The Wire: Season 4 Review

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The best show, and best-kept secret, on TV


Consider yourself very lucky. Why? Because chances are, like the vast majority of the population, you have never actually watched an episode of HBO’s The Wire. As a result of this oversight, you now have the indescribable pleasure of being able to watch the first four seasons of this exquisite show for the very first time. And if you’re already a member of the regrettably exclusive club of existing fans, then this DVD release of the fourth season is a perfect excuse to watch every glorious minute all over again in preparation for the fifth and final season, currently airing in the States.

Created by former Baltimore crime reporter David Simon and co-written by former Baltimore homicide detective Ed Burns, The Wire is an unflinchingly authentic portrayal of the city’s crime-riddled backstreets. Far from your run-of-the-mill police drama, it spreads its sympathies across both sides of the legal divide, its bravura ensemble covering a spectrum of perspectives from police brass to drug dealers via addicts, dock workers and the politicos inside City Hall. But despite the ranks of different characters, none feel less than meticulously drawn, their motivations, flaws and character quirks clearly thought out and their speech bubbling over with initially bewildering street patois. The result is a genuine, ground-level view
of life on the city streets, with the inhabitants going about daily business both mundane and illicit.

Simon previously attempted to bring Baltimore to the screen in the critically acclaimed Homicide: Life On The Street. While producing what was arguably the most believable show of its genre at the time, Simon clashed with NBC over the show’s bleak outlook, and felt unable to achieve the honesty he was looking for within the strictures of network television. The Wire suffers no such limitations. The relative freedom of HBO allowed Simon to explore his subject matter uncensored, sugar-coatings peeled away for a more accepting cable audience. But to mistake authenticity for pessimism would be to miss the point entirely. Simon and Burns are not interested in painting a hopeless picture of a city gone to hell. They instead manage to draw out the hopes and aspirations of people in every layer of the social strata, regardless of whether their ultimate goal is to bring down a drug kingpin or earn enough pushing dimebags to keep meals on the table.

The first three seasons grounded themselves in the meticulous process of building a criminal case from the ground up - generally involving the eponymous wire tap. Season 4, however, sees a marked shift, dialling back the police perspective and shifting primary focus to the corner kids who serve as foot soldiers in the dealers’ urban armies. Disgraced detective ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) returns, having turned in his badge and gun for a job teaching at the local high school. Meanwhile, former police major ‘Bunny’ Colvin (Robert Wisdom) has become similarly invested in shaping young minds, joining an experimental programme to separate the corner kids from the less disruptive ‘stoop kids’.

If previous years have been a study of the drug trade and the socio-political implications of trying to curb it, this season is a harsh look at the failings of the public school system. The kids themselves are a broad cross-section of disaffected teenagers, from the bookish Duquan (Jermaine Crawford), whose crackhead parents sell his clothes for drug money, to the posturing Namond (Julito McCullum), whose mother practically forces him to sling drugs on the corners just to keep her in bling and dye-jobs. Elsewhere, Councilman Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) sets out on a dogged campaign to unseat Mayor Royce (Glynn Turman) from office; Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) has taken over the former Barksdale turf, and Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) has taken a voluntary demotion to a life on the beat.

This has been one of the best-kept secrets on television for the past five years, but The Wire is more than just the greatest show you’ve never seen. This isn’t a series preoccupied with bringing its audience excitement, though it frequently does, nor does it try too hard to be clever, though it undeniably is. Rather, what Burns and Simon have managed to create is a slow-burning, sublimely written chronicle that holds honesty above all else. Theirs is a city that lives and breathes, textured with compelling, complex characters - street snitch Bubbles (Andre Royo) and gay gunman Omar (Michael K. Williams) being two standouts - and intricate, multi-layered storylines.

The Wire covers over 12 hours what any other cop show would play out in just one episode, and it’s this microscopic attention to detail, so perfectly executed, that raises it above every other cop show on television.