Review: The Wire 5×1

The Wire, Season 5

In the US: Sundays, 9pm, HBO
In the UK: FX at some point. Hopefully

Characters re-cast: 0
Major characters gotten rid of: Unknown. Some still MIA
Major new characters: Dozens
Format change percentage: 75%

There was a criminal injustice committed last year. In March’s list of the 50 greatest TV dramas ever, The Wire wasn’t even mentioned. It came nowhere. Something called The Sopranos (sp?) came in at number one. What’s up there?

There are many theories as to why this should have happened. Some say it’s because The Wire is set in a poor city in the US – Baltimore – rather than something a bit more visually arresting and familiar like New York or Los Angeles. Some argue that it’s because the cast is mostly black and filled with unfamiliar faces. Some believe the level of patience required to follow it, picking up small details and touches of character that become important only after episodes or even seasons have gone by, is too much for the average viewer. Others yet claim it’s the fact it’s on a channel like HBO or FX in the UK that reduces the audience to negligible numbers.

Yet, as I’ve been bleating on at you for ages, The Wire is one of the finest TV programmes ever made. A devastatingly realistic look at policing, the underclass, politics, institutions and why meaningful change is almost impossible, it’s back for its last ever season.

Yes, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the end of its run, because it doesn’t look like the show’s creators have reduced the show’s quality one iota.

As usual, The Wire is taking its time starting up. Following on a year after the events of last season, predictably for The Wire, much has changed but little is different. People have new jobs and the drug dealers are having to adapt as property developers start encroaching on their territories. But politicians are still bickering, causing the people at the sharp end to suffer; police and criminals alike are giving in to their vices, despite their best attempts to reform; and another institution – the media – is exposed as being flawed and culpable in preserving the current state of affairs.

Also, as usual, you have to pay attention. Seriously, drift off for just a couple of seconds and you’ll be reaching for the rewind button because this is one densely packed m*th*rf*ck*r (to get all Wire-ese on you). Blink, and you might just miss the significance of someone’s appearance – the writers aren’t going to insult you by leadening the script with unnatural dialogue, just to explain things to you that the characters should already know.

Regular viewers will be glad to hear that all their favourites are back in action this season, with some faces you might even recall from season two; a few, such as Omar, have yet to put in appearance, but you know it’s just a matter of time and good writing before they re-appear. And the humour’s still there, including a ‘lie detector’ scene you know that some cop somewhere in Baltimore pulled in real life.

There’s a whole bunch of new faces to become acquainted with, too, as The Baltimore Sun becomes the setting for a good portion of the action. Ironically, given that Wire creator David Simon worked at The Sun for years before becoming a TV writer, this is the only part of the show that feels unrealistic: Simon’s depiction feels more like a paper of the late 80s and early 90s, rather than one of the 00s. Maybe some papers are having a hard time catching up with this Internet thing, but the idea of rolling deadlines and multi-platform doesn’t appear to have hit this version of The Sun yet, and while everyone’s bleating about lack of copy and have deadlines, copy-editors are pointlessly taking time out to explain to dumb-ass reporters the different meanings of the word ‘evacuate’, rather than correcting it themselves. Maybe then – not now.

Nevertheless, this is as real as TV gets and you’d be a fool not to at least try it. If you’re a new viewer, it shouldn’t be that hard to join in with the action, thanks to the changes that we’re all having to be re-acquainted with, although I can think of better times to join (season one).

Regular viewers: rejoice – the best is back. Here’s a YouTube trailer.

  • andrea

    I’ve read so many things telling me that The Wire is amazing. I’m sure it is. But FX, not only do I not have that channel, I don’t even know what it is. What else is on FX, what kind of channel is it (ie, does it have a theme, like ‘Dave’ or Sci-Fi)? Well, I know there are DVDs but it seems such an effort to buy or rent something I’ve never seen that I keep putting it off in favour of things I already know I like. If this show is so good, why is it on such a crap obscure channel here? Why didn’t BBC or E4 buy it?

  • “If this show is so good, why is it on such a crap obscure channel here? Why didn’t BBC or E4 buy it?”
    It’s a good question, one with lots of answers. The main one is ratings. The Wire gets about half a million viewers in the US on HBO. Take that down to a fifth to cope with the UK population and you’re looking at about 125,000 viewers. Even then, you’re likely to get less. No mainstream channel can really justify paying acquisition rights for so few a number of viewers, particularly a show they’d either have to cut or air in a late time slot that would reduce the number of potential viewers even further.
    FX is on Sky and Virgin only and is busy trying to get itself a name for edgy shows (stuff from Showtime like Dexter and Brotherhood) as well as more crowd-pleasing US stuff like Family Guy, Buffy and NCIS and programmes for people of a certain age (Nash Bridges, MacGyver). It’s skewed towards a predominantly male demographic, so hard-hitting crime shows are just up its street. It also can acquire US shows more cheaply since it’s “cable-only” (“terrestrial” rights are considerably more expensive).
    The Wire was pretty much their first large acquisition and it’s been successful enough that they can now afford those aforementioned Showtime shows that the mainstream channels don’t seem to want either.
    You can get some of their shows for free via 4oD if you have a PC, although I haven’t checked to see if The Wire is one of those shows.
    PS There’s an FX channel in the US that’s the cable drama sister channel of Fox (hence the FX) and this is the overseas version. It has a similar feel although produces its own shows that usually get cancelled in minutes (cf Thief) although someone do survive (cf Dirt). The shows are best characterised as “dark”, if you’ve never seen any.

  • espedair

    I just brought series 1 of The Wire from Virgin. It cost me £22! At that kinda price.. well I can’t resist. I can catch up now.. marathon style!

  • After mucho tracking of how good it was, wepicked up S2 some time ago (as we couldn’t obtain S1). To some extent each season is self-contained so its less of an issue as long as you invest your energy into a whole season (short but intense). We then went back and watched S1 – with some things making much more sense and others kinda mini-spoilered (a shooting wasn’t fatal as we knew from s2) – not as it mattered as it was so mighty fine. We’ve just watched S3 on DVD and can’t wait to get hold of S4. Without cable its our only option. I would say that its also worth watching with subtitles on, just to not miss the nuance of the language, naming etc. it is however sublime: niche, but sublime. Somethings just are small and brilliant: its amazing it gets made, but am so glad it does!

  • MediumRob

    Cool. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it! It takes time though, so stick with it until you reach the “f*ck me” scene at least. You’ll know it when you see it…