‘The Wire’ at 20: (Too) Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

Imitation is the sincerest form of television. The shows being imitated, though, tend to be enormous, world-shaking hits, from I Love Lucy to Friends to Lost. Yet one of the most copied shows of this century has been a series that no one paid attention to when it debuted, that struggled to find viewers — and the favor of its corporate bosses — for all five of its seasons, that won no major awards, and featured no stars (at the time, anyway).

Twenty years ago tonight, the first episode of The Wire aired on HBO. The series premiere was, by the standards of television circa 2002, utterly inscrutable. Even viewed now, through the filter of the many shows influenced by it, the series can be a bit hard to follow if you haven’t recently watched that entire first season, if not the whole thing. Co-created by ex-reporter David Simon (who had previously written for Homicide: Life on the Street, which was adapted from one of his books) and ex-cop Ed Burns (who was loosely the inspiration for this show’s cocky lead detective, Dominic West’s Jimmy McNulty), The Wire was at first glance a cops-versus-crooks saga in which McNulty joined a Baltimore Police Department task force to bring down the organization of local kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). But that pursuit of Barksdale — and, in later seasons, his calculating former lieutenant Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) and then the enigmatic Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) — was really just the narrative carrot Simon and Burns used to pull viewers through a series of complex arguments about the moral failings of the War on Drugs, the reasons for the crumbling state of cities like Baltimore, and larger flaws in the foundation of America as a whole.

It was, in other words, a lot to follow. As a result, The Wire was never a breakout hit in the halcyon days of “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Ratings were modest and the Emmys barely noticed it (two nominations and zero wins over five seasons). Yet The Wire in death turned out to be far more powerful and influential than it ever had been in life — the TV equivalent of the old line about how the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everybody who bought one was inspired to start their own band. Barack Obama would later refer to The Wire as his favorite show, even inviting David Simon to the White House to discuss both the fictional characters and the real-life drug war that inspired them. Cast members like Elba, West, Michael B. Jordan (who played doomed young Barksdale soldier Wallace), and the late Michael Kenneth Williams (who played swaggering stick-up artist Omar Little) got later jobs that made them stars in large part because the people casting them were huge Wire fans. And much of the last two decades of TV drama has been influenced in one way or another by what Simon, Burns, and company did in Baltimore.

But The Wire has proven far more challenging to reverse-engineer than it would seem, given how many other series try incorporating one or more of its various narrative and stylistic signatures. Even the shows Simon and collaborators like Burns and George Pelecanos have made in the 14 years since The Wire series finale — including the just-completed We Own This City, a sort of spiritual sequel to The Wire (or, perhaps, a rebuttal) — haven’t quite gotten all their elements in as perfect harmony as The Wire achieved throughout its run. But at least We Own This City or The Deuce were produced by people who were there when the original recipe was being crafted, while so many recent dramas feel as if they were made by someone who tasted the original’s ingredients and then had to guess at the proper quantities and use of each. Too often these days, I find myself shaking my head at some new show and muttering, “If you are not David Simon — or at least someone who worked for years with David Simon — then you really should not be attempting this right now.”

Few have ever outright attempted to copy all of the things that made The Wire special, simply because that show was always doing a few dozen things at once, often in a defiantly anticommercial way. But you don’t have to search long around the Peak TV dial to find various Wire signatures being poorly deployed, if not flat-out misunderstood. Those signatures include:

“It’s a novel for television.”
This was a turn of phrase used often by both David Simon and critics who covered The Wire in its early days. Though Simon had written for network cop procedurals like Homicide and NYPD Blue, he had no interest in the familiar structure of episodic television. That first hour of The Wire does not function on its own because it’s not designed to. It is the first chapter of a much larger story, not a narrative unit in and of itself. And that’s how the whole show works. Even in our listicle-crazed online-media world, you almost never see a “Top 10 Episodes of The Wire” story, because the idea is almost beside the point of the endeavor. Each hour of The Wire exists only to advance various stories and themes. There are no cases of the week, and if one problem is solved in the course of a single episode, it’s usually done so in a way that sets up three more problems to be dealt with down the road. Even the fact that the episodes were released weekly did not dissuade Simon or his acolytes from this framing, since The Wire came to be described as “Dickensian,” and many Dickens novels were originally serialized in newspapers.

