HBO has digitally remastered The Wire and is re-airing it in marathon format as of midnight Thursday, December 26. The Wire, if you recall, was one of the first entries in the so-called "television renaissance"—that crucial moment in American history when HBO brought complex, intricately crafted, film-quality television to viewers that treated the format as long-form storytelling rather than one-off entertainment. (Those few years in the early-mid '00s in which the network aired The Wire and The Sopranos alongside one another were glorious indeed.)
The Wire, despite being possibly more brilliant (if less consistent) than The Sopranos, was critically acclaimed and a rabid watch for cultish fans, but was never quite accepted by the Television Establishment, and won basically zero non-critic awards. This was despite, or perhaps because of, the excellent storytelling/acting/direction. Created by David Simon, a former reporter on the cop beat for the Baltimore Sun, the show depicted the hyper-realistic conditions of the Baltimore drug trade, showing the perspectives from all angles of hierarchy, including kingpins, corner d-boys, beat cops, police chiefs, union leaders, politicians, businesspeople, and the like. Because Baltimore has such a fine-tuned culture specific to its city, and because Simon was so concerned with realism, there's a lot of slang and dialect, which I'm certain was, at first, a good 48% of why it took awhile to catch on. (Additionally, almost all of the show's actors were black, a fact which I'm sure didn't ingratiate itself to the famously whitebread television entertainment establishment.) Arcane and truly intricate, it was the kind of show you had to dedicate yourself to—and once you did, you couldn't stop. Even though it was, perhaps, the most depressing series in the history of television, partially because so many of the tales it told were true. (Simon based many of the show's characters on real people.)
But like any show, The Wire had its ups and downs, no matter how much you loved it. I personally can barely remember what happened in Season Two ("The Docks") because, while I have great respect for the longshore union and was even a member one point, I'm not tryna watch that shit on television. (Unfortunately, this affected future watching for me; as with The Sopranos and many other shows since, the series is meant to be taken as a whole, and episodes in Season 5 refer back to Season 3, etc and so on.) Most Wire superfans agree with the following ranking of the Seasons of The Wire, from best to worst; if you're just starting out, be forewarned, and if you're not, let's discuss.
1. Season 4
Also known as the season of any television show ever to render you utterly despondent upon completion, and possibly/probably inspire you to real-life activism. This season focused on the failings of the American education system by featuring four middle school boys, all affected by the drug trade in one way or another (parent in prison; parent addicted; parent MIA, etc), and the way they get sucked up by the streets and/or the system. It's a perspective unlike any of the other seasons because it depicted how Sisyphean it was for the kids' guardians to keep them from being eaten alive by a cycle of poverty and addiction in a country that, institutionally, doesn't care about them. Maestro Harrell played Randy Wagstaff, one of the cheeriest of the four boys who, like most everyone else on this series, ends up a different person. Sometimes I like to watch Harrell play happy-go-lucky suburban high school student Malik on Suburgatory just so I can remind myself Randy Wagstaff was a character and Harrell got out okay. I know, it makes no sense, but it might if you watch this season.
2. Season 3
When The Wire was on, critics liked to talk about how it was "Shakespearean"; Season 3 is the reason why. Can't really go into it without spoiling the hell out of it, but suffice to say that the actions of the Barksdale drug organization that ran the Baltimore streets in Season 1 culminate in the logical progression of their fates. Still keep my tears in a jar from the final few episodes.
3. Season 1
The first season was a super-compelling look into the inner workings of a large-scale drug organization and the investigators that seek to end it, but ranks here because it was still finding its own voice, and in context with the rest of the series, was definitely the prologue to Season 3's climax. Also, famously, Music Director Blake Leyh didn't know what the hell was going on in Baltimore and had the show's drug dealers bumping Common Sense out the whip and listening to Rob Base in the projects in 2002, which, LOL and absolutely not. (He corrected his mistake by Season 3, in which he included the far more realistic Bmore club producers and rappers like Rod Lee and Mullyman.) That discrepancy was distracting enough to drop Season 1 to third tier.
4. Season 2
See above: after the bananas start of a super-gritty crime procedural written by Simon, Ed Burns (his partner, a former Baltimore cop) and masters of city mystery like George Pelecanos, we delve into the happenings of a working class white family and the way drugs are smuggled internationally via "the docks." In theory it should have been extremely compelling, but many of the characters just weren't as fleshed out as their Season 1 counterparts—and, perhaps more importantly, we had already grown attached to Season 1 characters, but they were shifted to the background as we were compelled to focus to an entire new set of people/story, which was jarring.
5. Season 5
Perhaps the closest to David Simon's heart, this season focused on the decline of journalism, with many episodes taking place in the bowels of the Baltimore Sun, as we follow a Jayson Blair type inventing fake stories for acclaim (and laziness) and subsequently screwing up the entire city. Some of the journo clips are great for news nerds and writers like myself, but I can't imagine a lot of it being super-exciting for people who don't care about those things. Plus, Simon was maybe a bit too close to his subject—at times, he got a little Sorkin-esque with the by-proxy preachiness about the state of newsjournalism, although at least there were no long scenes about how Twitter is ruining the planet, etc. Also, he had to wrap it up somehow, why not with an imagined serial killer and the totally unbelievable collusion of the police department for its own ends? Let's go crazy!
In short, The Wire is one of the greatest television series of all time thus far and you should watch every episode (in order).
Image via HBO.