“Some things stay the same. I mean the gamer is the game.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A newspaper reporter and a cop go into a bar… It sounds like a setup for a pretty lame joke. It’s actually the story of how one of the greatest television shows to ever air got started. It was the brainchild of two real-world players who hadn’t yet seen their worlds portrayed accurately in television of film. They set out on a mission to change all of that. And, changing all of that is exactly what they did.
The reporter was David Simon. He had worked at the famed Baltimore Sun for years. He had a first-hand look at the worlds of both the police and the players in the drug game. He had a front seat to some of the most violent blocks in the country. He knew there was potential for a television drama with the stories he had to tell and had already told in the pages of the Baltimore Sun. He put down those experiences in a book. Those experiences became the jumping-off point for the NBC drama Homicide: Life On The Streets. It was a pretty gritty look at the homicide squad of the Baltimore Police Department. But, there is only so much you can portray on network television. It would take a platform like HBO to tell the stories he really wanted to tell.
The cop was Ed Burns. He was a veteran detective of over 20 years. In the course of his job, of course, he crossed paths with the Sun reporter. When these two came together The Wire was born, and television would never be the same.
“You can’t be playing no checkers on a chessboard.”
Network television is checkers. There’s only so much you can do with the amount of oversight and censorship. HBO is a chessboard where the sophisticated come to play for much higher stakes. You get to have nicer pieces and a better looking board, to be sure. But that means the expectations are that much more. You have to put a worthy project on that board. And you best not be playing checkers on that board. It all starts with placing the correct pieces on the board. For The Wire, it’s rather amazing how much work went into casting these characters. Many of the players came from the Baltimore streets themselves and appear authentic because they are. Others all inhabit their fictional skins as if they were made for them. It’s the first thing you will notice when you start watching The Wire. You’ll instantly take to these characters, and their natural performances will create a reality that is only heightened by the attention to detail in the production value. Then there’s the effective use of real Baltimore locations. If you live there, you will recognize it. If you don’t, you’ll soon feel like you have lived there. And that’s the real secret of the success of this television show. These episodes exist in my head more like actual memories than a series I happened to have seen at one time. The show accesses that part of your brain that makes what you see here appear very real, indeed.
The scene is West Baltimore. To some it’s like a battlefield. The residents live in constant fear of being hit by stray bullets. Drug dealers own the streets, and the cops have been reduced to an occupational force with more of an adversarial relationship to those they have been sworn to serve and protect. Police presence can cause riots, and children are too often caught in the crossfire. From that description you might think I was talking about the current news reports coming out of cities like Baltimore right now. Now that’s the power of a series that will remain timeless. The issues and circumstances depicted here could have been ripped from the headlines of a 2015 news report. Instead it was written for a television show starting back in 2002. HBO couldn’t have picked a better time to bring this show back to our attention and in high definition for the first time. The Wire still works. Let’s try to examine why it works.
We meet Jimmy McNulty (West). He’s a Baltimore homicide detective (murder police). He’s frustrated that a gang of drug dealers appear to be running the city with their product. They’re killing witnesses that dare stand up to them. It’s the last straw, and so he feeds the name Avon Barksdale (Harris) to a judge friend played by Homicide: Life On The Streets veteran Peter Gerety who played Detective Gharty on that show. The judge gets in the ear of the Baltimore brass who are not at all happy that McNulty went over their heads. But the result is a task force to investigate the Barksdale criminal empire.
This first season introduces us to the core characters that will make up a good part of the show’s five seasons. It’s not a complete list, because Simon has populated his show with a great number of memorable characters, too many to give any kind of justice here.
Let’s start with the team that is put together. It is lead by Lt. Cedric Daniels, played by Lance Reddick. Daniels wants to make a difference but has become caught up in the department politics. Detective Lester Freeman is played by Clarke Peters. Fans of Person Of Interest know him as the diabolical HR. In this show, he couldn’t be a more gentle or nice guy. Left for career-dead in the pawnshop unit because he ticked off the wrong people, he’s actually what the show often refers to as natural police. But you wouldn’t know it as he sits and makes dollhouse furniture in the squad room. It’s McNulty who discovers his hidden talents, and it makes for one heck of a ride for them both. These guys are the heart of the unit.
