The Wire still sets the standard for television perfection

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By Daniel DeMarco |Copy Editor|

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Some people want more from their entertainment than, well, entertainment.

Unfortunately for those people, fulfilling that need can prove difficult due to the obvious reason that this sort of product is much more artistically demanding to make and thus, not abundant in supply, but also because the spotlight is often reserved for the worst of the worst in radio pop music, reality television, and further simple-minded entertainment.

“The Wire” is routinely included in the lineup of countdowns for “the greatest television show/drama ever.” Entertainment Weekly announced it as number one on their list in 2013.

On IMDb, the series holds a 9.4-out-of-10 rating; rates it 9 out of 10.

I’ve seen “Sons of Anarchy;” I’ve seen “The Sopranos;” I’ve seen “Breaking Bad;” and they exist as great shows, but undoubtedly inferior, in my mind, to “The Wire”—plain and simple.

In telling friends about the show—and attempting to stir their interest—the simplest way I’ve found is to describe it as a novel of television.

The common gripe against even the best films or shows, they can’t compare to a book—often the respective book they are based on. They don’t have the depth and development of a novel.

For the first time, I felt like I was watching the true equivalent of a full-fledged novel, in watching “The Wire.”

I don’t know if there is a bigger compliment than that for either a film or television series, in my mind at least.

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“The Wire” aired from 2002 to 2008 as an HBO series. It is, on the surface, a cop/crime drama set in Baltimore, Maryland.

At its core—where it sets itself apart from the dozens of cop/crime dramas out there—it is a detailed, honest examination and study of the workings of an American city through its various systems.

In fact, each of its five seasons focuses on a particular system, including the criminal drug system, the seaport system, the city government, the education system, and the media system.

The reoccurring elements present are political bureaucracy, law enforcement, and the criminal underground.

Everything is connected; everything affects everything else.

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Viewers are also witness to some of the most complex and honest looks into each of these elements. The crime and justice involved in the politics, the politics and justice involved in the criminal underground, and the crime and politics involved in the justice system are all there.

It’s interesting because these systems and city elements become, somewhat, characters themselves. We as viewers become so familiar with the workings of each that the entity itself becomes personified.

By the end of the series, the setting, the whole city of Baltimore is a character. It lives and breathes; it has personality and the complexity of the deepest and most well written character you’ve ever come across.

It is beyond impressive to have a story so engaging that the setting itself feels like a character; I only know of one other example in all my experience that accomplishes this strong story element.

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The actual characters though, the humans occupying the story, are simply incredible in a narrative sense.

“The Wire” is considered to have an ensemble cast, but I don’t think that does it justice; it’s more than that. It hosts such a wide range of characters from all walks of life that you feel more like you know the city rather than knowing a cast of characters.

While there are the traditional “main” characters through the whole series, there are also secondary characters, tertiary, quaternary, and quinary characters. And unlike most narratives, these characters arguably play just as vital a role as the primary.

They’re all part of the complex web of stories displayed in “The Wire.” And I do mean complex.

Just like the characters, there are, of course, main story lines to follow, but in those are multiple sub-plots, and smaller characters have their own main stories to follow as they are simultaneously involved in the overall main plot, and the stories are intertwined in various ways where this story affects that story and this character impacts that character; it’s a big beautiful mess of narrative that, while sometimes challenging to follow, rewards the patient viewer looking for more than the average, simple entertainment.

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The story flows and never feels rushed as the spotlight shifts from character to character and story arc to story arc. In fact, if you’re too used to the average television show, you might even consider “The Wire” to be slow.

“The Wire” is undoubtedly a slow-burner of a show, but it’s with good purpose. It’s the difference between the instant-mix batch of Kool-Aid and the aged-12-year scotch.

As you can guess, stories aren’t resolved in a single episode like other shows. Hell, sometimes story lines aren’t resolved in an entire season.

Further yet, you’ll find instances where you can hardly even call a story arc “resolved.” Not every issue can be solved or fixed; sometimes things just get worse; “The Wire” parallels real life in that sense.

“The Wire” seems to avoid all common story tricks, actually. For instance, you won’t run into cliffhangers; the show doesn’t need disingenuous tools of creating suspense or drama. You won’t run into crazy off-the-wall plot twists that seem to be just a little too convenient or contrived for drama’s sake. 

You know what else stands out? The characters really feel human.

At first, it might seem that’s an odd thing to say or be impressed about, but it’s not all that common.

The “good” guys are flawed, sometimes in multiple ways, and they don’t always do the “right” thing. The “bad” guys are also humans with emotions, personal lives and morals. The “civilian” characters are neither dirty nor squeaky clean.

Everyone is a human-being.

“The Wire” doesn’t play the black-and-white game; everything is colored in shades of gray.

You will find redeeming qualities in characters you do not like, and you will find times where you are not quite sure if you still like that character you’ve been rooting for.

The writing is some of the best I can recall; it is what allows all of these characters—major and minor—to develop so well and organically.

It was a goal of series creator David Simon to create a show where realism was the core of its blossoming.

Even if you do not like the show, you cannot deny its realistic portrayal of life. It gives a voice to the whole spectrum of people—from the U.S. senator to the homeless drug addict. Every character is treated with the respect of being a fellow human-being who deserves the right to be seen as so, no matter their status in society, nor if they are a criminal or an upholder of justice.

The funny part about that, it is equally rewarding and damning to characters, but nonetheless, appreciated as a viewer for its authenticity.

The authenticity of the series plays out in several ways. For instance, “The Wire” is not interested in happy endings where the heroes always come out victorious.

Let’s face it, the good guys don’t always win, and the bad guys don’t always face justice.

As a viewer, you will find moments where a character you like, who deserves redemption, will not receive it. Some of them will meet fates that leave a pit in your stomach after the high hopes you had for them.

And the same will happen for characters you do not like, only they will get away with it, they will find a way to slip through from getting what they deserve, sometimes they may even be rewarded, and you will not be satisfied.

Such is life.

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Watching “The Wire,” even if I was 13 years late, exceeded its acclaimed prestige that I had previously read in reviews of the series from its cult-like fans. It’s known as a show that few know about and fewer have seen.

It’s often the cruel fate of masterpieces that their excellence is not widely recognized for quite some time after their inception.

The recognition has been slow for “The Wire,” but it is certainly trudging along. As more time goes by, it becomes the show which other shows are judged against by critics; “Breaking Bad” experienced this as it came to a close.

The hype is not vast spread, but the hype is real. It is the pleasure and the pain of discovering near-perfection with anything: the pleasure of experiencing the greatness, and the pain of knowing that nothing else like it may ever live up to that experience.

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