Five Reasons The Wire is the Sexiest Show on TV

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.

Commentarium (9 Comments)

Jan 15 08 - 5:03pm

...and for that Sarah Hepola is my Crush of the Week.

Jan 17 08 - 3:07pm

Ah yes. There's something about that Omar. Very hot. Smoldering. The fact there is even queer romance in a largely hetero tv show is remarkable. And Kima too! Yikes. Very hot indeed.

Jan 17 08 - 6:25pm

As someone who has been watching since days one and telling anyone who would listen how great the Wire is, I find myself terribly sad that it's over in a few short weeks. The Sopranos ending was a massive cultural shock, but the Wire is ending just as most people are starting to become aware of it, amazing NPR and New Yorker articles notwithstanding.

Tell you what, the Wire is better written than Sports Night, which I feel was the primogenitor to today's smartly-written cable television shows. Sports Night was also the launching pad for many well-knows stars. Nobody, I mean nobody, ever watched that show.

Great article, wonder what we'll be talking about next?

Jan 18 08 - 6:46am

People that think they are 'above' television are missing out on an entirely new form of entertainment. It is what television should have been all along. I've also noticed that people either get it immediately or they never warm to it.

If it were more popular, you would see phrases like, "the Western District Way" diffuse into normal conversations - referring to "worst practices" traditional policing. In contrast to CompStat grafted on to a City whose problems run too deep.

Each season keys on a broken institution -- Season 2 the deindustrialization of America via the declining longshoreman's union, Last seasons was the Schools and this season will be print journalism.

The old institutions just aren't up to the task. This is in high relief since Baltimore was a wealthy city that has been in decline for decades. The city itself is in decline, and it's institutions are under stress everywhere. The fact that people still care, even though they know it isn't enough, takes it to a new emotional level.

I'm not sorry this is the last season. It's time to wrap it up, and greatness isn't a function of seniority. The single best network series, in my opinion, was the 15 episodes of My So Called Life. It is more then that. Give David Simon his due, but I think his world view is too backwards looking. America is robust in a way that Simon simply misses. There are things going on that he simply isn't in touch with.

Barry Levonson (Diner, etc.), Simon with Homicide, and the Wire aren't doing Baltimore any favors. It's more and it's less and nostalgia only goes so far. Simon is getting older and is stuck in 1995. I could go on, but this is probably already too much.

Last call on wonderful television. Don't miss it.

Jan 18 08 - 11:13am

Dear Ms Hepola,

Thank you for giving shape for my feelings in written words.

Mar 06 08 - 9:04am

Discovering "The Wire" a couple of seasons back was a revelation that will end after the airing of the final episode in a few days. I agree that "The Wire" is a work of art that transcends the self-congratulatory cooing of Emmy voters and deserves recognition from a more elevated mindset, such as the Nobel laureate. But, as Dominic West jests on one of this season's behind-the-scenes HBO anecdotes, its the acting and not the writing that makes this a great series.

Mar 16 08 - 12:40am

Sarah Heopla ALWAYS has interesting things to say. Been a fan of hers since her Dallas days. I agree with her about the Wire, as usual. Let's not forget Keema--and her scene with her lover from last year (I think it was!). Mucho caliente! And Rhonda and Cedric, not too shabby. I have a bit of a non-sexual man crush on the Bunk! He's actually a nice looking guy. And actually, Chris Partlow, sociopath, is actually very handsome. Too bad we didn't see a bit more of Chris and his people. And I don't think we saw enough of Bunk this year

Apr 14 08 - 11:17am

Written about a show that is pure genius by a true genius.

Dec 01 11 - 3:45am

Interesting that you would finish with that comment about Doris Lessing. Practice using the pause button, squint your eyes and try to make out the titles of the books on Stringer Bell's bookshelf in season 3, episode 12. Can that really be Doris Lessing's "The Good Terrorist" sitting just to the right of that big, fat, white-bound Isaac Asimov volume?