I now quite casually and happily claim that The Wire is the greatest drama in American television history, for some value of 'greatest' that includes rigorous craft, narrative drive, social richness, characterological integrity (not depth), and a wholly personal notion of entertainment value; certainly there's never been another series with its scope and integrity at every level. Its brutal cynicism is grounded in an honest appraisal of the limitations of human beings and institutions, and its every technical particular is top-tier. There's no character on the show with the complexity of Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen (or Buffy Summers), but that kind of full-bodied emotional portraiture isn't David Simon's aim, so the show's broad-brush characterization reads as a limitation of the form rather than a failure of craft. If the show focused more on the day-to-day wackiness of Being Jimmy McNulty, it would miss opportunities to situate him and his fellow citizens in their various interlocking worlds. And Simon and his fellow writers certainly filled the show's subcultures with hard-earned detail (listen to that final conversation between Chris and Michael in the Season Four finale, or Landsman's lovely generosity in the same episode).
Deep down, the show is a brief in Simon's career-long indictment of the 'postmodern' American way of life; as his recent interviews in support of Season Five have made clearer than ever, it's the summation of everything he's ever done, seen, and felt. Fans of the show have had plenty to read about him and his work of late: from the New Yorker profile a few months ago to the recent round of interviews and (to me) unexpectedly critical media coverage.
If you've never seen the show, try the New Yorker piece first; The Wire's fans won't be too surprised by anything in there, but it's a nice overview of where its creators stand. The two meatiest reads are this weirdly uplifting Columbia Journalism Review piece, and a recollection in Esquire by Simon himself, clarifying his purpose in putting together Season Five and focusing on the media (and defending himself against charges of unseemly grudge-holding).
The CJR piece - which (its focused consider of The Wire as journalism notwithstanding) reads oddly in its opening paragraphs, like a press release from Simon himself, mimics Simon's politics with dull boilerplate, and has no aesthetic-critical value - closes like this:
The Wire, [Simon] says, is about the decline of the American empire. It might have sprung from a journalistic impulse, but he says he has moved beyond simple reportage. "Consider it a big op-ed piece," said Simon, “and consider it to be dissent. What I saw happen with the drug war, a series of political elections, and vague attempts at reform in Baltimore....What I saw happen to the Port of Baltimore, and what I saw happen to the Baltimore Sun — I think it's all of a piece." Should his premonition of the American empire's future — more gated communities and more of a police state — come to pass and were someone to say he didn't know it was coming, Simon said, it will at least be possible to pull The Wire off the shelf and say, "'Don't say you didn't know this was coming. Because they made a fucking TV show out of it.'"
Go have a read. I should note that The Sopranos is more in line with what I think of as the Great American Dramatic Tradition(s): it's a carefully-observed family story through which a social story is outlined, occasionally presented in a cartoonish register and structured according to familiar genre dictates; and its moralizing tone, however cynical it may be about the existence of people like Tony and his band of thugs, invests the narrative with a weight of guilt that The Wire never comes close to inducing (The Wire is too rigorously empathetic; it never takes shots at its characters, and contains only one or two real grotesques). And Deadwood is somewhere inbetween, more complex in its interpersonal relationships than David Chase's show, more spiritual (and optimistic) than either The Sopranos or The Wire, with all of the former's poetry and much of the latter's rich institutional inquiry (though at a level of remove - through language and indirection - that makes it more fable, myth of origin, than history). All three might make legitimate claims on the title of 'greatest TV drama ever,' but tonight I give the nod to Simon's show. Not that you care, of course.
I hope you had a good weekend, Reader(s). We'll talk soon. [Hat tip to my boy Farhad for these articles, by the way - he who's never even seen the show!]