Street work is done by the partnership of Ellis Carver (Gilliam) and Herc (Lombardozzi). They start out as lazy cops looking to cut corners, but they end up inspired to find they are doing something real that makes a difference. They are led in the street by Kima, played by Sonja Sohn. It’s important to her that things get done right. The unit has its fill of screw-ups, because the brass don’t really take the task force very seriously. That attitude is best portrayed by Rawls played by John Doman. He makes no secret of his hatred for McNulty for embarrassing the brass. Rawls is outspoken and doesn’t pull punches. He’ll end up rising to acting police commissioner before the series is over.
Unlike the typical cop show, this show is not just about the officers. The series gives us the story from the perspective of the bad guys as well. Avon Barksdale (Harris) may be the head of the organization. He’s a wartime leader to be sure. But it’s his right-hand man Stringer Bell, played by the great Idris Elba, who is the brains behind the outfit. He’s studying economics and business at the local college and attempts to use those ideas to make the drug business work. He’s the real kingpin, and eventually McNulty and the gang will be on to that information. He’s a dynamic character who has so many dimensions that we hate losing him in season three. This is an early role in Elba’s career, and it’s so easy to see why he’s become such a rising star. Inside the Barksdale organization we meet many interesting characters, and Simon makes sure that they all have a strong arc throughout the series.
McNulty’s old partner Bunk is played by Wendell Pierce. These guys have been pals for years and are strong drinking buddies. Both of them can put away the booze. It’s a common theme of the show. You’ll find them parked at a train track with Bunk drinking beer and McNulty his usual; taste of Jamison’s.
Outside of the cops-and-robbers aspect of the show are two of the most compelling characters not only on this show but in television history. The first is Andre Royo as Bubbles. Bubbles will absolutely pull on your heartstrings. He’s an addict and a hustler who wants something better in his life. It’s not so much that he hits rock bottom, but he sees other hit there. He’s genuinely moved by the tragedy of the streets and one of the kindest hearts on the show. Royo delivers a performance with such social and emotional impact. It’s paid off as the series draws to an end and Simon absolutely gives him the best arc of the series. Most of the time Bubbles is far in the background of the events unfolding, but he’s there representing the audience as an innocent observer to it all. I love Bubbles, and he’s a character I will never forget.
The second of these huge impact characters is Omar Little, played by Michael Kenneth Williams. Since The Wire he’s had great success in films and on Boardwalk Empire as Chalky White. Omar is one of those iconic characters who delivers many of the show’s most vivid moments. One of my favorites happens as he takes the stand for the prosecution. When asked what he does for a living he answers in a deadpan stare: “I robs drug dealers.” He’s a killer with a huge moral code. He only goes after other criminals. He’s almost like an early version of Dexter. He uses some of his gains to give back to the community. But his mission becomes more and more personal when people he loves are tortured and killed by these drug dealers. You won’t find a more chilling scenario than Omar walking slowly down a deserted street whistling The Farmer In The Dell. These are moments that will stay with you a long time. And that sums up The Wire like nothing before. Simon delivers a show that stays with you. It’s no accident that we’re still talking about these same issues.
The Wire’s journey over five seasons is not a straight line, to be sure. Simon takes his time with everything. It’s several episodes before a show called The Wire is actually dealing with a wire. Simon is patient with characters over that stretch. You might see an insignificant character for a minute in season 2 and not see him until he becomes a huge player years later. It’s that kind of patient setup that kept the show interesting and forced you to pay attention. You just never knew when some small thing would pay off. He also wasn’t afraid to leave shocking threads sit there and never visit again. We see Rawls once in a gay bar. It’s just a quick shot reveal, and the subject is never revisited again. You just never know when something is important or not.
Simon knows how to take chances. I remember an episode of Homicide: Life In The Streets that took place with three men in a single room. It’s award-winning stuff that was snubbed by the awards. There are truly creative things going on here. There’s a scene where every word is a variation of the F-word. Still McNulty and Bunk are investigating a crime scene and communicating more than those words could say. It’s absolutely genius sometimes.
The first season sets up the team and introduces you to the vast number of compelling characters. The cat-and-mouse between detectives and drug dealers is played out against the political realities of the police department. It’s a game McNulty is not suited to play, and when it ends he finds himself the last place he wanted to be: on a boat doing patrol.
