Before Breaking Bad, Narcos, and Ozark, there was The Wire – this early noughties series is the kingpin of crime dramas.
But like many great things, it was wholly unappreciated in its time. Airing between 2002 and 2008, each series went by without much fanfare, with no Emmys in awards season and a battle to get each season recommissioned. But over a decade since it came off air, it has become one of the most celebrated series of all time, compared to Dostoevsky novels and heralded as being one of the best TV shows ever written and produced. Now that’s what you call a sleeper hit.
The show, however, is anything but sleepy. The first season follows the inner-city drug scene of Baltimore, with Detective James McNulty (Dominic West) attempting to bring down the known drug lord Avon Barksdale with the help of his right-hand man Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), and the hindrance of the rest of the motley crew that make up his police force. On their mission to put Barksdale behind bars, a whole system of city-wide corruption is revealed. And each new season tackles a new aspect of Baltimore’s multifaceted society – housing, worn down docklands, education systems, the media, bureaucracy – providing an honest look at America through the eyes of its characters on either end of the spectrum. In fact, so brutally honest was this show, that Baltimore’s then Mayor Sheila Dixon complained about it being “overly negative.”
Admittedly, the subject matter isn’t exactly unicorns and rainbows, but despite this, The Wire refuses to pass judgement on any of the people trapped in or enforcing these systems – its morals are neutral, leaving viewers to stew on theirs. So, it is intense and often difficult to watch – but that’s the point. With this show, you’re not supposed to sit down and binge watch the whole lot, gobbling it up whilst scrolling on your phone and chatting to the dog as he does that cute yawn and stretch combination. You’re supposed to savour it and have patience with the plotlines, often long but always delivering in the end, in a similar way that you’d read a book.
Because really, that’s how it’s written – much of the show’s genius is down to the fact that its creator David Simon was formerly a journalist for the Baltimore Sun, and covered cases similar to the ones portrayed in the series – the underreported ones, the ones that infiltrated every level of society, the ones they don’t want in the press. The Wire is about as far as you can get from easy viewing, but as close as you can get to art in TV form.
And pretty much every critic on the planet would agree with us – apart from maybe those annoying ones that love playing devil’s advocate. The Telegraph says it is “arguably the greatest television show ever made,” saying it’s “power derives from its authenticity.” And Variety’s Sonia Saraiya agrees, commenting that the show’s “details and complexity carried with it the ring of tough-minded truth — one that offered a completely different lens on inner city life than what you might catch on the evening news.”
So no surprise then, that The New York Times listed it as one of the best dramas since The Sopranos, and The Guardian’s Dorian Lynksey says that, similarly to the mobster hit, The Wire “is established as one of the greatest shows in the history of US television – some would say the greatest.”
First shown June 2002. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here: