Seasoned: Matt Reviews THE WIRE – Season 1

by     Posted 2 years, 222 days ago

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Up until the past 15 years or so, television series were firmly episodic.  Serialized TV (outside of mini-series) risked alienating viewers since it stopped anyone from coming in mid-season.  However, with the rise of DVDs, OnDemand, and digital downloads, serialized TV series have become firmly established.  Some shows still retain an episodic nature, but some series—particularly dramas—have been built around telling one long story over the course of an entire season.  Our new feature, Seasoned, will review a TV series by season rather than by episode.

And we couldn’t think of a better kick-off to this feature than HBO’s The Wire.  Hit the jump for my review of the groundbreaking drama’s first season.

the-wire-season-1-posterBefore I begin my review of The Wire, I would like to establish two important points regarding my viewing experience.  First, I previously saw the first three seasons of the series, but it was several years ago, and I can only remember the broadest aspects of the plot.  For a show where the devil is in the details, my review will basically be a first viewing.  This leads to my second point: I am purposely avoiding outside commentary on Season One because it may reveal plot points about the other seasons, and I would like my viewing to be as fresh as possible.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

In June 2002, HBO began airing The Wire, a police drama unlike any that had come before.  Created by former Baltimore police reporter David Simon and former homicide detective Ed Burns, the show blasted apart every cliché and comfort of the standard police procedural.  Simon had already begun picking apart the genre with his series Homicide: Life on the Street, but The Wire went far beyond the perspective of cops.

Set in Baltimore (a city where Simon had the greatest familiarity) and with the blessing of the city’s mayor, the show took an unflinching look at the intersection of police investigations, criminal organizations, social issues, and the politics in between.  The show rarely, if ever, took a hard stance on characters simply being “good” or “evil”, although some were portrayed as more admirable than others.  It’s a series based around compromise, and exploring the morality and necessity behind those compromises. Furthermore, The Wire tends to function more as social observation rather than social commentary.  Simon and Burns refuse to provide answers or solutions because the story proves there’s no quick fix when it comes to a complex web of conflicts, and, more importantly, to human nature.

The self-destructive nature of Homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) begins our journey into the complicated world of Baltimore’s cops and criminals.  Westside drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) has left a string of bodies as collateral damage in his criminal operation.  After McNulty watches Avon’s nephew D’Angelo (Larry Gilliard) escape conviction due to witness intimidation, he brings his grievances to Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety), and says that the murders will continue until Avon is brought to justice.  Phelan uses his political might to push the Deputy Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) to create a detail to investigate Barksdale.  Burrell tells the detail’s leader, Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), to keep the investigation brief and contained, but McNulty’s constant needling and the mounting evidence against Barksdale expands the scope of the case.

the-wire-season-1-tv-show-imageMost police dramas would focus simply on the work of the detail, and would barely acknowledge the criminal organization or the political factors guiding and obstructing the investigation.  In The Wire, these elements are not only acknowledged, but deemed essential.  Much like the cops, the criminals have a clear organizational structure but it’s far more streamlined and functional than what the police (or “po-leece” in the dialect of both the cops and criminals) have.  Avon is the top dog, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) is his smart and steady second-in-command, and then there are lieutenants who function both as muscle and overseers of various parts of the drug-dealing locations.  DeAngelo is demoted from the Towers to “The Pit”, which makes less money and forces DeAngelo to function as both a boss and a mentor to the teenage dealers Poot Carr (Tray Chaney),Bodie Broadus (J.D. Williams), and Wallace (Michael B. Jordan).  Of course, violence is also a strong factor in keeping the ranks in line.  As Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) points out to his partner Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), the cops will never “win” because the criminals’ system of promotion and punishment is far more powerful than what the Baltimore Police Department can dish out.

The Wire is a deeply complicated show and I could spend pages going through every plot development and character motive.  But this isn’t meant to be a recap.  This is an outline of the organizations in play: The Law, The Politics, and The Criminals.  Although the show’s title is a literally a reference to the wiretapping the detail used to build their case against Barksdale, it’s figuratively about the wires that interconnect and crossover the various aspects of the show.  For example, the detail works with Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) in order to bring down Barksdale even though Omar is a criminal who participates not under pressure or threats, but because he wants revenge against Barksdale for the brutal retaliatory murder of Omar’s partner and boyfriend.  The detail also works with Bubbles (Andre Royo), a drug addict who volunteers as a criminal informant in order to punish Barksdale’s crew for stomping on his friend.

