If anyone poses the question “what is the best show on television?” the answer can be found in two simple words: The Wire. The show stands as inheritor of the crown of intelligent, quality television left by Homicide: Life on the Streets, except with cable’s rules for language, nudity, and violence. It is television that demands work, but the payoff is worth it. With its mix of action, laughs, and thought provoking look at the drug trade on our inner city streets, it is easily one of the most satisfying hours of television watching.

If anyone asks the question “who is the star of The Wire?” one need look no further than David Simon and his cast of writers. If you’re an afficionado of crime fiction, you’d have an appreciation for the assembled talent behind the scenes of the show. David Simon (author of The Corner and Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the basis for the HBO mini-series The Corner and the NBC show Homicide: Life on the Streets), George Pelecanos (of the popular Derek Strange series of crime novels), Richard Price (literary hero of the other writers), and Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River).

One of the things that you can’t get away from is the racial aspect of the show. Whereas most shows run from having blacks on the screen, The Wire embraces a large black cast of some of the best drawn, best acted, and most engaging characters on today. Outside of sitcoms, too many teetering on this side of minstrelsy, not since the days of Homicide: Life on the Street have black characters played so many lead roles.

There are the returning familiar faces. Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Riddick) heads up the wire-tapping good guys/ “real po-lice”. We watch the self-destructive, white Irish cop Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West, the embodiment of world weary, yet dogged, police)– who as his colleague Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) says “puts fire to everything he touches then walks away while it burns”–slowly re-shape Det. Shakima “Kima” Greggs (Sonja Sohn) into his image. McNulty is all about the job, obsessing on the drug lords in his case, to the point of having no life outside of it and torching anyone who gets in his way. Stringer Bell (brilliantly acted by Idris Elba) and Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) head up the criminal enterprise. Stringer having finished college, is almost a post-modern drug dealer. Re-thinking the game, he tries to ditch the “gangsta” aspect of it, which was the main thing that drew police interest, and apply strict laws of economic principles as he strives for legitimacy.

There are new faces as well. We follow the slow, and rocky, road to redemption of former soldier Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad L. Coleman). There is up and coming (white) councilman Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), the beguiling politician maneuvering to oust the incumbent black mayor. There is no way to do justice to the huge cast, again pointing to the adroitness of the writers who create subtle characters with actors who can get a lot of mileage out of little screen time.

Butchie: “Everybody in this world does what they gonna do.”
Omar: “I still feel like I owe something.”
Butchie: “Conscience do cost.”

The show is not afraid to examine the topsy-turvy morality where legendary gang-bangers, such as Omar Little (Michael K. Williams, who has created one of my favorite characters), are idolized and emulated. Where those released from prison (Avon, Cutty, and the other innumerable “soldiers”) are given more respect than the few and seldom seen college grads. Where a good night is defined by the police, in their war of successive compromises, as “an absence of anything negative” such as a dropped body. Where the sin of gentrification and the fruit of a society turning their backs on the poor and disenfranchised has led to young black kids aspire to drug dealing because they believe the world offers no opportunities yet dangles the fruit of wealth in front of them.

“The gods will not save you.” –Proposition Joe

The reason that it is difficult to sum up what the plot of The Wire is about is because it is a labyrinth of overlapping stories. Each season examines a particular aspect/impact of our so-called “war on drugs”: the police, union workers, politics, schools, and the media in each of its respective seasons. Welcome to the all too real, mundane world where incompetence, cover your ass politics, and striving for the status quo meets luck, diligence, and perseverance. Where bureaucrats and politicians attempt to govern the encroaching world of cops, drug dealers, and drug users. While all the while, we examine the toll that this war on drugs takes on their personal lives. The show is painful and brilliant at the same time.

In a nutshell, the show is about the drug game, the street game of survival on one side and the efforts to fight the good, if vain, fight on the other. The game is about the art of deception. Of your enemies. Of your friends. Of your boss. Of your grand-momma. Of yourself. What becomes all too clear is the futility of the law when it comes to battling something like drugs that is one part individual sin, one part societal neglect, and one part force of nature. There is a cloud of despair that hangs over every character that either the problem can’t be solved–at least not by the methods the law is used to employing–or that some people don’t want it solved.

“It’s what war is. Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we have to fight.” –Slim

Drugs are the enemy within. They are pervasive. Insidious. Reaching its tendrils into every fiber of our being and society. They are in bondage to the game. Drugs feed on a weakness within us, like a disease, yet more than a disease. The thing about drugs is that people become slaves to them. Any addict will tell you that they are no longer in control, the addiction is in control. The need for sating that habit becomes the new law that lives in them and runs their lives. More than any mere moral rule, it has a physical aspect to it. It lives in addicts, indwells them, ever enticing, threatening, and bullying. Their lives become about feeding that addiction. Despite the good that the drug fiend may want to do, they find themselves doing things that in the light of sobriety they had no idea they were capable of. They are in a tug of war between conscience and the need to feed their inner beast that more often than not, they don’t know how to escape.

Let’s face it, the flesh is weak and the wages of drugs is only decay and

“What if I told you that there was a certain liberation not in command or self-control but in surrendering?” –Deacon

The characters evolve and devolve over the season, but the only route to salvation comes in finding something outside of oneself. There were several paths to choose from. For some, temporary peace could be found by turning themselves over to the community (Cutty Wise) or to the job (McNulty). But the only choice to provide any measure of lasting peace was Christ for Deacon (Melvin Williams).

Make no mistake, the show is not a polemic by any stretch. As a dark vision of inner city turmoil, The Wire is the most densely written and demanding show on the air. It reflects how deeply capitalism is imbedded into the fabric of our culture, with drugs as economic transactions, murders as market fluctuations, and the toll to thin veneer we call civility as cost. Look for this show in re-runs, though it is best watched on DVD so that you have the entire story at your disposal and can appreciate its addictive unfolding at your leisure. With its tough choices in trying situations, interwoven stories, and its complexity amid simplicity, the show reminds me of what our spiritual lives often look like: messy, practical, and with an air of quiet triumphs.

Hopefully without the drugs.