The Wire is, at first glance, Yet Another Cop Show, about a group of disparate and conflicted police officers working to bring down criminals who are often not much better than they are. Yawn. However, there are two things that mean that people should take this seriously. Firstly, it's made by HBO who, up to a couple of years ago anyway, seemed physically incapable of making something unless it was absolutely gripping and awesome. Secondly, it's the creation of former police writer and journalist David Simon, whose previous show was the brilliant Homicide: Life on the Street.
The Wire kicks off on the mean streets of Baltimore, Maryland, in 2002. A murder case against a young black man named D'Angelo Barksdale collapses when one of the witnesses is scared into retracting her testimony. The furious judge learns from homicide detective Jimmy McNulty that D'Angelo is a junior member of a far-reaching criminal gang run by his cousin, the extremely elusive Avon Barksdale. This gang controls all the drug supplies on the west side of the city, and are protected by a labyrinth of legit front organisations. Determined to get some payback, the judge uses his influence to have a special joint homicide-narcotics unit formed to bring down the Barksdale gang, with McNulty assigned and an up-and-coming officer named Lt. Daniels placed in charge.
The investigation into the Barksdale organisation by the unit forms the backbone of the first season of the show, but that's just one side of the story. We also get to see the investigation from the POV of the criminals themselves, most notably D'Angelo as he finds himself free but busted down to supplying the lowest of the estates, as well as the kids who work for him. A dangerous, unpredictable third faction is also in play in the form of the one-man army Omar Little, a criminal whose personal code means he can only steal from other criminals. The police try to form an alliance with Omar to bring down Barksdale, but their erstwhile ally has an unfortunate tendency to blow away the criminals they're trying to get locked up, which makes this a difficult task.
The appeal of The Wire is hard to explain to those who haven't seen it. It's fairly slow-moving (although never dull) in places and arguably takes two or three episodes to really kick in. It's also pretty unforgiving if you miss an episode. Flashbacks to prior episodes are non-existent, and plot points and character and emotional arcs often turn on a single conversation from several episodes earlier. You need to pay attention here. Luckily, that's made easy by the tight writing, the ingenious methods the criminals go to avoid being caught and the even more intelligent methods the police need to use to investigate them, and the acting. It'd be almost impossible to single out any of the actors for praise. British actor Dominic West has the closest thing to a central role as McNulty, and handles the character very well, but Lance Reddick (more recently seen as the enigmatic Abbadon in Lost) holds every scene he's in as the formidable Lt. Daniels. Clarke Peters develops his character of Lester Freamon from almost a background role to that of the most intelligent and confident officer on the team in a natural and impressive manner. John Doman's constantly-infuriated performance as McNulty's commanding officer and eternal nemesis Major Rawls has to be mentioned as well.
On the criminal side of things, British actor Idris Elba (formerly seen as Vaughn in the excellent Ultraviolet) impresses as Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale's trusted number-two man, and Larry Gilliard Jr. provides the main criminal POV as 'D' Barksdale, as he tries to claw his way back up the organisation amidst growing concerns about how the family does business. For most people - including Barak Obama - the stand-out performances in the show belong to two of the more morally ambiguous characters, namely Michael K. Williams as the dangerously unpredictable Omar and Andre Royo as 'Bubs', a street informant struggling with his own drug addiction. Royo's performance was so convincing that whilst filming he was offered a heroin fix by a passer-by who thought he badly needed it, and later referred to this as his 'street Oscar'.
The cast is uniformally brilliant (the above barely scratches the surface of the quality performances and characters on display here), the writing is fantastic and the show is, surprisingly, very funny. Whether it's the stories of some mind-bogglingly stupid criminals, or the ridiculous difficulties the team faces at getting a desk into their basement office, or Bubs' methods of identifying suspects for the police observers, the show has a jet-black vein of comedy which gives several laughs per episode. This is necessary because the show can be quite bleak, showing as it does wasted young lives amidst the crumbling tenements of a poor city, and a lot of the characters die in rather unpleasant ways over the course of the investigation. The investigation also ends messily, and the fates of many of the characters is left wide open for the second season.
The Wire: Season 1 (*****) takes a couple of episodes to build up a head of steam and get you into its headspace, but once that's done it never lets go. The show is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and also as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA). Fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie waxes lyrical on the show here, whilst British TV critic Charlie Brooker has a video appraisal here.
McNulty in full-on smug mode is even more supremely punchable in 1080p
It's been seven years (!) since I watched the first season of The Wire and I was concerned that I would have forgotten too much about the show to enjoy one of its oft-reported key features, the fact that on a rewatch you pick up so much material that flies over your head in the initial viewing. In fact, it didn't take too much past McNulty's opening eulogy to Snot Boogie (the first, but a long way from the last, murder we see on the show) for the entire season to reassert itself in my head. There's not too many shows that can do that, but this is one that stays with you through the years.
On a rewatch, the first thing that impresses is how tightly written and meticulously constructed the series really is. There is not a single wasted breath, pointless line of dialogue or redundant moment in the entire season. The season is beautifully bookended by looping things full circle (Stringer Bell's respectful - if sardonic - acknowledgement of McNulty's intelligence in the finale reflecting McNulty's angry congratulations in the opening episode) but the finale also moves things forward and keeps stories in play for the second season. The characterisation is absolutely stunning, with even the most seemingly irredeemable character given their moments of humanity: Rawls decisively taking charge of the crime scene investigation after Kima is shot and his reassurance of his sworn nemesis McNulty afterwards gives him a depth matched by only one other scene in the entire series (and knowing that about Rawls...changes nothing at all, because it's completely irrelevant). Wee-Bey may be a totally murderous, ruthless killer, but it's hard not feel a momentary twang of sympathy or respect when he stands up and takes the fall for the entire drug gang in the finale, knowing he will never see freedom again. This is given more resonance by knowing what he does in Season 4: the man, for all of his despicable attributes, has his code.
Beyond the terrific writing, measured pace and awe-inspiring construction of the story, there is the absolute howl-inducing sense of humour. There's the single greatest crime scene investigation scene in filmed history (TV or movies), the desk-moving scene, the fishtank episode, McNulty's handling of Bunk's (very minor) betrayal, Bub's crazy schemes to get drug money, Omar's apology for killing an important witness (and McNulty's resulting attempt to measure his own morality) and the banter of the kids in the low rises. This is balanced out elsewhere by the tragedies: what happens to the witnesses in the opening court case (even the one who plays ball with Stringer), the fate of Bubs's friend and the absolute gut-punching of Wallace's rise and fall in favour.
Later seasons may be more complex and more layered, but the first season of The Wire has a tremendous focus and story-telling purity to it that makes it my favourite of the five, and easily one of the greatest seasons in the history of television (absolutely no hyperbole required). The high definition makeover is technically stunning, and in fact David Simon's concern that the show would suffer from losing its grainy documentary look doesn't really materialise. An on-the-streets documentary about Baltimore today would be shot in HD, and in fact the grimmer aspects of The Wire take on a stronger resonance when you can see the streets, the corners and the dusty police offices in much clearer detail.
The Wire complete series blu-ray set is available now in the UK and USA.