The greatest television show in the history of the medium ended last Sunday night, but you probably wouldn't know it unless you were actually a regular viewer of the show.
HBO's "The Wire" ended its five-season run at 10:34-ish p.m., when maverick ex-homicide detective Jimmy McNulty got back into his car and drove a homeless man into the city of Baltimore. The camera lingered on the side of the highway and gave us one last parting shot at the skyline. And then, it was over.
Unlike the controversial, lame, and creatively limp ending to the network's much more acclaimed mob drama "The Sopranos," the final five minutes of "The Wire" let viewers see where each of the show's numerous characters are headed. Sure, the last couple of minutes felt a little hokey, but at least it was an ending that didn't leave room for weak "interpretation" and, more obviously, a possible movie down the road.
For the past several years critics have pointed out how great of a show "The Wire" is and was, but for whatever reason the public hasn't seemed to notice. Whereas "The Sopranos" garnered critical and popular acclaim (11.9 million people watched that series' finale compared to 1.1 million for "The Wire"), the show constantly fought low ratings. It was close to being axed after its third season, the same year Entertainment Weekly called the show "the smartest, deepest and most resonant drama on TV." The Los Angeles Times even devoted an entire editorial to the show.
Reviewers for Time, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, the Chicago Tribune, Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News declared "The Wire" the best show on television.
Yet viewers didn't seem to care. The intricate storylines didn't help, but you have to respect a show for expecting a little bit more from an audience than the brain-dead group the sitcom crowd usually delivers. And as much as I hate to say it, the predominantly black cast is hard to ignore in explaining viewer apathy. But there's just no reason for the show to be ignored the way it was.
"The Wire" was better written than "The Sopranos." In fact, episode writers for the show included critically acclaimed crime writers such as Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, as well as show creator (former Baltimore Sun reporter and author of one of the most interesting true crime books ever written, "Homicide") David Simon. Yet the show only received one Emmy nomination for writing over the course of its entire run, and was completely shut out of the 2007 Emmys.
For the record, the Emmys have been totally irrelevant for at least ten years, but when "According to Jim" is nominated for anything you might as well cancel the concept.
Each season of "The Wire" focused on one aspect of the city of Baltimore. The first season dealt with a west side drug dealer named Avon Barksdale, the second season dealt with the city's docks, the third season went back to Barksdale and brought politics into the equation, the fourth season dealt with the city's educational calamity and the fifth season dealt with the diminishing role of the media.
Heady stuff, no doubt. And the fifth season was a bit preachy, but you had to expect that considering Simon's passion for newspaper reporting. But there was ambition you just don't see in television, mainly because television show creators and writers don't have the guts or the intelligence to pull that level of thinking off on a regular basis.
The reason Wire viewers are so passionate about the show is because they know, myself included, that if you started watching the show you'd love it too. Just give it a shot, the thinking goes, and you'll be hooked.
Here's some advice. Get the first disc from the first season, sit down, and watch several episodes in a row. You won't know every character right off the bat. It took me three episodes to figure out who Stringer Bell was, and he was a major character. Even through five episodes I was still learning people's names.
But stick with it. Halfway through the first season you'll start getting into the ebb and flow of the story. Once you're there you'll be hooked.
And then you'll be wondering how come more people didn't watch the show.
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