You heard me.
Five years after its final episode aired, The Wire still stands head and shoulders above the rest. It achieved this superlative status by taking unique advantage of a burgeoning medium and delivering a message that captures the mindset of a nation.
When you look back on other "Story of a Generation" pieces of fiction, you see themes in them that might as well be the theme of their decade. For the Roaring Twenties, a time of reckless optimism, The Great Gatsby reminded us that our pasts are always more powerful than our futures. In the late 1960s, The Graduate was the story of innocence betrayed, just like America's innocence had been shattered by Vietnam and the JFK assassination, with another innocence-shattering on the way in Watergate.
So what is the message of our generation as told by The Wire? Whether you're reading the newspaper or Twitter these days, the same sentiment is voiced over and over again: The System Has Failed Us. The government we pay our taxes to, the corporations we work for, the cities we live in, the economy we participate in: these institutions are all structurally flawed, and fail the people they are supposed to serve. These structures are not undone by malice, but by simple self-interest. No fiction better tells this story than The Wire.
The following things happen in The Wire motivated by self-interest, which is the undoing of all institutions. The police department cooks their books to indicate progress, as does the school system. The port union imports drugs and sex slaves to keep its membership solvent. The drug dealers kill without mercy or hesitation to claim territory and eliminate witnesses. The dope fiends steal to supply their habits. The reporters lie to win awards. The federal government ignores the inner cities to focus on hot-topic terrorism. These are the stories of American institutions.
The Wire was able to tell these stories with previously-unseen verisimilitude by eschewing traditional screenwriters and actors and employing those with personal experience. David Simon, the showrunner, was a longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun, working the police beat. His writing partner, Ed Burns, was a homicide detective and public school teacher. Many of the actors employed were former drug dealers, politicians, or cops. All filming was done in Baltimore. Realism was the last thing one expected from a TV show, but The Wire achieved just that.
This was only possible because of the recent success of HBO. Not only did HBO give the show the opportunity to use realistic language, sexual content, and violence, it also gave the show leeway to focus on something other than the ratings. Had the show been on a network, it never would have survived past the first season. But the new Golden Age of TV let it build slowly.
This is important, because it revealed that TV at its best is the most complex and rich storytelling medium available today. A movie is over in at most three hours. This cannot achieve the same depth a 60-hour series like The Wire can. A novel is almost always written by one person. As talented as one person is, s/he and words on a page cannot touch the complexity and dynamism that a writer's room and a talented cast can bring. Think of how much we, the audience, would have been robbed had we been denied Michael K. Williams's performance of Omar. Pun intended. And theater, for all its virtues, does not bring the far reach that TV does.
As for all of the typical weaknesses of TV shows, The Wire dropped them. No commercials interrupt our fictive dream. The ensemble cast ensured that anything could happen to any character. In contrast, consider a show like The Sopranos. When a gun is pointed at Tony Soprano's head early in season one, we are confident the trigger won't be pulled, as that would kill the show along with Tony. But the suspense in The Wire is real, as anybody can die. And many characters do. Unlike other TV casts, The Wire's is not particularly attractive, nor are its characters particularly appealing. There is no clear divide between protagonist and antagonist. Poverty abounds. There are no authorial flashbacks and very few uses of traditional soundtrack. All of this keeps us on the ground, rooted in the real world that Simon painstakingly constructed.
Simon always said he wanted each season of The Wire to be treated as a novel, with each episode a chapter. In fact, he beat the art form he was hoping to emulate.