#1: “The Wire.” [TV Aughtrospective]
January 15, 2010 1 Comment
In our opinion, this is the greatest television show ever made. In its scope, seriousness, ambition, performances, writing, photography, and economy of narrative, it is virtually unparalleled. This show blew through the rubble of the walls torn down by “The Sopranos” and delivered to its viewers a story that was more urgent, more complex, more heartbreaking, and more relevant than any ever told before on television.
Without question, “The Wire” was the best television show of the aughts.
David Simon spent decades writing for the Baltimore Sun, mainly on the police beat, where he ultimately managed to embed himself in the homicide department. The result was his book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” which ultimately became an excellent 90s police drama. In collaboration with Ed Burns, a former Baltimore detective and school teacher who Simon met in his Sun days, he wrote the book “The Corner,” and later adapted it into an HBO miniseries.
In 2002, Burns and Simon began working on a new, even more ambitious HBO project that would be a police procedural on the surface, but would take as its subject a topic no less weighty than the decline and fall of the American urban social compact and the corrupting power of huge American institutions, with the rippling consequences on the lives of Baltimore’s most unfortunate citizens.
In a recent and tremendously informative interview with Vice, Simon related the meaning of the show as he sees it:
It’s one thing to recognize capitalism for the powerful economic tool it is and to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, we’re stuck with it and, hey, thank God we have it. There’s not a lot else that can produce mass wealth with the dexterity that capitalism can. But to mistake it for a social framework is an incredible intellectual corruption and it’s one that the West has accepted as a given since 1980—since Reagan. Human beings—in this country in particular—are worth less and less. When capitalism triumphs unequivocally, labor is diminished. It’s a zero-sum game…
I guess what I’m saying is that the overall theme was: We’ve given ourselves over to the Olympian god that is capitalism and now we’re reaping the whirlwind. This is the America that unencumbered capitalism has built. It’s the America that we deserve because we let it happen. We don’t deserve anything better. The Wire was trying to take the scales from people’s eyes and say, “This is what you’ve built. Take a look at it.” It’s an accurate portrayal of the problems inherent in American cities.
Are there other parts of those cities that are economically viable? Of course. You can climb higher up on the pyramid that is capitalism and find the upper-middle-class neighborhoods and the private schools. You can find where the money went. But The Wire was dissent because of its choice to center itself on the other America, the one that got left behind. That was the overall theme and that worked for all five seasons. So that’s the institution versus the individual.
To portray the characters in this epic narrative, Simon and Burns turned to an ensemble unlike any seen before on TV — especially in terms of racial composition. They cast C-list actor Dominic West (perhaps best known at the time as Sandy Bullock’s a-hole boyfriend in “28 Days”) in the lead role, but surrounded him with a cast of no-name actors. Many of these performers were experienced veterans, bit players in many films and television shows, but others were discovered at local stage companies, and dozens of fine performances on “The Wire” have been delivered by completely inexperienced actors cast off the street. Simon and Burns also used their extensive connections in Baltimore to haul in many memorable Baltimoreans for supporting parts – disgraced former state police superintendent Ed Norris plays a homicide detective, former drug kingpin Little Melvin Williams plays a church deacon, and Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich has a cameo as a security guard.
You would think this unconventional approach to casting would be disastrous. In fact, it is anything but. “The Wire” has the finest and most compelling ensemble cast in television history. Dozens deep, the characters keep coming at you, season after season, grabbing your eyeballs with magnificent performances. It’s ultimately impossible to think of these actors and not see them as the characters they so memorably portrayed on the series.
The next element of “The Wire” that led it to eternal greatness is its superb writing staff. Along with Simon and Burns, the writer’s table featured Rafael Alvarez, who penned many classic episodes, Joy Lusco Kecken, a mainstay of the early seasons, and Simon’s former Sun colleague Bill Zorzi, who crafted the political storylines of the later seasons. What’s more, they recruited the eastern seaboard’s finest crime novelists to join the staff, plucking them from nearby cities like a college recruiter assembling a national champion. DC’s George Pelecanos (“The Big Blowdown”), New York’s Richard Price (“Clockers”), and Boston’s Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) joined the writing team and contributed greatly to the show’s layered, complex narratives and characterizations.