Many shows since have opted for a similar structure, though it’s often described by their creators as, “We’re making a 10-hour movie.” The problem is that almost none of these people can sustain their stories over that length of time. In many cases, they are literally taking unsold movie scripts and padding them out to series length. But even the series that were designed to be novelistic or cinematic TV to begin with tend to feel sluggish and annoying within a few episodes. Most television shows are better off accepting that they are, in fact, television shows, and building themselves accordingly.

Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, Wood Harris as Avon Barksdale in Season 3 of THE WIRE

HBO

How does The Wire make the approach work when few others can? A bit of that is a credit to the time Simon spent writing and producing Homicide; even if he didn’t want to make traditional television anymore, he had years’ worth of muscle memory from the experience to make sure individual hours, or even scenes, weren’t lagging. And some comes from the fact that so many Wire writers had experience as writers of longform narrative prose, whether novelists like Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane, or the nonfiction work of Simon and Burns on books like The Corner. The skills are not 100 percent transferable — plenty of other novelists have come to television and struggled to keep things moving over the course of a season — but The Wire writers managed to invest the show with the same propulsive energy as could be found in books like Price’s Clockers and Lehane’s Gone, Baby Gone, along with the thematic denseness palpable throughout those books.

And some of it is the result of the next issue on our list:

Everything everywhere, all at once.
The Wire could get away with this novelistic, non-episodic format because each season was so packed with characters and incident that there was rarely a chance to feel like things were dragging. (And when HBO budget cuts led to a final season that was 10 episodes rather than the 12 or 13 of every prior year, it was the only time when the series ever felt like it was moving too quickly through story beats.)

The first season had 11 cast regulars, and at least two dozen other significant recurring players. (Among those: Williams, Jordan, and Clarke Peters as wily veteran detective Lester Freamon.) And that was almost exclusively within the Baltimore PD and the criminal infrastructure of West Baltimore. Season Two expanded the show’s scope to include a dozen or so additional characters who worked at the Baltimore docks, in an attempt to portray both how the drugs get to people like Stringer Bell and how sweeping changes to the American economy had left blue-collar workers like Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) behind, with no choice but to turn to crime to make ends meet. Season Three mostly left the docks behind, but added many new characters in both City Hall and other corners of the BPD, to illustrate how difficult attempts to reform the War on Drugs, let alone end it, will be. On top of all of them, Season Four reoriented itself around a quartet of middle-school friends to show both the failings of the public school system and the ways in which future corner boys are made. And to add to everybody else, the final season spent a lot of time inside the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun to explain why the news media has had such a hard time conveying all of these problems to the public at large.

That amount of sprawl should be untenable, and it’s hard to blame any viewer who doesn’t want to have to watch television with a bunch of organizational charts for reference, just so they can be sure the Barksdale soldier they’re watching at the moment is Stinkum and not Savino. But among the series’ many gifts — and one that eludes anyone else attempting for a similar scope — is the way that nearly every character, no matter how minor, is imbued with just enough depth and color that the viewer comes away feeling like the show could randomly follow any of them home for the rest of the hour and it would still be interesting. No one is ever allowed to be just a plot functionary. Much of the show is thinly-veiled fiction about cops, drug dealers, politicians, and other Baltimoreans whom the writers knew well, which makes it easier to add that level of casual depth. But the effort is nonetheless made, and in turn makes the experience of watching the show richer no matter where it turns.

“It gets good after Episode Four.”
You have surely heard some version of that phrase while discussing the last decade or so of television. I have used some version of it — or, more extremely, “It gets good after Season One” — a time or 12 over that span. It was a much easier sentiment to argue, or to hear, in the early 2000s when it seemed ridiculous to even consider the notion that there would one day be too much interesting television for anyone to keep up with. But even back in those sparser, more innocent televisual days, some degree of proselytizing and expectation management was required. You’re not going to like or even understand it after only one episode, you would say. Try to set aside a Saturday afternoon when you can watch at least two, and preferably the first four, all in one sitting, you might add. Trust me, you would conclude, it’s going to be worth it.

