In the new weekly series, The Enthusiast, The Globe and Mail’s arts writers offer a window into their own private cultural lives: what they’re watching, reading, seeing and listening to. This week, film editor Barry Hertz talks about his compulsion to revisit HBO’s The Wire, over and over again.
“What are you watching?”
This is a question routinely asked of me, and one that I respond to with wide-eyed panic and a level of pit-of-stomach dread. Mostly because I should have an arsenal of zeitgeist-approved answers at the ready, given my role as a cultural gatekeeper/tastemaker/influencer (or something equally nauseating and definitely not real).
I’d like to say that I’m plowing my way through the second season of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, or the final go-round of The Americans, or the latest mysteries of Westworld. But I’ve actually spent the past two months snuggled up with HBO’s The Wire, a series that went off the air in 2008. And one that I’ve rewatched six times now. Maybe seven.
Before I’m carted away for Crimes Against Peak TV, hear my plea: As healthy as the current small-screen industry is – and with a bounty that includes BBC’s Killing Eve, Netflix’s One Day at a Time, and HBO’s Barry (no relation, though I wish!), it is a good time to avoid the outdoors – nothing has come close to approaching the narrative feats of The Wire. Now a decade old, the series remains the platonic ideal of “prestige television” – work that elevates the form in ways that show-runners could only once dream of back in the days of the three-network landscape.
Created by David Simon (one of prestige television’s “Three Davids,” after David “The Sopranos” Chase and David “Deadwood” Milch; I didn’t come up with that twee moniker, I swear), The Wire is far more than the inner-city crime-and-punishment drama HBO initially sold it as. At first, the show divides itself neatly between the drug dealers ruling Baltimore’s streets and the police who hunt them down, but it gradually and delicately expands to paint a portrait of urban life as a whole – and how a once-great American city can crumble. Simon’s cops and drug dealers remain the focal point of the series, but are soon joined by the city’s politicians, its lawyers, its blue-collar shift workers, its teachers, its social workers, its land-grabbing developers, its homeless and the members of its media who strive to cover even an inch of Simon’s ever-expanding worldview.
But for those who have never been exposed to it, The Wire is best-known as – to paraphrase your most annoying friend – the greatest television series you have never seen, you fool! For years, I’ve played that role of Annoying Friend No. 1 dutifully, and – apologies in advance – will be doing so here, too. If there is anything fans of The Wire love more than the actual show, it is boasting that they discovered it before you did. It is a game of cultural superiority that can be played with any number of series (“Oh, I was into Rick and Morty before its fans were revealed to be the worst people on Earth,” etc.) but there is something about claiming dibs on The Wire that adds an extra edge.
Perhaps because for most of its lifespan, it truly did feel as if no one knew The Wire existed. As chronicled in Jonathan Abrams’s recent and excellent oral history of the series, All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, the series barely made a dent in the ratings. It starred only vaguely familiar character actors (including veterans of Simon’s tenure on NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street) and was depressing as hell. Even when a character came along who captured attention, such as Michael K. Williams’s smooth stickup man Omar, Simon would deliberately shelve them for a few episodes. The show was constantly in danger of being cancelled, and its budgets were pittances compared to other HBO projects such as Rome.
It only secured a large, or large-enough, following due to a business model that simply would not work today: DVD box sets. By goading my friends into pooling their resources to buy me the then-pricey collections for my birthdays, I was able to play catch-up during my HBO-less university days. And because I still own a DVD player that I imagine will soon go the way of the VCR, I’m able every few years to revisit just what makes The Wire so brilliant.
Despite knowing every development of character and plot, the series constantly surprises. The connections between each character become clearer and more poignant with every new viewing. Certain heroes become murkier in their intentions, while villains become more nuanced in their ambitions. The first time I watched The Wire, I would’ve sworn up and down that its strongest focus was on obsessive and destructive Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). After my latest go-around, completed just a week ago, I now believe The Wire is actually about the quiet evolution of Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), a knucklehead narcotics officer who matures into the leader the Baltimore Police Department so desperately needs. Next time (and there will certainly be a next time), I might find more to chew on in the arc of the hard-headed Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick). Or the ruthless drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). Or even a peripheral player such as criminal guru Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew).
The narrative threads spun by Simon and his ridiculously talented writing staff – including frequent partner Ed Burns (no, not that one) and crime novelists Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos – are rich and varied. Every story development, no matter how small, becomes the seed for greater drama down the road. Seemingly arbitrary bits of dialogue loop back around three seasons later. When one character from the second season pops up in the penultimate episode of season four, I literally shout, “Yes!” at the screen – every time. The series could so easily feel like a boastful exercise in look-at-me cleverness, but The Wire is a series built on small and quiet artistic triumphs. Fittingly for Simon’s journalism background, it shows but never tells.
Well, almost. During past rewatches, I was able to convince myself that The Wire’s final season was not as problematic as critics had painted it during its initial run. Simon, whose reporting for the Baltimore Sun propelled him to the literary and then television world, was taken to task for treating The Wire’s last stretch as a long lecture on the eroding state of journalism, and blunt score-settling. He introduced a facsimile of the Sun’s newsroom into the show’s universe, including a Jayson Blair-esque fabulist and a publisher straight out of the Monty Burns playbook. Some of the new characters wondered aloud about the worrying reality of the fourth estate, while a Simon stand-in (well-played by Clark Johnson) stood as the last bastion of integrity. In my more wide-eyed journalism-school days, I chalked this turn up to simple industry jealousy. Most of the critiques were coming from newspaper writers, after all – those who hadn’t secured a golden ticket out of the dead-tree game, such as Simon had. In retrospect (or, retrospect-times-seven), it is easier to see where and how Simon tripped.
Still, this is one small misstep in a series that otherwise achieves towering greatness. By the time I reached the series finale the other week, I held off on watching it for as long as I could, despite previously making every effort to stretch my nights to squeeze in just one more episode. I felt that if I could somehow will them into existence, I would find five, six, or seven DVD box sets of seasons that I hadn’t realized existed. I simply did not want to admit that this would be the end. Or, at least, the end for now.