the-wire-season-1-tv-show-image-dominic-west-sonja-sohnIn a standard police procedural, there’s no cooperation.  There’s only intimidation.  The cops hang a charge over a criminal’s head and the criminal either agrees to inform or they go to jail.  In order to keep the plot moving forward, the criminal usually agrees to work with the cops.  That kind of intimidation exists on The Wire, but it’s used not only as a means of coercion, but also a means of unsanctioned punishment giving way to straight-up police brutality.  When Detective Greggs (Sonja Sohn), a smart and honorable investigator on the detail, tries to get a hitter Barksdale’s crew to cop to a murder and flip on his boss, the perp only throws hateful epithets her way.  This behavior is greeted a severe beat-down by Greggs and two more cops inside the interrogation room.  He deserves it, but we’d like to think cops are above such brutality.  And in a normal cop show, such brutality would become the defining issue of an episode, and the cop would be punished.  In The Wire, it’s fairly commonplace, and so are other short-cuts.  There are no straight-arrow po-lice on the show, and if there were, they’d be totally ineffective.

So are Greggs and her cohorts corrupt?  Are they unfit for duty?  Shouldn’t they be above such behavior?  The Wire doesn’t quibble with these issues as plot points because the show isn’t about moralizing.  The show lives and breathes in the grey area, and it leaves the moral judgments to the viewer.  That’s not to say that a character’s morality doesn’t affect their circumstances.  If placed in a dramatic range, The Wire would absolutely be a tragedy.  Some of the characters are doomed by their own personalities and moral code.  McNulty’s anti-authority streak, short temper, and self-righteousness mean he’ll always hurt himself, and his resultant self-loathing will push away those around him.  D’Angelo and Wallace show empathy in a game that has no patience for it, and both suffer and, in the case of Wallace, die as a result.

the-wire-season-1-tv-show-image-idris-elbaAlthough empathy and righteousness are flaws in the world of The Wire, there are also traits that will push you ahead.  For Simon and Burns, the most valuable aspects a person can have are intelligence and cunning, and the characters with these qualities are fan favorites.  Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) is a quiet powerhouse who spends time making dollhouse furniture and being the smartest guy on the detail.  On the criminal side, you have Stringer Bell, a man of steady demeanor and patience, and you have Omar, an outsider who is able to outsmart a deadly operation like Barksdale’s.  And to be a king in this world, to be Avon Barksdale or Baltimore politicians, you just have to mix in ruthlessness and selfishness.

All of these aspects make The Wire a thoughtful, brainy experience that would be rewarding, but not necessarily entertaining.  To draw the viewer into the rich themes, Simon and Burns walk a fine line between dramatic flourishes and deglamorizing their world.  For the show’s creators, the “action” scenes are the least interesting part of the mix.  The raids always lack tension, and one of the season’s biggest “action” moments—Greggs getting shot—happens off camera.  The tension comes from the detail trying to find Greggs’ vehicle.  Getting the killer of Avon’s ex-girlfriend isn’t triumphant.  What’s triumphant is the scene where McNulty and his partner Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) reconstruct the crime scene using only the word “Fuck.”  One of the season’s most exciting scenes is when Freamon tells detail members Leander Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) and Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) how to pull charter records. In The Wire, the drama is always from the chase, never from the capture.  The first even sets up the specter of what could be cops’ greatest chase and greatest futility: “Following the money,” which would clearly lead to the dirty-as-hell State Senator R. Clayton “Clay” Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).

the-wire-season-1-tv-show-image-dominic-west-clarke-petersHowever, this emphasis on chase-over-capture inevitably leads to an anti-climax, which serves the themes, but not the drama.  It’s a result of always putting realism first, and the reality of Baltimore as viewed through the lens of The Wire is futility.  Avon’s business goes on without him.  The higher-ups in the Baltimore Police Department keep their standing.  The detail ends, the team we’ve grown to love is broken up, McNulty is kicked out of homicide, Daniels loses his shot at being a major because he put the case ahead of his career, and Greggs is stuck recovering in a hospital.  But Freamon gets pulled out of boring Pawn Shop division and reassigned to homicide, and the last shot of the season is a smiling Omar, sticking-up a drug dealer in the Bronx, and saying “It’s all in the game.”

At the end of the first season of The Wire, the show manages to turn expectations on their head, and then laughs off the simple label of “police procedural.”   The Wire has been called literature in television form, and it’s not an unfair description.  Season One of The Wire brings us characters, backstories, dynamics, organizations, and a rich setting—all of the elements that make up a strong drama.  It’s also a show that can’t be “skimmed” and even has long monologues.  From the get-go, Simon and Burns proved they had made a show unlike any other, and I can’t wait to see what Season Two has to offer.




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  • Wtfmann

    After many weeks of urging I finally sat down to watch this show, and man, after an initial settling in period of about 3-4 episodes, I was completely hooked and really, really impressed. I can totally see now why so many people say its one of the greatest shows ever made. It’s completely true that it unravels more like a novel on screen than a typical show, and it only gets better after season 1.

