The greatest achievement of The Wire, which premiered on HBO in 2002, has to be the direct tone and uncompromising focus on the flaws in America’s system of public order and class division.
For someone who travels the multiverse of OTT platforms, crime shows or series about drug abuse on the streets might seem commonplace. But in 2002, when HBO dropped Thread, a TV show that examined downtown corruption, rot, and the regularity of drug abuse in a real-life setting, it wasn’t as common or accepted on TV at the time.
Twenty years later, Thread remains relevant and engaging. The show ran for five seasons, but its appeal grew over time. Consider this, former US President Barack Obama interviewed its creator David Simon. He invited all the African-American actors in the cast to the White House for a photo shoot. Amusingly, he left out Dominic West, a white British star who plays detective Jimmy McNulty.
But Thread was used by politicians and policymakers in the United States to launch people-friendly government measures for the better part of a decade. So much so that Simon actually hit back at Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African American appointed to that powerful post by President Obama, when he demanded a sixth season. Simon, along with co-writer Ed Burns, fired that PR move at Holder, saying he would welcome the sixth season if the U.S. government eased the no-tolerance and strict drug laws that imprison young and mark them with a crime for life. Despite the spotlight on them, the show’s creators have stayed true to its message: people commit crimes because sometimes life forces them to.
Thread was not an instant hit. In 2002-2005, American shows like CSI, NCIS, 24, West Wing, and Desperate Housewives were generally monitored. But its creators didn’t change the plot or create characters to fit a format. Instead, Simon and Burns, non-television writers by profession, constructed an immersive world that existed in Baltimore, without scenery or lighting. Thread is shot on location for the most part. The extras in his drug buying, drug dealing, and drug abuse scenes were from NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings, while people from “projects” — low-cost housing with larger African-American populations — were used in the background.
Authenticity stands out in every frame in this series, as does its ability to surprise. When you least expect it, the characters would die. Deaths and dramas are usually left for the near-climax or climactic moments of shows. Here, the dead marked the tragedy. This indicated the potential for a stifled life.
David Simon was a journalist tracking drug-related crime for The Baltimore Sun newspaper. Ed Burns had worked as a police detective in Baltimore, frequently patrolling downtown. Their perspective added authenticity and made the nonjudgmental tone of this story compelling because it rang true.
Thread demonstrated that a series dominated by African-American actors could succeed.
In most contemporary American programming, minority actors were superficial and limited in their usefulness. Its drug dealers are not bloodthirsty criminals. They are cautious, ruthless and calculating – almost like a small business. Police officers, judges and lawyers do not behave according to preconceived racial norms; instead, they either focus on getting the job done or accelerating their own careers. Idris Elba and Micheal B Jordan are a few actors that this show has propelled into the stratosphere.
But its greatest achievement has to be the direct tone and uncompromising focus on the flaws in America’s system of public order and class division. He never takes a moral stance, instead emphasizing the tragedy of addiction. It shows the accepted compromises black people make in the United States just to exist. This poverty transmitted from generation to generation within the working classes is highlighted through the journeys of its characters. Jobs are lost, homes are lost, lives are lost and families are broken up – but the state has no mechanism to fix these issues permanently. In fact, the inherent bias that skin color can bring to police behavior is addressed on this show; a reality that came to life on the streets of America as people protested across the country in 2020. In a time when cops were almost always fighting the good fight against evil drug lords and street criminals, Thread showed what it all really looked like.
This series has influenced writers and storytellers across TV and OTT. Snowfall, Service Line, Ozark, Breaking Bad, and the movie Moonlight are examples that extend the themes introduced on Thread. Its screenwriters David Simon and Ed Burns have each created and written shows like The Plot Against America, Treme, and The devil. While none can be called super popular hits, each brings us a solid story and characters we care about. As for Threadhe tells us stories and brings us characters that we would always like to revisit.
Archita Kashyap is an experienced film, music and pop culture journalist and writer. She managed entertainment content for broadcast news and digital platforms for 15 years.