BBC Culture polled 206 expert film critics, from 43 countries, to help pick the “Greatest TV series of the 20th century”. Eric Deggans profiles the winner
One of the most significant scenes in The Wire is its first. Detective Jimmy McNulty, played by British actor Dominic West, is sitting on a stoop in a rundown part of Baltimore, quizzing a young black man about a local kid who has been murdered.
The pair are looking over at the body of the boy, whose nickname was Snot Boogie. He had a history of playing in a neighbourhood dice game until there was lots of money on the ground, grabbing it and trying to run. Normally, the young man tells McNulty, other players would just catch him and “beat his ass”. But somebody – we don’t see who – finally had enough this time and shot him.
“If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?” McNulty asks. “Got to,” the kid replies. This [is] America, man.” He drops the line as if it answers everything. And it does.
Appearing on HBO from 2002 to 2008, The Wire stands out as such an original and outstanding series because it is almost an anti-cop show. Where conventional US police dramas focused on courageous individuals fighting a sometimes-dysfunctional system, much of The Wire is about those systems and just how badly their corruption, inertia and injustice are failing the American people.
Small wonder, then, that the 206 international critics who voted in BBC Culture’s poll selected The Wire as the greatest TV series of the 21st Century so far. It was a clear winner; nearly half of all critics put the show in their top 10 and almost a quarter of those polled ranked it in first place, citing its depiction of power, race, class and American life.
“I’m glad the show has a shelf life,” says creator David Simon, of the win. “We weren’t interested in whether characters were good or bad. The writers had in their heads the idea, ‘If a society is going to have a law enforcement arm, what’s the job of that institution? What are the police doing?’ If you write a show like that, it will have a shelf life for as long as those systems are in play.”
Back when it first aired, an honour like this didn’t seem likely. Though critics loved The Wire, it wasn’t the biggest hit with viewers, earning mostly average ratings. (Simon says they got killed in viewer numbers for season three, in part, because of the debuts of Sunday Night Football and Desperate Housewives). It was barely recognised by the TV industry’s most prestigious ceremony, the Primetime Emmy Awards; nominated for writing awards in two different years, winning neither. But its impact on TV – featuring the kind of antiheroes, explicit action, authentic storylines and complex plotting that would become standard practice in the world of streaming television – has proven immeasurable in the years since it concluded.
Snot Boogie’s story could be The Wire’s mission statement. Viewers were getting a heads up that they were entering a very specific world with its own rules, patterns of speech, expectations and dangers. However strange it might have seemed to an audience weaned on Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues, though, it was also a very American operation, reflecting how the country deals with people it would rather not consider.
But this show ensured you did consider them very deeply. It perched in the courtyard of housing projects while the corner boys conducted their drug business. It showed the ingenuity of addicts trying to earn a buck by ripping copper plumbing from houses under construction. It documented the disappearance of well-paid labour jobs for America’s working class. It showed all the different ways experienced Baltimore cops can use the f-word while mulling over evidence in a crime scene.
The Wire revealed that systems operated everywhere. Even impoverished neighbourhoods in Baltimore have a bureaucracy and a code of conduct – they are run like company towns by the industry that dominates the local economy: the drug trade.
Over the course of its five seasons, The Wire would take on some of these dysfunctional structures: in law enforcement, politics, education, labour unions, the media and even drug gangs. In each case, the series’ sprawling storylines explored how those systems chug along, often serving the interests of the powerful while chewing up average people unlucky enough to get caught in their wake. Along the way, systemic racism, inept bureaucracy and the indifference of leaders who are supposed to care wind up strangling America’s urban centres.
It makes sense that this story about systems would come from two types of people who know them well: an ex-cop and an ex-journalist. David Simon loosely based The Wire on the experiences of his writing partner, Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police detective and schoolteacher. Simon was a former reporter who had covered the police for The Baltimore Sun newspaper, written two books about his experience and seen one turned into the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street, while he worked with Burns to develop the other into the HBO miniseries The Corner.
When I spoke to Simon about The Wire for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2018, he told me stories and characters from the show feel authentic because he was writing about actual situations and people he knew from his days at The Baltimore Sun. He said The Wire was about two Americas – one connected to the promise of American success and advancement, and another completely disconnected from it. “I used to say all the time: ‘Look, there are, let’s say, 479 dramas about one America. For a brief, five-season period, we did a drama about the other America that got left behind.'”
The Wire was particularly adept at depicting the failure of the US government’s decades-long strategy to crack down on the illegal drug trade, known as “the War on Drugs”. As Detective McNulty manipulates the police department into going after a particularly efficient and ruthless crew of drug dealers in West Baltimore – eventually using the listening devices that give the show its name – we see how the drug business is the only employment left for men of a certain age in that neighbourhood. Policing in The Wire becomes more about racking up arrest statistics that please supervisors and politicians, rather than actually solving crimes. And a war on drugs quickly becomes a war on the poor. Especially black people.
This idea is epitomised by a scene from the third season featuring one of my favourite characters, police major Howard “Bunny” Colvin, played by Robert Wisdom. Colvin is an experienced cop dismayed by how the focus on arrests and seizures of illegal drugs is creating a generation of police officers who have forgotten how to solve crimes. Colvin explains this to young sergeant Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), noting that Carver has no sources in the neighbourhoods he’s working in to tell him what’s really happening there. Instead, Carver and his compatriots act like an invading army, rolling into the area, arresting a bunch of young men, and rolling out again.
“You call something a war, and pretty soon, everybody going to be acting like warriors,” Colvin tells Carver. “And when you’re at war, you need a fuckin’ enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fuckin’ enemy. And the neighbourhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.”
These days, it’s accepted that 50 years of punitive policing hasn’t stopped America’s illegal drug trade; back in the mid-2000s, it was a much thornier concept for a TV cop show to tackle. Still, The Wire always resisted what Simon called the “Thin Blue Line” narrative, where intrepid cops are depicted as the last line of defence against lawless drug dealers and addicts.
By focusing its lens on the types of characters mainstream television rarely showcased, The Wire also gave us a vision of black people with the kind of depth US TV scarcely offered. The list was amazing, especially for that time: Andre Royo’s insightful addict/police informant Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins; Wood Harris’s family-orientated, ruthless gangster Avon Barksdale; Idris Elba as Barksdale’s lieutenant Stringer Bell, who dreamed of using business school tactics to build a legal empire; Sonja Sohn as gay police detective Kima Greggs; Wendell Pierce as McNulty’s irascible partner William “Bunk” Moreland; Felicia Pearson as a hitwoman character with her own name, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson and many more.
Bringing life to those characters required serious actors. And one of The Wire’s most important legacies is the way it exposed TV audiences to performers who would later become household names. That roster starts with Elba, who played one of the series’ most iconic characters and has since built a career ranging from Marvel movies and The Suicide Squad film to TV’s Luther. West has had similar success, from films like 300 to the BBC’s Les Misérables, and will play Prince Charles in the upcoming season of Netflix’s The Crown. Other big names to come from The Wire include: Michael B Jordan (Black Panther), Seth Gilliam (The Walking Dead), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone), Wendell Pierce (Jack Ryan), Lance Reddick and Jamie Hector (Bosch), Glynn Turman (Fargo), and Reg E Cathey (Fantastic Four).
Simon credits the show’s casting directors, Alexa Fogel and Pat Moran, with finding amazing actors who weren’t in a lot of high-profile projects. But he has another reason for why some of the show’s performers weren’t as well-known back then.
“A lot of those names are African-American,” he says. “And at the time The Wire came out, African-American actors were among the most under-utilised actors in Hollywood. Network TV was very unforgiving to shows that had a significant number of black characters. They thought white people wouldn’t watch. But HBO was not afraid of it.”
The actor who most embodied The Wire’s success in finding remarkable performers to play singular roles is the late Michael K Williams. Williams gave life to another iconic character: Omar Little, the fearsome stick-up man who robbed drug dealers. Omar was also openly gay, redefining and challenging ideas of black masculinity as a character who was undeniably cool, stuck to his own moral code and loved other men. Williams would continue to push such boundaries in his future roles, earning an Emmy nomination playing a closeted gay man in HBO’s 1950s-set horror-fantasy drama Lovecraft Country before his death in September. But The Wire was his breakthrough – a golden opportunity for a young black man with a prominent facial scar who had previously appeared as a dancer in music videos.
To be sure, The Wire had its flaws. Its storylines could be tough to follow and the plots could be slow-moving. Its second season, focused on labour unions and the ports, and its final season, centred on the media, are often cited as weaker installments. It’s also a pretty male-orientated series, though several female characters became standout figures.
Ultimately though, The Wire has earned its place as the greatest show of the 21st Century because there is no modern TV series that has better captured all the various ills hobbling the American experiment today, from ineffective politicians to toxic policing, vanishing labour markets, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods and systemic racism.
It presented a vision of a community so hamstrung by issues, it’s unable to fully recognise its problems, much less address them. Which sounds an awful lot like America today.
Eric Deggans is NPR’s TV Critic