‘Shit Never Fucking Changes’: The Enduring Pleasure of The Wire

Anthony Morris explains why The Wire is the best television drama ever made - despite (or because of) breaking every convention about the crime genre and small-screen storytelling. There is no lead on The Wire: it’s an ensemble show, and its central character is Baltimore itself; its central subject how the system is broken, across the police, the world of work, politics, schools and the media.

It’s a good moment to revisit the show and its themes: David Simon, creator of The Wire, will be at the Pop Up Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Melbourne this Sunday, talking about why Some People Are More Equal Than Others.

The Wire is the best television drama series ever made.

It’s surprising how little controversy surrounds this statement. After all, its subject matter is hardly revolutionary: a police task force in the decaying east-coast city of Baltimore is given the job of taking down a drug ring. Their operation methods avoid tense undercover work and exciting raids on crackhouses, culminating in a series of dramatic shoot-outs and car chases – the stuff of traditional television crime series. Instead, police in The Wire tap a lot of phones, take a lot of photos, and do a lot of waiting around.

Yet the fact remains: The Wire is the best television drama series ever made. Why? As the series progresses through its five seasons, the subject loses, at least superficially, its dramatic impetus. Yes, season one focuses entirely on drug dealers – but the second is preoccupied with a bunch of dockworkers struggling to hang onto their jobs. The third takes an interest in the notoriously dull world of town politics and real estate, the fourth is about kids going to high school. Then, to add insult to injury, the final season of a program that’s supposedly about taking down drug dealers is off looking at journalists working at a dying newspaper – journalists who hardly even report on the ‘War on Drugs’.

If you’ve never watched The Wire, all this must sound like the usual reviewers’ bait-and-switch: he’s making the program sound dull, but he’s also saying it’s quality viewing. Now he’ll reveal the surprise element which explains how a series that sounds so plodding and meandering could possibly be the something more than a lot of hard work. But there is no surprise. The fourth season of The Wire really is, to a large extent, about four average inner-city teenage boys going to high school. And it’s some of the most affecting drama you’ll ever see.

Whatever you’re looking for in a television program, you’ll find it in The Wire. Its examination of police work in the real world (no CSI magic or sudden confessions here) is almost documentarian; the characters are authentic – and the cast is large, covering everyone from politicians to judges, police investigators to beat cops, crime lords to drug dealers to junkies. There are plot twists that will leave you gasping, occasional moments of comedy as funny as anything you’ll see on television, and a deep feeling throughout that what you’re viewing is how politics and fighting crime actually happens.

Mind you, this realism comes at a cost: The Wire is not a program you can dip in and out of. There’s only one way to watch The Wire, and that’s to start at episode one of season one and watch it all, chronologically. Developments are not signposted, storylines can’t be easily summarised, and characters play their cards close to their chest. It’s not only a series that rewards close attention but one that actively punishes for letting your attention drift: minor cast members and seemingly irrelevant story sidebars grow to become central. Who would have guessed that the first season’s comedic junkie street hustler Bubbles (Andre Royo) would in many ways end up the central character of the entire series?

Andres Royo as Bubbles

Andres Royo as Bubbles

By demanding such focus from its viewers, The Wire is able to pack in more than just about every other television drama. Each episode ends up working more like a chapter in a novel than a stand-alone story, constantly moving forward – without the recaps or resolutions we usually take for granted from most series. Even a quality drama like The Sopranos will often feature basically the same scene two or three times before moving on – Tony argues with Carmilla, later on Tony has another argument with Carmilla, then Tony talks about his arguing with Carmilla to Doctor Meroni, and so on.

It feels realistic in those programs, because our lives often do involve going over the same ground. But these programs operate by creating characters we want to get to know, and then showing us the world in which their characters exist. The Sopranos fans talk about Tony Soprano, not the New Jersey Mob; Mad Men fans talk about Don Draper, not the world of 1960s Manhattan advertising. The Wire turns that approach on its head: it creates a world and then shows us the characters who live in it. Fans of The Wire talk about Baltimore, not detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). This is, in part, because it’s an ensemble series, with too many great characters to list here – you could build an entire series just around drug kingpin, Prop Joe (Robert F. Chew). But it’s also because The Wire is constantly looking at the big picture, stressing that no individual is more important than society as a whole.

Take McNulty. When the series begins, he’s a fairly standard leading character from crime fiction: a sloppy drunk who’s ruined his home life, held together – just – by his drive to take down the Barksdale crime family running West Baltimore. But over the course of seasons three and four, McNulty cleans up his act, leaves behind the drinking and the womanising and, in the process, all but vanishes from the series. Once the series’ lead, McNulty is absent from entire episodes. When he does show up, he’s grinning like a loon up the back of the squad room, the happiest man in Baltimore, allowing the drama he once headlined pass him by. It’s hardly surprising, then, that at the start of season five, when he returns to his role as lead protagonist and man of action, it almost feels like a defeat, returning to old habits, sabotaging his personal life in the process.

Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty.

Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty.

Because in the world of The Wire, the system always wins out. Thinking that one person can make a difference – that somehow you can play the game and come out ahead – is how you end up out on the streets without a job. Or, if your job is on the streets, you end up dead.

This is not an approach we’re accustomed to in television drama, especially police drama. Law & Order and CSI are built on the notion that the cops make a difference. The episodes that fail are an anomaly – a ‘must-watch’ diversion from the usual script. And while The Wire does feature cops, our empathies are often steered towards the criminals. The central genius of The Wire – why it is in many ways a giant slap in the face to those who think that genre fiction is somehow a lesser artistic form – is that it takes the traditional view of the underworld and shows us how it applies to Western society as a whole: cop and criminal, drug lord and mayor, schoolkid and dockworker alike.

Cast in that light, it’s hardly surprising that school-centric season four was the most highly acclaimed of the program’s run. For once, The Wire’s basic theme – that it’s people who bend, not the world – was expressed in a socially acceptable way. We expect to see children’s dreams crushed by the weight of the world; it’s tragic, but we accept it as part of life. Seeing adults’ dreams crushed in exactly the same way doesn’t always sit as well. We all know that kids grow up wanting to be fighter pilots but end up as regional sales managers; seeing kids on The Wire wanting to escape the lives we know are waiting for them and (mostly) failing is less confronting than seeing a grown-up fail in exactly the same way.

Michael K. Williams as Omar Little

Michael K. Williams as Omar Little

For those more used to television series like The Shield – in which rogue cop Vic Mackie (Michael Chiklis) spends each week manipulating the system for his own ends – The Wire’s message, that no one is bigger than the system, sounds depressing. Numerous right-wing commentators in the United States have taken swipes at The Wire for its supposedly negative view of society. But The Wire isn’t about wish-fulfilment or power fantasies.

Besides, The Wire is far from depressing to watch. Just about everyone is working some kind of angle or another – and waiting to see if they succeed is just one of the program’s many pleasures. Will stick-up man supreme, Omar (Michael K. Williams), and his shotgun have their revenge on Stringer Bell for the murder of his lover? Will Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) save the docks as a workplace for his union? Will Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillan) become mayor? Can anyone on the streets stop the rise of aspiring kingpin gangster Marlo (Jamie Hector)?

Above: The famous Bunk and McNulty crime scene, using just one word.

Then there are those characters who are just fun to be around. McNulty’s original partner, the cigar-chomping Bunk (Wendell Pierce), is a constant joy; the scene in season one in which he and McNulty spend ten minutes investigating a crime scene, using only the word ‘fuck’, is one of the greatest in television history. Gleefully corrupt senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr), with his catchphrase ‘sheeeee-it’, only gets funnier as the series progresses. Some characters, like teenage hit-girl Snoop (Felica Pearson, who speaks in an accent so thick it all but requires subtitles) are compelling simply because you’ve never seen anyone like them.

Above: A montage of Clay Davis and his famous catchphrase.

Finally, how could anyone describe a series with a character like Bubbles depressing? He is initially comedic relief; a street-hustling junkie who provides the police with ground-level intelligence. But as the police investigation is cut off by higher-ups who don’t want the boat rocked – when you go high enough with drug money it turns into political money – he’s left to fend for himself. And, for a while, the results are not pretty.

In the end, Bubbles is the only character in The Wire who successfully escapes the role he’s found himself in, and through his own willpower he remains free. Bubbles makes an effort to exist within the world of junkies and street hustlers. When that doesn’t work for him, he doesn’t simply declare a one-man war on the system, nor does he try to go in deeper to change it from within. He perceives the mess he’s in, and he decides to do what it takes to get out.

It’s not depicted as being easy, nor without its own costs. But Bubbles decides to improve his life, and he makes it work. That’s why, for all the muck thrown at The Wire about its pessimistic view of society as a place where, as McNulty himself puts it early in season five, ‘shit never fucking changes’, there’s a flicker of optimism at its core. We might not be able to change the system single-handedly, we might be stuck in a world that doesn’t work because powerful forces like it that way. But The Wire says we can still change ourselves, we can find a better way to live our own lives and find true happiness.

And if we can’t find happiness that way? Well, clearly drugs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Portrait of Anthony Morris

Anthony Morris is home entertainment editor at the Big Issue and a freelance film writer. His first novel, The Hot Guy, has been co-written with Mel Campbell and will be published in June 2017.