The Wire – Season 1

The Wire – Season 1

When I started this blog the idea was for it to be about movies AND television. For a while, and by a while I mean maybe the better part of a month, I maintained the TV blog writing about what shows I deemed worthy of writing about. However I am a full-time college student and at a certain point you just get sick of writing about everything. Sorry I don’t always feel like cranking out 500 words on why Glee sucks now so I abandoned the TV blog (though curiously enough the eight-month old reviews still get a surprising number of page views… often more than my current movie reviews). Anyway, the Retro TV Blog was always an idea where I could go back and revisit my favorites. (You know, like they do at The AV Club, who I totally stole this idea from [though I doubt they were the first].) While I wrote about an episode of Masters of Horror back on Halloween and an old episode of The Simpsons earlier this week, I haven’t really followed through on the idea. Well I’ve decided to do it now. I can go at my own pace so I won’t have to write several articles like I did back when I was trying current shows. Anyway, I figured I’d start with my all-time favorite television series, The Wire. Since this is the pilot, there’s obviously a decent amount of exposition going on. I’m going to generally try not to over-summarize in these articles but I feel like I can’t help it this time around.

The Wire starts out with a homicide. The victim, Omar Isaiah Betts, is lying dead on the street and the police are on the scene. Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) is questioning a witness. The witness isn’t naming names but can’t believe someone killed Betts, better known as “Snot Boogie.” Jimmy muses on the deceased’s unfortunate nickname. He must have had a runny nose or something one day and was branded with a nickname that would follow him for the rest of his (admittedly short) life. Snot was killed robbing a craps game. The same game he robbed every week. He would wait for the pot to get big and then grab it and run. He’d always get caught. Just this last time someone killed him for it. In the first few minutes of the show, The Wire lays out one of the themes that will heartbreakingly play out over and over again over the next five seasons: people get caught. Other people decide who you are and you get trapped living that role. I did a little counting and about 10 of the characters introduced in the pilot episode (some very briefly) don’t live to the end of the series.

The first season of The Wire focuses on the drug trade (all five seasons did to one degree or another but subsequent seasons expanded the scope significantly). It covers three sides: the cops, the criminals, and the people in the middle. On the criminal side, our central character is D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), the nephew to kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), who just beat a murder rap and now has to deal with a demotion to supervising drug dealing in “the pit” between the towers of the housing project that Barksdale’s empire dominates. He supervises young dealers Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), Bodie (J.D. Williams), and Poot (Tray Chaney) teaching them how to take their job more seriously and given them subtext-laden lessons about Chicken McNuggets and chess. The police investigation holds Avon, his right hand Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba), and his amiable chief soldier Roland “Wee-Bay” Bryce (Hassan Johnson) among their chief targets but it’s D’Angelo and the pit boys we spend the most time with. Wallace in particular has the heart-wrenching story of being in a dangerous criminal profession he’s not cut out for, trying to get out of and coming back because it’s all he knows. Of course Wallace’s problems really just reinforce D’Angelo’s. His ties to the drug empire are stronger. He’s stuck in through blood. He can’t get out.

The cops of The Wire aren’t really typical TV cops. Well, they are in a lot of respects. You’ll get the same morbid gallows humor you get from Law & Order cops here. The main difference with the cops on The Wire is that they’re not motivated by a deeply felt sense of right and wrong. The men in charge are motivated by political pressures and their own potential for advancement. Most of the detectives are motivated by just wanting to do their job well enough to hold onto it through their pension. Our main police character, McNulty, is motivated simply by having to prove he is smarter than other people. He’s got a certain charm, but he’s kind of a smug prick. The only reason he stirs up all the Avon Barksdale stuff is because he wants to prove how much smarter he is than his Major, William Rawls (John Doman). Rawls just wants individual murders solved so the Homicide unit has a good clearance rate. Jimmy sees one man BEHIND all these murders and wants to take him down (again, just to prove that some drug kingpin can’t outsmart him).

That’s just McNulty, though. Like I said, a LOT of the characters on The Wire are more motivated by advancement. Major Rawls doesn’t give a good god damn about busting Barksdale. He just wants cased solved on a case-by-case basis to keep the unit’s statistics as good as he can in a city with around 250 murders a year. The Deputy Commissioner of Operations Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) doesn’t care until he gets some angry communications from Judge Phelan (Peter Garrety) about why a guy believed responsible for about a dozen murders isn’t being investigated. Of course Phelan only knows because McNulty told him. So the brass set up a detail, headed by Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), a career man with good prospects. He’s told to get in and get out and to keep it quick and low-key. Three guesses how that turns out. Daniels isn’t firmly on the “career advancement” or “good policework” side of the fence. He’s under the impression both are possible. By the end of the season he’s made his choice.

Daniels takes some of his detective with him from Narcotics: Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), and Thomas “Herc” Hauk (Dominick Lombardozzi). Greggs is a pro but Carver and Herc are from the Western District where the philosophy is more of the skull-cracking variety. Besides McNulty, the rest of the detail is staffed with “humps,” lazy cops whose usual commanding officers were looking to unload them like drunken detective Polk and Mahone (“pogue mahon” being Gaelic for “kiss my ass”). There’s Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) from the pawn shop unit who sits quietly making model furniture. There’s Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), a fuck-up who is only still a police officer because his father-in-law (Al Brown) is a major. Over the course of the season, some of them grow, some don’t, and a couple of them reveal hidden talents.

The drug trade isn’t just an abstract idea. Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins (Andre Royo) and Johnny Weeks (Leo Fitzpatrick) are crack addicts. Johnny is pretty unapologetic about his drug abuse, despite being beaten to a bloody pulp in the pilot (and getting some worse news later on). Bubbles however is conflicted. He keeps feeding his habit and engaging in a variety of scams but after watching Bodie and Poot beat the shit out of Johnny he decides he might want a little payback against the Barksdale organization. Turns out Bubbles is one of the best criminal informants the Baltimore Police have worked with. Of course the other threat to the Barksdale organization is from The Wire’s most popular characters: homosexual stick-up artist Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams). Williams is a force of nature in the role and will always be identified with it.

Over the thirteen episodes that comprise the first season, a lot of things change. This isn’t The Killing; shit actually happens on this show. Of course the sad point made in the season finale is that same old cliché: the more things change the more they stay the same. You get Bodie spouting to younger crew a dealers the same lesson D’Angelo was telling him at the start of the season. You get like D’Angelo who want so desperately to get out but can’t. You see a few people who don’t make it to the end of the season. Season one of The Wire is still a show about cops and criminals but it makes everything human. It’s not just stock characters. It’s the first section of an epic story about a city and the systemic dysfunction that cripples it. Even if the show ended after one year it would probably rank as one of the best cop series of all time (if not THE best).

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  1. […] its first season (this might seems redundant to anyone who read my earlier article) The Wire is a show about police and criminals and those caught between them in the ever-failing […]

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