TV GEMS: The Wire (2002-2008)

Is the ground-breaking crime drama is still a cut above the rest over a decade later?

It took me forever to give The Wire a shot. Its number one ranking on a hundred Best TV Show Ever lists should have been enough to entice me, but there was always the preconception that it was “just another cop show.” Or, at best, a more realistic police procedural. It is a genre that, in my opinion, had more or less played itself out by the time David Simon’s series made its 2002 debut. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had been on the airwaves for two years by that point, and had already brought a blockbuster gloss to the cop show dynamic, adding technical jargon and flashy visuals to a quintessential formula. The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced ratings hit also sparked a flurry of imitators that are still going strong today, including its own spin-offs and pretenders like NCIS and Bones. If you want episodic crime drama where a case is snappily solved within an hour, then the TV schedules are well and truly stocked for you. But The Wire was better than that… it represented real-life. It was the anti-CSI.

Simon, who was best known as a writer on the distinguished Homicide: Life on the Street, wanted to do more than tell a tale of cops and crooks. Using his own experiences as a reporter on the crime-ridden streets of Baltimore, Simon fashioned a multi-faceted follow-up to his highly acclaimed HBO miniseries The Corner. Along with writing partner Ed Burns, who was a former homicide detective, Simon intended the show to be “about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer. All are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution they are committed to.”

True to Simon’s claims, there are no white hats or black hats in The Wire. The proverbial shade of grey that TV writers favour these days pretty much started with his keen verisimilitude. In that regard, The Wire takes on a kaleidoscopic view of Baltimore that is about far more than sentencing drug dealers. Each season out of the five follows its own case, with certain story threads overlapping, gradually peeling back the city’s operations from the ground up. This is signified best in the opening titles, which were re-cut each season with different covers of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” (a particularly appropriate song). Really, this compilation tells you more about The Wire than a cobbled together trailer ever could:

I won’t go into the set-up too much, since The Wire‘s intricacies should be discovered for yourself, but I will say that the initial season follows the police department’s efforts to bring down drug dealers Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). They have the city’s dilapidated projects in their grasp, leading to a wire tap surveillance by our boys in blue. That’s the first season in a nutshell, and it must be said that The Wire‘s biggest asset is the decision to be light on plot and high on character (do people in the other shows I’ve mentioned ever discuss anything except the plot?). You’ll need patience to make it through the first thirteen-episode series, but you’ll ultimately stick with Simon’s pessimism due to top-drawer acting and finely-tuned characterisations. It’s also hilariously funny in places.

As Jimmy “What the fuck did I do?” McNulty, Dominic West was a revelation as the show’s ostensible lead. His turn as Baltimore’s most hated detective is one of the more indelible genre creations in years. Being insubordinate is pretty much McNulty’s reason for being, and he bucks the trend of a hundred loose-cannon police officers by being a master of his own self-destruction. McNulty can’t help but annoy his superiors, which makes his proficiency as a police officer all the more interesting. Also, beneath that smug grin and disregard for self-preservation, he’s a good guy trying to do the best he can in increasingly dire circumstances (even if those circumstances involve having threesomes with call girls). I’ll take him over the dull, unwavering professionalism of Gil Grissom and his ilk any day.

McNulty’s unit in season one is commanded by the forthright Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick), who puts together a crack-team composed of Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), a lesbian who puts most of her male counterparts to shame;  Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), an academic cursed with a volatile temper; and Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), a veteran who supplements his department income by making doll furniture. It’s not your everyday cop show squad, that’s for sure. Elsewhere in the ranks, we have homicide division’s “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce), McNulty’s favoured drinking buddy and one of the show’s most loveable characters, and Major Rawls (John Doman), who has a particularly colourful way with words.

And then there’s the criminal side of the show, which goes from the dealers to the top players. The Wire is certainly what made Idris Elba a star, and he gives Stringer Bell a great deal of gravitas. Just as we see the police struggle with bureaucracy and sticking evidence, we see how Bell and his foot soldiers operate. There is also a lot of time devoted to how Bell and Barksdale’s profession affects the citizens around them, whether they be drug addicts like the pitiful police informant “Bubbles” (Andre Royo), or the dealers courageously putting themselves in the line of fire. Frankly, there are far too many memorable personalities in The Wire, and all of them seem like real people doing what they can to survive in a city on life support.

While the diverse cast deserves a lion’s share of the credit, The Wire was also blessed with first-rate technical credits. The cinematography effortlessly conveys the seediness of Baltimore’s locations without seeming like a documentary, resembling a modestly-budgeted motion picture. These days, it’s not unusual to see a TV series with movie-quality aesthetics, but Simon and frequent director Clark Johnson fashioned a template that many producers have tried to imitate. Even better, their sterling work is subtle and never brings attention to itself. It took me about six episodes to realise that The Wire has no score – you’ll only hear the diegetic sounds of music blaring from a stereo, or the background phalanx of the police station. The universe McNulty and co. inhabit never feels any less than genuine, even during the end-of-season montages that break the docudrama mold.

In fact, so naturalistic is the show that it never begins with a “previously on…” recap, rarely ends with a cliffhanger, and limits stylistics to the opening credits. Simon bled all of the comforting TV tropes out of the proceedings, and ended up with a drama that goes places many others wouldn’t dare.

Ultimately, however, we can judge The Wire based on the sizeable influence it had on TV drama in the last decade-and-a-bit. It’s tough to imagine gritty shows like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead existing without it, seeing as how Simon and his fellow writers broke taboos left and right, as well as indulging in graphic violence and bad language. The Wire more than earns its 18 certificate on DVD, and like the similarly dour “military procedural” Battlestar Galactica, it’s impossible to predict where it’ll go next. For once, television reflected the harsh realities of our modern world, and even science fiction was taking cues from The Wire‘s cynicism. Looking back, it was the perfect show to usher in a post-9/11 America.

To end, I’ll leave you with my favourite spoiler-free sequence from the show’s entire run, which sums up The Wire perfectly. McNulty and Bunk work a crime scene and make CSI obsolete in a mere five-minutes of screen-time. Fuckin’ A.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • When Dominic West first auditioned on videotape from his London home, he tried to have his girlfriend read the lines for the other characters in the scene, but her English accent kept throwing him off and he kept laughing. So West performed the scene himself by leaving pauses where the other character’s lines were supposed to be. West admits to imitating Robert De Niro for his audition. At first, the producers found the audition tape “weird” and “comic” but they reconsidered when they concentrated on West’s performance. When West was offered the role, he became reluctant because the contract was for five seasons. But his agent convinced him that the show would not last more than one. It ended up lasting five seasons.
  •  Many of the minor characters are played by real-life police officers, politicians and former criminals. In fact, many of the former criminals who act on the show were previously arrested by the real-life cops who act on the show.
  • According to Michael Kenneth Williams, he secretly struggled with a cocaine addiction during the third season. He never missed a day of work nor was he ever late. He also suffered with an identity crisis due to his popularity as Omar.
  • The writers/producers briefly considered doing a sixth season about the influx of Latinos into Baltimore, but none of them knew enough about Baltimore’s Latino population to write about it so the idea was dropped.
  • A spin-off was planned during pre-production on the fourth season. It was to be titled “The Hall” and focus solely on the politics storyline but HBO ultimately rejected the idea.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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