For years, I carried around a secret shame: I had never seen The Wire. This made me an outcast and a pariah around the A.V. Club office. When co-workers saw me approaching the water cooler, they noticeably clammed up and stopped discussing the previous night’s episode of The Wire. I was not invited to any of the A.V. Club’s Wire parties.
When Wiremas—a holiday The A.V. Club made up to celebrate the birth of its television savior, The Wire—rolled around every December, I never received gifts. When my coworkers recreated episodes in full costume, I was never asked to participate, even though I think I’d make a really good Omar. It’s been a sad, lonely existence.
It’s rare that my co-workers and hip-hop become obsessed with the same thing. But The A.V. Club and hip-hop broadcast their love of The Wire from the mountains. I felt like I had to catch up with the show just so I’d be able to catch the Wire references that litter hip-hop songs. A show must be pretty fucking brilliant for hip-hop to embrace a phenomenon whose heroes are all cops, informants, and homosexuals.
There’s no real reason I’d never seen the show, except perhaps that I’m not generally a fan of hourlong dramas. It’s not that I think I’m too good to watch Law & Order. If anything, I’m not good enough; I lack the patience and persistence to stick with an hourlong show week in and week out. It’s too much of a commitment.
A while back, I appeared on a poorly rated, mildly disreputable, Canadian basic-cable television panel show called Switch. During an episode devoted to cop shows, the way-too-smooth host leaned over to me, a big Colgate smile on his face, and said something to the effect of, “Nathan, Richard Belzer’s Detective John Munch has done some crazy things through the years. What are some of your favorite John Munch moments?”
At the time, I had never seen Homicide: Life On The Street, Law & Order, or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. So my face contorted into a rictus of shock and embarrassment. I froze. After a seeming eternity of awkward silence, I weakly muttered, “Gosh, there are so many great John Munch moments. But I can’t think of any of them off the top of my head.” Afterwards, us hapless panelists cornered the producers and told them we had no fucking idea what we were talking about, and that if we were asked specific questions we’d look like idiots.
So I was, perhaps, not the best-qualified person to discuss cop shows. I hope you are sitting down and holding onto your monocle tightly, because what I am about to say will shock, horrify, and possible even titillate you. People on television often have no fucking idea what they’re talking about. (There’s even an entire network populated solely by people like that: Fox News.)
It’s not even that I dislike cop shows: I’ve just never devoted much time to watching them. Nevertheless, The Wire soon developed a reputation that transcended the cop genre. Indeed, even calling The Wire a police drama feels insulting and reductive, like calling Citizen Kane a movie about a newspaperman, or Hamlet a story about a guy with some issues.
With the first season of The Wire, creator David Simon uses the investigation into a notorious drug dealer to tell the story of an entire city. Painting on a huge canvas, Simon takes us from the corridors of power to back alleys where junkies die unmourned deaths. It’s a television show about just about everything: race, class, sexuality, money, power, urban development, politics in its myriad forms, the legal system, friendship, obsession, dedication, identity, and the cycle of poverty. Also, there’s drug-dealing and dudes getting arrested.
The Wire has a lot on its plate. But that’s not entirely apparent in the first three episodes, which cling a little too tightly to the cop-show template for my tastes. And I found that a little disappointing. For the buzz on The Wire wasn’t that it was a good show. Among my friends and people I respect, the only difference of opinion on The Wire was between partisans who thought it was the best show currently on TV, and super-partisans who felt it was maybe the best TV show of all time.
So I expected to be gobsmacked by the show’s brilliance from the very first scene. Yet in its first few episodes, The Wire is very much a show about an almost unrealistically handsome cop named McNulty (Dominic West) who drinks too much, has a messy personal life, and pisses off his superiors with his hotheaded ways and unconventional tactics. Granted, it’s an exceptionally well-written and acted show about an archetypal cop-show protagonist, but it felt awfully familiar all the same.
