Quality Television & HBO’s The Wire
I’ve been pondering the term ‘quality television’ and how it relates to premium channels like Home Box Office (HBO), Starz, and the most recent form of television show consumption, Netflix. I’ve come to the realization that quality television is about paying a little extra for a more well-crafted piece of art. What makes people want to buy a subscription to HBO or a monthly fee for Netflix is the fact that these channels produce content that adds a sense of realism to the viewing experience. HBO shows like The Wire, Oz, The Sopranos, all allow directors, producers, and writers their own experimental freedom through the use of violence, profanity, nudity, and sex. Quality television is not self-centered with ratings and popularity, but rather it offers television makers their own sense of creative control and the privilege to create controversial content without fear of any negative repercussions.
HBO’s, The Wire, went the extra mile in producing a quality television police procedural drama. Average network police shows don’t really require you watch all the episodes in order to gain an understanding of the entire plot. They also almost always end up solving the case by the end of the episode. This shit isn’t realistic. What’s realistic is on-location shooting in Baltimore, Maryland where The Wire was set and produced. Helena Sheehan, author of The Wire and the World: Narrative and Metanarrative, “The narrative structure of The Wire unfolds according to a much longer and less predictable story arc.” This is a revolutionary leap for this genre. The Wire is a very complex storyline with no real ending that requires viewers to sit down and watch each episode in order. If you fail to do this, you will be lost and you will have failed your only job as a television consumer. A way to increase the churn is to get people to sit down at a scheduled time in the week and get people into a complex narrative that requires you to watch it in order and beg for more once the season concludes.
The Wire’s first season is primarily focused on the illegal drug trade in inner city Baltimore. This season is one big sequential novel with no real conclusion. The war on drugs is a vicious, never ending cycle and the first season will leave your head spinning, but also begging for more. The Wire isn’t about a good side or a bad side. You will be rooting for the drug dealers and gang bangers just as much as the police force. Viewers are introduced to the gritty realism from the perspectives of the Irish nymphomaniac drunk, Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), to the badass drug dealer robber, Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), and on to the clever, sophisticated, and educated drug dealer, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). Audiences are engulfed with realistic depictions, representations, and portrayals of the police force, the drug dealers and users, and inner city Baltimore. Never one-sided or conventional, but rather multifaceted and challenging.
Cops and detectives have demons too. They aren’t always heroes to look up to. Would you look up to a detective who cheated on his wife, fucks any woman he sees, or gets inebriated seven days a week? Neither would I. Although I do love the character of Jimmy McNulty, the show points to the actualization of just how messed up the police force is too compared to the drug world. The Wire allows us to relate to and connect with people on the law-breaking side of things. Stringer Bell, a very smart and ruthless drug dealer, has found a way to beat the neoliberalistic system by taking what he was born into and making it successful. Bell and the Barksdales have come to the realization that the redistribution of wealth in the country has left poverty stricken, inner city Baltimore behind. Even though what he does is illegal, Bell’s likability is because he has the potential to be a CEO, but chooses to make millions for the sake of “family” on the illegal side of things. His ruthlessness comes from his ability to betray that family for the sake of the business and to protect his own well-being.
We see just how uneducated inner city Baltimore really is with the failing education system, health system, and the wealth issues related to lack of jobs and opportunities. In the pilot, D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), nephew of Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), the leader of the Barksdale crew, yells at a small time drug dealer, Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), and he tells him that “Ain’t no ugly ass white man get his face on no legal mother fucking tender cept’ he president.” This was in reference to Alexander Hamilton on a 10 dollar bill. This just shows how uneducated inner cities are. This requires us to look beyond a typical black stereotype, but to view it as an actual problem that is taking place. This is real world poverty taking place on our own U.S. soil. These are situations, most audiences aren’t ever introduced to or know about. Eliminating poverty is a huge problem America faces, but how can we break a cycle of poverty, if we have so many uneducated children growing up in this country? Taking place in an environment where there are no schools, where kids sell drugs rather than get a proper education, and where proper guardianship is absent. Wallace is a 16-year-old kid who lives in a beaten up, run down and abandoned squatter home. Wallace takes care of many young children in this house by feeding them and making sure they are actually going to school. Lunch consists of chips and pop. Nutritional value = 0. Finally, a show that offers an inside look at the harsh realities and hardships some Americans undergo. The on-set shooting in Baltimore shows us how horrendous the inner city is. Abandoned buildings, trash everywhere, drugs on every corner, and children and young adults forced to do this line of work because it’s all they know how to do and all they can do.