Moreover, the show had the look and feel of real inner-city Bodymore, Murdaland. The crew shot on locations throughout the city, thanks to the open embrace of municipal officials and the city’s residents. The aesthetic qualities of the show were enhanced by lots of well-chosen diegetic music ranging from The Pogues (in the policemen’s bar) to Young Leek (on the radios of the corner boys). A huge amount of credit for the show’s tonal brilliance has to go to producer Robert Colesberry, a Hollywood veteran who helped relative neophytes Simon and Burns navigate the ropes of a major television series. Every season until his unexpected death partway through the run of “The Wire,” Colesberry slaved over the opening credit sequence, seeking to find the perfect combination of sights and sounds to represent the show’s ethos:
The series centers on Dominic West’s portrayal of Jimmy McNulty, a headstrong, arrogant, charming Baltimore “po-lice” determined to outsmart the city’s criminals. McNulty is incensed by the murder trial of D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), a scion of the Barksdale criminal family who walks free thanks to bribed witnesses. McNulty, though just a lowly homicide detective, uses his relationship with Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety) to initiate an investigation of the Barksdale gang, which is being ignored by the Baltimore Police Department in their quest for arrest “stats”; the BPD is blinded by their tactics of assaulting city street corners like checkpoints in a war zone. (This clip is out of sequence, but it pretty much says it all.)
Despite the opposition of McNulty’s commander in homicide, the irascible Major William Rawls (John Doman), the department reluctantly authorizes a detail headed by Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), a rising star in the BPD who is conflicted between his wife’s ambitions for his career and his passion for solid police work. You’d think that those two concepts would work in concert, but “The Wire” effectively and repeatedly demonstrates that in the real world of Baltimore, singleminded devotion to the purported goal of your organization often hinders your ability to rise within that organization: hardcore police get stashed in the pawn shop unit for making waves in the department, drug dealers who take an enlightened approach to “the game” end up getting caught up in a senseless crossfire over ghetto territory, and newspaper editors who insist on accuracy get demoted, while the Jayson Blairs get Pulitzers.
The detail is a mishmash of odds and ends from around the department, intended to be ineffective and quickly fade away: through it, we meet many of the series’ main characters. Sonja Sohn is a revelation as Kima Greggs, Lieutenant Daniels’ protege in narcotics, who is quickly entranced by McNulty’s passion for police work, to the consternation of her longtime boss. The comedy team of inept detectives, Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) are the unit’s footsoldiers, often left out on a roof doing surveillance. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) is an older detective known as a “housecat” for his years working a desk job, but it soon turns out that he’s an exceptionally competent cop who wasn’t stuck inside by choice. Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) is a son-in-law of a colonel who’s proven incompetent at almost every assignment. Rhonda Pearlman, an assistant D.A., is the detail’s legal liaison, and soon becomes McNulty’s mistress. The unit is rounded out by a peanut gallery of idiots and drunks from every dark corner of the department. Daniels manages to salvage his detail somewhat by bargaining with another commander for Leander Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson), a promising young detective capable of doing undercover work.
McNulty often enlists the help of his homicide partner Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), a foulmouthed clotheshorse who we would hire to investigate the murder of any loved one, even though he is a fictional character. He’s that awesome.
Relentlessly prodded by McNulty, the detail focuses on the principals of the powerful Barksdale gang: the intimidating Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), his crafty second-in-command Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), and ruthless hitman Wee-Bey Brice (Hassan Johnson), as well as D’Angelo, Avon’s nephew: a young man born into the game who might not be cut out for its rigors. We watch as D’Angelo attempts to organize a “crew” of very young men in a low-rise housing project known as “the pit” — corralling the vicious Bodie Broadus (J.D. Williams), the amorous Malik “Poot” Carr (Trey Cheney), and the bright Wallace (Michael B. Jordan).
As with nearly all the sets of characters in the show, the casting of the Barksdale gang is flawless. The Julliard-trained Gilliard simply looks and sounds out of place alongside his street-wise subordinates, none of whom had much acting experience before joining the show. Meanwhile, the leading-man skills of Harris and Elba make them intimidating figures on the screen:
As the detail zeroes in on the pit crew, tapping pay phones and watching them from nearby high-rises, Kima begins to work with her confidential informant Bubbles (Andre Royo), a heroin addict who knows the streets inside and out.
