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The Wire: Season One (2002)

August 19th, 2007 · 3 Comments

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By Joe Valdez

Baltimore homicide detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) visits the murder trial of D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.). When a witness recants her testimony, McNulty realizes the drug traffickers D’Angelo works for have gotten to her. McNulty meets with the judge and explains how D’Angelo’s uncle Avon Barksdale has taken over several highrises in the West Baltimore projects, and his crew has racked up ten bodies in the last year.

The judge complains to McNulty’s superiors and demands a special detail be created to investigate Avon Barksdale. That detail includes Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick), a narcotics commander with a law degree and respect for chain of command, and Detective Greggs (Sonja Sohn), a driven “real police” who becomes absorbed by the case the deeper she gets into it.

The rest of the detail are “humps,” cops other divisions don’t mind unloading. Detectives Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Carver (Seth Gilliam) are “fighting the war on drugs one brutality case at a time.” Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) is a veteran homicide detective who inexplicably works for the pawn shop unit and builds miniature furniture in his spare time. Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) is the son-in-law of a police major and seemingly a fuck-up.

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Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) – who’s never been arrested and no one outside the projects knows exists – reprimands D’Angelo. His lieutenant Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) demotes D’Angelo to managing operations at “The Pit,” a lowrise housing project. D’Angelo’s employees are entry level workers in his uncle’s empire. D’Angelo isn’t sure of which direction to take his life. He tries steering the youngsters away from violence and toward some other way to conduct business.

Baltimore PD has no desire to sacrifice manpower or funds to pursue Barksdale. They instruct Daniels to do quick buy/busts and get this case over with. McNulty explains that won’t work. Barksdale and Bell are too insulated to go near drugs. The only way to make the case is through surveillance and a wire tap. The problem is that Barksdale’s people use pagers and pay phones to communicate.

McNulty seeks help from a district attorney (Deirdre Lovejoy), who clones D’Angelo’s pager. When he gets beeped, the cops get beeped, and they successfully map out Barksdale’s operation. Complications arise when they track money from Barksdale going into the reelection campaigns of local senators, and politics threatens to shut the unit down.

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David Simon – a former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun – had served as a writer and producer on the TV series Homicide: Life On The Street. Simon differed with NBC over what they perceived as pessimism on the show. He teamed with writer Edward Burns, who spent the last decade of his career with the Baltimore PD on wire tap cases against violent drug gangs. With producer Robert F. Colesberry, Simon set up The Wire at HBO.

The series he had in mind would be unlike any other cop show on the air. It was serialized, following a single investigation over the course of 12 episodes, each an hour in length. One episode tied into the next, like chapters of a novel. Because the story spanned over a season, Simon & Burns could develop their characters and explore the nuances of how institutions really work.

There would be no musical cues to pump up the mood, or to tell the audience what they were supposed to be feeling. All the music or sound effects were sourced; they physically existed in the world of the story. Shot entirely in Baltimore, the series had big screen quality, rejecting the closed feel of a soundstage and showing the world as the writers knew it actually existed.

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This would be a good place for me to state that I do not watch TV shows anymore. I’m a film geek, and while I’ll freely admit there has been great writing in TV Land recently (The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rescue Me), my Netflix queue has me otherwise committed through 2010.

The Wire has been called the best series ever written for television and I’m inclined to agree. It unfolds like a novel, starting slowly, but rewarding attention by building an epic narrative on the country’s institutions – police, politicians, drug dealers – and the compromises made by men and women within those institutions. This isn’t Law & Order. This is Charles Dickens.

The series explores so much. There’s a heroin addict named Bubbles (Andre Royo) with a photographic memory who becomes a valued informant for the unit when he’s not getting high. Omar (Michael K. Williams) is a wily bandit who robs drug dealers and engages Barksdale in a vendetta. A high school dropout – who can’t stomach the violence he witnesses his employers unleash – is to turn state’s witness, if he can live long enough.

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The genius of The Wire is that every character in this world has a role to play. It’s not personal. This is just business. Hauk & Carver discover that everyone in the projects is at a basketball game. They go to the game and are approached by the “project yo’s” they’d normally be chasing. “Ain’t ya’ll on the clock?” “Aren’t you,?”Carver asks. “We’re on break!” “We’re on break too,” Carver responds. A civil conversation follows. Once the break ends, both sides go back to work.

Much of the material was gleamed by Simon & Burns while working with Baltimore cops in the 1980s. One memorable scene has McNulty and his partner Bunk (Wendell Pierce) reexamining a murder scene and communicating with nothing but the word “fuck.”Another great piece of writing has D’Angelo teaching the yo’s chess, explaining the different pieces by comparing them to members of their organization, from the kingpin to the pawns.

The show’s outstanding theme song – “Way Down In The Hole” – is written by Tom Waits and performed by The Blind Boys of Alabama in Season One. Waits lends his vocals to the tune in Season Two, in which the unit reunites to investigate murder and smuggling amid longshoremen at the city’s port. It’s even more brilliant, more addictive than Season One is. Both are available on DVD, and I can’t recommend them enough.

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“The king stay the king.” View the terrific opening credits sequence, and D’Angelo explain the game of chess.

“You gotta let these motherfuckers know who you are!” View Hauk, Carver and Pryzbylewski go into the towers at 2 am, drunk, to conduct “field interviews”.

“Ah, fuck.” View the classic crime scene with McNulty, Bunk and one word of English.

Tags: Drunk scene · Famous line · TV series

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph R. Valdez // Sep 20, 2007 at 7:38 am

    “Bravo”! Keep up the great work.

  • 2 ct // Sep 1, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    what was the cahin of command starting with avon b stringer..n so on

  • 3 Sedate Me // Aug 19, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    I’m so glad this show didn’t go to NBC. It would have robbed us of probably the best TV ever made. NBC would have made every episode wrap up in a happy ending where the cops win out and the bad guys pay. Network TV is so stupid now, NBC wouldn’t even dream of airing Simon’s show, Homicide, today. It was a good show, but it would have been great on HBO.

    The Wire was also likely the most far reaching show of all time. It tackled poverty, crime, education, politics, drugs, racism and more in a shockingly realistic way. It was serious, funny, sexy, sad, disturbing and almost every other emotion you can imagine. And somehow, this may be the hardest trick of all, the show managed to get you to care about/sympathize with almost every character at one point or other, even when they were in direct conflict. That’s masterful writing.

    Only thing I didn’t like (SPOILER ALERT) was how they made sure almost every criminal character got killed in the last few shows. A tad forced, but reflective of reality.

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