Best show I've ever seen, hands down. I basically didn't watch TV aside from sports and comedy until I discovered The Wire a couple years ago, and have now got into a ton of good dramas (Band of Brothers, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men) as a result.
Creator David Simon has a pretty bleak view of where America is headed. He's definitely left-wing, but at the same time, he has localist sensibilities that should be a natural facet of conservatism (though not the Republican Party). In some ways I found the second season the most important, even though it's not the best, for what it had to say about the death of the working class in America.
Excerpts from a great interview Simon did with British novelist Nick Hornby (also found in the liner notes to the awesome soundtrack):
"NH: How did you pitch it?
DS: I pitched The Wire to HBO as the anti?cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television. I am unalterably opposed to drug prohibition; what began as a war against illicit drugs generations ago has now mutated into a war on the American underclass, and what drugs have not destroyed in our inner cities, the war against them has. I suggested to HBO?which up to that point had produced groundbreaking drama by going where the broadcast networks couldn?t (The Sopranos, Sex and the City, et al?)?that they could further enhance their standing by embracing the ultimate network standard (cop show) and inverting the form. Instead of the usual good guys chasing bad guys framework, questions would be raised about the very labels of good and bad, and, indeed, whether such distinctly moral notions were really the point.
The show would instead be about untethered capitalism run amok, about how power and money actually route themselves in a postmodern American city, and, ultimately, about why we as an urban people are no longer able to solve our problems or heal our wounds. Early in the conception of the drama, Ed Burns and I?as well as the late Bob Colesberry, a consummate filmmaker who served as the directorial producer and created the visual template for The Wire?conceived of a show that would, with each season, slice off another piece of the American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.
Which brings me to my ugliest moment as an American, one of which I am quite perversely proud. Years ago, I was touring the crypts of St. Paul?s in London and we were shown all the generals who had the opportunity to be buried around Wellington. And this elfin little tour guide, who had as a young man stood on the cathedral roof during the Blitz and picked up incendiary sticks and hurled them away to save the edifice, got a twinkle in his eye and said, ?You colonials might be interested to note the resting place of Maj. Gen. Ross, who in 1812 burned your capital city.? And so there he was. And his gravestone, as I recollect, declared: VICTOR OF THE BATTLES OF WASHINGTON AND PHILADELPHIA. ACTIVE AT THE BATTLE OF BALTIMORE.
If the ghetto dick-grab were known to me in 1985, I might?ve held on to mine when I uttered the following: ?I?m from Baltimore. And I can tell you what ?active? means. It means we kicked his ass.? An empty moment floated through the crypt, and the other Americans on the tour just about died. At that instant, I felt it was a good thing I didn?t go on with what I knew, because Ross was actually mortally wounded at North Point by two Baltimoreans with squirrel rifles who crept through the brush and shot him off his horse, infuriating the British, who sent an entire detachment of Royal Marines to kill the sharpshooters, named Wells and McComas. (They are buried under a monument in the heart of the East Baltimore ghetto and have streets named after them near the fort.)
?Quite,? said the tour guide, who mercifully smiled at me, vaguely amused. Or at least I like to imagine he was vaguely amused.
NH: Every time I think, Man, I?d love to write for The Wire, I quickly realize that I wouldn?t know my True dats from my narcos. Did you know all that before you started? Do you get input from those who might be more familiar with the idiom?
DS: My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.
Beginning with Homicide, the book, I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out. I also realized?and this was more important to me?that I would consider the book or film a failure if people in these worlds took in my story and felt that I did not get their existence, that I had not captured their world in any way that they would respect.
Make no mistake?with journalism, this doesn?t mean I want the subjects to agree with every page. Sometimes the adversarial nature of what I am saying requires that I write what the subjects will not like, in terms of content. But in terms of dialogue, vernacular, description, tone?I want a homicide detective, or a drug slinger, or a longshoreman, or a politician anywhere in America to sit up and say, Whoa, that?s how my day is. That?s my goal. It derives not from pride or ambition or any writerly vanity, but from fear. Absolute fear. Like many writers, I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgeable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions. I see myself labeled a writer, and I get good reviews, and I have the same doubts buried, latent, even after my successes. I suspect many, many writers feel this way. I think it is rooted in the absolute arrogance that comes with standing up at the community campfire and declaring, essentially, that we have the best story that ought to be told next and that people should fucking listen. Storytelling and storytellers are rooted in pay-attention-to-me onanism. Listen to this! I?m from Baltimore and I?ve got some shit you fucking need to see, people! Put down that CSI shit and pay some heed, motherfuckers! I?m gonna tell it best, and most authentic, and coolest, and? I mean, presenting yourself as the village griot is done, for me, with no more writerly credential than a dozen years as a police reporter in Baltimore and a C-average bachelor?s degree in general studies from a large state university. On paper, why me? But I have a feeling every good writer, regardless of background, doubts his own voice just a little, and his own right to have that voice heard. It?s the simple effrontery of the thing. Who died and made me Storyteller?
So yes, for the drug dealers and the cops, I spent years gathering string on who they are, how they think and talk. When we needed to add politicians, well, I covered some politics so I had the general tone, but we added Bill Zorzi, the Baltimore Sun?s best political reporter, to the writing staff. When it came to longshoremen, we added Rafael Alvarez, a former reporter and short-story writer who had quit to join the seamen?s union and whose family was three generations in the maritime industry. And the rest of us, myself included, spent weeks getting to know longshoremen and the operations of the port and the port unions, just hanging around the shipping terminals for days on end, so as to credibly achieve those voices. Again, what I wanted was that longshoremen across America would watch The Wire and say, Cool, they know my world. I?ve never seen my world depicted on TV, and these guys got it. And I feared that one of them would stand up and say: No, that?s complete bullshit. So that never changes for me.
Which brings us back to Average Reader. Because the truth is you can?t write just for people living the event, if the market will not also follow. TV still being something of a mass medium, even with all the fractured cable universe now reducing audience size per channel. Well, here?s a secret that I learned with Homicide and have held to: if you write something that is so credible that the insider will stay with you, then the outsider will follow as well. Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill?these are travelogues of a kind, allowing Average Reader/Viewer to go where he otherwise would not. He loves being immersed in a new, confusing, and possibly dangerous world that he will never see. He likes not knowing every bit of vernacular or idiom. He likes being trusted to acquire information on his terms, to make connections, to take the journey with only his intelligence to guide him. Most smart people cannot watch most TV, because it has generally been a condescending medium, explaining everything immediately, offering no ambiguities, and using dialogue that simplifies and mitigates against the idiosyncratic ways in which people in different worlds actually communicate. It eventually requires that characters from different places talk the same way as the viewer. This, of course, sucks.
There are two ways of traveling. One is with a tour guide, who takes you to the crap everyone sees. You take a snapshot and move on, experiencing nothing beyond a crude visual and the retention of a few facts. The other way to travel requires more time?hence the need for this kind of viewing to be a long-form series or miniseries, in this bad metaphor?but if you stay in one place, say, if you put up your bag and go down to the local pub or shebeen and you play the fool a bit and make some friends and open yourself up to a new place and new time and new people, soon you have a sense of another world entirely. We?re after this: Making television into that kind of travel, intellectually. Bringing those pieces of America that are obscured or ignored or otherwise segregated from the ordinary and effectively arguing their relevance and existence to ordinary Americans. Saying, in effect, This is part of the country you have made. This too is who we are and what we have built. Think again, motherfuckers."