin Williams. Williams would actually go on to take a role in The Wire as the Deacon. He was just one among many Baltimore locals who had roles in the show. Notably Prop Joe was played by a Baltimore native. Felicia Pearson, who plays Snoop, came from the life she ended up portraying on screen.
Simon and Burns often named characters after real life inspiration. The actual Jay Landsman, who a prominent homicide detective character is named after, acts on the show. But despite auditioning for the part he’s named after, he didn’t land the role, and ended up playing Lt. Mello. Ed Norris, who plays a detective in the show by the same name, was the actual Police Commissioner of Baltimore for 2 years right before the show aired.
Bunk Moreland, Tommy Carcetti, and many others draw inspiration from real life counterparts, surprisingly even Omar, perhaps the most stylized regular character on the show, is a composite of six different gun-slingers who made their living sticking up drug dealers in Baltimore.
Not to mention the locals who filled out the roles as extras. The inclusion of those who lived and new they life they portrayed wasn’t just a cosmetic choice, they helped keep the show from straying into the realm of fantasy.
Steve Earle, who plays Bubble’s Narcotic’s Anonymous sponsor, and who had real life experience in NA, said that they were encouraged as a cast, to speak up if something didn’t feel right.
When a city plays such a vital role in the story, you have to be sure that you’re accurately portraying that place. And when you watch The Wire, you can be sure that what you’re seeing is actually Baltimore. The show shot extensively on location. Row houses like these, were often cleaned out, and re-dressed to look the same, but with fake feces, needles, and broken drug vials instead of the real thing.
Those from Baltimore who worked on the show were often struck by how real the portrayal of the city was. Laura Schweigman a Script Supervisor on the show said about the opening scene: “I see this when I drive around in Baltimore. It was sad, but it was, at the same time, amazing, how real it felt, how real it looked.”
Fredo Star, who played Bird a drug dealer in season one relates: “This is very real out here… … When I got thrown on the floor in one of the scenes… ...glass was by my face. It was like, ‘Hold up, let’s shoot the glass.’ It was real.”
And it wasn’t just about making Baltimore look like Baltimore. West Baltimore looks like West Baltimore, and East like East. In chase scenes where street names come into play the names and locations used are accurate, to the extent that you can actually map out the chases.
Frequent episode director and producer Joe Chappelle recalls: “...when they would write something and it was on a corner, whatever the street corner was, we would shoot on that corner. It wasn’t like we go to a fun location and put up fake signs. We’d go to that specific corner.”
The commitment to realism extend into the show’s style itself. The Wire never utilizes a score. Except in a few select cases, all music in the show comes from a source within the world. But any hole left by score is filled by expertly used sound design which helps to reinforce the emotion of the story, and allows the city to be a non-stop presence audibly in the show.
Use of diegetic music in the show is often brilliant. Like a chase scene in season 4, where the music in one of the officer’s car, and how it cuts in and out, is used for comedic effect.
The show’s cinematography exemplifies the same ethos. Committed heavily to a naturalistic approach without resorting to a documentary stylization, the visuals manage to be striking and beautiful, but always serve the locations and characters, and rarely calling attention to itself.
The Wire’s story is undeniably political. But the way it goes about telling that story, through its commitment to realism, and by painting a portrait of it’s themes and of the institutions through a collection of individual stories, keeps it from being propagandistic. The show rarely prescribes a solution, and seeks mostly to illustrate the problems, very real ones. Problems that continues unresolved to this day.
The Wire is not a cop show. There’s isn’t a simple good guys and bad guys dichotomy. We’re introduced to bad police doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and gang members who seem to have just as much heart as those on the side of the law. Evil is not easily rooted out, we can barely tell who isn’t tainted by malevolence. The audience cannot root for order to be restored, because order itself is corrupt. Those who are willing to buck against the systems do so out of desperation, because they see no future for themselves in those systems.