A lot of people say The Wire is the greatest television show of all time. It’s hard to argue with; it has brilliant writing, acting, and all that other good stuff. It had a message, the whole sociological study of Baltimore, with each season focusing on a different aspect of the city, the scope widening with every new round of episodes. But – and I don’t think I’m biased, because I watched both shows in marathon mode – I think The Shield had one thing The Wire didn’t. It had a sense of urgency.
If you’re watching a TV show that’s telling a story over 60 episodes – like The Wire had – it helps to feel like you have a reason to watch next season. I say “next season” instead of “next episode” because you can’t just watch one episode of The Wire. Each season is like a book. It’s not like I don’t feel bad when people die or whatever. It’s just that it feels detached, like I’m watching a heightened reality TV show, like I have no real sense of the stakes.
And then there’s The Shield. By the end of the very first episode, rather than beat you over the head with “good writing, acting and all that other good stuff”, it just makes you wanna know what happens next. It does all that deeper stuff too though, like character development, and moments that pay off 87 episodes later (The Shield ran 88 episodes in total).
Stuff that completely takes advantage of why TV is TV and film is film. Remember how good Training Day was until Denzel Washington started becoming a moustache-twirling villain who you felt manipulated into hating by the end of the film? Well imagine if we’d had 7 seasons in which to see why he is the way he is, a real Machiavellian study, before making your mind up?
The difference between The Wire and The Shield is that The Wire takes the “bad guys” – the criminals – and forces us to sympathise with them. The difference being that while I feel bad for heroin addicts, I don’t really empathise with them. I dunno what true addiction is, so it doesn’t work on that deep a level. But The Shield is so about the viewer, everything is a cliffhanger, everything is a dilemma you can relate to, and there are no right or wrong answers (kinda).
The Wire has a very “this is how things will be” attitude, which is cool, but has limits in how entertained I’ll be. No one likes Omar because “this is how things will be”. They like him because of the way he talks, because he’s like the Robin Hood of the hood, because he doesn’t play by the rules of the characters around him.
On the other hand, The Shield is so crazy biased that it gains it a voice, instead of an impartial, robotic Wire approach. We never spend too long with the criminals. And by “criminals”, I mean non-white people, because ALMOST EVERYONE ON THE SHIELD IS A CRIMINAL. But it works, somehow. A lot of the show is spent on The Strike Team – 4 corrupt detectives tasked to gang-related crime – avoiding trouble whilst trying to appear to solve it.
I got to the end of Season 3 in a few weeks, and I was literally too shaken to continue for months. The tension and the constant pressure the characters are under was too much. BUT THAT’S HOW GOOD IT IS. I NEVER felt that with The Wire. You know when you watch something everyone says is good, and you recognise it’s probably good on paper, but you can’t enjoy it? That’s how I felt about The Wire sometimes.
It’s kinda hard to talk about either show without spoiling it. So I’ll just end this by saying you should watch The Shield if you liked The Wire, but didn’t think it was the GOAT. Or whatever reason, really, you don’t have to pick one right now. Relax. Or not.
(DISCLAIMER: I should point out that this was meant to be a Shield review, so I kinda did things to make The Shield look better. Also, both shows have explicit content.)
Written by Darren Katumba