Social Commentary of The Wire

This essay will discuss how American television production (The Wire) reflects society. The show impacted how modern audiences view the medium of television.

Social Commentary of The Wire
image credit: Hollywood reporter


This essay will discuss how American television production (The Wire) reflects society. The show impacted how modern audiences view the medium of television. Television was not considered a respectable medium for the art of storytelling. The Wire ushered in a new golden age of storytelling. The show is not only lauded for its technical and narrative brilliance but also for its ability to connect with audiences over years.

The Wire premiered in 2002 on the American cable station, Home Box Office (HBO). During its run-on television, the show creators were in a constant tussle with HBO for renewal of each season. Unlike The Sopranos, The Wire received its flowers years after the series had concluded. Today it is regularly featured on the top ten lists for ‘Best TV shows of all time alongside The Sopranos. The show was created by David Simon with help from Ed Burns. The former was a journalist with the Baltimore Sun while the latter was a police detective turned schoolteacher in the same city. Their personal experiences in Baltimore may have helped shape the general narrative of the show. This is particularly evident in the final season which delivers a scathing criticism of print journalism in Baltimore. The show’s political motivations remained clear from the outset as Simon wanted to expose the hypocrisy of the ‘American dream.

The Wire could be characterized as a police procedural drama but it encompasses so much more. The series provides a holistic view of the city of Baltimore, its institutions, and its players across the five seasons. The Wire has piqued the interest of academicians across the globe with its realistic depiction of “the forces that shape urban life”. The show tackles a range of socio-economic factors that may have an impact on the lives of the citizens of Baltimore. Season-1) focuses on the ‘war on drugs, season-2) examines the workings of the Baltimore port, season-3) investigates the corruption and procedures of Baltimore’s politics and police department, season-4) tackles the failings of the education system in inner cities, and season-5) offers a harsh criticism of print journalism. All these stories are intertwined and play out through multiple plot lines throughout the entire series.

The show can be described as a work of creative non-fiction, based on their collective experiences as well as their imagination. Žižek (2011)usefully draws attention to this nuanced intersection of imagination and experience, to the complexities of The Wire’s ‘realism’ (Jameson, 2010).

The wire incorporates a sense of realism in the series through various means. Simon and Burns enlisted the help of local non-professionals:  police officers, reporters, drug dealers, and politicians. Kurt Schmoke, former Baltimore mayor, makes a couple of appearances in the show as well as former drug lord, Melvin Williams. Another element that adds to the sense of realism is the use of on-location filming. A staple of the series is the use of panoramic views which are highly symbolic. These views present the viewer with a vantage point over Baltimore’s divided cityscape. Disparities in wealth are shown through the contrasting presentation of the ‘pit’ (a debilitated housing estate) and the affluent downtown high-rises. The sense of disparity is reinforced with several shots of the luxurious Baltimore city hall roof which can be seen from the poorest areas of the city. Likewise, shots of drug corners from the Western district frequently intersect scenes in each episode. Authenticity is also achieved through the use of real locations similar to the usage of real actors. The actual sites of murders and drug dealings are used throughout the series to emphasize the strong sense of setting. The Wire differs from the conventional ‘cop’ show with its attention to detail in all aspects. Andre Royo (Bubbles) recalled an experience on Law and Order where he was playing a suspect. He notes how he tried to escape from the police by running through an open hallway “and the director yelled ‘cut’ and said, ‘we’re not as smart as The Wire’. This shows that The Wire does not conform to genre conventions to appease the general audience.

It is the novelistic style of The Wire that allows for such depth of character, setting, narrative, etc. The plots do not run on an episode-by-episode basis like most cop shows (Law & Order, Castle and Bones) which allows for a steady progression of complex interweaving storylines throughout each season. The show also differs from the standard ‘cop show’ in its intricate portrayal of the underclass. The series is not just simply “good and evil” (Simon,2007). Police are portrayed as flawed individuals who may cross certain lines for their benefit similar to cops like ‘Vic Mackey’ on ‘The Shield’. Criminals are not just shown as inherently ‘bad’ people like in other cop shows where “the suspect exists to exalt the good guys” (Simon, 2006). These shows present the same “stilted view of the underclass” (Simon,2006). Instead, criminals in The Wire have been portrayed realistically and humanely. They evoke both sympathy and anger from viewers but are rarely demonized or truly stereotyped. Criminals are shown to have dreams and aspirations and for a lot of them, a life of crime is shown to be a factor of circumstance. Simon shows the residual effects of a prohibitive drug policy throughout with characters like Wallace and Bubbles who experience the ‘unintended consequences of prohibition’ (MacCoun and Reuter, 2001) as they fall victim to the violence of the drug-trade.

At its core, The Wire is a critique of the system and the capitalist forces that control it. Throughout the five seasons, the viewer sees the workings of these public institutions and how they are undercut by the very measures that were supposed to assist them. Statistics and the appearance of low crime are more important to political leaders than solving crime and reducing it.  A common theme throughout the show is ‘juking the stats’. Police chiefs like Rawls, work to avoid cases that would be harder to solve as they want higher clearance rates. In the 4thseason, ex-cop turned teacher, Pryzbylewski, is working at a middle school. He discovers through the course of the season that keeping the school funded is more important to the institution than attendance and actual education. In the 5th season, McNulty creates a fictional serial killer to gain more funding for the police department.

Simon and Burns depict many such instances of institutional stasis throughout the show in the hope of illustrating ‘the interconnectedness of systemic urban inequality’ (Chadda & Wilson, 2011:166). They do so to draw parallels between the different institutions like in episode 4.1. This episode contains “an intricate cross-cut of very short beats comparing a PowerPoint presentation given to teachers with a PowerPoint presentation given to police” which to her represents the similar challenges they face (Williams,2014:71).

Overall, The Wire aims to be a political show but it presents a situation that seems almost unalterable due to failures and inefficiencies which trickle from the top down. Simon and Burns paint a bleak picture where all the characters are intertwined with institutional constraints which halts them from affecting change in their surroundings.


Chadda, A. and Wilson. W. (2011). Way Down in the Hole: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jameson, F. (2010). REALISM AND UTOPIA IN "THE WIRE". Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

MacCoun, R. and Reuter, P. (2001). Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, & Places. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mills, D. (2007) Q&A: David Simon (pt. 1), Undercover Black Man.‐david‐simon‐pt‐1.html

O'Rourke, M. (2006) Interviewing The Man Behind The Wire.. [online] Slate Magazine.

Williams, L. (2014). On The Wire. London: Duke University Press.

Žižek, S. (2011). The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. London: Verso.