The term golden era of television has been bandied around a lot in the last decade and is usually associated with the emergence of HBO as a content producer. The first real hit show on HBO was Oz which paved the way for The Sopranos which in turn was the show that put premium cable drama on the map and was the first television programme to be considered by the press as “better than film”.
The same praise is now afforded to shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Shield and many more that aired in the last 15 years. What all these shows have in common is that they deal with the human condition in one form or another. While that is true of most TV shows, the above mentioned did it on a level never before seen on TV.
Amidst those great shows was a show that added something more. And that something more was woven into its DNA so completely it transcended that show into something greater. The “something more” was journalistic impulse. The show was The Wire. And it is not just a TV program.
It is a social document.
The Wire has everything the shows mentioned at beginning have. It has amazing writing, logical, coherent plot lines, strong characters and it deals with the human condition. But, it is also a photograph of where America lost its way. It shows the decay of its democracy through drama and uses all the characteristics that make these shows great but does so with a journalistic impulse. That is what sets the show apart and the fact that its creator is a veteran journalist should not come as a surprise. David Simon has stated on many occasions that his shows carry a journalistic strain and that he can’t work any other way.
Journalism is on show in every frame he has been associated with and the stuff he has produced is all the better for it. A show like Mad Men uses the inequality of the time it is set in to give texture to the plot and characters. The same can be said for every other show that is considered the cream of the crop of this golden age of TV. The Wire on the other hand uses the time and situation where the characters find themselves to paint a picture of what American branded capitalism has turned that country into.
From a journalistic point of view The Wire deals with the rich/poor divide, the institutional gridlock, education, the workforce, the middle class and in the last season, journalism itself. It shows how all these strands of a country have been rendered impotent by the system they operate in and how people within those systems are trapped in one way or another.
Few shows dare to deal with just one of those issues while The Wire uses them as a central pillar of its mechanics. It uses a myriad of characters to advance the story through the maze of a society in decay. And what characters they are! Picking a favorite is an impossible task and while many have been drawn by the one slightly over the top character of Omar, he is truly just the tip of a massive iceberg. The real star of the show however is the city it is set in. Baltimore acts as a microcosm of the greater United States and acts as a canvas where many facets of American society intersect.
The Wire is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it. It’s hard to explain that is it so much more than a cop show, or a lawyer show, or a drug kingpin show, or a news paper show. If you subscribe to the idea that art has to do more than stir emotion, that it has to have a higher purpose, that it needs to be relevant, there is no better example in the realm of TV fiction than The Wire.
Any list of the greatest TV shows ever is incomplete without The Wire. Arguing which show takes the number one spot of best TV shows of all time is pointless since it really is in the eye of the beholder. There will never be a comprehensive list that everybody can agree on but one thing is for certain, The Wire will be near the top of that list. For some of us it’s been number one since the day it first aired.
Anže Tomić writes for a tech magazine called Monitor and runs a podcast network called Apparatus. His English speaking interviews can be found on stormingmortal.com. His greatest achievement is that he is 6 feet and 8 inches tall.