Among the countless reasons to look back at The Wire in awe—from its writing and characters to its on-screen performances—one standout is how the HBO classic has served as a continually relevant political time capsule.
With June 2 marking 20 years since the celebrated show first hit screens, it is evident now more than ever just how seamlessly the Baltimore-set drama weaved in the news of the day throughout its five seasons on the air.
From scandals involving Wall Street, Enron and WorldCom; from the subprime mortgage crisis to former President George W. Bush‘s two terms in the White House, the talking points it drew from would make it sacrilege to pigeonhole The Wire as just another police drama.
It also had a hand in introducing a number of actors to a fresh audience, including the likes of Idris Elba, Dominic West, Wendell Pierce and the late Michael K. Williams.
In the 14 years since the series finale aired, however, many major events of the time seem almost quaint in comparison. There’s also been a notable change in tone in the political landscape, ushered in by Donald Trump‘s single term as president.
These factors, series creator David Simon tells Newsweek, make it almost impossible to produce a show today that would resemble The Wire of yesteryear.
“It’s almost tough to contemplate because the basic parameters of a fact-based world have been obliterated,” Simon said during a 20th anniversary press event for the show. “A certain amount of deceit and a certain amount of, you know, tell the lie and then move past it fast enough…”
Referencing one of the show’s ambitious politicians, Timmy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen), Simon said the character “says he’s going to take back the corners and win the drug war, and he manages to ride that as far politically as he could. We saw that as plausible.
“I don’t think any of us imagined the sheer post-fact reality of Donald Trump and what has happened to the Republican Party. You can’t govern yourself as a republic. You can’t have a self-governing citizenry in which facts are completely optional.
“I don’t think [any] of us in that writers’ room anticipated the depths of what we considered to be political dishonesty.”
Continuing his thoughts on Trump, the only U.S. president in history to have been impeached twice, Simon said: “I don’t think we saw somebody running all the way to the top, on lie after lie after lie. The lies are exposed as fast as they’re told, and it just doesn’t matter.
“That’s a world we did not anticipate. I don’t know how you write for that world. I’ll tell you the truth.”
So perplexing have Simon and his team found the switch in political gears in recent years that a possible new show has been frustratingly languishing on the proverbial backburner.
Simon said he and others have been “engaged for about five [to] six years with HBO, trying to write a pilot about Capitol Hill, which is the legislative branch of the government. It’s the one that’s collapsed, basically; it’s been buried under money, and it can no longer function. We’ve been trying to write that.
“Every time we sit down and come up with a pilot script, or beat it out, the world just goes a little more insane, and makes our presumption seem quaint.”
Explaining the timeline that went into the project, Simon said: “We wrote it the first time before Trump won, then we wrote it again after Trump won, and we thought he was a buffoon. And in some sense, he was.
“On the other hand, we didn’t realize, you know, that Mitch McConnell…that they were able to get stuff done even with a buffoon there, in the worst possible way. So we’ve rewritten that…We can’t get our hands around the real world.
“Who’re you going to believe—your own eyes or this lying…fulminant ball [that] just keeps spouting one lie after another? And it just doesn’t seem to catch up; it doesn’t catch up for 40 percent of my country, which is just scary.”
Wendell Pierce, who played Detective Bunk Moreland, says The Wire served as commentary on events that continue to this day.
“I think it was a cautionary tale that spoke to a lot of the American dysfunction that is still happening today,” he said when asked why the show continues to resonate with audiences. “What makes something very authentic and very classic is it speaks truth to everyone, no matter who they are across time and place and age. That’s the thing that gives it longevity.
“But when it comes to the messages and the themes, the end of the drug war, the dysfunction of our institutions that kind of demoralises the individual—those are still battles that we’re fighting today, even more so. That’s why it’s lasted.”
Dominic West, whose character Jimmy McNulty was a central part of the series, told Newsweek that a strength of the show was also the talent before and behind the cameras.
“It was this revolutionary way of telling stories on television. That was subscription television: they were box sets, DVDs, so you could tell a story in long form without sponsors or commercials,” he said. “That to me was why it was such a potent thing when it came out, and it’s still potent.
“Whether that’s because that opened the floodgates to a lot of latent talent, both African American talent, but also journalists who wrote for the show, who had never written for television before that—all this latent talent was now finding itself on television. In some ways, that was the first time it had happened.
“I suppose that’s how these things happen. The first time it happens, it’s the most resonant, and anything that’s come since then has had to live up to The Wire, The Sopranos and all those shows at that time.
“We didn’t have to live up to it, or we didn’t have to live up to the long tradition of cop shows. It was a new form and so sort of unknown territory. That often liberates things. That wouldn’t happen now. I don’t know if the show could be made now.”
Looking back on events dominating the news cycle at the time, West continue: “I think back and I remember we made this during the time of George W. Bush. I remember being terrified of that man and thinking, this is unprecedented that someone that’s sort of out of control has ever been president.
“Now we look back on him almost fondly, so I think things have got immeasurably worse…It’s not right for a foreigner to say this, but I do think there is an element in America now that to me is absolutely crazy. And it’s sort of dominant; it’s the sort of religious right wing, and it’s terrifying.”
Pierce agreed, insisting “truth is truth”—no matter what the electorate is led to believe. “I said it then, and it’s even more prophetic now: The bigger the lie, the more they believe. That’s what’s happening right now in America.
“We are at a point where we could lose our democracy. And America, as we know it, could come to an end. People always say that is kind of far-fetched, but that’s really where we are.”
The Wire is available to own on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital, and to stream on HBO Max.