Meanwhile, Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) stalks the drug dealers of the city, wielding a shotgun and whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Omar Little is one of the greatest and most original characters in the history of television: a black, gay man whose job description is “I rip and run…I robs drug dealers.” His immortal catchphrase, “Oh, indeed,” will live on forever in television lore. Here is one of the show’s most memorable scenes, in which Omar turns the tables on mob lawyer Maurice Levy (Michael Kostroff) while testifying at the trial of one of the Barksdale soldiers:
“The Wire” is a challenging show that expects its viewers to listen up and pay attention. Many people we’ve urged to watch the show have struggled through the first few episodes, finding them slow and a little boring. That’s OK – each season unfolds like a novel, setting up its characters and themes in the early episodes, thickening the plot in the middle of the season, building up to an epic conclusion late in the season, followed by a thoughtful denouement and everyone’s favorite thing, a montage. We watch as Daniels begins to ignore his career and follow his passion, even as McNulty drives him insane; under Freamon’s tutelage, Prez becomes a superb detective; Kima goes undercover on an assignment that goes horribly awry; and D’Angelo sinks deeper and deeper into the doomed world of “the game.”
By the end of season one — in which the Barksdale gang’s attempts to capture and kill Omar have dreadful consequences that ripple through all the characters’ lives — if you haven’t been hooked, then you need to stop reading this website and never come back again. Seriously.
Season Two shifts focus to the Baltimore docks, where stevedores ply a dying trade at the Patapsco Terminal — their livelihood under unrelenting attack from real estate developers and automated robot replacements. Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) is a union leader who has begun cutting deals with Spiros Vondas (Paul Ben-Victor), the pointman for an international smuggler known only as “the Greek.” When a shipment of prostitutes goes awry, a “can full of dead girls” ends up on the Baltimore docks and is discovered by port patrolwoman Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan). Eventually, the detail springs back into action thanks to inane departmental politics, and discovers that the docks are a highway for drugs straight into the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore. One memorable scene has Bunk and Freamon attempting to interrogate shipmates from the boat that carried the dead girls:
In the meantime, Omar continues his relentless assault on the Barksdale gang, in an increasingly bloody and Pyrrhic war that leads to the death of one of his associates. Bunk, charged with investigating the murder, confronts Omar about the devastation that his ilk have caused the city.
There are many valid choices for “best scene of ‘The Wire'” ever, but this is our pick.
Season Three is a simply perfect piece of television filmmaking. Stringer Bell mightily tries to limit the gang’s liability by stepping back from fights over territory and supplying street dealers in concert with an alliance of Bmore drug kingpins led by the rotund Proposition Joe (Robert Chew). Avon insists upon holding corners. As Stringer takes college classes and tries to invest the gang’s money in real estate development, the detail and the pressures of the street close in on him. Avon begins a war with Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), a up-and-coming dealer who refuses to back down to Stringer’s co-op or Avon’s reputation.
Robert Wisdom’s Major Bunny Colvin (seen in the second clip above) reacts to the relentless pressure to reduce crime in his district by deciding to legalize drugs, creating a free zone known as “Hamsterdam.” As the police officers under Colvin’s command struggle to deal with his change in tactics, Ellis Carver – now a DEU sergeant – begins to absorb some of Bunny’s schooling.
Meanwhile, our main man McNulty — who’s been dumped by both his wife and Rhonda Pearlman — begins to realize that he’s never going to find fulfillment through police work alone. This kick in the ass from Lester Freamon helps, of course:
Season Four is the most acclaimed of the series. It’s probably not a coincidence that most viewers and many critics didn’t really notice this show existed until the fourth season began airing. As Prez begins a new career in the Baltimore public school system, we meet some of his young charges…Namond Brice (Julito McCullum), Wee-Bey’s son who thinks himself a player in the game; Michael Lee (Tristan Wilds), a stoic, tough kid who takes care of his younger brother Bug; Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell) an enterprising young orphan who cracks under pressure; and Dukie Weems (Jermaine Crawford), an intelligent boy trapped in absolute poverty.
