The Wire: The Complete First Season Review
Det. Ellis Carver: You know, this is why I think we can't win this.
Det. Thomas Hauk: How come?
Det. Ellis Carver: They screw up, they get beaten. We screw up, we get a pension
Former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon would have deserved a place in the pantheon of great modern American crime writers just for his nonfiction work Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets; he would have deserved a place in the pantheon of great modern American writers, along with ex-narc-turned-school-teacher Ed Burns, for their nonfiction follow-up The Corner, a year in a West Baltimore drug neighbourhood. Both inspired award-winning hourlong dramas that broke new US TV ground. With The Wire, Simon cements his position as the best writer of crime drama working in television today, even edging out Shawn Ryan and his hugely talented staff on The Shield. Debuting the year after The Shield, the latter’s hurricane of an opening season left many in no doubt that this was the full stop on the genre, that hourlong police drama could develop no further. HBO clearly wanted a cop drama of their own, as it was one of the few genres not represented on their schedule, but The Shield had already utilised the high concept of “The Sopranos with cops”. It is to their credit that they went ahead and invested heavily in what is effectively a mini-series, rather than a guaranteed franchise, and gave Simon near-free reign to realise his vision.
That vision is remarkably similar to a television equivalent of Michael Mann’s Heat – a focused drama showing both the police and criminal sides of a single investigation, from inception to sentencing. This is the latest show to build on the legacy left by 80s shows Wiseguy (from Stephen J. Cannell) and Crime Story (again from Michael Mann), to take an episodic format but treat each episode as a chapter in a novel. What makes The Wire the most successful example of that format is the unwillingness to compromise with traditional TV expectations, and to humanise a criminal element that have been traditional villains now for three decades – the black drug-dealing empires that rule so many American inner cities.
The opening episodes set the scene in every way possible, with director Clark Johnson developing a visual style that is at the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum from his work in Homicide, The Beat and The Shield, utilising a classical style that demands a different form of attention from the viewer. The frenetic camerawork of Homicide and The Shield was designed to force the viewer to pay attention within the TV landscape, as if the viewers were on a ride-along themselves. The Wire’s slower, carefully framed, lingering shots are designed to make you take in everything the actors are saying and doing, and the surroundings the characters live and work in. Handheld camerawork, different shutter speeds and other tricks (such as montage and slow motion), are kept to an absolute minimum – only surveillance visuals and audio are treated as commonplace, as this is a major theme of the series, namely, what sort of people are created and what sort of behaviour is made normal in a society where everything is always under surveillance. Music is found only in car radios, boom boxes, eateries, and domestic stereos. Location work gives a very different sense of Baltimore from Homicide, in reaction to it, aiming to be even more like the real places than that series managed to achieve. Instead of heightening reality, the show takes the time to move at the speed of reality – file by file, interview by interview, court hearing by court hearing, the case moves at the pace the characters move, with breaks both lucky and unlucky for the crews on either side. Make no mistake, as with the legend of Tombstone, the reality portrayed is one of opposing gangs staking turf, competing social institutions defending the portions of the population they represent, dealing extreme justice from fists, bats, batons, knives and guns. Right and wrong enter into it on a personal level only; everything else is about the institution, the company, the brand, the dealers without question a corporation in their own right, and they behave in a manner that often demonstrates greater organisation and professionalism than those trying to take them down.
In contrast to episodic shows such as NYPD Blue and The Shield, where entire cases are compressed into an episode or two, and much of the entertainment comes from the sight of cops busting down doors, busting heads, and then solving the crime in the interrogation room (or these days in the forensics lab), with the occasional series arc or two, The Wire IS the arc. This decompressed storytelling provides a slow accumulation of detail allowing the viewers to get to know the characters, the world they live in, and the complexities of each, while shifting the emphasis in suspense away from the above incidents. As the series progresses, the real thrills come from evidence found, connections made, the essential pieces of the puzzle gradually pieced together by police working long, hard hours, giving prosecutors what they need to make cases. Incidents that have been the stuff of weekly cop shows attain their true significance when seen in the broader context, and the press conference with confiscated weapons and drugs moves from being the climax of an episode or movie to a cynical, exploitative measure that hinders the wider investigation. Department and state politics are shown as integral to daily policing and all promotions, with an immense number of obstacles having to be overcome before a special detail is created to tackle the new drug crew, and then short-term politically expedient objectives are all that are asked for from it. A major shock comes when two thirds of the way through the show the Homicide unit suddenly show their chops, a bunch of lazy overweight bureaucrats revealed to be skilled professionals more than capable of solving a case when pushed, as this time, they are. The gang way is contrasted as actually rewarding merit – what in NY would be called ‘clockers’, the street dealers, mostly teenagers, work long shifts, in all weather, some even supporting their younger family members with their earnings. The hardest workers generating highest profits move up from their current crew, given a new crew and percentage points on their profits instead of just salaries. The difference, of course, is Stringer Bell’s crew, the cadre of killers, the unit of shooters who clean house on behalf of the kingpin Avon Barksdale, and it is they whose actions lead to much of the character development seen on their side of their fence.