Violence is everywhere in the show. Police torture drug dealers for information on higher ranking guys, gangs shooting each other over territory, and bloody revenge. Omar’s boyfriend, that’s right I said boyfriend, is brutally murdered and his mutilated body is shown to us. One of the most feared characters on the show, is gay. For 2002 when this show came out, that was controversial. Gay men, more specifically, gay black men, never were shown in this light. They were always down-low brothas. Omar was out, but people didn’t fear him for his homosexuality, they feared him because of his shotgun. This is a representation completely absent from network television where gay men, usually white, were either flamboyant or clown figures to laugh at like the famous Jack from Will and Grace.
This Wire’s dialogue is really what makes this show stand out from other police shows. Hearing the slang of the inner city drug dealers and the language of the police force show us how they actually communicate and how skewed network television is in their depictions. We hear slang like “burner” (pre-paid cell phone), “po-po” (police), “re-up” (new package), and ‘nigga’. This is the language of the inner city. One scene in episode 4, McNulty and his partner Detective Bunk, say ‘fuck’ 38 times. This is pretty much the only word said in the scene when investigating a murderous crime scene. They go back and forth saying ‘fuck’ in different tones and pitches, which is just displaying their emotions about what they are investigating. These are things we don’t see depicted on network televisions. Cable television networks have ratings, sponsors, and restrictions to worry about. Liam Kennedy and Stephan Shapiro write in their book, The Wire: Race, Class, and Genre, “The Wire could have only emerged out of the world of premium cable, with its acceptance of controversy and profanity and tolerance for a small but devoted audience.” HBO has no advertising except for advertising itself so artistic freedom is in the hands of the creators. Profanity and racial slurs happen all the time and the quality of realism is enhanced. It’s not like CSI where every action and word is clean-cut, professional, and quirky. This line of police work require unprofessional ways of doing business full of in-depth language and dialogue.
So why is The Wire considered ‘quality television’? The aesthetics for one is extremely satisfying. The show’s focus is on the environments and the scenery by shooting in inner city Baltimore where we see actual buildings and the actual decrepitness of Baltimore. The city is failing and leaving people to rot. David Simon, a former Baltimore journalist, and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore detective, are the creators of the show. This gives these men credibility. They have witnessed and seen first-hand what is going on and going un-talked about in media. A show that finally goes beyond the one-sided politics of police shows now gives us multiple dimensions of interpretation. Rather than show the black drug dealers as just lazy, stupid, and criminal, Simon and Burns show us visually why this is the stereotype. Blacks are not lazy and stupid because they don’t have jobs, but because the Baltimore system is failing. There is no education and there are no jobs. This is real. These are actual things America is dealing with, but going unnoticed in the media. The Wire shows us what we need to know.
HBO is quality television because they challenge conventional network portrayals and they explore controversial issues ignored by mass media. Jason Mittell writes, “The effect of HBO’s business model is that they are not driven by getting high ratings to sell slots to advertisers, but instead look for programming that is sufficiently desirable” Oz, a television series on HBO, has a very controversial rape scene in a jail shower between two men. Never would you ever see something like this on network cable channels.
Normal police shows on cable are criminal commits crime, detective arrests criminal, criminal goes to jail, the end. The Wire presents the crime as an exhausting process with viewpoints from all angles. The Wire looks real. HBO’s loose restrictions make adult programming a million times better. Marc Laverette writes in his book, It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era, “HBO now offers its customers something they can’t get elsewhere, namely profane, violent, sexual content.” Creators are allowed to utilize their artistic abilities and maximize their full potential which is what it takes to make a quality television show. Shows on HBO needs to be watched in order. Every show is unique with complex narratives that will blow your mind. Cable networks never engage in controversial issues to avoid any alienation. HBO and The Wire take risks. Writers, producers, editors, and directors who take risks and create masterpieces of art in-depth storylines that resist and challenge conventional television practices can have my subscription fee any day.
Kennedy, L., & Shapiro, S. (2012). The Wire: Race, Class, and Genre.
Leverette, M., Ott, B. L., & Buckley, C. L. (Eds.). (2009). It's not TV: watching HBO in the post-television era. Routledge.
Mittell, J. (2010). The Wire in the context of American television. Just TV.
Sheehan, H., & Sweeney, S. (2009). The Wire and the world: narrative and metanarrative. Jump Cut, 51(Spring 2009).