After you’ve spent the better part of your Sunday watching Kerry surrogates saying things like, “The Senator really has been consistent on this . . .”, well by Sunday evening you’re probably ready to switch off the news programs and look for some quality escapist fare. Trust me on this one: look no further than The Wire, airing Sunday nights at nine on HBO.
I don’t ordinarily find much to agree with in the San Francisco Chronicle, but I had no argument when Chronicle television writer Tim Goodman called The Wire “the best show on television.” Sadly though, the show remains the poor stepchild to HBO’s signature crime drama, The Sopranos. Taking nothing away from The Sopranos, The Wire stands up to it in every regard: acting, writing, production quality, you name it. But despite heaps of critical acclaim, The Wire, now in its third season, has yet to pick up so much as a single Emmy nomination. Here in the Dunphy house this is regarded as the greatest outrage since O. J. Simpson walked out of jail.
The show’s creator and driving force is David Simon, formerly a writer for the Baltimore Sun, who in 1988 spent a year on the streets with the homicide unit of the Baltimore police department. The result of that year’s work was a book titled Homicide, a Year on the Killing Streets, on which the NBC television series was later based. I don’t read many cop books, and I’m especially wary of those written by newspaper reporters, but I didn’t have to read beyond page one of Homicide to know that Simon had nailed it. If there was ever a book that better captured the world of the big-city detective I have yet to read it, and in The Wire Simon once more brings his keen eye to the streets of Baltimore.
The show’s first season (now, at long last, out on DVD) focused on an investigation into drug dealing in one of Baltimore’s housing projects. In the first episode there is a scene in which a drug dealer explains the game of chess to two of his comrades. He likens the game to the drug trade, and as the episode and the series continue the viewer is shown just how fitting an analogy this is. The cops are nearly run off the board in the early moves, for they are slow to recognize their opponents’ strategy. But the cops learn on the go, led by Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), whose police instincts are unsurpassed even while his personal life is a shambles. The divorced, alcoholic cop is of course a television cliché, but in this case the writing and acting are so flawless the viewer is mesmerized into believing it’s never been done before.
Overseeing the crew of cops is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), who must clash with his superiors in the police bureaucracy while trying to get McNulty and some of the other renegade detectives on the squad to march in the same direction. It is this internal struggle among the cops that I find especially compelling on The Wire, for I’ve never seen it depicted so truthfully. Working cops everywhere know that the people in their upper-command structure are, with an exception here and there, preening prima donnas with little if any knowledge of how police work on the street is actually conducted. Here, these men are portrayed in all their glorious vanity and ignorance. I suspect that among cop viewers, the show is much enjoyed by those who wear out their shoes on the job, less so by those who don’t.
The depiction of the crooks on The Wire is no less accurate. The producers don’t subscribe to the networks’ politically correct notion that demands at least one white criminal for every black one on the screen. (Last year, the show focused on crime on Baltimore’s waterfront, and the crooks accordingly were mostly white.) In the real world, the people slinging dope in Baltimore’s projects are black, and so are the actors portraying them. The kingpin is Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), who returns to the streets this season after spending last year in prison. But being locked up didn’t stop him from being the shot-caller on his crew. He merely relayed his instructions to his second-in-command, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), who in turn passed them down the chain of command. Their underlings, right down to the lowliest mope on the street corner, are played as shaded, multifaceted characters, not the cardboard cutouts one so often sees in such roles. So convincing are these actors that I can’t help but suspect there might have been casting sessions going on outside the release desk at the county jail.
A warning: the show demands careful attention from the viewer. If you’re not a cop or a drug dealer you may have trouble keeping up, for the writers don’t sacrifice reality for exposition. But the show has an elaborate website, on which each episode is synopsized at great length, and Rafael Alvarez, a staff writer on the show, has just published a companion book. If you’re already a fan of The Wire, here’s to your discriminating taste. Your task now is to get your friends to watch. If you’re not already watching, what are you waiting for?
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.