That’s where season two finds him. Of course, he’s McNulty, and when he finds a body floating in the water he investigates wind and tide charts to put the case on the bosses that put him here. Meanwhile a union leader Frank Sobotka (Bauer) is dealing with an enigmatic criminal called The Greek to raise funds for his union to lobby for a dredged channel to bring in more ships, more work. He makes the tactical mistake of buying a window for the local Polish Catholic Church’s expansion. It turns out that Major Valcheck (Brown) has also commissioned a window for the same spot. He gets quite upset when he discovers the rival window. You can see where all of this is going. Two acts of revenge put the season in motion and bring the team together again to investigate Sobotka and the union. A container of dead girls adds a long list of new homicides that McNulty makes sure falls on his old bosses.
This became one of my favorite seasons, but did not sit well with some fans. The focus was on the port and the unions and not so much on Barksdale and his gang. But Simon didn’t ignore that story. There are still significant events going on here that include Omar and Bubbles. With Avon in jail and Stringer Bell trying to keep the business going, the two find themselves at odds on what to do. It’s the working man and the businessman who won’t ever agree. These things all happen in the background as the port story continues to unfold.
If you missed the streets, it would all come back into focus in the third season. The team is split up in various jobs, but the drug game is back on the front burner. Stringer has introduced the drug world to parliamentary procedure and has begun a co-op with the other drug kingpins in Baltimore. It cuts down on the violence to keep the heat off. The central character now is a guy named Proposition Joe, played by Robert F. Chew. He has the connect, coincidentally, with The Greek and is willing to share it as a cooperative. The idea is actually working, but Avon isn’t going to want to cozy up with enemies, and he won’t give up territory he fought for years ago. The break in the Barksdale family will come to a head here.
This is the season we see Marlo Stanfield, played by Jamie Hector. He wants to wear the crown and is willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. His enforcers are Chris Partlow (Akinnagbe) and the highly entertaining Snoop, played by Felicia Pearson. They will become more prominent in the next season when they kill and put their victims in abandoned buildings to keep the cops from seeing the violence to cement Marlo’s position.
The most interesting aspect of the third season was the establishment of Hamsterdam. Enter Major Bunny Colvin (Wisdom). The majors are getting raked over the coals because of their crime stats. There’s a new guy pushing to be mayor named Carcetti (Gillen), so numbers are everything for the current mayor who wants to keep the job. Colvin comes up with a unique idea. He designates three areas as no-enforcement zones. He moves the drugs there where they are granted immunity from police intervention. The other streets get clean, but when the secret gets out, this one is going to be a huge political hot potato. One of the show’s best scenes happens when Colvin comes clean in the Comstat room. The expression on Rawls is priceless as they start to understand what he did. Of course, it’s not likely someone could have kept this big secret for so long, but it makes for some very entertaining television, to be sure.
The fourth season is one of the most emotionally moving seasons. The focus here is on the very young kids in the street. We meet four of them doing what they must to get by, but sticking together. There’s a particularly fun scene that has them engage a rival group in a water-balloon ambush, but their balloons are filled with urine. We get to watch these kids take separate paths and follow the consequences of their lives. Prezbo is now teaching and trying to reach these kids in a resource-poor school system. Colvin’s back working with a college grant to pick out 10 problem (corner) kids and use a different curriculum with them. As a former teacher myself, I can relate to the problems exhibited here.
Marlo is the wire target this time. The Barksdale empire is gone, and Marlo wants the co-op as well. This is where Snoop and Chris hide the bodies. The season begins with a humorous scene as Snoop tries to buy a nail gun at the local hardware store. She buys the top of the line model and tells Chris: “He said it was the Cadillac of nail guns. He meant the Lexus.”
The final season went away from the streets again. McNulty is once again frustrated that city cutbacks have taken down the Marlo wire investigation. This time he goes too far. He creates a story of a serial killer by arranging natural deaths of bums with bite-marks and a ribbon. The ruse drives Bunk absolutely crazy, and he wants no part of the ploy. Some of the best scenes of the show involve Bunk’s reactions to the escalating serial killer story.
