How to binge watch... 'The Wire'

The HBO drama needs an introduction to very few, but the best TV show ever made merits repeat viewing

How to binge watch, The Wire, David Simon, Dominic West,


Why binge The Wire?

If there is a single TV show that kick started the boxset revolution, it’s probably HBO The Wire. In a world where we now stream video files from the cloud, if you go back in time the best part of a decade, it was the mass of DVDs that first introduced us to the concept of à la carte viewing. And this show, the tale of the drug trade in Baltimore as seen through the eyes of dealers and the police officers trying to catch them, was at the centre of that.

Chances are you’ve already seen The Wire and know already that is arguably the best television show ever made. But it’s worth bearing in mind that its critical word-of-mouth buzz didn’t do it many favours with its broadcast ratings. Nor did it ever pick up any major awards, with the most prestigious in creator David Simon’s cabinet being a Peabody – although, the show did also nab Aidan Gillen an IFTA in 2009.

Perhaps the reason why The Wire works better as a binge show is because of its sprawling, multi-arc plotlines. With dozens of characters, many of whom disappear and reappear episodes later, those tuning into the show on the week-by-week basis may well have felt lost at sea. And that sea likely felt even more difficult to cross when the first episode of the second season swapped the action from the police to the union difficulties of a bunch of blue-collar longshoremen. From there it delves into politics, public schools, before taking a scouring pad to the media.

Many of its then relatively unknown cast have gone on to bigger and better things, including Idris Elba, Dominic West, Michael B Jordan, Amy Ryan, and Tom McCarthy, but it’s the deft blend of humour, drama, poverty, power, violence, and the most magnetic delivery of the word shit you’ve ever seen that turned it into a true classic. Even if you’ve already binged, it might be time to get back down in the hole.

How long will it take to binge?

Bloody ages. There are five seasons to work through, maxing out at 60 episodes, most of which are almost a full hour. In total, it adds up to two days and 12 hours of television. You should probably pace the binge to no more than two episodes a day, as drama like this can become punishing when watched back to back. But with dedication, the whole thing should take about two months.

Where can you binge it?

As a HBO drama, the sad news is that it is only available to stream on Sky Atlantic’s ‘On Demand’ service, which requires a more-than-basic Sky package. A new copy of the DVD boxset will set you back roughly €50, €25 if you’re willing to go second hand. But the chances are that you know somebody who owns it, so borrowing it shouldn’t be a problem – and failing that, there are plenty of copies circulating around libraries all over the country.

Any hurdles to overcome?

If you’re new to the show, you need to accept now that you won’t have a clue what is going on for, arguably, most of the first season, and it’ll likely take you to the midpoint of the second one for you to have gotten to grips with all of the characters names. Add to that some linguistic problems, meaning there may be times when turning on the subtitles might help clarify things, depending on your fluency with the language used by inner-city African-American drug dealers. The short version is that viewers need to commit to The Wire, it’s a show that requires attention and time. But it pays off.

Who steals the show?

Impossible to say... The Wire’s cast are uniformly excellent, if occasionally rough around the edges. The writing is so sharp and funny that almost every character is so multidimensional and likeable, even if your admiration stems from admiration for their power grabs. Many of the characters work in duos throughout the series, making it especially difficult to single out just one, but an outsider worthy of special mention is Jim True-Frost as Prez, a useless detective who finds his calling – twice. His interactions with the brilliant child actors in the fourth season show how even a minor character can become something big.

A scene to sample:

As the episodes all form one large story arc, it’s hard to pluck something out of the show’s run and put it out of context. But a firm fan favourite is the opening scene from the fourth season, which sees assassin Snoop shopping for a new nail gun in a hardware store. The scene mines comedic gold from the setup, without slapstick or one-liners, and shows how The Wire never needed to rely on any one character or star to drive the show.

What to follow it up with when you’ve finished your binge?

David Simon’s brilliant mini-series The Corner, released a couple of years before The Wire, informed a lot of the show’s central themes, also chronicling a west Baltimore family living on the front lines of America’s drug war. His follow up series Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, was a much bigger critical than fan hit, but still ran for four seasons. Otherwise, sprawling, character-driven crime dramas like The Shield or Breaking Bad will fill the gap.

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