June 2002 marked the debut of a television program innocuously called The Wire, which would eventually portray the world's most compelling cast of pushers, dope fiends, cops, dockworkers, and politicians. In Baltimore, of all places. Created by former police reporter David Simon, The Wire was grittier than previous police shows. It did not amass a huge following in its five-season, 60-episode run on HBO but it is now widely considered one the most influential shows of all time. To celebrate the 10 years since we first said hello to cussing characters like McNulty, Omar, Avon, Stringer, and Wee-Bey, we present 10 ways The Wire forever changed television.
1. It Made It Even More Compelling to Root for the Bad Guy
"You supposed to be the good cop, dumb motherfucker!"—Bodie Broadus
The Wire certainly wasn't the first television show where bad guys were relatable, complex individuals (The Sopranos gets a lot of that credit), but it helped usher in ever-more-sinister antiheroes. It could be argued that characters today like Dexter Morgan (of Dexter), Frank Gallagher (Shameless), Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy), and Walter White (Breaking Bad)—chock-full of dishonesty and murderous ambition—evolved in part from characters like Stringer, Avon, Prop Joe, and Marlo.
2. Main Characters Could Be Killed Off
"The game done changed."—Dennis "Cutty" Wise
Television used to feel safe and reliable. Viewers could sit back and relax, watching their favorite characters get in and out of trouble both comically and dramatically. The Wire didn't just create drama; it followed through by killing off some of the most beloved characters on the show (shades of The Sopranos, perhaps), including (spoiler alert!) D'Angelo Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Bodie Broadus, and Omar Little. No one was off-limits. Shows like Game of Thrones (Ned Stark), Breaking Bad (Gustavo Fring), and Damages (Tom Shayes) don't hesitate to destroy the very roles they built up.
3. Kids Experienced Tough Grown-Up Problems
"Thought maybe I could get with Chris . . . I—I've got a problem I can't bring to no one else."—Michael Lee
In most dramas, children confront problems that parents can deal with quite easily—like bedtime and first kisses. The Wire depicted teenagers with conflicts and problems that most of us would consider adult afflictions. From drug addiction (Wallace) to sexual abuse (Michael Lee), Simon's saga went for it. If you watch Showtime's Homeland, you'll see a more contemporary example of a young character (Dana Brody) whose normal teenage angst gives way to life and death decisions placed before her and her troubled father Nicholas.
4. Good Characters Devolved!
"You would think a less enlightened man than myself, a cruder man than myself, a man less sensitized to the qualities and charms and value of women—a man like that, not me, but a man like that, he just might call her a cunt."—Jimmy McNulty
Old-school dramas often depicted bad guys getting their comeuppance while heroes were rewarded for their stick-to-it-iveness. Not so on The Wire. Characters like McNulty, Herc, Carver, and Carcetti proved that "getting the job done" could often be equated with "getting one's hands dirty" through their disintegration as moral individuals (yes, we owe a nod to NYPD Blue here). More modern examples like Tommy Gavin (Rescue Me) and Boyd Crowder (Justified) illustrate that the lines between protagonist and antagonist are often blurry.
5. Real Time and Place Created a Sense of Authenticity
"Thin line between heaven and here."—Bubbles
One of the most celebrated and applauded police dramas of all-time, Hill Street Blues, took place in an unnamed American city (fans still speculate as to whether it was in fact New York or Chicago), and that uncertainty was always a bit of a distraction. The Wire, on the other hand, captured the layered enigma that was Baltimore in the 21st century. From the row houses to the mention of the Iraq War, the viewer was well aware that these fictional characters existed in a very real world (with incredible regional dialects). Other critically acclaimed police dramas like Southland seemed to get the memo, and now almost universally exist in clearly defined periods and places.