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
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
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
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.