HBO starts showing the final season of The Wire this Sunday (January 6), and I can’t decide whether I should be encouraging you to watch it. On one hand, you should totally watch it. It’s possibly–probably–the best show on television over the last three or four years. It features richer characters, more cleverly plotted stories, and more dedication to telling human truths than, well, just about anything. With “short” 13-episode seasons, the writers are able to commit to details in Episode 1 that invariably pay off in Episode 13–no show rewards remembering what’s come before more than does The Wire. And what writers we’re talking about here–David Simon (the brilliant Homicide: Life on the Street), Ed Burns (The Corner, with Simon), even George Pelecanos. That doesn’t even touch on the terrific performances, from everyone from established (even British!) actors to former felons.
On the other hand, I can understand resistance. This show is hard. It can be difficult to watch. And I’m not even talking about how often someone gets shot in the head (or other sensitive parts of the anatomy)–The Wire is ultimately about how institutions crush the American Dream, and that is hard to watch. It’s the dark mirror image of The West Wing–where Sam Seaborn might have argued that education is the silver bullet, The Wire shows what education is like just a few miles down the road from the White House. Why go to school when none of the things they teach there helps prepare you for life as a corner boy? One of the reasons The West Wing was such a high point for so many of us was because it showed us our government as we wanted it to be–The Wire will show you government as it is, and you’re not gonna be happy.
Ultimately, however, those problems are real, and the ways the individuals crushed by institutions just create more problems for those institutions means that former cop/new teacher Prez is right: no one wins; one side just loses more slowly. The Wire is a scream demanding that the fight itself change, and the fact that it’s hard to hear that is what makes the show so, so worth your time in the end. All four previous seasons are available on DVD–while the networks are trying to sell you fluffy reality shows about matchmaking farmers, check out the west side of Baltimore instead.