In 2002, the American political landscape and the popular television landscape looked like they could have come from two different realities. While American politics were melting down over the failures of 9/11 and the Bush Administration was doing all it could to pin those failures on an outside other rather than the institutional failures of the American imperial system, television was giving American audiences what they wanted, and they wanted fodder. Mind-numbing, forget-your-troubles, easy-to-digest fodder.
Of the top 10 highest-rated television programs in the 2002-2003 season, half were unscripted television, and the other half were simplistic, episodic multi-decade shows like CSI and Friends. There were no streaming services to offset the network filler with inventive niche TV either, and arguably audiences didn’t want it. That was what made HBO’s The Wire stand out. They didn’t try to make everyone forget what was going on. They leaned into it.
“Greatest television show of all time” is a title applied to The Wire a lot. It’s also a reductive description of culture because to decide that, you would need to be looking at a show through multiple lenses; past, present, and future. That being said, continued revisits to The Wire in the two decades since it first aired reveals a nuanced, honest show that intuited the split in the American psyche before it even seems possible to have consciously understood it.
The pilot episode, “The Target,” is a cultural landmark in television. Starting on blood-streaked pavement and flashing police cruiser lights, “The Target” cold-opens with Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) talking to an unnamed West Baltimore resident about the corpse in the foreground, the strangely named Snot Boogie, who was shot trying to rob their back-alley craps game. When McNulty says Snot probably didn’t like that nickname, the witness says, “Life just be that way I guess.” McNulty asks why, after all the times Snot Boogie tried to rob them, they kept letting him back in the game, he responds, “Got to. This America, man.”
It’s a quick and dirty scene that is a textbook example in a lot of screenwriting classes for “getting in late and getting out early,” but it’s also a great primer for the entire series. Snot Boogie didn’t want his nickname and didn’t do anything to deserve it; it’s just a reality he was born into. School failed him, society failed him, his city failed him. It’s his place in the world (like it or not), and he doesn’t see any way out of being Snot Boogie other than ripping and running from the alley dice game.
Do his friends tell him he can’t join them because his name’s Snot and he’s got a problem? No, because this is America, and in The Wire‘s America everyone has to have a chance to get that paper. It shows that the spine of the entire series is not drugs or policing, or the vague concept of “crime,” but the Janus-faced god of money and power, and the institutions that corral that money and power away from the people they’re supposed to protect into the systems that oppress them.
The Wire‘s primary story writers, creator David Simon and Ed Burns, both have unique professional experiences to lend to the series, but it was the latter’s experience as a Baltimore Homicide Detective that most influences the pilot episode. Instead of following McNulty as he investigates an unsolved murder or learning about his interpersonal relationships, the pilot sees him navigating the ins and outs of what he sees as a bureaucratic nightmare, the Baltimore Police Department.
After watching D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) get off on a murder charge because of witness tampering, McNulty goes over his supervisor’s heads and directly to a judge, who facilitates an investigation into the leaders of the Barksdale crew, D’Angelo’s uncle Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and the second in command, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). This interaction has two results: it begins the wiretap investigation that will encompass most of the first season, and it also paints McNulty with a bullseye in the eyes of his superiors and coworkers, one that will follow him for the entire series.
The focus in the pilot is not on the difficulties or drama of investigation, but on the political slog required to get anything done. It was a groundbreaking approach to a television show ostensibly about policing. In a scene filmed only a few weeks after 9/11, while speaking with a friend at the FBI, McNulty is told that the Bureau can’t be much help as they were redirecting their focus toward the War on Terror. This scene is prescient in ways that are still impressive to behold.
The failure of institutions writ large is something that’s relatively easy to write about, whether it’s police departments, municipal governments, public schools, or the press. But writing an hour-long drama about how those institutional failures trickle down to cause, say, the son of a laid-off steelworker to drop out of college and become a cop because of the financial implications of a pregnant girlfriend, or a black kid from Baltimore to leave a school that doesn’t care about him and start slinging heroin on the corner, is more impressive.
Criticisms of police shows that show police in a perpetually positive light are valid, and The Wire manages to show what is both admirable and abhorrent about modern policing. Rather than a television show about police, The Wire becomes, in retrospect, a show about the failure of the Drug War, just as the War on Terror was ramping up to be a similarly disastrous policy decision that would disproportionately impact persons of color. In a genre that usually venerates the institutions it depicts, The Wire sets them up in its pilot to be a series of failed experiments in power brokering that leaves the most vulnerable and powerless people in its stories left to pick up the pieces.