Realism on The Wire?

9 Nov

The Wire is consistently touted for its skill in character development, but now that I’m watching this show for the second time, one thing I’m noticing is that this character development occurs quite slowly and deliberately, as I am currently watching it with someone who has never seen it before, and the things that are apparent to me about each character having watched the entire series are not apparent to him as of yet.  A big reason that the depth of each character is unfolded so gradually and throughout the series could be that, in real life, people aren’t thrusting all their traits out in the open for the sake of exposition, but rather express them naturally as you get to know them, and sometimes all you can do is infer that those traits exist.  This would serve to make the show realistic, as many elements of the show seem to be striving to accomplish.  But is this actually achieved on The Wire?


Probably the strongest example of a way in which The Wire looks to create “real” characters is by showing that each character has strong positive traits and strong negative traits.  Often, and particularly in the first few episodes, one side is shown so strongly that when we get a glimpse of the other, we are incredibly shocked that this other side even exists for a given character.  For instance, through the first three episodes, Jay Landsman seems like a complete asshole.  He is constantly laughing at Jimmy McNulty for getting himself into trouble by creating murder cases for the department, much to the dismay of Major Rawls, rather than helping the Baltimore Police Department to maintain higher clearance levels.  It also seems that Jay’s primary goal is to keep the favor of the Major, rather than to do the right thing.  However, in the fourth episode, he gives you a significant surprise when he actually goes to the Major and begs him to “bring McNulty home” if Jay can manage to reason with him.  This serves to shock the viewer, but also gives Jay some more depth than just being the staff supervisor who tortures McNulty.  You see similar examples, with some of the deeply moral characters of a drug trade crew (DeAngelo and Wallace), as well as some “good guys” whose emotions often get the better of them (such as Herc, Carver, and even McNulty). 


Does this make the show realistic though?  I would argue it doesn’t, because of how dramatic the examples the show provides us to display its characters’ mixed moral compasses.  At the point where these differences in one person’s character are so dramatic, it’s hard to believe these people could exist in real life.  Still, when you see Omar kindly greet a mother with her baby, and then send her down the street to get drugs, you are so compelled by your mix of emotions about the scene that you can’t help but wonder if someone like Omar could exist.  However, I would bet that he doesn’t.

2 Responses to “Realism on The Wire?”

  1. Eric Thurm November 10, 2012 at 10:34 am #


    I’d argue that The Wire’s tendency to ensure that all of its characters are well shaded is actually evidence of a certain type of realism that transcends the specific characters – each character arc in the series slowly enforces the notion that everyone, no matter what institution they devote their lives to or where they come from, has some redeeming and some negative qualities. That broader point, which is often not made on other television series, is worth noting.

    Even within the context of specific characters though, I think the show does a bit more than you give it credit for as far as presenting a wide swath of characters. There are certain characters who are almost entirely evil (Marlo, Snoop) with absolutely minimal redeeming qualities. Likewise, some characters are almost entirely positive (Gus Haynes). Though those portrayals aren’t quite realistic, I think most of the series’ characters are well shaded in ways that make sense and are true to the way we often don’t know as much as we think we do about other people. The best example of this is probably the single shot we get indicating that Rawls is gay, something the series never returns to.

  2. jhaderlein November 11, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    I think it is important when evaluating The Wire’s “famous realism” to put it in the context of the other dramas it is normally compared to. I imagine David Simon would be the first to admit that he has constructed dramatic conceits during the course of writing the show that stretch the boundaries of plausibility. Omar is indeed a great example of a character almost too cool to ever have been real. But having fascinating and exciting characters is a necessary part of attracting and entertaining audiences, even if they end up staying for the tragedy and the intensity of the story. All of those dramatic moves that might undermine your suspension of disbelief are in service of greater thematic concerns that the show has, a great example of this being the way Hamsterdam manages to survive under the radar for so long in Season Three. The Wire uses potentially far-fetched dramatic arcs like Hamsterdam and Carcetti’s election because it allows a deeper exploration of issues like race and drugs by imagining hypothetical scenarios that can reveal some truth that pure realism cannot.

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