The Wire might be the most important work of art from the past decade. I don’t say this lightly. It represents a number of things: the rise of television as a more artistically complex and nuanced medium, a sprawling exploration of the nuances of an urban America, and a modern Dickensian tale realized on TV. It’s also a crime drama that usurps the typical representation of cops and criminals in the media.
As Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) says, “All the pieces matter.” The Wire might be the pinnacle of season story arcs in television, a masterful construction of characters and subplots that intertwine and influence one another in unanticipated ways. Season three of The Wire is the best at taking plots that run parallel to each other and crossing them at certain key moments to show how nothing in the world of The Wire exists independent of the whole.
As the show progresses, it increases the audience’s perception of the world. Season after season widens the world of Baltimore. Season one starts with cops and drug dealers, season two adds the global crime world, season three introduces city government and politics, season four brings in the education system and season five examines the local newspaper. None of these worlds exists in isolation. All of them inform and impact the other in some significant way.
And as each of these world collide, it becomes more and more apparent that the social issues facing urban America and complex and multifaceted. One of the great strengths of the show is that it presents social issues with a depth that make simple judgments difficult. Yes, there are many places of corruption, but the roots of the corruption are more nuanced and don’t give way to easy solutions.
Because of the reality of this world, the characters that inhabit this space don’t fall along the easy good/evil dichotomy that is often presented in the crime drama. There are no good guys in The Wire, the police are just as corrupt and abusive of their power as the drug dealers. Everyone is morally compromised on some level, nobody has the moral high-ground.
Therefore, The Wire elicits sympathy from characters of all walks of life. Detective McNulty (Dominic West) struggling to try to be a father is contrasted against the boys of the street slinging who look to D’Angelo (Lawrence Gillard Jr.) as a father figure. Fan favorite Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) is just as prone to physical weakness and frailty as the drug-addicted Bubbles (Andre Royo). In characters from every world, there is a spark of humanity, a sense of tragedy, and a call for empathy.
Ultimately, The Wire isn’t about proposing social reform. It presents a lot of problems, but doesn’t call for solutions. Instead, it asks for understanding, an understanding that urban America is a place with people we should understand first and foremost as human beings. These are not people we should look down on, but people in which we can see ourselves, our hopes and dreams, our struggles and demons, our desire to want good and our penchant to do evil.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing