The Wire: The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play

AllWiredUpOn the drug-infested streets of West Baltimore, there are good guys and there are bad guys.  Sometimes you need more than a badge to tell them apart.

From David Simon From David Simon, creator and co-writer of HBO’s triple Emmy-winning mini-series The Corner, this unvarnished, highly realistic HBO series follows a single sprawling drug and murder investigation in Baltimore – one that culminates in a complex series of wiretaps and surveillance.  Told from the points of view of both the police and their targets, the series captures a universe where easy distinctions between good and evil , and crime and punishment are challenged at every turn.

The Wire is hands down the best TV show I have ever seen, partly because it’s the closest to a novel that you can get on a televisual scale but saying that doesn’t really cover just how much depth the viewer is treated to throughout its five seasons.

Now on my sixth watch through, it’s about time I tried to put down – to some degree –  why this TV show is rightly regarded as one of the best shows ever and for me the greatest.  It’s hard to know where to begin, especially as I will be avoiding spoilers throughout so I shall begin with the opening scene which is posted at end this part of the overview.

In under three minutes the viewer is sucked into a story about a street murder as well as being introduced to some of the key themes, revolving around the street and ‘the game’.  Within 14 seconds it’s already established that young children show little horror or surprise about a death so close, the offhand way it’s dealt with is frightening in its own way and the overall feeling is that business must go on.  It’s as powerful an opening as one could want and but a taster of the masterpiece yet to come.

First time viewers need to know that this is a slow burning show that you will need to stick with for a few episodes in order to fully appreciate what it does so stylishly, not to mention working out who everyone is.  It demands the viewer’s attention by not giving an easy ride or compromising its artistic integrity,  which happens so often in the mostly down format of Television.  The plot in itself takes its time and as such culminates into a realisation of just how clever it is when season one ends; the impact is perfectly pitched

The Wire’s way of telling a story was not really suited to TV as it is a medium that demands instant gratification  and the complexity of this show doesn’t allow for such simplistic outlooks. Now it is out on DVD and streaming on the internet, watching a handful of episodes at a time is by far the best way to watch it.  One can only imagine how challenging it would be to watch an episode a week and try to remember who everybody was and what was going on without the benefit of the all the episodes to hand, hence the initial poor ratings.

That it carried on for another four seasons is an impressive feat, especially as story arcs reach through all five seasons. Some cop shows show elements of realism but have to do so within the structure of the narrative, that defines their outlook so are restricted to what works within that format. The Wire on the other hand is a no holds barred telling of stories on both sides of the legal divide and doesn’t shy away from critiquing the damage that is done through various circumstances and policies and how there is blame and corruption everywhere.

The amazing ensemble cast make you believe, in what they do and who they are, the range of actors spread over the cultural and social divide of rich and poor makes for a complex and rich cross-section of the dysfunctional society.  The state of Baltimore from the streets to the political institutions is infested with rot to say the least and the powerful acting challenges social views and transcends other TV shows with its unhurried unfolding of layered, intricate stories that actually matter.

The backdrop to the show is the massive murder rate through drugs; the lack of opportunities, hope and social inequality.   It shows the struggle of the police and sheer inevitability of failure for a under financed war on drugs. Crime, poverty, the lack of a plan to combat it all sees a rise in apathy, violence and a descent into a hole too deep to get out of without radical change to Baltimore’s establishment.  It’s a representative city that could be anywhere with the problems it has, it’s not about who is right it’s about life and how people handle the callous world they find themselves in.

As you would expect from a realistic show with subject matter like this, it isn’t the happiest but there are elements of humour in it that help break up the bleakness, yet it has the viewer caring for plenty of the characters; making their triumphs and tragedies mean something more because they just feel so natural and authentic.  The progression of character and plot are never forced, whereas with traditional cop shows there always seems like an element of crowbarring things in for the sake of a plotline but everything here is so well written and plotted in rich detail that it rarely puts a foot wrong.

As the seasons go on the show builds into something more ambitious than other cop dramas and reaches out into varied facets of Baltimore and the people who have the power, it shows how things interlink and the effect on the citizens.  its a unsentimental, cynical and uncompromising depiction in all aspects but it is bang on the nose when it comes to the points it makes and then nails home with the perfect dramatisation.  This is a must watch and I have plenty more to say on it, if for some reason you still aren’t convinced.

