Few shows this century (or ever, if we’re being honest) have had the lasting impact of The Wire. In just 60 episodes over five seasons, David Simon’s magnum opus created a fresh world from a real-life city and explored multiple facets of it with depth and clarity.
Opening with a delve into Baltimore’s drug trade, the series wove through the struggle of the working class, the workings of politics, and the school system, before bringing the media and how we consume it into focus. Each season focused on one of these aspects, yet the show stuck with many of the same characters and storylines throughout.
It’s a prime example of how a series can start small before expanding to cover broader issues, but without losing its core and its clarity of vision. Delivering excellence on almost every level through its entire run, The Wire is perhaps the greatest TV series ever made. Here are 14 Reasons The Wire Is The Best TV Show Of All Time.
If you’ve never seen the show, expect some SPOILERS.
14. It’s timeless and universal
The Wire centers on one city, Baltimore, over a specific timeframe, the beginning of the 21st century. Yet it resonates far beyond that setting. Its analyses of human behaviors and power structures and struggles fit with almost any period in human history.
Look at almost any major city and you’ll find crime and drug abuse. You’ll see inequality and blue-collar workers struggling to keep their heads above water, finding it all too easy to get tempted by easy money and the promise of a better life.
These are stories and relationships that are relatable, even as they take us into aspects of our world that may not be overly familiar. There’s a lot to recognize about the world around each of us in The Wire.
13. The system as the villain
There are no true good guys or bad guys in The Wire. Sure, you have killers and drug dealers ruining lives, though almost everyone in the show operates in shades of grey. If there’s one true enemy for almost everyone, it’s the system that’s left so any of them with but a little chance to thrive.
Those in poverty have to hustle just to survive. Cops need to press through endless red tape to get anything done. Those with the noblest of intentions find themselves corrupted and broken, all because they wanted to make the city a better place.
The beliefs and social constructs eventually damage everyone through the awful incentives laid before them. There’s no simple way for anyone to break those bonds, and that creates the conflict that helps drive this most compelling of shows.
12. Vibrant, detailed setting and world building
For better and worse, this Baltimore is alive. One that’s living and breathing, where danger and opportunity exist around almost every corner. Say what you will about The Wire, but there’s always something going on, and it’s very rarely dull.
Simon and his cast and crew cobbled together a Frankenstein’s monster of a creature from many parts of this city, gave it a pulse, and let it live. Fitting together the parts of the show so effectively and creating a complete world is no mean feat, and the writers deserve all the credit for making The Wire completely believable – other, perhaps, than the completely failed experiment of “Hamsterdam,” a place in which one police captain effectively legalized drugs.
11. Realistic depiction of school system
Even though The Wire takes us deep into Baltimore’s organized crime underworld, it’s perhaps its delve into the school system in season 4 that offers the most shocking analysis.
The show pulls few punches in depicting violence in inner-city schools, the standardized testing that does a disservice to students, and the hoops principals have to jump through to obtain adequate funding. It all ties into Baltimore’s city governance, as Mayor Tommy Carcetti has an opportunity to get more money for his schools, but passes as he thinks it may hurt his chances at being elected Maryland governor down the line.
10. The similarities of gangs, governance and police departments
The Wire shows us once and for all that the power structures within distinct organizations are profoundly similar, if not identical. There’s an establishment, with a new force coming at it to take over almost always. Politicians must concern themselves with new candidates. Gangs fight for real estate and battle against new forces – Marlo eventually rises up to take over from Stringer and Avon. Even in the police force there’s a battle as colleagues contend for promotions.
9. Complex characters
The Wire operates in shades of grey. There are few, if any, white hats and black hats here. From the mayor and chief of police on down to corner boys, nothing and noone is ever quite what they seem at first. Characters by and large are driven by pragmatism, with some personal feelings and animosity blended in to keep things interesting.
In the earlier seasons, this is perhaps best exemplified by D’Angelo Barksdale. Sure, he’s a high-ranking drug dealer within his uncle’s Barksdale Organization, but he’s a thoughtful man, and the consequences of his actions play heavily on his mind. That crisis of conscience eventually causes his death.
On the other hand, you have a cop like Eddie Walker, a cop who thinks little of brutalizing young gang members and stealing from Bubbles and Omar. Such moral complexity runs through almost every character, building them into fully formed human beings and helping make it such an indelible show.
8. The incredible cast
You can have the best scripts in the world, but without the right actors to bring those words to life, a show is dead in the water. Thankfully, The Wire assembled one of the finest casts in television history.
