What gives The Wire longevity, he adds, is that the show’s writers, David Simon and Ed Burns, had worked in Baltimore’s police department, and in the case of Burns, as a school teacher too – so the writing was grounded in reality.
“It was the first show I saw that was created as what I call ‘edutainment’,” says Williams.
“It dived so honestly into what was wrong in our society, from the police department to our lawmakers to our school system, and the media. It represented what was happening in our community.
“David took an honest look at that, and then he did something else. He didn’t make it about good guys and bad guys, they were just people doing the best they could. It was all about grey lines and I know viewers respected that honesty. I have met people in law enforcement, drug dealers and gangsters and they all agree it was so brutally honest and right on point because David and Ed wrote it from experience, not from fiction. I think that’s why people love it so much.”
The Wire broke the mould in another respect too: unlike other mainstream TV hits of the era – The Sopranos, Sex and the City, ER – The Wire’s cast featured a number of black actors in its ensemble cast, and gave career breaks to Williams, along with co-stars Michael B Jordan and Idris Elba.
At that time in Hollywood, the question was just beginning to be asked , ‘where are all the black actors?’,” explains Williams. “And The Wire replied, ‘Well, here are some of them.’ Some of us, like me, were just out of drama school and were given a platform to show our talents. And yet it was thought that David had just picked us up off the street and that we were playing ourselves, and that gave it its authenticity.
“It was also around The Wire that I first heard the expression ‘novel television’ – that it was a visual equivalent of a Dickens novel, with many characters and different scenarios, and also ‘binge watching.’ I think it birthed both of those terms.”
The Wire’s viewing figures peaked at around four million on HBO, which made the series. HBO also made the lavishly awarded ratings hit The Sopranos at roughly the same time, which often vies with The Wire for the accolade of ‘all-time greatest TV series’. Michael K Williams jokes that one episode of The Sopranos cost the same as an entire season of The Wire – yet according to Benjamin Rozovas, film and TV critic for France’s Premiere Magazine, The Wire’s endurance may lie in it being consistently unnoticed for so long.
“It was only positioned as ‘the best thing ever on TV’ about a year after it finished, although some critics championed it while it aired,” he says. “But by the time it became a hit, it was 10 years after season one first aired. By the time people caught up with it, it was spoken about as this under-rated, under-seen, under-the-radar gem about inner city life, like it was buried treasure.
“I think it did give birth to this fixture of our social life now, of ‘must-watch’ TV. It just so happened that in the case of The Wire, it was actually true. It really was something we hadn’t seen before or since, this huge scope of building an entire city to talk about the failure of reform and the death of the American Dream. The fact that The Wire finished as the Obama presidency began in 2008 isn’t a coincidence – culturally, for those watching, it raised consciences. It did play its part.”
This kind of marketplace makes it difficult to decipher which shows genuinely have the ‘x-factor’ in 2018, agrees Sandra Oh, formerly of Grey’s Anatomy, but now starring in Killing Eve, which premiered – and received rave reviews – at Cannesseries. A second series has already been commissioned.
Oh stars alongside Jodie Corner and Fiona Shaw in an all-female spy versus assassin thriller, adapted for the screen by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Just as how in 2017 The Handmaid’s Tale became a phenomenon because nothing like it had appeared on television before, particularly for women, Oh believes that audiences are continuing to search for something new.