Cinema and Media Studies The Wire
Patrick Ferrucci
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0352


The Wire, an American crime drama created by television writer and former journalist David Simon, premiered on the premium television network HBO on 2 June 2002. The critically lauded show lasted five seasons and sixty episodes, airing on the network until 2008. Before becoming a television writer, creator Simon worked as a police reporter for many years in Baltimore, Maryland. During this time, in 1991, he wrote the nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, an unflinching journalistic work on what the city’s homicide police dealt with over the course of a year. The book and a follow-up, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, became the inspiration for the very successful NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999). Simon, though he served as a writer and producer on the show, felt the NBC drama failed to properly capture its source material and did not portray the problems of the city as accurately as desired. He then set out, with co-creator and former police officer Ed Burns, to make the drama he first envisioned, and that is how The Wire came into existence. The plot of the show varied from season to season, with each of its five seasons focusing on a different public institution failing citizens. During the first season, writers made the conflict between Baltimore’s ever-growing drug trade and the city’s police force the central plot. The second season detailed Baltimore’s urban issues, particularly those involving poor, working-class dock workers. Next, for the third season, Simon and his writers shined a light on political corruption and how the government contributed to the dismay happening in the city. For the fourth season, the writers looked backward and began teasing out how Baltimore’s failing schools contributed to poverty and the aforementioned drug trade. Finally, for the final season, the drama examined how the eroding economic and cultural status of the city’s press contributed to a lack of a watchdog and allowed crime and corruption to flourish. The Wire is often credited as a significant early entrant into what critics have called the golden age of television. Furthermore, the drama became a regular focus of academic study, for its depictions of crime, race, politics, journalism, and more. Several universities have devoted undergraduate and graduate classes to the program. HBO released the show on DVD season by season. Late in 2008, a DVD box set including the entire run of the show became available. In 2015, HBO released a box set of the show on Blu-Ray. Its cult following inspired numerous programs that attempted to capture The Wire’s ambition, which is often described as a Charles Dickens-like sociological examination of a city. The critical success of The Wire allowed Simon to create more dramas for HBO, such as the critical hits Treme and The Deuce.

General Overviews

For more than a decade, The Wire has drawn attention from both academics and critics and analysts of television and popular culture. For the most thoughtful and generous general examinations of the program, interested parties should start with Abrams 2019, an insightful oral history of the show filled with quotes and anecdotes from actors, writers, producers, and behind-the-scenes workers. Likewise, Alvarez 2010 utilizes behind-the-scenes anecdotes from those involved in the making of the show. The other two best general treatments come from Busfield and Owen 2009, which looks at the show with episode-by-episode treatises, and Martin 2013, which properly examines Simon’s place within the early-21st-century group of men who created some of the era’s most indelible programming. For audio episode summaries, both “The Wire”: Way Down in the Hole and The Wire Stripped are podcasts that provide episodic commentary and analysis. Sepinwall 2013 and Nochimson 2019 attempt to put the show in historical context with other programs of the time. Both Simon 1991 and Simon and Burns 1997 do not discuss The Wire explicitly, but are nonfiction works that provided the inspiration for the series. Finally, Vint 2013 and Zborowski 2010 are two academically minded overviews.

  • Abrams, Jonathan. All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2019.

    An oral history of the making and influence of the show. Abrams’s book provides many never-before-known anecdotes about The Wire’s production and allows the people who actually made the show to have a voice in discussing its legacy.

  • Alvarez, Rafael. The Wire: Truth Be Told. New York: Canongate Books, 2010.

    This book provides some extensive behind-the-scenes reflections about the making of the program, as it contains interviews with many of the show’s creators. David Simon himself wrote the introduction. Finally, the book provides insightful recaps of all sixty episodes.

  • Busfield, Steve, and Paul Owen, eds. The Wire Re-Up: The Guardian Guide to the Greatest TV Show Ever Made. London: Guardian Books, 2009.

    A collection of episode summaries that first appeared on The Guardian’s website as the show originally aired, this guide is an essential in-the-moment examination of the show’s plot, characters, and commentary.

  • Martin, Brett. Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. New York: Penguin, 2013.

    This work attempts to make connections between the male creators of six specific shows often credited with sparking this new golden era of television: The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, and The Shield. Martin spends decidedly the most pages discussing both The Wire and The Sopranos.

  • Nochimson, Martha P. Television Rewired: The Rise of the Auteur Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.7560/759442

    While this critical inquiry primarily focuses on Twin Peaks, the author does examine four other influential works that are credited with fundamentally changing how television tells stories. Two of those works come from Simon: Treme and, most saliently, The Wire. The author spends considerable time conceptualizing the idea of the auteur, and how dramas such as The Wire allowed for idiosyncratic views on subjects and also led to more agency for showrunners.

  • Sepinwall, Alan. The Revolution Was Televised: How The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, and Other Groundbreaking Dramas Changed TV Forever. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

    Featuring new interviews with show creators, this work focuses on how twelve specific television dramas changed the course of popular culture by making television the preferred medium for some of the most accomplished storytellers of their generation. The book spends an extensive amount of time discussing The Wire and features quotes from David Simon.

  • Simon, David. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

    Not about The Wire, but this is the book that serves as the plot inspiration for the show. Readers of the work can get a more journalistic framework for much of the drama that occurred in the program.

  • Simon, David, and Edward Burns. The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.

    This book served as the inspiration for an HBO miniseries of the same name, but its plot and various elements of the book also later became essential elements of The Wire. The book is a nonfiction account of Simon and Burns spending one year interviewing and observing an inner-city community’s dealings with addiction, the drug trade, and how societal factors impact personal decisions.

  • Vint, Sheryl. The Wire. TV Milestones Series. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2013.

    A more academic book than other general overviews, this book primarily focuses on the show’s unique insights into urban issues. The tome also discusses The Wire’s literary influences and properly connects the overarching plot to a brutal critique of neoliberalism.

  • Zborowski, James. “The Rhetoric of The Wire.” Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism 1 (2010): 1–6.

    Primarily focused on the first three episodes of the first season of the show, Zborowski examines the rhetoric of the show, essentially how the text is communicated so that the main overall points of the show are disseminated to the audience correctly.

  • “The Wire”: Way Down in the Hole. Podcast. The Ringer.

    An episodic podcast hosted by journalists Jemele Hill and Van Lathan that launched in 2020. The series recaps and examines central themes of the show by summarizing and critiquing each episode in chronological order.

  • The Wire Stripped. Podcast. Acast.

    A serialized podcast hosted by fans of the program that assesses each of the show’s sixty episodes, this series combines recapping with critical insights and interviews with cast members, crew members, and celebrity fans of the drama.

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