You have probably heard that The Wire is the best show on television. What you probably have not heard is that The Wire is the sexiest show on television. I think it is. I realize this idea will be a hard sell, because The Wire is not sexy in any conventional way. For one thing, there is not much sex. There is also not much nudity (and what skin is shown is mostly unthrilling, a bored blur of pasties and G-strings). In a television landscape populated by full-frontal romps like Tell Me You Love Me, the bodice-ripping antics of Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, and the skin pageant that is Dancing With the Stars, it's hard to think of a show less invested in titillating its viewers than David Simon's Greek tragedy, an epic about nothing less than the decline of the American empire. In each of its five seasons, the show has tackled a different urban reality — the War on Drugs, dying unions, the political process, an anemic school system, and this season, the media — and portrayed its essential doom. The Wire is bleak, devastating and difficult. So why does it get me so hot?
Theory #1: Sixty-Minute Parade of Testosterone
The Wire stinks of men. It was created by men, it is written by men, and it stars men, and though I just summarized most of entertainment history, I think there is something remarkable about the men of The Wire. They are so flawed and original, even among the crowded genres of cop and gangster dramas, that it is hard to single them out. I'll do it anyway.
Let's start with McNulty, the detective played by Dominic West. A talented British actor who suffered such indignities as 28 Days with Sandra Bullock, West has matinee-idol good looks, but as McNulty, he's a mess. Suit rumpled, eyes bloodshot from Jameson; you can practically smell the self-hatred from across the bar. (Though he'd have a much better shot picking me up than, say, Chris Meloni from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a man forever clenching his jaw and turning into the light.) In season one, McNulty's story is paralleled by that of D'Angelo, a hustler with a conscience. As D'Angelo, actor Larry Gilliard Jr. looks like another kid who could be sifting fries at McDonald's, but as D'Angelo, he's a drug dealer who can turn a game of chess into an allegory for the dope trade. (And this is the brilliance of Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns. That they can, in one scene, teach me about street hustling and explain chess so that it makes sense for the first time.) Season one tugs the audience between both men — magnetic, original thinkers undone by pride and stubbornness — and has the temerity to let neither win.
A few other men deserve mention here — Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, a Machiavellian killer so smooth he could make the most upstanding housewife moan into her sheets; Irish actor Aiden Gillen has yuppie appeal as mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti; as Avon Barksdale, Wood Harris deserves an Emmy for best acting done by a pair of lips — but we really can't leave this discussion without talking Omar. Has there ever been a sexier, more compelling gangster? He steals from drug dealers. He's gay. A mysterious scar is slashed across his face. He's a murderer who never curses. And he lives by his own moral code, which includes never killing on Sundays. Omar is one of the only characters we ever see give passionate, loving, open-mouthed kisses — yes, always to a dude — and he even scored one of the show's most memorable re-emergences, showing up for the first time in season four impressively full frontal.
Theory #2: The Wire as the Anti-Sex and the City
Consider that The Wire is the inverse of HBO's romantic girlie fantasia: One is a valentine to New York while the other is a eulogy for Baltimore; one is light and fizzy while the other despairing; one has a voiceover that wraps up every episode like a Tiffany's box while the other is messy and sprawling, with a stubborn refusal to eliminate loose ends. In a nutshell: light vs. dark, hope vs. cynicism, chicks vs. dicks. And whether you think it's sexier to wave around a fruity Cosmo or a glinting Glock — well, that's up to you.
I found the bedroom acrobatics of SATC's fabulous foursome sometimes funny, sometimes tiresome, but almost never hot. After a while, all the screwing dissolved into shtick; in my mind, every episode involves Samantha and a fireman. On the other hand, I could rattle off the rare sex scenes in The Wire like baseball stats: There is season one's late-night rendezvous between McNulty and Rhonda, the redhaired ADA ("Did you . . . ?" he asks after rolling off of her, to which she scoffs, "Like you care."); in season two, there is Stringer Bell's seduction of D'Angelo's baby mama, and the tight shot of his nimble fingers unzipping her pink jogging suit was so full of heat it was used in the opening montage for later seasons, too; there is the sequence in season three when ex-con Cutty, just released from prison, gives himself over to a woman for the first time in years; there is Carcetti, in season four, taking a break from firm handshakes and polite smiles to enjoy a quick shag on the dryer with someone other than his long-suffering wife.
None of these are romantic moments (we'll get to those later), but they're collisions born of desperation and hunger.
Theory #3: Obsessive detail as its own seduction
The first time it occurred to me that The Wire was hot was during the opening montage of season one. (I have it on DVD. I watch it when I can't sleep.) The first time you see it, the opening montage is an incoherent jumble of images — a phone number scrolling across a computer, a camera flash, the sizzle of a cigarette being inhaled — that, over the course of the season, begins to make sense. They are flashes forward to pivotal moments in the season, something like a random grab bag of clues, one that isn't so different from the random grab bag of clues the show's detectives use to work their case.
"I think the opening collage is a kind of poetry," said the crime novelist Richard Price, one of the show's writers, in the DVD commentary for season three. The opening is also a giant tease, the kind of visual puzzle that would only seduce wonks who find an erotic charge in tiny details.
Oh, and the opening montage is set to a Tom Waits song.
Theory #4: The gutter is sexier than the beach
There is a shared aesthetic between The Wire and Waits — both are critical darlings with a little dirty-sexy in their swagger. Both Waits and the creators of The Wire write about the down-and-out, and they certainly find more beauty in crack houses and trash piles than they would strolling Laguna Beach.
Not all of The Wire takes place in dark corners, or in soulless bureaucratic labyrinths blinking with fluorescent light. Some moments are shot through with sunshine, and it's like a window being cracked in a smoke-choked room. Kima (Sonja Sohn) and her girlfriend back in season one, when they still laughed and tugged off each others' clothes on the couch. A moment in season four when McNulty lies in bed, rubbing noses with his girlfriend, light flooding onto their white sheets. A moment from that same season, when wannabe thug Michael (Tristan Wilds) takes a break from suffocating Baltimore street corners to go to Six Flags with his pal Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), where they giggle and hold hands with pretty girls they've just met. A moment from this season, when Lieutenant Daniels places one sympathetic hand on Rhonda's pale arm as she prepares a case for grand jury; a small gesture, but a gentle, tender one. Much like Tom Waits, The Wire can be sweet, even romantic. But then, alas, McNulty starts drinking again, Michael turns into a coldblooded killer, and everyone scurries back to the dark side again.
Theory #5: Good writing is sexy
One of the unintended, and welcome, consequences of the writer's strike will be to bring focus, finally, to its best-written show. Grey's Anatomy and The Sopranos may rake in the pretty statuettes, even deservingly, but The Wire's continual neglect at awards time is a source of continual anger and confusion for its creators and fans. As Time magazine columnist Joe Klein once quipped, "The Wire hasn't won an Emmy? The Wire should get the Nobel Prize for Literature!"
This is the kind of orgasmic praise that turns people off the show — no one wants to think the best party is the one they never bothered to attend — and it raises the bar too high for casual viewers who tune in only to feel adrift by a storyline they can't grasp midway through the season. But you know what? The Wire should get the Nobel Prize for Literature. Because no piece of fiction, to my knowledge, has ever laid out in such complex, agonizing detail the excruciating dilemmas of today. The Wire may be brutal, may be desolate and angry, may be created by overweight, pasty white men, but there is nothing more stimulating than something that can make sense of a baffling world at the same time it fires the imagination. Who won the Nobel Prize in 2007? Doris Lessing? Well, she's pretty hot, too.