Bada bing, bada boom. “The Sopranos” changed television as we know it. End of discussion.
...because anyone who tries to say “The Wire” isn’t the greatest show of all time faces the wrath of everyone from Barack Obama to, well, most of the internet. David Simon drew on his years of working as a Baltimore journalist to create a narrative exposé of the city’s flawed systems on both sides of the law. Focusing on a different social institution each season, Simon and a writing staff that included novelists like Richard Price and George Pelecanos turned the minor dramas of a rich cast of characters into a powerful examination of urban life. The character Omar Little also broke ground in portraying an empowered gay character well outside the standard cultural stereotypes.
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“The Wire” is unusual for a television series in that its writing staff drew largely on professionals who had not worked in the industry. Creator David Simon had spent most of his career as a Baltimore journalist. His reporting on Baltimore police detectives in "Homicide: Life on the Streets" had provided the basis for the acclaimed 1990’s TV series of the same name, but for the most part he had spent his career outside the writers’ room. Similarly, writers such as Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane were novelists known for their gritty portrayals of crime in fiction. As a result, “The Wire” reflected a sense of realism and literary scope that had never really been seen on television before or since. Too many cooks in the kitchen can be a problem in any collaborative effort, but “The Wire” shows how different perspectives can contribute to creating a richer world in a serialized narrative.
Actors from the ensemble of “The Wire” have had a pretty good run after the show’s finale. Cast members have wound up in other acclaimed series, films by directors like Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott and as the subject of internet petitions for a post-racial James Bond. While this certainly is a testament to its legacy, the series showcased one of the most diverse casts ever on a major television program. The need for a largely non-white cast grew organically from the show’s content, which dealt primarily with issues of race, class and the failure of social institutions in the American city. Even with the show’s innate multi-ethnicity, the creators were willing to take chances on interesting performers rather than classically beautiful faces (though Idris Elba, Dominic West and Amy Ryan certainly all have their admirers). Michael K. Williams, who portrayed the homosexual stick-up man Omar Little, has a prominent facial scar that projects a tough exterior, allowing him to balance his performance with sensitivity and humor to create a groundbreaking, three-dimensional character. It may feel like a cliché to try to fill prominent roles with non-traditional leading men and women, but “The Wire” provides an example of how this can work in a way that strengthens the narrative.
In helping contribute to the television boom of the early aughts, “The Wire” featured a serialized narrative that spanned across the show’s five seasons. Within the overall story, David Simon and his staff structured each season around a different social institution, such as the dockworkers union in Season 2, the public school system in Season 4 or newspaper journalism in Season 5. Instead of limiting the creative decisions of the series, this device allowed the writers to expand the world of the show each season. It allowed the creators to introduce compelling new characters, or reconfigure existing characters into new settings. Most of all, it helped convey the main idea of the show, that the cops, criminals and everyone in between were interconnected through the systemic problems of Baltimore’s society.
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