I’d always heard it was good. And I had no reason to think otherwise. I was a Homicide fan, which inspires loyalty to anyone ever involved in the show. I mean I think I ended up watching all of Oz because of the number ex-Homicide actors Tom Fontana employed. But knowing David Simon created it, knowing it was on HBO, knowing it too was set in Baltimore… I really had no excuse for waiting so long. So with the fourth season starting in September, I spent late summer 2006 catching up on the DVDs and becoming consumed. It’s really not like another TV show, not just airing now but ever. The Wire never feels produced. Even in its most dramatic moments, watching feels like living with these stories and characters. You hope for something better like they do and sink down with each inevitable disappointment.
I worry a bit I’m putting The Wire first as if I’m somehow folding the first three seasons into the fourth, giving all 50 episodes credit. But truly, these last 13 stand on their own. Surfacely The Wire is a cop show, just a crime show. But in actuality, it’s a show about failure—not just the ways people hurt each other, but the way our institutions let down the people they purport to help. And this season, building on prior indictments of politics and policing and the drug war, turns toward the question of education. In the first episode we are introduced to four eighth graders. Immediately it’s clear that these boys are going to break our hearts. There is no way around it. But we agree to go on this journey with them, as if somehow by keeping them company, we’ll maybe not save them but make it all hurt a little less.
For both practical reasons and out of principle, the Wire employs Baltimore players (from local actors to former drug dealers and ex-politicians) and films on its actual streets. Many plots are culled from the experiences of its writers, including former cop and teacher Ed Burns and journalist Simon. All that credibility only reenforces the impact of what you’re watching. At no point can you turn away and say it’s just a show, that it’s not worth getting upset over the fates of fictional characters in situations that result from some kind of need for a good story. I mean, it’s written beautifully, with all the humor and grace and intelligence and brutality you’d expect out of great literature and entertainment. But it’s more than that somehow too. The cops and kids and politicians and hoppers on the corners David Simon has chronicled may be beyond our reach, but as a viewer, I feel genuinely changed.