As I write HBO’s “The Wire” is in the middle of its 4th Season. “The Wire” is proving itself to be far and above the best show on television, cable or otherwise, if not the best show television has ever produced. Creator David Simon and his crew of co-writers are producing much more than simply another murder-of-the-week crime drama/policier. “The Wire” is also several steps beyond the genre-busting standards already established by excellent previous HBO hour-long dramas such as “The Sopranos” and “Deadwood” or even the weirder than mere genre shows like “Oz” (which started it all!), “Six Feet Under” or “Big Love” (the latest of the HBO drama rooster). “The Wire” is nothing less than the literary novel-form come-to the screen. Though I am far from the first to describe it as such, there is no better or truer description of what Simon, Ed Burns, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price and the various other writers and directors of this series are putting together. “The Wire” is a serial-novel of the small screen, at once exquisitely cinematic and thoughtfully literary, at once on-the-money realism that is wrought with metaphor and meaning.
Much the way James Joyce built to the smallest detail a stylized Dublin out of “Ulysses”, “Dubliners”, “A Portrait of the Artist” and the dream-Dublin of “Finnegans Wake”, Simon is building piece upon piece a fictional Baltimore, Maryland. Joyce’s Dublin fit precisely into the place left by the historical Dublin. He went so far as to use maps and lists of addresses to be sure his main characters houses were empty and available at the time of the story of “Ulysses”. The fictional Baltimore of “The Wire” is similarly true to the details of clothes, language, behavior and boarded-up row houses. Yet this is very far from a docu-drama thankfully. Small details of characterization and action turn out to be significant many episodes or even seasons later. A kid on the street says “I’ll take anybody’s money if he’s giving it away.” At the end of the same episode a crooked politician says the same thing. As the wise detective Lester Freadmon has said: “all the pieces matter.”
Much like the great serial novels of Anthony Powell and Dorothy M. Richardson or the popular serial fantasy fiction of Tolkien and Herbert, the three complete seasons of “The Wire” stands alone or it can be viewed as a trilogy. Any one of the 13 novels of Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary and now all but forgotten masterpiece, “Pilgrimage” can be read as a complete work. So too any one episode of “The Wire” is a small satisfying slice of the whole. Yet one episode is but a glimpse into the whole narrative and like all the best works of art or the artisan, a single episode certainly leaves the viewer wanting more. David Simon has plans for a five-year cycle. Let us hope he gets to take his story that far. Let us hope he is not cut short the way David Milch’s “Deadwood” was recently cancelled after three of its planned for four years.