  • vxx

    An excellent essay about The Wire.

  • Sugreev2001

    Love the show,every season was better than the last.But besides McNulty,Stringer and their gang….I thought the schoolkids plotline (S03-04) stole the entire series.

  • Dev1359

    Greatest show of all time

  • Ron

    This series was and is an absolute masterpiece. All the seasons contain excellent acting and exceptional writing. This is television at its best!!!

  • Micah

    The only show that has a chance to compete with The Wire for the best series ever is Breaking Bad. And thats only if the final season is as good as the first four.

  • Dante

    Omar comin’!

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  • lawrence lebin

    there’s that scene where mcnulty and bunk are investigating the shooting death of one of avon’s murdered girl friends. the scene shows two expert investigators at work. in ten minutes they figure out how the whole thing went down. the only dialogue is the word f—, as they discover bullets, casings and positions.

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  • Ramy Madstein

    I have purchased the whole set to see what all the fuss was about. If you like 24, prison break etc dont think this is like them, after watching the first 2 episodes I thought, boring and no excitement. That’s the whole point the episodes do not finish with cliff hangers they are like chapters I have now hot episode 4 of season 1 and finally getting to a point where I don’t want to put the book down. However it’s still not living up to all its press but I am sure this acquired taste will live up to its reviews as the story continues to develop its plots.

    • Tiago

      It will, even though hype can sometimes bring a show down

      . One of the consistently amazing things is that the show has a long, long memory. Small, seemingly minor moments from season 1 will play a part right up to the finale, and it’s a work of patience. A few episodes alone are not enough to judge the show, and even though seasons are bookended, one season in and of itself might sometimes be just laying the groundwork for a future payoff. Some of it will only make full sense at the very end, when all dots and loose ends are connected. So, it’s most definitely a work of patience.

  • Mikey

    Having heard the hype, I received the box set as a christmas present. While I found plenty of the language hard to follow over the first few episodes, I could follow the storyline well enough, and ended the first season very impressed. However, after reading Wikipedia’s episode details, I realised how much I had missed by not being able to follow the language easily. So I re-watched the whole of season 1 with the subtitles on. Boy, I was amazed at the details that had completely passed me by, and with this new level of detail, enjoyed the whole season ten times more than I initially had. I think also, that rewatching it, I had a much clearer picture from the start about who was who, and was able to follow each character’s story knowing where they would end up, and seeing how their stories developed. Yes, it is a bit gutting that the Barksdale ‘detail’ is broken up at the end of the season with all its members that little bit wiser and more experienced, but that is the nature of life – groups of people come together and blaze a trail for a while, but it never lasts forever, and we all move on. Terrific stuff, and oh, i enjoyed your essay as well….

  • chevy28360

    I’ve now watched the whole series. Season One through Season Five. I must say that I have really enjoyed the series and I think it definitely deserves the hype. The first season may turn some people away. Especially at first. I have to admit that the poor dialogue and mediocre acting had me playing on the computer while the show played for at least three or four episodes. But what the show lacks in writing, it makes up for in story, and characters. The lead characters, especially Avon and Stringer, are extremely compelling. The fourth season, which centers around a school, is by far the best. By this point, the writers have found their characters voices, so the dialogue is much better. And the story and characters had matured which is clear as the writers weave a truly engrossing season. Season five was a bit disappointing for me. The characters make choices that just seem too far outside of the bounds. It takes the show in an interesting direction, but the whole time I couldn’t shake the feeling that it just didn’t seem to fit the mold they had formed for these characters over the last four seasons.

    In any case. Give the show a chance. Be warned that the dialogue is really poor for the first season. But the characters save it. Before long, the writers find their characters, and it all comes together for a truly great show.

  • chevy28360

    I\’ve now watched the whole series. Season One through Season Five. I must say that I have really enjoyed the series and I think it definitely deserves the hype. The first season may turn some people away. Especially at first. I have to admit that the poor dialogue and mediocre acting had me playing on the computer while the show played for at least three or four episodes. But what the show lacks in writing, it makes up for in story, and characters. The lead characters, especially Avon and Stringer, are extremely compelling. The fourth season, which centers around a school, is by far the best. By this point, the writers have found their characters voices, so the dialogue is much better. And the story and characters had matured which is clear as the writers weave a truly engrossing season. Season five was a bit disappointing for me. The characters make choices that just seem too far outside of the bounds. It takes the show in an interesting direction, but the whole time I couldn\’t shake the feeling that it just didn\’t seem to fit the mold they had formed for these characters over the last four seasons.

    In any case. Give the show a chance. Be warned that the dialogue is really poor for the first season. But the characters save it. Before long, the writers find their characters, and it all comes together for a truly great show.

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