I won’t mention Dickens or Shakespeare. I used to take part in those conversations. The Sopranos was Dickens and The Wire was Shakespeare – or the other way round. Dostoevsky was sometimes mentioned, and Zola. It was daft, really. The Wire is The Wire.
I’ve been watching it again and it is wonderful how quickly I’m drawn in, bang up against the characters. The accents have something to do with it. I have to concentrate, lean in to the screen, to catch the words, and I can see just how young those dangerous young men are – kids trying to talk like army veterans. There’s D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr), a drug dealer, looking so arrogant and frightened – and so, so young – boasting about something to his even younger troops, and I realise quite far in that it’s a murder he’s describing: he murdered a woman. That’s one of the outstanding things about The Wire, how meaning catches up as you watch.
People who have watched it will remember the scene where two cops, Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), inspect and measure an apartment kitchen, deciding on the trajectory of a bullet that killed a young woman. The scene is extraordinary. It seems to go on for ever and it’s almost without dialogue: McNulty and Bunk just mutter, “Fuck . . . Fuck . . .” throughout. We’re watching intelligent men at work, men who are often stupid and brutish. But then there’s the realisation that the murder victim – in a case long neglected – is the very woman whose murder D’Angelo has already, almost casually, described, to kids who are charming and already lost.
What makes The Wire so good? I believe every word and gesture. I worry about the characters; I want them to turn around, change their minds. I’m a man when I’m watching The Wire, a father. I don’t want thrills. I want things to work out, decency to prevail. I know that it won’t, but the writing is so good, the characters are so – I can’t think of a better word – human, that I don’t give up on the possibility.
This piece was originally published in 2016 as part of a series of writers on their favourite box sets.
[See also: Top Gun: Maverick and the politics of the action hero]