Transcending the Hype: A Novice’s Experience of Watching The Wire

There is a lot of baggage surrounding the concept of hype in relation to entertainment. It is characterised by a wide range of emotions: excitement, fear, desperation, delirium. One’s level of hype for something can manifest in a variety of ways: discussions among friends, reading articles, watching and re-watching promotional material, pre-orders, etc. While some may argue against allowing your expectations to reach optimal degrees for fear of crushing disappointment, I have always maintained that you should allow them to run wild. Perhaps it is because my attitude towards not just entertainment but life is that the ‘glass is half-full’, but if numerous people, whether it be a family member or a well-respected critic, are claiming that a piece of content is the best of its kind, why would I be sceptical of their view? There has to be something to it, right?

Television shows, particularly long-running ones, are arguably the most vulnerable forms of entertainment to becoming victims of immeasurable levels of hype. With a song, film, book, or video-game, the chances are that an individual is only going to engage with it for a relatively short amount of time due to their finite structure. However, if a series is fortunate enough to run for multiple seasons, the greater the risk is of it letting the viewer down. Winning you over might be straight-forward, but not losing you is a much trickier task, especially as it might not directly result from the show’s quality. Life can get in the way.

Ironically, writing about “hype” in the context of The Wire could easily be perceived as ill-fitting given the programme’s lack of self-proclaimed sensationalism. The fanfare surrounding David Simon’s masterful work has mostly been generated by critics and audiences, many of whom have described the Baltimore-set crime drama as one of the most astounding pieces of television ever conceived. Running from 2002 until 2008, its place in the pantheon of all-time greatest shows has not declined since its conclusion, in spite of the vast array of television content which has emerged over the last 12 years.

I had heard and read about The Wire on a few occasions prior to July of this year. My initial knowledge of it came from my dad, who spoke about the series in such glowing terms that my curiosity peaked. His praise did not simply consist of stating that the programme was great or worth-watching. To him, it was possibly the best. When it became apparent to me that others echoed his sentiments, I knew that at some point I was going to sit down and journey through all five seasons.

It took a confluence of events to trigger my eventual viewing of The Wire. While I was not an avid viewer of many long-running television programmes throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, I delved into many popular series in 2019 once I realised how many exciting projects were being produced for the small screen, eventually subscribing to Now TV on which HBO shows like The Sopranos and The Wire are available. Then came 2020 and with it an unprecedented situation in the form of Covid-19. I had already started The Sopranos prior to lockdown, but when that was enforced, I sought to resolve the likely monotony and tediousness of every passing day at home by completing both acclaimed HBO crime dramas. Simultaneously, a bi-weekly podcast entitled ‘Way Down in the Hole’ was launched on a website called The Ringer, offering analysis of every episode of The Wire. What probably made me pull the proverbial trigger was when Mark Kermode, my favourite film critic, posted a tweet expressing his admiration for David Simon’s show having just completed it himself. If I was unable to delve into The Wire this year, I did not know when my next best opportunity would come.

Miraculously, despite all of the noise surrounding the drama, the reason I have associated the concept of hype with this specific show is that it is one of the rare cases of a piece of art surpassing my wildest expectations, but in a rather unusual way. I expected The Wire to be a fantastic show, yet nothing I listened to or read prepared me for how captivating and emotionally resonant its depiction of the city of Baltimore and its various institutions would be. In hindsight, this is quite understandable, because encapsulating your thoughts succinctly on a show this multi-faceted in 280 characters on Twitter is very difficult, as I have found over the past few months when trying to express my thoughts on this series. With other popular television series like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, their premise is suitable for an elevator pitch, e.g. “A high-school chemistry teacher recently diagnosed with lung cancer gets involved in the drug business to supply funds for his family”. Even scenes, lines, or imagery from those shows have become ingrained in public consciousness through promotional material, memes, and references in various media forms to the extent that even people who have not watched these programmes can identify where they originate from. The Wire is not constructed for a simple summation, nor does it contain an image or line that has become embedded in public consciousness (with the possible exception of a certain GIF). In fact, the magnitude of its success in examining so many strands of life in Baltimore only hits home once you reach the end. Therefore, the show’s main selling point over the years has been its quality.

Not being designed to appeal to a mass audience may have hindered The Wire in terms of its ratings when it aired, but the showrunners’ resistance to adhere to standard television tropes is what renders it a thrilling viewing experience. There is no hand-holding, no opportunity for passive engagement, no time to settle, because just when you think you have grasped everything, the show throws a curveball. However, this curveball does not always come in the form of a shocking death, a random betrayal, or an extended action set-piece. Often, they manifest through changes in primary locations from season to season and the emphasis alternating between long-standing characters and fresh faces. I would admire this level of ambitious storytelling regardless of the context, but when you watch The Wire it is transparent that these sudden shifts are not done purely for the sake of throwing the audience for a loop; they have been carefully planned out to enhance the show’s interrogation of multiple social and political issues.