Marlo’s crew are now the undisputed lords of West Baltimore, thanks to his ruthless instinct and the help of two deadly efficient enforcers, Chris Partlow (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson <— seriously, read this). The Stanfield gang is beyond ruthless: they’ll kill someone if there’s a rumor that he insulted Marlo. For a long time, they baffle our friends in the police department with a nonexistent body count: we know, however, that Chris and Snoop are hiding bodies in the many decaying, abandoned houses in Baltimore’s inner city. The scene that opens Season Four, in which Snoop buys a nail gun from a home improvement store for the purpose of sealing up the vacant houses, is a classic:
A political storyline also threads through Seasons Three and Four, featuring the upstart mayoral campaign of Thomas Carcetti, a Martin O’Malley-alike who dares to dream that the age of the white mayor in Baltimore isn’t over. Through the political scenes, we find out more about the policy pressures that often undergird the problems we witness in the police department, the schools, and the neighborhoods. Carcetti is presented as a sympathetic alternative to the venal, corrupt politicians like state Rep. Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), but he too is corruptible — we see him cheat on his wife and make cynical decisions to advance his political career. Still, Carcetti’s passion for public service makes him a character we want to see succeed, as in this amusing scene where his own campaign manager jokes about voting for someone else:
Season Five’s new storylines are mostly solid, though not as fascinating as those introduced earlier – we meet the staff of the Baltimore Sun, a particular interest of David Simon’s, and watch as the dickish editors chase prizes and ignore the city’s real problems. The relative dullness of the newspaper storylines are completely forgivable, however, because they are paired with developments in the ongoing narratives that bring the show to a transcendent “conclusion” (you’ll see what we mean when you watch it).
Many, many characters re-appear in the fifth season, their lives having been transformed in some way, for better or for worse. Some finally get their shit together; others come unraveled in disturbing ways. For every junkie that gets clean, another troubled kid picks up the needle. One cop hangs up his badge, and another is there to scoop it up. The criminals kill each other over money, territory, or “connects”; the cops valiantly surveil and wiretap, trying for the magic moment when you catch someone doing dirt on the wire. The game is still the game.
We just ran down a solid dozen paragraphs of recap, and still managed to skip over tons of great characters and storylines, like that of Dennis “Cutty” Wise, a cold-blooded killer whose rage and menace have been diluted by a long prison stint; Marcia Donnelly, the assistant principal of a Baltimore middle school who may not be officially in charge, but runs the school with an iron fist; Brother Mouzone, the bowtied New York hitman who loves to read Harper’s; Nick Sobotka, the young stevedore who can’t make a living in his family’s trade, and has to turn to drug dealing to support his girlfriend and young daughter; and so many more.
Anyone paying close attention to this series knows we have much love for Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle. Heed his words:
Ostensibly a cop series with a story to tell about the drug war in America’s inner city (Baltimore, in this case), “The Wire” over five seasons was really an insanely ambitious, intimately detailed historical document about institutional failure on all levels – cops, criminals, courts, politics, schools and newspapers. Dense, novelistic, painful, funny, real and transformative all at once. “The Wire” is the best television series ever made. Period.
Salon’s Laura Miller compares “The Wire” to a classical masterpiece:
“The Iliad” is only one poem from a series known as the Epic Cycle (“The Odyssey” is another; the rest are lost), full of dead heroes and the fathers (and mothers and wives and children) who mourn them. This story, too, goes on and on. Death, loss, enslavement, the ruination of all their hopes and dreams, and yet in the midst of the world’s stony realities, as inevitable as the wine darkness of the sea and the rosy fingers of dawn, there can be heroism, courage, honor. Just don’t expect things to change; all of this is part of the game, and in “The Iliad” the game is war.
The characters in “The Wire” inhabit such a world. The gods may have different names; instead of Apollo and Juno pulling the strings, it’s the bureaucracy, party politics, the free market: all equally capricious and implacable. Anyone who tries to alter the system — be it Stringer Bell aiming to turn legit businessman, Bunny Colvin experimenting with decriminalizing drugs in “Hamsterdam” or Frank Sobotka struggling to save his beloved stevedores union from its inevitable demise — will be crushed. The best they can hope for is to clean up one little corner of their world; Bunny may not be able to save the neighborhood, but at the end of Season 4, he managed to save one kid.
To thrive, you have to learn to fly low and kiss up, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be afflicted with a sense of vocation, you play it like that smooth operator, Bunk Moreland, not like that perennial troublemaker, Jimmy McNulty.
Despite the greatness of the other shows among our top ten list and honorable mentions, “The Wire” stands alone as a masterful creation of television programming that is impossible to top.
In five virtually-perfect seasons, it made us laugh and cringe, boiled our blood and drew us to the edge of our seats; sometimes we got a little dust in our eyes. It’s the greatest television show we have ever encountered. The end.
Introduction and Runners-Up
#10: “Six Feet Under.”
#9: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
#8: “The Daily Show.”
#7: “South Park.”
#6: “Mad Men.”
#5: “Arrested Development.”
#4: “American Idol.”
#2: “The Sopranos.”
#1: “The Wire.”