There was a “joke” among women of a certain age (I’m 38, so plus or minus five years on either side probably), back in the late ‘00s/early ‘10s, about the inevitability of running into a certain type of guy if you were actively dating and hadn’t seen The Wire. Always a white, cisgendered straight dude, when he found out you had never seen it, he would forcefully exclaim, “YOU HAVE TO WATCH THE WIRE!” He would then natter on about some guy named Omar and a bunch of characters as if you had any idea whatsoever what he was talking about, even though he knew you hadn’t seen it, and then, as far as you knew, he would never, ever talk about anything else ever again.
The thing is, it wasn’t a joke. It happened to me twice. Once was a first date, no great loss, but the other was at least a few weeks into dating, and now the entirety of our once budding relationship became him telling me to watch a television show. It ended very quickly after that.
I didn’t watch The Wire when it premiered for no more complicated reason than because I didn’t have HBO. I was in my junior year of college and I wasn’t about to spend my extremely hard earned server money on a premium cable package, especially when HBO had pretty consistently put out DVDs of its best shows a year or two after each season wrapped. This is how I watched The Sopranos and Six Feet Under (which has a criminally underrated series finale that I think bests the much more talked about Sopranos ending by miles)— I rented them from my local video store. The same store didn’t carry The Wire DVDs, or else HBO didn’t make them available for distribution via rental— I don’t remember and it doesn’t really matter— but for whatever reason, the show wasn’t available to me easily. In my early 20s I was less interested in watching television than driving around the Southeast to larger cities than my hometown to go to concerts and raves, anyway.
Years passed. More straight cisgendered white guys, even ones I didn’t date, would suddenly exclaim “YOU HAVE TO WATCH THE WIRE!” Completely oblivious to me clearly strategizing how I could extricate myself from not only the conversation but preferably from being in the same building with this babbling fanboy, he would go on for tens of minutes, somehow never saying anything that explained why the show was good… usually with the excuse that he didn’t want to ruin it for me (TOO LATE, BUDDY!) with spoilers. The only parseable thing they would say was “BEST SHOW ON TELEVISION!” or when it had wrapped “BEST SHOW EVER!”
So, at some point, the reason I didn’t watch The Wire changed to pushing back against these tedious blowhards. By proclaiming it the ne plus ultra of the art form, they had actually convinced me of the opposite— it was the Best Show Ever only according to a lot of pushy, inarticulate dudes.
Of course, there were exceptions. My little brother is a big fan, and he’s actually the film buff in the family (despite my starting a podcast where my best friend David and I watch and review every movie ever nominated for Best Picture), but he’s also not at all pushy about it. Whenever the show comes up, he just confirms that I still haven’t watched it, notes that it was good and then we move on to discussing whatever we were talking about to which The Wire was tangential.
The other person is David himself. In a recent episode of Screen Test of Time, he said, “I know I’m not supposed to tell Suzan to ‘watch The Wire’ but—” and then probably said something really insightful, but after 17 years, my brain just shuts down completely as a self-defense mechanism when someone starts talking about the show. But as I said on that episode, it’s not that you can’t tell me to watch it, it’s just that I already know I should watch it. So does everyone else who hasn’t seen it. Because we’ve been told, again, and again, and again.
For some reason, though, David’s most recent mention stuck in my head, and a few days later, while indoor rock climbing, I pushed off of a foothold to grab a handhold just out of my reach. My fingers grazed it, but I missed. I slipped trying to regain my footing, fell rather gracelessly, and broke my ankle.
Faced with spending the next four to six weeks on mandatory rest, ice, compression, and elevation, and explicitly banned from using all my free time dancing, I needed a project. Something I could do while stuck on the sofa for over a month.
Watching and reviewing 60 hours of television perfectly fit the bill. So I’m watching The Wire, and I’m going to blog about it.
In much the same spirit as Screen Test of Time, I’m less interested in whether or not the show was groundbreaking (or even good) at the time that it was on, and more interested in whether or not, when any prestige drama since has wrapped up, the inevitable internet comments of “The Wire was better!” and “The Wire is still the greatest show of all time!” are justified.
What follows is his is my working hypothesis. Even if I end up being right about all of it, of course, this will only be my opinion, but I suspect the following to be true:
The show is probably good, and many, many shows that have come after have borrowed heavily from it or used it as a jumping off point from which to diverge, e.g., Breaking Bad is about drug manufacturing and trafficking set in the suburban-ish Southwest, because The Wire is about drug distribution set in urban Baltimore. Because of that, many series may owe a debt to The Wire, but, by standing on the shoulders of giants, more than a few have managed to surpass it. (Or at the very least break even!)
That a lot of people crowing “The Wire was better!” are using that as cultural capital to show they’ve been hip to good TV for a long time— like saying “I prefer their old stuff” when a band they like blows up.
Given that the show runner was a white guy, who no matter how woke he was then (or is today), and that the show ended before Obama was elected, before Ferguson, and particularly before the Baltimore uprisings in response to the murder of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore PD, there is probably a lot in there that hasn’t aged well. And didn’t age well = CAN’T be the Greatest of All Time.
That the reason all of the people I’ve met who have been so intransigent that nothing has ever or will ever top this show have been cishet white guys is because cishet white guys are obsessed with a particular stereotypical, exploitative portrayal of American, inner city, male Blackness— the guns, gangs, drugs, strippers, SUVs, etc.— and this scratched their voyeuristic itch while maintaining their security blanket of white supremacy because within the world of The Wire, Blackness is synonymous with criminality and poverty. This is not to preemptively criticize the show for fetishizing Black poverty as “cool”, because frankly, I don’t have any idea if it does— only to criticize the über fans I suspect of doing this. (And if you don’t think this is a thing, let me just point out that a troubling number of white dudes still think using the n-word is OK, as long as it’s while they awkwardly try to rap along to songs about growing up poor and Black in America.)
I have largely managed to avoid spoilers about this show for years, because of my defense-mechanism of basically straight disassociating whenever someone starts telling me how great it is, but full disclosure, here are the things I do know (or at least think I know?) about it already:
It’s about drug dealing in Baltimore.
A lot of it takes place in housing projects.
There’s a guy called Omar, and he is played by the same actor who played Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, the incredible Michael K. Williams.
Idris Elba is in it.
David Simon was the show runner.
And with that… I’m gonna hit play on this very first episode.