And it was worth it. What distinguishes The Wire from nearly everything to follow(*) is that the seemingly meandering opening to each season proves to have real value by the end of it. Because The Wire is dealing with such complex issues, and uses so many characters to illustrate different aspects of each one, it needs to take its sweet time introducing every person and concept, so that later events will have full emotional impact. In that first season, for instance, you have to watch McNulty, Lester, and the other cops repeatedly be frustrated by department bureaucracy and the clandestine nature of the Barksdale crew to truly appreciate when they make a breakthrough like cracking the code the dealers use when they page one another. The tragedies visited on Wallace, on friendly drug addict Bubbles (Andre Royo), or on several of the middle-school kids in the fourth season, only hit as hard as they do because the show has lingered so long with each of them in better times, and has very patiently laid out the sequence of events that leads the bad things to happen to them.

From left: Andre Royo as Bubbles, Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar Little, Lance Riddick as Lt. Cedrick Daniels

(*) The most notable exceptions: Breaking Bad and its spinoff, Better Call Saul, both of which move with tortoise-style patience through the early parts of each season. A similar “if your name is not Vince Gilligan” sentiment applies to nearly everything those series did, too. In general, it seems as if a lot of showrunners look at all-time classics and underestimate how hard they were to make.

Too many dramas today start slowly simply because they believe they have the luxury to do so, not because they are generating real value out of that approach. And when there are so many other options to choose from, and an army of acolytes screaming that these new slowpokes are perhaps the best drama ever made, who’s going to want to sit through the pointless meandering?

“The City Is Like Another Character”
Admittedly, this one may be a bit more annoying to members of the TV media than to casual viewers, since every showrunner now feels obligated to say it in interviews and at press conferences. Nonetheless, Baltimore is so tangibly a character on The Wire that it almost doesn’t need to be said, and the show benefits hugely from the way viewers feel like they’ve been on those corners and ordered lake trout on the way home.

The Wire is far from the only show of that era, or this one, to put so much effort into capturing a sense of place. The Sopranos was the same way with suburban New Jersey, just as, say, Starz’s P-Valley is now with the Dirty South (even if that one films a few states away from where it’s technically set). But it’s among the best of them, and a case of form and function going together: You have to understand Baltimore itself to fully appreciate everything the series depicts going wrong there.

When shows try and fail to bring their locations to life, it’s rarely as noticeable as some of the pacing issues described above. But it’s still a missed opportunity to make viewers feel more invested in everything that’s happening.

From left: Jermaine Crawford, Maestro Harrell; Tristan Wilds, Julito McCullum.

HBO

Educate, while also entertaining.
The Wire is just a perfect synthesis of political agitation and simpler pleasures: television that demands you eat your vegetables, but makes them taste delicious. The series has so much to say about institutional rot throughout Baltimore, and throughout the country as a whole, but it manages to make those points while telling a gripping suspense story about the police pursuit of the drug dealers, while staging thrilling action set pieces involving Omar’s stick-up crew, and utterly ridiculous comedy. Sometimes, it could be multiple things at once, like the famous scene where McNulty and his partner Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) recreate a long-dormant crime scene while uttering nothing but variations on the F-word.

It is incredibly hard to make television that is both this good and this good for you. Most shows don’t even bother, either making half-hearted stabs at greater thematic resonance or being so dour and high-minded that they’re hard to sit through.

Even Simon and company have struggled on that with their later series. The New Orleans-set Tremé has the atmosphere and the sociopolitical points, but only a casual interest in plot, while We Own This City is too angry with the state of modern policing to bother with the more popcorn-y elements of its Baltimore predecessor. All of those shows have been great in their own ways, but their inability to recapture the many different things The Wire excelled at simultaneously — or, perhaps, their disinterest in attempting to do so — illustrates what a rare feat Simon, Burns, and everyone else pulled off starting 20 years ago today. Often imitated, never duplicated. As Omar Little would say, the cheese stands alone.