Dominic West is ostensibly the lead as Jimmy McNulty, and injects the character with enough vim to turn him into an arrogant, disrespectful, and troubled yet highly skilled detective. Everyone else is good to great as well. It’s near impossible to picture anyone else than Isiah Whitlock delivering Clay Davis’ signature profanity, for one thing.
7. It rewards paying attention
Pay close attention to the early episodes of each season – to the visuals, dialogue, and actions – and later events make much more sense. The attention to detail is astoundingly remarkable.
The sights and sounds are completely on point. The settings, fashion, and production design are remarkable, and rituals (like assassinations and police wake) seem carried out to the letter the way they would happen in real life. The way gangs are organized – like say, the process of buying drugs or staying in contact using burner phones – is smart.
Season 5, meanwhile, gets so much right about the process of journalism in a way we haven’t really seen outside of Spotlight in recent memory. Characters say and set up so much with a look that will pay off down the line. It’s a show that demands your attention, and you’ll reap the benefits if you invest fully.
6. Authentic dialogue
In every corner of this Baltimore, characters speak in prose florid and blunt, both of which are effective methods in getting the point across. It’s authentic to this world, if not necessarily real life. The speech invariably seems authentic to each stratum and individual. Technical language sits neatly alongside cursing, and the way characters speak mirrors across the different spheres of the show.
The blue-collar verbiage of the stevedores clashes with the doublespeak of bureaucrats, but there are similar cadences and structures in the way cops and criminals speak.
Many have complained that the dialogue at points is incomprehensible without subtitles. But that’s a criticism without merit. If you need to rewatch a scene to absorb the dialogue, that’s not a bad thing, if it means the dialogue remains authentic. The longer you stick with the show, the clearer the language becomes.
5. Each season is self-contained, building into a larger narrative
As we all know by now, each season of The Wire focuses on a different aspect of Baltimore: season 1 has the drug trade; two, the working-class lives of dock workers; three, city governance; four, the school system; and five, the media. But as the story propels forward, storylines and characters stretch on through them. This is the story of a city, and America, rather than one individual, but you need McNulty et al. to tie it together.
So while the second season centers on Frank Sobotka, McNulty is involved, having been reassigned to a marine unit, and we still get to see Stringer Bell’s rise to power. Each new season opens up the city more, but it’s always tied to and builds on what we’ve already seen.
4. Omar coming
Perhaps the show’s most influential and defining character, Omar Little is a stick-up man almost everyone fears and respects. He robs criminals and lives life by a strict moral code – he will not, for instance, use profanity or harm any innocent people.
Michael K. Williams plays him as a man of deep intelligence and cunning, who will carefully make plans before acting. He’s a chess player, and calculates potential risks and rewards in almost everything he does.
3. A scene using only one four-letter word can tell a complete story
If there’s one scene that shows while The Wire can go big, it can go very small and say a lot, it’s the scene in which McNulty and Bunk investigate a murder scene using only variants of a certain four-letter word. The pair’s actions speak louder than words — well, almost — as they position crime scene photos around the room, measure heights and distances, and act out all the potential ways the murder could have went down before finding the answer, the fatal bullet, and the casing.
It’s brilliant in its apparent simplicity, a beautiful counterpoint to every other show that feels the need to fill in the blanks with hamfisted expository dialogue that distracts rather than engages.
2. Deliberate, careful storytelling
Calling The Wire a slow burn is like calling the Boston Tea Party a minor incident in American history. There’s a ton of detail here, and the show takes its sweet time in the set up, it just makes the payoffs all the more delectable.
There’s a rhyme and reason to everything that happens. The emotional gut punches the show lands wouldn’t prove nearly as effective if it didn’t take the time to let the audience get to know and invest in its characters.
It builds layers onto its plot and characters, ensuring that when the brown stuff hits the fan, almost everything and everyone is affected in someway. The ripples of violence and profound discoveries travel far beyond their immediate vicinity.
1. It’s where the world fell in love with Idris Elba
By far the biggest star to emerge from The Wire as yet (though Michael B. Jordan is on his way to overtaking him) is Idris Elba. The man who went on to hop over to the other side of the law as John Luther and go even further into corrupting children into violent criminals in Beasts of No Nation emerged in the public consciousness here.
His astute portrayal of Stringer Bell as a calculated, ruthless kingpin who treated his empire as a business above all else – and took economics classes to further his knowledge – as a talented performer. The Wire was Elba’s big break, and yet another reason we have to be thankful for its existence.
Can you think of any other reasons The Wire is so good? Let us know in the comments!