By Thane Peterson Three cheers to HBO for recently renewing The Wire for a third season. On Sunday night, Aug. 24, I watched the final episode of the second season of this crime drama. It confirmed my feeling that it's the best dramatic series on TV right now. Even better, The Wire is also increasingly popular: It has consistently been rated among the Top 10 shows on cable this year, and sometimes even the top five.
Beware, though -- this isn't TV for the faint-hearted. It's a hard-nosed cop show set in the gritty streets of Baltimore. The first season focussed on an ad-hoc team of Baltimore cops trying to break up a ring of ruthless drug dealers who are terrorizing a housing project. A sympathetic judge authorizes a wiretap (giving the series its name) that allows the cops to get a bead on Avon Barksdale, a drug baron who until then had been unknown to them.
In the second season, the main action shifted to the docks, where some of the same investigators use another wire to go after a down-at-the-heals union local that's helping yet another shadowy drug baron known as The Greek smuggle drugs and prostitutes into the city. In the first season, the malefactors were mainly black. This year, they were mainly white. However, strands of the first season's story continue to be interwoven with the new one.
ALL-PURPOSE ABUSE. Of all the TV shows I've ever seen, this one comes closest to rivaling literature. While most TV episodes are discreet, short-story-like segments with a beginning, middle, and end, episodes of The Wire are much more like the chapters of a novel. One reason the show is daring is that it's hard to follow if you haven't been keeping up with the story. The plot is complex, combining multiple intertwined story lines which are sometimes told through the eyes of the police, sometimes through the eyes of the criminals. Several dozen characters move in and out of the narrative, going from cameo to starring roles and back again. The show would be impossible to follow if the characters weren't vivid and memorable.
That's partly because of its all-star writing team. David Simon, The Wire's creator, is a one-time crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun who co-authored the book on which the Baltimore-based NBC series Homicide: Life on the Streets was based. Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police officer, the book's other author, is now one of the writers on The Wire, as is mystery writer George Pelecanos.
The Wire's dialog is exactly what you would expect to hear if you planted a microphone among groups of cops, drug dealers, and union guys. There's endless profanity, as well as considerable sex and violence, though the violence isn't as gruesome as the gorier scenes on FX's competing cop series The Shield. There are also frequent ethnic slurs. "If you watch this show, you know that every single ethnicity and religion that comprises a modern American city has been in some way insulted and abused by the behavior of one or more characters," Simon says in a Q&A posted on the series' Web site.
SOCIAL PRESSURES. What raises The Wire way above the norm for TV cop shows are its main themes. At one level, this is a show about people attempting to preserve a sense of home and family under the intense pressures of poverty and social change. For instance, the drug lord Avon Barksdale repeatedly forgives the mistakes of his cousin D'Angelo, reminding the younger man that he's family and that "it's always [about] love, D."
In the first season, one of the more heart-wrenching subplots was the story of a teenage drug dealer called Wallace. The cops attempt to protect Wallace, who is a potential witness against the Barksdale gang, by sequestering him with relatives in the country, but the boy is so lonely in the unfamiliar rural surroundings that he returns to the ghetto and drug dealing. He knows he'll probably be gunned down if he goes back, and he is.
In the current season, union leader Sobotka aids The Greek's drug ring only because he needs money to save his dying union local. He wants to preserve a way of life for his union brothers and his family. But he and his son, Ziggy, and nephew, Nick, end up in a spiraling tragedy that leaves Ziggy in prison facing a murder rap, Nick in a federal witness-protection program, and Sobotka himself brutally murdered.
TENSION MOUNTS. The other main themes of The Wire include the infinite ability of bureaucracies to subvert personal integrity, and the incredible pressures that vigorous market economies place on working people and the poor. "We are not selling hope, or audience gratification, or cheap victories with this show," Simon says in the Web-site interview. "The Wire is making an argument about what institutions -- bureaucracies, criminal enterprises, the cultures of addiction, raw capitalism even -- do to individuals. It is not designed purely as an entertainment. It is, I'm afraid, a somewhat angry show."
Check it out if you haven't seen it. One good thing about HBO is that it reruns its shows many times. If you're a digital-cable subscriber, you can also order episodes through a service call HBO on Demand. The Wire's first season is also due out on video in the near future.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if the show can maintain its intensity next year, its third season. The last episodes of the first season -- where the Detective Shakima Greggs was shot and lay near death in intensive care -- were the most compelling television I've ever seen. The narrative lagged in the middle of the latest season, though the show recovered and finished on an extremely high level.
The judges of the Emmy Awards have so far dissed The Wire. But if the series can maintain its quality next year, I don't see how it can be denied a raft of awards. At this point, it's more compelling than either The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, which have been showered with Emmys. And that's saying something. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online