There are also moments scattered throughout when the storytelling grows a little ham-fisted. Most egregiously, there’s a scene where D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), a reluctant soldier in the drug army run by his kingpin uncle Avon, explains chess to an underling by using it as a metaphor to explain the inner workings of their drug gang.
Whenever see I see a chess board in a movie or television show I cringe, because I know it’s just minutes away from being used for groaningly obvious, clichéd metaphors about the nature of life, or the balance of good and evil, or some other such bullshit. So I beseech you, creative community: Stop with the fucking chess metaphors. They’re cheesy and obvious, and they’ve done been done a million times before.
That said, McNulty and his unit are soon embroiled in an elaborate chess match with Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and his chief lieutenant Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). I first noticed Harris in a pretty good 2002 drama about the 1980s crack epidemic called Paid In Full. Harris delivered a performance that made me think, “Holy shit, who is that guy?” Usually, those kinds of attention-grabbing performances are flashy; think Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road or Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. But what made Harris so riveting in Paid In Full is that he underplays everything. As in The Wire, Harris played a secret kingpin. He’s the anti-Scarface, a cold, calculating businessman intent on fading into the woodwork.
In The Wire, Avon Barksdale has done such a brilliant job of operating under the radar that the cops don’t even know what he looks like. In early episodes, he’s seemingly as much an urban myth as a man. But when it becomes apparent that Barksdale and his organization control the multi-million-dollar heroin trade in the Baltimore projects, and are responsible for a string of unsigned murders, McNulty uses his pull with powerful judge Daniel Phelan (Peter Gerety) to get the police to commission a division devoted to bringing down Barksdale.
The drug dealers here are professionals above all else. These are no hotheaded junkies running off half-cocked to score the next fix. As Jay-Z noted on “D’Evils,” whoever said illegal is the easy way never understood the mechanics and workings of the underworld. The Wire explores with trenchant insight and morbid wit the mechanics of the underworld and the way they echo the equally dirty machinations of the straight world.
Avon and his organization are able to remain off the police’s radar, for example, by relying on pagers and pay phones in a cell-phone world; using antiquated technology makes it harder for the police to monitor their activities. As Avon’s right-hand man, Stringer represents an intriguing new paradigm: the drug kingpin as coolly efficient middle manager.
Stringer sees the drug business as a business; for him, there’s not much difference between managing a multi-million-dollar operation pumping heroin into the streets, and operating, say, the copy shop Avon uses as a front, which Stringer wants to transform into a real business. In a star-making performance, Elba plays Stringer as all guile, eerie self-control, and sinister calculation. He’s the rare television drug dealer who models himself on Jack Welch or Warren Buffett rather than Al Capone. At one point, McNulty even stumbles upon Stringer taking business classes at a local community college.
Avon’s organization is rigidly hierarchal and rule-bound. Everyone knows their place in the pecking order. If they step out of line or grow too independent, there’s always someone around to put them back in their proper place. After D’Angelo is involved in a homicide case, for example, he’s demoted from being one of his uncle’s top lieutenants to a much less glamorous job overseeing a drug spot in the projects known as “The Pit.”
D’Angelo serves as the wavering conscience of the Barksdale organization. He grows less enchanted with “the Game” with each passing day, but he was literally born into the life. When your mother, uncle, and grandfather are all criminal-minded, the straight and narrow path isn’t an option. D’Angelo exists in a world without choices, where working in the drug trade means the difference between being somebody and being nobody.
In a quietly heartbreaking performance, Gilliard lets his deep, soulful eyes convey the consequences and costs of ignoring the dictates of the conscience. He’s a man with enough of a moral compass to realize that the life he’s been living has grown unbearable, but “played major role as lieutenant in uncle’s drug ring” isn’t something you can put on a résumé as relevant work experience.
Gilliard aside… Before I delved into the world of The Wire, I wondered who in hell this Omar fellow was that my colleagues couldn’t stop jibber-jabbering about. Omar’s reputation preceded him. Now I know. Oh sweet Lord, do I know. Omar (played by Michael K. Williams) is a predator who hunts predators, a stick-up man who makes his living robbing drug dealers, and lives by his own renegade moral code.