It’s not just the city that is having budget restraints. The Baltimore Sun is also facing cutbacks and layoffs. No one is feeling it harder than City Editor Gus Haynes, played by Clark Johnson. It doesn’t help that he has a reporter who is trying to make a name for himself by making crap up. He’s Scott Templeton (McCarthy), and he decides to make the most out of the serial killer story by claiming the killer called him. Of course, McNulty knows he’s lying, but it causes him to double down and actually call the reporter using his actually real British accent. McNulty draws in Lester Freeman, and both of their careers are over after this stunt.
The last season was one of those right time, right place kind of stories. Simon did an incredible job of showing the newspaper business in the age of the internet. The business model was starting to change and the effect it has on print today is remarkable. We get to see a very realistic look at the struggle of a paper in these digital times. There’s a great scene where Gus reminisces about how the paper used to hold his father’s attention. No one could bother him during that time. He wanted to be a part of something so powerful. Clark Johnson does a marvelous job of telling the story of this character whose time has come and gone. It’s the kind of insight the show always had. It didn’t matter if it were schools, police departments, newspapers or politics Simon took us deep inside and wasn’t afraid to immerse us in these gritty worlds. You almost believe you’re seeing the decline of the great cities, and in some ways you absolutely are.
Each episode is presented in a brand new 1.78:1 aspect ratio. There has been a lot of press about this move. The show was originally filmed and aired in full frame. David Simon himself was quite outspoken against the move for a long time. Of course, HBO was going to do it anyway, so Simon did the smart thing and got on board. This allowed him to have input into the restoration. There are times the image field is actually pulled out to reveal more of a scene. Others it was zoomed in tighter, and you lose some information that was available in the original. I found the high-definition image presentation to be outstanding. I never felt I lost any of the atmosphere or immersion that the original episodes had. I found it hard to detect where it was pulled out or pushed in. If you’re a purist, the DVD’s remain an option for you. This is the format I’m going to retain, and I did not miss the old style at all. The image is sharp and loaded with detail. The grain aspects remain, and you still get a feeling for the original film elements. Black levels are good, and colors appear reference. I’m coming strongly down on the side that this was a good thing.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is not so dramatic of a change. It’s a bit more dynamic with better low end. This helps more with the musical cues than anything else. The dialog is crystal clear at all times. There isn’t a ton happening in the surrounds, and the audio presentation is pretty much true to the original broadcast.
There are 22 commentary tracks on select episodes.
The Game Is Reel: (30:01) The cast and crew talk about the very real social issues the show dealt with. We look at what it was like to be on location in the streets of Baltimore. Real players like cops, lawyers and Baltimore citizens join in on the conversation.
The Last Word: (26:35) This feature deals with the final season. There’s a lot of talk about the newspaper business, and plenty of reporters join in to add their thoughts. This feature is as much about the evolving news business as it is the show itself.
The Wire Odyssey: (28:41) Cast and crew offer up a season-by-season look at the series. They tell us their favorite characters and scenes from the series. The best part was finding out which actors had actually auditioned for other characters. There’s a lot of fun to be had here.
Prequels: (5:55) There are three here with a handy play-all. They are under two minutes each. You meet a young Proposition Joe from 1967 and a young Omar from 1985. The last piece is McNulty and Bunk meeting for the first time.
The Wire Reunion: (1:25:25) It’s at Pallyfest October 16, 2014. A large gathering of cast and crew answer questions and talk about the show and their lives. Dominic West sends a video hello because he couldn’t be there, as does Idris Elba.
This was an intimidating review to write. I could fill pages and pages here, and I could never cover all of these phenomenal stories and wonderful characters. You just can’t do them justice in such a short space. Books have been written about the show, and I don’t expect there are many more deserving. If you know the show, you have an appreciation for the problem. If you do not know the show, then I envy you quite a bit. You’re about to embark on this journey for the first time, and I can’t tell you enough how lucky you are. This show is something completely its own, and you can’t really compare it to anything else. Forgive me if I haven’t found the right words to describe this experience. It’s a show that will move you while it entertains you. Like I said, it’s a force of nature, and how do you describe that? “That’s just the nature of things. Age is age. Fat is fat. Nature is nature. Nature don’t care. Nature just is.”