Sunday night, I'll be in front of my television set saying goodbye to some improbable friends: a few drug dealers, some good cops and bad, a corrupt politician or two and a handful of boys who broke my heart. HBO's "The Wire" comes to an end this week after 60 episodes over five seasons.
Created by former Baltimore police reporter David Simon and co-written by former Baltimore homicide detective Ed Burns, "The Wire," whose name refers to police wiretaps on Baltimore drug dealers, never managed to gather the audience it deserved. It never won any Emmys, and fewer than a million viewers tuned in to some episodes. Yet many critics regard it as the finest drama ever to air on television. And it is. It's also the only complex examination of the urban underclass ever attempted in the popular culture.
I've tried over the years to get friends to watch, but only a few could stick it out. The language was off-putting for some, a profanity-laced argot that was indiscernible to the novice. The plots unfolded over months, even years, requiring close attention and a serious commitment to watch the show every week -- or better yet, to watch the episodes again and again when they re-aired on HBO's many channels or were released on DVD when the season was over.
Though it was nearly impossible to follow the dozens of storylines if you hadn't watched every episode, nor keep up with the recurring cast of over a hundred, the chief reason "The Wire" never caught on was its subject matter. Most of us don't really want to think about what goes on in the drug- and crime-infested neighborhoods of our inner cities. We don't want to think about kids whose moms are strung out on crack, who have no fathers, who attend schools run by bureaucrats who only care that they show up on days when their attendance will determine the school's annual budget allotment. We don't really care when these kids end up on "the corner," as young as 7 or 8 years old, handing off vials of crack or heroin to junkies.
But "The Wire" made you care. You couldn't turn away from young boys like Namond, Randy, Dukie, Michael, D'Angelo, Bodie or Wallace. Some -- Bodie and D'Angelo -- killed and eventually were killed, though not before their consciences caught up with them. But others -- especially Randy and Dukie -- were innocents. I cannot recall characters in any medium more heartbreaking than Randy, the bright foster child with a quick smile and entrepreneurial ambition, or Dukie, a kid so poor his addict family members would sell his clothes to buy drugs if he took them off to sleep at night.
The conclusion of episode 49 is seared in my memory: Randy's foster mother is being treated for third-degree burns after drug dealers threw a Molotov cocktail through her row house window because they suspected Randy had been talking to police about an unsolved murder. Randy is sitting outside his foster mom's hospital room when Sgt. Ellis Carver, who in an earlier visit to Randy's home promised him protection for helping the police, shows up to again promise help. Randy won't look Carver in the eye, and Carver gives up, walking away in despair. "You gonna help, huh?" Randy yells as Carver retreats down the hospital hall, "You gonna look out for me?"
We know that no one helps these kids. No one looks after them. They are discards, tossed away as easily as a piece of trash.
But those that get rich off the drugs they sell aren't glorified either. The drug lords, like Avon and Stringer, may think they've got it made, but they always end up behind bars or dead. If "The Wire" offered a bleak picture of life in our inner cities, it also avoided turning the issue into a white-guilt trip. Indeed, "The Wire" may have been the most colorblind show on TV. Most of the characters, at least during four of the series' five seasons, were black. But friendships, romantic relationships, heroes and villains crossed color lines.
"The Wire" always seemed more like a great 19th century novel than a television series. It will be hard to let go of the final chapter, but the characters -- Avon, McNulty and Bubbles -- will live on in our memories no less vividly than Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov, Porfiry or Marmeladov. "The Wire" was Crime and Punishment on the streets of Baltimore.