All of this storytelling ambition would amount to nothing if the quality of the writing didn’t support it, but it does more than support it. As with the other shows mentioned in this review, this is a writer’s show, the whole series built on the rock-solid foundation of great writing. David H. Melnick, Shamit Choksey, Joy Lusco and novelists Rafael Alvarez and George Pelecanos join creators David Simon and Ed Burns to produce writing of the quality of the team Dreamworks and HBO assembled for Band of Brothers. Characters develop organically, everyone is complex, everyone has needs, desires, dreams and goals, all of which are striven for, but only some of which are satisfied or reached. Full advantage is taken of the extra 15m or so available on advert-free HBO - entire scenes have been created which have no bearing on the plot, but serve only to illuminate the characters or illustrate the larger picture, while still entertaining us. Two prime examples stand out in the first season. The first has low-level dealer and kingpin’s nephew DeAngelo discovering his new street crew in The Pit have no idea what chess is – they’re using a chess set to play checkers (aka draughts)! He starts explaining it to them in terms they can understand, that of the drug corporate structure, only to discover their relative naiveté in terms of seeing the bigger picture. We the outsiders learn how what we’ve been seeing for the past few episodes works, while learning more about DeAngelo, Wallace, Poot and Bodie as people. The second is the pre-credits teaser for Episode 4: narc Herc is trying to move a desk through a door into the crappy basement office quarters the joint narc-homicide detail have been assigned (the genuine basement of Baltimore City Hall!), watched by Pawnshop unit veteran Freeman (a third of the way into the series, we have yet to learn his background – he will become a key player). When others pitch in, we’re treated to the comic site of cops on either side of a desk in a door, all pushing, with an appropriate punchline. The pinnacle of all this writing is the best scene never written by David Mamet, a look at an old crime scene that yields fresh results where the homicide ‘tecs use nothing but variants on the word ‘fuck’ to communicate!
This not a show given (as other HBO shows are) to stunt casting or famous faces, even if you’re a regular viewer of cop dramas on film and TV – the most recognisable actor is Frankie D. Faison (The Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal) as the Deputy Commisioner for Operations. Familiar faces from Homicide include Peter Gerety, Erik Dellums, Callie Thorne, and Toni Lewis, from Oz Lance Reddick, Seth Gilliam, Domineck Lombardozzi, John Doman, Wood Harris, Michael Hyatt while from come Cory Parker Robinson, Clarke Peters and Delaney Williams. The performance that provides the emotional centre of the show in this season comes, however, from Larry Gilliard Jr. (Straight Out Of Brooklyn, Gangs Of New York, Homicide), a young Andre Braugher in the making. For a show which is all about street cultures in Baltimore, though, it’s fascinating that the men who are effectively the leads of their respective ensembles, Dominic West and Idris Elba, are both British – if you didn’t know better you would never know, so good are their Baltimore accents, but even more importantly, their performances anchor so much of what goes on around them. When their characters appear, you know events are going to be driven forward in some small way, because of the kind of men they are and what they want to see from the world around them.
Excellent. The show looks fantastic, day or night, and the superb job of building reality so well speaks volumes to the talent of the DoP and lighting crew. Baltimore summer skies have never looked so blue.
The 5.1 mix comes to life in environmental situations, such as the inside of an SVU where rap is blaring, or Wee Bay’s basement party later in the series. The ambient detail is solid. The theme tune, “Way Down In The Hole” by Tom Waits, is here sung by the legendary blues combo the Blind Boys Of Alabama, and will raise hairs on the back of your neck with the appropriateness of its lyrics.
Packaging & Extras
The 13 episodes are presented on 5 discs in a clear digi-stack, wrapped in (appropriately) slick grey card, with the cover image from the US season 2 box on the outside and a picture of lead Dominic West on the inside. Although without a holder for it, there’s a 6 page fold-out insert listing basic episode credits included loose, as well as an ad for season 2’s debut on digital channel FX 289.
Typically for HBO there is a dearth of extras, but the three commentaries included do at least provide three of the key creative forces on this and subsequent series the chance to have their say – creator David Simon, director Clark Johnson and writer George Pelecanos. Simon’s dry delivery on the first episode and Johnson’s “I just got outta bed after a hard day and late night” on the second suggest they might have been better paired off together on both episodes, as Johnson’s done much better commentaries on Homicide Season 4 and The Shield Season 1; sadly, Producer Colesberry was supposed to be on the set, but passed away shortly before they were recorded. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be learnt from all three, almost as much as a featurette would have provided. Going back and watching the show in its entirety again, so many details stand out thanks to their comments, it proves the value of what they have said. However, the input of some of the cast would be welcome, particularly the young actors playing dealers, the Brits abroad, and the actresses’ thoughts on their nudity – pretty much all the lead actresses go topless at some point in the series!
Drug-taking, strippers, beatings, shootings, overdose deaths, foul language, gay kisses – HBO maintain their reputation for TV that would give ratings boards and the moral majority multiple heart attacks. Thankfully, they also maintain their reputation for adult drama that demands intelligent viewing and then respects it. What Band of Brothers did for the war genre, and Deadwood does to the Western genre, The Wire does to the cop genre, taking long-established clichés and turning them on their heads, seeking the reality behind them. David Simon here cements his position as one of the great modern American writers, addressing issues most novelists don’t go near, and couldn’t give their places in society. It’s a tragedy that we’re not writing roles in the UK to keep actors like West and Elba at home – but at least we get to see them deliver at the top of their game thanks to HBO.