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Movies  |  Reviews

The Wire: The Complete Series

December 8, 2008  |  9:00am
The Wire: The Complete Series
Release Date: Dec. 9
Producers: Ed Burns, Joe Chappelle, Robert F. Colesberry, Nina K. Noble, George Pelecanos, David Simon, Karen L. Thorson
Writers: Simon, Burns, Chris Collins, Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, David Mills, William F. Zorzi

Starring: Dominic West, Idris Elba, Aidan Gillen, Michael K. Williams, Andre Royo, John Doman, Frankie R. Faison, Jim True-Frost, Sonja Sohn, Lance Reddick, Jamie Hector, JD Williams, Felicia Pearson, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Bauer
Studio: HBO

Crime series does pay... huge emotional dividends


My only real complaint about HBO’s full-series box set of The Wire—the groundbreaking series about drug dealers, detectives, dock workers, students, reporters and pretty much everyone else in Baltimore—is the timing. This cinder block of a set, including 23 DVDs and an abundance of commentaries and features (many previously released on the series sets), arrives just months after the show’s final heart-rending, mind-blowing episode in March. It’s a handsome, thorough and well-appointed cap to the show’s amazing run, but like many others, I’m just not ready for it to be over and done with.

For that reason, it feels strange to talk about The Wire in the past tense—an awkwardness not unlike referring to a deceased loved one with “was” and “did.” Certainly, the final, shaky season conveyed a sense of loss not simply for the characters, but for viewers, too. Every next episode promised that the righteous might finally be redeemed and the wicked would surely fall, although the series delivered something more complicated and much more satisfying: an un-stylized sense of tragedy that loomed over every compromised character. Now that we have a full-series box, all their fates are permanently sealed.

More crucially, The Wire always felt so right-now. If it were a novel (and it’s rightly been called novelistic by superlative-hurling critics), it would be written in the present tense, better to convey a sense of urgency about the damning problems faced by every city. Each of the show’s five seasons explored a different aspect of Baltimore: the unwinnable drug war in seasons one and three, the loss of blue-collar jobs in the unjustly maligned second season, the failures of the school system in the near-perfect fourth season, and the inability of the local press to report on these problems in any sort of meaningful or committed way in the fifth.

Those divided concerns made watching the show week to week and season to season an occasionally disorienting experience, but like so many shows of this decade, The Wire works better on DVD, where the storylines coalesce into a brutal panorama of a city in freefall, unable to right its course. Its scope and detail recall Dickens (who is discussed, in a somewhat meta manner, in the fifth season), Sinclair, Dos Passos and other literary touchstones. And a drive around Baltimore—or D.C., Philly, Memphis, or just about any failing American city—suggests that the problems explored in The Wire are not only widespread but ongoing. The only real solution the series espoused, however, was a combination of personal involvement and individual action.

To describe the show’s mission and its impact makes it sound dryly academic, a sociological study rather than a compelling urban drama. The Wire began in 2002 as a singularly ambitious police procedural, introducing a group of Baltimore cops trying to take down a group of local drug dealers. Creator David Simon and co-executive producer Ed Burns (a former reporter and cop, respectively) were equally intrigued by police chains of command, street-corner hierarchies, reporter pools, union traditions and political strategies, portraying these spheres as interlocking systems: What happens in one sphere affects all the others. That the crew was able to portray these complex systems so vividly and so naturally—making them not just comprehensible but actively absorbing—was one of the show’s major narrative triumphs.

Even as it took a broad view of Baltimore’s ills, The Wire never neglected its characters, whose arcs ran through the entire show—or, in some sad cases, through only a season or two. Self-destructive detective Jimmy McNulty (played by British actor Dominic West) is often identified as the show’s main character, but the cast is so large and the actors so deft that everyone seems like a major character, from resourceful gay thug Omar (played by the magnetic Michael K. Williams) to hapless addict/informant Bubs (Andre Royo, living proof that the Emmys are bunk) to compromised politician Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen). The group of schoolkids in the fourth season carry that season on their shoulders, projecting so much natural camaraderie and innocence that you forget The Wire isn’t actually a documentary.

The show wasn’t perfect—the serial-killer storyline in the fifth season felt a bit too sensational—and neither is this box set, which has very little material that wasn’t already on the individual season sets. Still, during its run, The Wire was the best show on television, denser than Lost and scarier than The Sopranos, better than any of the mythology shows on the major networks. It was—is—a monument.

Watch the opening scene of The Wire:

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