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40 Replies to “The Wire: The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play”

    1. Thrice yes, all the hype for Breaking Bad and so on never had any effect on me purely because I watched this first and it’s that that ruined TV for me because I’ve already seen the best.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Simon’s books are an intense read as well and highly recommended as they made all the little details stand out that we see on screen showing how realistic it is in terms of the minutiae as well.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Homicide is around the same length and really shows the pressure the detectives are under to clear cases, it’s an equally fascinating work and a perfect counterpoint to The Corner.

              Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see how you would want to switch off from it of an evening but I would also be interested in how you view what it says about the problems that plague law enforcement….

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi, Ste J! It’s not that you aren’t convincing (which you are) but that I am not convinced I want to watch this show. I don’t have strong enough a stomach for a really gritty street show. For example, when everyone was raving about “Breaking Bad,” I staunchly avoided it. Hearts and flowers, that’s me! But thank you for taking the tough side of things and having the you-know-whats to review it!

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    1. Breaking Bad was overhyped and I only really enjoyed it to the end of season 4. The Wire is a powerful show, gritty but not overly violent. What it does well is social commentary and attempts to understand and highlight the problems. I hope I can compel you in the coming posts to intrigue you into it, I’m tenacious like that.

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  2. What a stunning piece of work, I don’t know where you’d even start when trying to communicate that show’s impact and achievements. Towering in both breadth and depth. I can’t wait for your next post on the matter.

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    1. Yeah, it is a challenge to distil it effectively. I think I will need to rewrite what I already have again but hoping to get out the next post tomorrow, sanity and sleep permitting.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a powerful piece of work and well worth the time taken to get into it. Plenty of swearing in it but not too much violence, what it does best is confront the issues and gets richer with each watch.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have been thinking about starting The Wire as it has Aiden Gillen in it and if I had the money I’d stalk him. Also, Sarah likes it and she had no idea Dominic West was British until she saw him in something else, so added to those irrelevant but encouraging points, your review has swung it.

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    1. I had no idea that either West or Idris Elba were English, they play their respective roles really well. I’m glad I could inspire you with my words, I have a few more posts about it (still no spoilers of course) to whet your appetite yet further.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I tried to watch The Wire once and could not understand what anyone was saying so gave it up. On the basis of this review, I may well give it another try. 🙂

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    1. It does take time to learn the lingo as well as the characters but go with it and you realise around episode four or five that you now understand it, I’m not sure how long I had understood it before I realised but after the initial confusion you will be into it and rewatching it is also extremely rewarding too.

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  5. I don’t watch much television and 90% of all the shows I’ve seen in last couple of years was recommended by a friend who is a filmophile. So, I loved Hannibal and the first season of True Detective; and Penny Dreadful was not bad (except for the mess with the prompt ending).
    Never heard of this one. I might check it out when again I find myself in want of some TV.

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    1. I enjoyed the first season of True Detective, well the ending wasn’t as good as the first six episodes. I tend to rely on others to highlight the good ones for me as well but this one has all the layered and rich characterisations that you so enjoy in literature meaning I have decided you already love it.

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    1. I don’t like to spoil too much of the show, same as I try and do with the books but it is rare to find people who dislike The Wire, it is an intelligent and rewarding show, get it now!

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  6. We loved this show and were so sad when it ended. Unlike other shows that seemed to ring more hollow as the seasons progressed, this one became richer, drawing us in more and more.

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    1. They had an idea for a sixth season to do with immigration, I am sad they didn’t do that and that season five was curtailed by a few episodes. You are right though, the layering on of each season made it so strong and hooks the viewer in. It pleases me that you are a fan.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah, Baltimore. I used to work at one of the theatres downtown, and I’d usually end up parking my car on the set somewhere since they weren’t filming at night (too many tourists).

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      1. Probably not. I worked at night, they filmed during the day mostly. There is an episode of Homicide Life On The Streets that was filmed in the neighborhood where I grew up in, and my parents inadvertently drove down the street in view of the cameras while they were filming an episode. In addition, Barry Levinson filmed some scenes for Liberty Heights at a house across the street from a good friend of mine, when we were in high school; because it was a period piece from the 50s, they had to park their car on a different block so they could put an era-appropriate car in the driveway for any exterior shots. I believe that there is one scene in that movie where they pan out of the window, across the street, and for a split second you can see my friend walking away from his house towards the corner, where his mom was waiting to take him to school.

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  8. I’m terrible with series, Ste J, but I know this one had so many fans. As a bit of a politico – I’m just finally streaming West Wing (that is how bad I am). That said, have you ever watched the BBC “The Fall” – now that is a whirlwind.

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