This article discusses the themes of The Wire.
Each season of The Wire focuses on a different facet of the city of Baltimore. In chronological order they are: the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system, and the print news media. The large cast consists mainly of character actors who are little known for their other roles. Simon has said that despite its presentation as a crime drama, the show is "really about the American city, and about how we live together. It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution they are committed to."
The writers strove to create a realistic vision of an American city based on their own experiences. Simon, originally a journalist for the Baltimore Sun, spent a year researching a homicide police department for his book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, where he met Burns. Burns served in the Baltimore Police Department for 20 years, and later became a teacher in an inner-city school. The two of them spent a year researching the drug culture and poverty in Baltimore for their book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. Their combined experiences were used in many of the storylines of The Wire.
Central to the show's aim for realism was the creation of truthful characters. Simon has stated that most of them are composites of real-life Baltimore figures. The show often casts non-professional actors in minor roles, distinguishing itself from other television series by showing the "faces and voices of the real city" it depicts. The writing also uses contemporary slang to enhance the immersive viewing experience.
In distinguishing the police characters from other television detectives, Simon makes the point that even the best police of The Wire are motivated not by a desire to protect and serve, but by the intellectual vanity of believing they are smarter than the criminals they are chasing. However, while many of the police do exhibit altruistic qualities, many officers portrayed on the show are incompetent, brutal, self-aggrandizing, or hamstrung by bureaucracy and politics. The criminals are not always motivated by profit or a desire to harm others; many are trapped in their existence and all have human qualities. Even so, The Wire does not minimize or gloss over the horrific effects of their actions.
The show is realistic in depicting the processes of both police work and criminal activity. There have even been reports of real-life criminals watching the show to learn how to counter police investigation techniques. The fifth season portrayed a working newsroom at the Baltimore Sun and has been hailed as the most realistic portrayal of the media in film and television.
In December 2006, The Washington Post carried an article in which local African-American students stated that the show had "hit a nerve" with the black community, and that they themselves knew real-life counterparts of many of the characters. The article expressed great sadness at the toll drugs and violence are taking on the black community.
Many important events occur off-camera and there is no artificial exposition in the form of voice-over or flashbacks, with the sole exception of one flashback at the end of the pilot episode, and even this brief use of the flashback technique is actually replaying a momentary footage clip from earlier in the same episode. Thus, the viewer needs to follow every conversation closely to understand who's who and what's going on. Salon.com has described the show as novelistic in structure, with a greater depth of writing and plotting than other crime shows. Each season of The Wire consists of 10–13 full-hour episodes, which form several multi-layered narratives. Simon chose this structure with an eye towards long story arcs that draw a viewer in and then result in a more satisfying payoff. He uses the metaphor of a visual novel in several interviews, describing each episode as a chapter, and has also commented that this allows a fuller exploration of the show's themes in time not spent on plot development.
Simon described the second season as
"a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class ... it is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many."
He added that season 3 "reflects on the nature of reform and reformers, and whether there is any possibility that political processes, long calcified, can mitigate against the forces currently arrayed against individuals." The third season is also an allegory that draws explicit parallels between the Iraq War and drug prohibition, which in Simon's view has failed in its aims and has become a war against America's underclass. This is portrayed by Major Colvin, imparting to Carver his view that policing has been allowed to become a war and thus will never succeed in its aims.
Writer Ed Burns, who worked as a public school teacher after retiring from the Baltimore police force shortly before going to work with Simon, has called education the theme of the fourth season. Rather than focusing solely on the school system, the fourth season looks at schools as a porous part of the community that are affected by problems outside of their boundaries. Burns states that education comes from many sources other than schools and that children can be educated by other means, including contact with the drug dealers they work for. Burns and Simon see the theme as an opportunity to explore how individuals end up like the show's criminal characters, and to dramatize the notion that hard work is not always justly rewarded.
Simon has identified the organizations featured in the show—the Baltimore Police Department, City Hall, the Baltimore City Public School System, the Barksdale Organization, The Baltimore Sun, and the International Brotherhood of Stevedores—as comparable institutions. All are dysfunctional in some way, and the characters are typically betrayed by the institutions that they accept in their lives. There is also a sentiment echoed by a detective in Narcotics—"Shit rolls downhill"—which describes how superiors, especially in the higher tiers of the police department in the series, will attempt to use subordinates as scapegoats for any major scandals. Simon described the show as "cynical about institutions" while taking a humanistic approach toward its characters. A central theme developed throughout the show is the struggle between individual desires and subordination to the group's goals. Whether it is Officer Jimmy McNulty using all his cards to pursue a high-profile case despite resistance from his own department, or gang member D'Angelo Barksdale accepting a 20 year prison sentence contrary to his strong desire to turn in his uncle Avon and walk, this type of conflict is pervasive in all aspects of the show.
Central to the structure and plot of the show is the use of electronic surveillance and wiretap technologies by the police—hence the title The Wire. Salon.com described the title as a metaphor for the viewer's experience: the wiretaps provide the police with access to a secret world, just as the show does for the viewer. Simon has discussed the use of camera shots of surveillance equipment, or shots that appear to be taken from the equipment itself, to emphasize the volume of surveillance in modern life and the characters' need to sift through this information.
- David Simon. "The Target" commentary track [DVD]. HBO.
- Richard Vine. "Totally Wired", The Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved on April 9, 2010.
- Margaret Talbot (2007). Stealing Life. The New Yorker. Archived from the original on September 4, 2012. Retrieved on October 14, 2007.
- William K. Rashbaum. "Police Say a Queens Drug Ring Watched Too Much Television" (Subscription required), The New York Times, January 15, 2005.
- Jesse Walker (2004). David Simon Says. Reason.
- Brian Lowry. "'The Wire' gets the newsroom right", Variety, December 21, 2007. Retrieved on December 22, 2007.
- Carol D., Leoning. "'The Wire': Young Adults See Bits of Their Past", The Washington Post, December 11, 2006, p. B01. Retrieved on March 17, 2007.
- Dan Kois (2004). Everything you were afraid to ask about The Wire. Salon.com.
- Ian Rothkirch (2002). What drugs have not destroyed, the war on them has. Salon.com.
- Alvarez 28, 35–39.
- Alvarez 12.
- Interviews—Ed Burns. HBO (2006).
- Behind The Scenes Part 1—A New Chapter Begins. HBO (2006).