The show’s reluctance to conform to normal dramatic storytelling extends to its handling of death scenes. There are plenty of films and television programmes that have contained shocking character demises, but I have never seen them depicted in as nonchalant and, quite frankly, realistic manner as those in The Wire. I would never accuse the writers of feeling detached from their characters, yet they recognise that a cruel hand of fate can be dealt to specific individuals no matter how sympathetic you are towards them. The most agonising aspect of this approach is that no time is afforded for the viewer to come to terms with the notion that someone is about to meet their maker. At best, you might get five minutes of acknowledging that a character is doomed. It is quite a harrowing reflection of how abruptly an individual can be disposed of by a person or group for misguided or selfish reasons. The series does not even rely on non-diegetic music to convey the emotional impact of these scenes. Instead, many of The Wire’s most heart-rending moments consist of a devastating single line of dialogue, a single gun-shot, an eerie silence, and occasionally a combination of all three. As brutally disturbing as their depiction of death is, I have to commend David Simon and co. for not glamorising the atrocities which are perpetrated all too frequently.

It would be fair to state that The Wire is not particularly uplifting. Many of its storylines culminate in quite a melancholy manner, and any scenes which deliver some form of gratification for the audience are few and far between. Nonetheless, although the tone may be grim, the series certainly is not lacking in heart, boasting a charismatic and incredibly engaging cast of characters who you cannot help but be emotionally invested in, despite the mistakes they make. The authenticity transmitted by the programme is reflected in the genuine banter and heartfelt interactions many figures from various organisations share throughout all five seasons. Occasionally, comedy emerges from tragedy, epitomised in one scene in the series finale when one of the main police officers is about to be admonished by two of his superiors over an unfortunate development in an ongoing case. Rather than the scene descending into a string of loud verbal insults, one of the officers delivers a hysterical one-liner which briefly alleviates the tension but also feels entirely true to their character. The show may punish you for getting your hopes up from time to time, but watching it does not feel like homework.

The most remarkable aspect of witnessing the events of this series for the first time, however, is the extent to which it made me ponder the reasons behind so many societal ills, and ultimately reckon with the sentiment that it is an immense struggle to cure them. Throughout all five seasons, a light is shone on issues which have been grossly neglected or mistreated by those occupying positions of power, from the education system to the stevedores’ union. What is especially striking about The Wire’s depiction of authoritative institutions is how the self-serving interests of aspiring politicians and law enforcement officers can set in motion a chain of events which will severely affect those on the streets. Narrative threads you do not expect to intertwine often do so in a way that illuminates just how connected various organisations of a city really are. Furthermore, the show demonstrates in a quite profound fashion how difficult it is for the inhabitants of Baltimore to be resilient in the face of institutional corruption and how willing they are to play “the game”. Some of them risk ruining their professional and personal lives to dismantle it, others simply get on with it and do what they can to survive, while a few may have initial hopes of reforming it before resorting to self-preservation. The Wire does not suggest that any one individual or group is responsible for the city of Baltimore not functioning efficiently, and the lengths it is willing to go to in order to make that point strike a chord with audiences is what elevates it beyond so many other crime dramas.

There are many articles available online which delve far deeper into the critiques of American society offered by the show than this blog post does. Nevertheless, as I witnessed the final moments of the series finale a few nights ago, I struggled to determine how I felt. Whenever I reach the end of a show I love, the dominant emotion is often bittersweet, as I know I will miss spending time with captivating characters but there is also a level of satisfaction at seeing the programme conclude in a fulfilling manner. When the last episode of The Wire wrapped up, however, a number of questions went through my head. A few were related to the finale itself, another revolved around what on earth I was going to watch next, but my main takeaway was: “Will I ever watch another series as good as that?”

The Wire presents a cyclical world, whereby certain characters end up occupying the roles other figures held for the majority of the show. Fittingly, the discourse surrounding the show is also cyclical because, despite the fact that my viewing experience will differ from many other fans’, I have arrived at the conclusion many of them came to, which is that it might be the best, and I think whoever I recommend it to will reach a similar judgement. Hype can often be detrimental to one’s enjoyment of a highly popular show, but The Wire enjoys a rare position: it originates from a very different era of television where possible scrutiny and dissent on social media were largely absent, but it boasts a timeless quality as the themes it explores continue to reverberate in the face of the current social and political climate. Ultimately, no amount of hype can prepare you for what a masterful achievement this programme is.

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