Updated: Jul 11, 2018
Streaming on HBO
Metadata: 2002–2008 | TV-MA | 4 Seasons, 60 episodes
Genre: Not-A-Police-Procedural Police Procedural
Why did I watch: I actually took a course in college on The Wire, and it was one of my first times really paying close attention to a television series. I wasn't the only one who had this experience with the novel-like show. Released during an era of sitcoms and syndication, this long-running serial would pave the way for many critically acclaimed HBO series.
You might also like: I'm sorry to say that nothing is quite like The Wire. But my mom loves creator David Simon and George Pelecanos's later series Treme (HBO, 2010–2013)! Set in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, the show follows a group of residents as they rebuild their lives and city.
Co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns sold The Wire to HBO as "the anti-cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television." That about sums up the series that, 10 years after it's finale aired, has firmly established itself as one of the greatest shows in the history of US television. Set in West Baltimore shortly after 9/11, when resources have been diverted to Homeland Security and Counter Terrorism, the series follows one narcotics unit attempting to police an ongoing war on drugs, and the Barksdale gang that is trying to survive it.
Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Omar, McNulty, Kima Greggs, Daniels, Franklin Terrace, the Corner, the Pit—the setting, ensemble of characters, dialogue, and backstories are complicated, unexpectedly detailed, and rich. If the events feel unusually real, it's because many of them are: In 1984, Simon was a journalist at the Baltimore Sun covering the wiretap-related arrest of "Little Melvin" Williams, a case led by then Detective Burns. Simon authored Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets about the experience, which became a bestseller and later a hit show for NBC. Shortly after, Burns and Simon quit their jobs to collaborate on the 1997 book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, which became and HBO miniseries and enabled them to pitch The Wire.
Little Melvin served as the inspiration for Avon Barksdale (and would join the cast in seasons three and four to play The Deacon). Barksdale (Wood Harris) is the most powerful drug kingpin in Baltimore, and he's cunning, organized, and shrewd—much more so than the Baltimore police department that is only able to nab street-level dealers. As Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) says in the pilot, "We don't even have a photo of this guy." The Barksdale gang's second-in-command is the Machiavellian Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), who proves to be even more cerebral than Avon, attending economics classes at the Baltimore City Community College. Meanwhile, Omar Little's (Michael K. Williams) crew gives Barksdale's more trouble than the police (pronounced "poe-lease") ever could, robbing from street-level drug dealers with his iconic shotgun while humming "The Farmer in the Dell." (Yes, a shotgun. Yes, The Farmer in the Dell.)
And this is all just season one. Each season takes on a different layer of corruption, from the ports, to elections, to housing development, to the school system. And each is just as good as the last. The camera earns its paycheck throughout, giving you downright phenomenal angles that complicate the storyline and add a layer of depth to each character and subplot. The Wire is a masterclass in stamina, remaining complex and well-done through five solid seasons.
In sum: Make watching (or rewatching) this series your summer project.