overthinking the idiot box

April 18th, 2005

All in the Game...
The Wire: The Complete First Season

by Jeff Stone

HBO's unique slate of original programming has long been hailed as a welcome relief to the perpetual sameness of network fare, which is why there was trepidation when HBO announced the addition of The Wire to its stellar Sunday night lineup in 2002. Considering the ratings stranglehold that both Law and Order and C.S.I. and all their various spin-offs held, surely HBO wasn't simply jumping on the bandwagon? One needn't have worried. The Wire's first season is a revelation, a "visual novel" that examines the drug trade in the city of Baltimore with a stark realism, creating not an episodic series, but one 13-hour story that has no blacks and whites, only shades of gray. As creator David Simon has noted to the writers' approach to the material, "We are bored with good and evil. We reject the theme."

The season opens with Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), a hard-working and hard-drinking police officer, frustrated at his department's refusal to pursue Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), a West Baltimore drug kingpin whose intense paranoia makes him an elusive quarry. When a state's witness is killed in retaliation for testimony given against Barksdale's nephew D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), McNulty is given the excuse he needs to pressure a judge into requesting Barksdale be put under investigation.

McNulty gets his detail, but due to the top brass' reluctance to commit to the investigation, he finds it staffed with the dregs of other departments. There's Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Carver (Seth Gilliam), two hotheads who'd rather dish out beatings than do actual policework, Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), a former homicide detective who's been relegated to the city's pawn shop division, and Roland 'Prez' Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), a perpetual screw-up who's facing disciplinary action for shooting up his own police cruiser. At the outset, the only truly competent officer seems to be Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), who rapidly becomes as passionate about the case as McNulty. Heading up the investigation is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), who may be more concerned with advancing his career than the case.

The Wire is not only interested in its police officers. The show also focuses on the lives of the dealers, as the recently-demoted D'Angelo begins to question his place in his uncle's increasingly brutal organization while managing the drug trade out of "The Pit," the nickname for the low-rises in Barksdale's territory. Meanwhile, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), Barksdale's second-in-command, begins taking steps to move the drug empire's cash flow into legitimate businesses.

The show was created by David Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and Ed Burns, a twenty-year veteran of the Baltimore police department. Simon wrote the novel that inspired the television series Homicide, and he and Burns collaborated on the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries The Corner. While other writers work on the series (the recent third season boasted episodes written by authors Richard "Clockers" Price and Dennis "Mystic River" Lehane), it's clearly Simon and Burns's show. Of the first season's thirteen episodes, Simon and/or Burns wrote nine, with a story credit on the entire season. It's their experiences living and working in Baltimore that lend the show its uncanny realism. Many of the characters are either composites of or directly based on actual Baltimore cops and criminals the pair have encountered. The show is shot entirely in on location, and extras are regularly pulled in from the streets rather than central casting.

The large cast is uniformly excellent. West's dialect work is a tad shaky, but he more than makes up for it with his personal charisma, making McNutly a troublemaker you can't help but root for. Also impressive is Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, who always manages to project a cold menace and ruthless efficiency. The true standout, however, is Michael K. Williams as Omar, a charismatic stick-up man who agrees to assist the police in order to further his own personal crusade against Barksdale. Patrolling the streets in his duster coat and sawed-off shotgun, Omar is the wildcard that may blow the investigation wide open or sink it completely.

As the series unfolds, the story examines the bureaucracy of both the police department and the drug trade, exposing the "war on drugs" to be, as Simon states, "among the most singular and profound failures to be found in the nation's domestic history." Outright victories are scarce on The Wire, and its grim tone is only alleviated by the human moments shared by characters on both sides of the line. On one of the DVD commentaries, Simon explains, "When things go right in our stories, it tends to be interpersonal, people extending themselves in personal relationships, not the institution utilizing people in a healthy way." After a considerable delay, The Wire was finally released on DVD in October of 2004. As Simon notes, "[The show is] made for DVD viewing." Unlike several high-profile, serialized network shows, The Wire is plotted well in advance. Each episode is a seamless chapter in the ongoing narrative. Unfortunately, this makes the show particularly hostile to viewers who haven't started from the beginning. With a sprawling plot and a cast of characters near-Dickensian in size, repeated viewings are practically a necessity, revealing new details that may have slipped by the viewer's notice before. A character with one line in episode 4 might become a major player in episode 9. To watch the show on DVD is to fully appreciate how Simon, Burns, and their writers have so thoroughly planned ahead. The only extra features on the discs are three dry, halting commentaries from Simon, writer George Pelecanos, and director Clark Johnson. A few enjoyable details are revealed, such as what eventually happened to the big orange couch around which D'Angelo and his crew spend most of their screen time lounging, but for more detailed insight into what makes the series tick, try the book The Wire: Truth Be Told by Rafael Alvarez, or this Fresh Air interview with Simon and Pelecanos. (Those that have not watched the show should be warned that the interview contains spoilers.)

The Wire may not enjoy the notoriety of other HBO shows such as The Sopranos or Deadwood (a show that boasts very similar pacing and breadth of character to The Wire), but it remains the network's most consistently excellent series. There isn't a show on television that can match The Wire's social conscience. It's a police procedural with more than just cops and robbers on its mind.

Email the author.

Return to Vol. 1, Episode 2.