The Wire: arguably the greatest television programme ever made
No other series in history has attracted such critical praise, not least from the kind of high-minded cultural arbiters who would usually only watch a US crime drama with a peg on their nose. According to these critics, The Wire isn't merely the best thing on TV; it merits comparison with the works of Dickens and Dostoevsky. As the entertainment industry magazine Variety observed, "When television history is written, little else will rival The Wire, a series of such ambition that it is, perhaps inevitably, savoured only by the appreciative few."
Until very recently, this was true: The Wire was minority pursuit, an "unmissable" TV show that most viewers on both sides of the Atlantic had managed to miss. On HBO, the US cable network which produced and first broadcast five series of The Wire between 2002 and 2008, it attracted a zealous but relatively small following of around 4 million viewers an episode. In the UK, fans of The Wire were even thinner on the ground. When the fifth and final season reached its climax last year on the digital channel FX fewer than 70,000 viewers tuned in.
Last Monday, however, the appreciative few became the appreciative many as the BBC aired The Wire's very first episode, introducing the drama to a mainstream terrestrial audience for the first time. BBC2 is now showing all 60 episodes nightly, Monday to Friday. The drama made further headlines this week when the British actor Dominic West, one of the show's stars, criticised the BBC for drowning its schedules with costume dramas and failing to make any "high end contemporary stuff" to rival The Wire.
Regardless of whether you agree with West's sideswipe at the bonnets and britches brigade, he has a point about the "contemporary stuff". The Wire is a TV programme like no other. Its central character isn't a cop or a criminal but a city: the faded industrial port of Baltimore, Maryland. Over the course of 60 episodes and multiple storylines, The Wire portrays Baltimore – and by extension urban America as a whole – through the eyes of dozens of characters. Each series focuses on a different facet of the city, including the drug-ravaged housing projects, down-at-heel docks, crumbling public schools and corrupt political administration. Regardless of whether its characters are running drugs or running for office, The Wire refuses to make black-and-white judgements about them. Its prevailing moral universe is grey.
Much of The Wire's power derives from its authenticity. "All the things that have been depicted in The Wire over the past five years – the crime, the corruption – actually happened in Baltimore," says David Simon, one of the show's creators. "The storylines were stolen from real life." Simon wrote from experience: he is a former journalist who spent years working as a crime reporter on The Baltimore Sun. The series' co-creator, Ed Burns, is a former Baltimore homicide detective.
In fact, The Wire is so unflinching in its portrayal of the city and its problems that Sheila Dixon, the Mayor of Baltimore, has publicly criticised it for being "overly negative". (Incidentally, Dixon was indicted in January of this year for charges that included theft and misconduct in office.) While in 2005, during a trial in New York, members of a drugs gang said that they had been studying episodes of The Wire in order to learn about the latest police surveillance techniques, such was the show's realism.
Baltimore's fallen world of drug dealers and urban decay will strike some viewers as a depressing subject, which it is. The Wire is deliberately dense, dark and difficult to watch. Storylines take whole series to unravel, characters move in and out of focus – or are killed off without warning – as the labyrinthine plots develop, and some of the characters use street slang so impenetrable viewers are often forced to turn on the subtitles. David Simon, despairing of and despising most mainstream US television dramas, wants to force viewers of The Wire to concentrate and work hard for the show's rewards, just as they would when reading a challenging book.
In a sense, The Wire's aims are literary. "Our models are the big Russian novels," says Simon, "and also writers like Balzac. We're trying to do with modern-day Baltimore what Balzac did with Paris, or Dickens with London." This isn't quite the boast it sounds; The Wire's contributing writers include several novelists, including Simon himself and the acclaimed crime writers Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. "The show is structured like a visual novel," says Simon, "and these writers understand the complexity of theme." By making the show "difficult", Simon hopes to wean them off the pat plots and formulaic characterisation of most TV drama, and give them something to chew on instead.
One reason The Wire managed to break the mould is the creative licence Simon has been granted by the show's creators, HBO, the network also responsible Band of Brothers and the drama with which The Wire is most frequently compared, The Sopranos. HBO is paid for by subscription, which means it is less beholden to advertisers or obsessed with winning huge prime-time viewing figures for each and every show it makes. In 2005, HBO almost cancelled The Wire because its modest viewing figures couldn't justify the $50 million it costs to make each series. The show was saved after Simon pitched the storylines for series four and five to Chris Albrecht, an HBO executive. Albrecht was so taken with Simon's script ideas that he signed HBO up for two further series, even though they were unlikely to attract many new subscribers. It is hard to imagine an executive at any other US network putting a compelling plot before profit.
The Wire is even a pioneer in the way it is watched. Thanks to its complexity, many viewers prefer to download episodes or buy each series on DVD so that they can watch it undisturbed or several episodes at a time. Tellingly, all five series remain in the top 40 DVD sales charts on Amazon.co.uk, even though the first series has been available for seven years. The Wire is an archetypal slow-burning, word-of-mouth success.
Yesterday the final episode of the medical drama ER was broadcast in America. Over the course of its 15-year run, ER won a record 122 Emmy nominations and, at its peak, attracted more than 32 million viewers. Some commentators say it permanently altered the landscape of television drama.
By contrast, The Wire has never won an Emmy and often appears to have been watched by more enthusiastic TV critics than viewers. However, if the slowly mounting DVD and download sales are to be trusted, it is The Wire, not ER, that will be credited with changing the face of television. Perhaps now it is finally being aired on a terrestrial channel, The Wire will be savoured by more than an appreciative few.