On the 10th anniversary of the premiere of The Wire
Dear David Simon,
First off, I would like to say congratulations and thank you.
Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of The Wire’s premiere. For a show that began with virtually no hype and even less of an audience, it boasts an impressive resume after its first decade: five seasons, a satisfying ending on its creators’ own terms, universal acclaim and an ever-growing audience. That is definitely cause for some celebration.
And thank you for everything the show has given me over the past ten years, not only during the 60 hours of airtime, but also during the time I spent rewatching it, talking about it, nagging people about how they need to watch it, shepherding family and friends through their first viewings, and finally, teaching it to my 12th grade English classes for the past two years.
I still remember watching the first episode on that Sunday night ten years ago. At that time, after being a fan of Oz, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, I decided to give any HBO series a fair shake, and I was especially drawn to The Wire when I saw the early ads featuring Oz alums like Lance Reddick, Seth Gilliam, and J.D. Williams. I remember sitting alone in my filthy post-college apartment as that now-legendary first scene played out before me. By the time the unnamed witness uttered the punchline “Got to. It’s America man,” I was hooked for life.
I don’t want to suggest that somehow I have more stock in the show just because I bought low, but I have to admit that I take some pride in being there from the beginning, as if I were running a corner for Avon and Stringer when they were just pups. I felt more pride as the rest of the world slowly (oh so slowly) come around to what I and a small group of fellow early viewers already knew–that this was a special show, both as a piece of entertainment and as a work of art.
At the same time, I am probably being defensive when I boast about my resume in this way. Frankly, in interviews you come across as a little frightening to somebody like me, somebody who wants to embark on a lengthy, in-depth exploration of The Wire. I grew particularly wary after reading your recent New York Times interview, where you seemed to take umbrage at just this sort of exercise. “For people to be picking it apart now like it’s a deck of cards or like they were there the whole time or they understood it the whole time–it’s wearying, because no one was there in the beginning.”
Well, I was there in the beginning, and while I am proud of that, I also realize that viewers have the right to respond to any work of art however they see fit, regardless of when they discovered it. Sure, a lot of the people who came to The Wire late were probably watching something like Survivor on that night in 2002, but they got to The Wire eventually, and it was meaningful to them, just as it was meaningful to my students, who were in second grade when the show premiered. As more and more decades go by, the show will continue to have a life of its own regardless of your wishes for it.
If the Times interview made me defensive, then, your follow-up interview with Alan Sepinwall clarified my vision for this site while raising other questions about the state of modern television commentary. It did seem to me that the Times framed your comments too negatively, and I agree with your clarification about the focus of your ire: the Grantland tournament for the best character from The Wire (I was particularly bothered by Jay Caspian Kang’s anti-intellectual mockery of “the lazier comp-lit grad students of America” who would “descend on The Wire with whatever Lacanian angle”). I understand your disappointment in the fact “that it would be celebrated with things like who’s cooler: Omar or Stringer, at this late date, and that the ideas of the show would be given short shrift.”
While I have certainly spent a lot of time repeating favorite lines, ranking the seasons and debating my favorite characters and scenes, I have always been drawn to the show for its ideas more than its cool. Not that it has to be one or the other–both approaches are essential parts of the experience of watching The Wire. When held in the right balance, each side, the intellectual and the fun, can complement each other. If the popularity of Omar or the fun of following the @wirefans Twitter feed gets people excited about watching the show, the conceptual quality of the show keeps them there and enriches them.
The Sepinwall interview also highlights a major shift in the way we talk about television today in your discussion of its current recap obsession. On June 2, 2002, the day The Wire premiered, the state of television writing was as outdated by today’s standards as the Kima’s typewriters and the Barksdales’ beepers were by the standards of turn-of-the-millenium Baltimore. I searched and found a handful of early reviews on the show, like this one from Entertainment Weekly, which covers the first five episodes with virtually no detail on the show (Ken Tucker did give the “funky” show an A+). The New York Times covered you a little more closely, with one review on the day the pilot aired, and two months later, a “revision” which gave the first season a second look.
By contrast, the May 6 episode of Mad Men (the instant-classic “Lady Lazarus”) produced a tidal wave of commentary in its first 48 hours. I tracked down 36 recaps (published everywhere from Business Insider to The Jewish Telegraph Agency) before I got tired of looking. And that is just a single episode, selected more or less at random. Is there really that much that needs to be said about a single episode of Mad Men? And if so, can all these recappers possibly say it effectively so soon after the episode aired? And what is left over for others to say in the ensuing weeks and years?
It was probably a blessing that The Wire predated this intense level of discussion (I can only remember reading episode-by-episode recaps during the final season). Just imagine how the Twitterverse and the Blogosphere would have exploded if they had been around when The Wire episodes like “Cleaning Up” or “Middle Ground” first aired. At this point, there is probably more written about a single episode of Mad Men (or an episode of Two Broke Girls, for that matter) than the entirety of The Wire. There is a relative void in terms close analysis of The Wire, and after ten years, it is time to start filling that void.
A work of art, like a child, takes on a life of its own, one that continues long after the original conception, and it evolves independent of its creator’s wishes. My goal for this site is to take part in that evolution in a productive way. I will break the show down, but I also hope to put it back together, having gained a deeper understanding of how all of the pieces connect. More importantly, I hope to provide a resource for both old fans who want to revisit the show through a new perspective, and new fans who want a relatively spoiler-free guide through the complex world of The Wire.
And finally, I hope to be able to produce analysis and commentary worthy of the complexity and seriousness as well as the humor and fun of the world that you created.
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