Omar has attained the level of folk hero by this point. He’s less a scene-stealing character on a television show than a contemporary version of Stagger Lee or Leroy Brown. He boasts a level of bad-assery not often seen outside of the late-period work of Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood and Gangs Of New York, not fucking Nine) or the early films of Charles Bronson or Robert Mitchum.
In a show that aspires to, and achieves, gritty realism and documentary-like verisimilitude, Omar strikes a decidedly larger-then-life figure. The mere sound of him whistling “The Farmer In The Dell” is enough to send everyone in earshot racing away in abject terror like Japanese extras fleeing another Godzilla attack.
Omar is also, it should be noted, gay, as is one of the show’s other standout characters, Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn). It would be an exaggeration to say the show is wholly nonchalant about Omar and Greggs’ sexuality. Omar’s pretty, soon-to-be-murdered boyfriend prompts Omar’s vendetta against Avon and his workers. Meanwhile, early in the season, Greggs has to put up with co-workers’ questions like “You’re a lesbian, eh? What’s that like, lesbianing it up in a homosexual fashion with other lesbians such as yourself?” Thankfully, the show gets all that out of the way at the outset so it can be matter-of-fact about their sexuality for the duration of the show. In the same sense, The Wire needs a relatively stock hero like McNulty to ground its far-ranging exploration of race, class, power, and institutional corruption.
The police department is just as rigidly hierarchal and political as Avon’s crew. McNulty and his superior, Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) constantly need to negotiate the tricky, turbulent waters of a law-enforcement bureaucracy where maintaining the status quo seems to trump all other concerns. Everyone is looking out for their own interests; McNulty probably has more enemies within his own department than he does on the street.
Daniels serves as a bridge between Baltimore’s political power brokers and his detectives. Reddick’s performance is a masterpiece of barely suppressed rage. He constantly seems on the verge of exploding at some slight, yet he retains his composure throughout. A consummate pragmatist, Daniels is stuck between worlds.
The Wire’s first season is methodical and deliberate to an almost perverse degree. Like the Avon Barksdale investigation, it’s built piece-by-piece. Seemingly insignificant details from one episode become hugely important several episodes later. A speck of green highlighter on a white couch, for example, becomes heartbreaking when it’s reintroduced in a tragic new context.
It’s telling that the detectives devote seemingly half the first season to trying to get permission to use wiretaps to spy on the Avon Barksdale organization. When they finally succeed, those wires become borderline-useless almost instantly, when Avon and his minions discover they’re being bugged and switch up their tactics accordingly. McNulty and the gang might win individual battles, but they can never forget that the war they’re engaged in—the War On Drugs—is by definition unwinnable.
Wire creator David Simon began his career as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun before writing Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, the book that inspired his first series, Homicide: Life On The Street. The Wire functions as an extension of Simon’s career in journalism. It’s concerned with exposing how the world really works, to delving deep inside the cracks and fissures in institutions rotting from the inside out. But it’s also novelistic in scope, taking 13 glorious hours to examine with rare and wonderful depth a single police investigation.
The Wire boasts such an insanely deep and multi-dimensional cast that it’s entirely possible to have 20 favorite characters from the first season alone. In fact, there are a good dozen unforgettable characters I never got around to mentioning here. (Wallace, Bubbles, Lester, and Bunk all spring to mind.) The Wire’s 15th best-developed character is infinitely more fascinating than the protagonists of most television dramas.
Simon’s masterpiece deepens with every episode. By its fifth or sixth episode, it’s on a higher evolutionary plane than its peers. By the devastating conclusion, I had gulped down the Kool-Aid and asked for more. It really does live up to its reputation as one of the greatest television shows of the past 20 years. I’m excited about the prospect of four more seasons of The Wire. I have an embarrassment of riches awaiting me. I am a Wire virgin no longer. When the next Wiremas rolls around, I will finally be ready to join in the festivities.