Sunday 29 March 2009

The Wire on the BBC: An Introduction

The Wire - possibly the single most critically lauded TV drama this century - makes its UK terrestial debut airing at 11.30 on Monday 30 March on BBC-2. The entire series - all 60 episodes - will air across just over three months, with one episode per weekday night (likely to be disrupted for public holidays and sporting events). The series will be available via the BBC iPlayer as well.

The BBC had previously resisted calls to screen the series, suggesting that the amount of violence, drug use and adult language in the series would push it into a late-night slot that would not garner high ratings. However, it is believed that the advent of the iPlayer, which allows episodes to be downloaded within seven days of their transmission and then watched within a further 28 days, has reduced such problems. It is also possible that better relations between the BBC and HBO (who also co-funding a certain epic fantasy project to start shooting in the autumn) have also inspired this move and, if successful, may clear the way for some of HBO's other shows to be screened by the BBC (most notably Deadwood).

Enough of the technicalities, The Wire has a reputation for being difficult to get into and overly-complex. I think that is overstated (and the very first scene is hilarious and should grab most viewers' attention), but the first episode can throw you for a loop since it starts in the middle of an already in-progress criminal case. For this reason here is a bit of a swotter's guide to help set the viewer up for the first episode.

The Case
At the start of the first episode, a murder case is underway in Baltimore, Maryland. The defendant is a young black man named D'Angelo Barksdale, who is charged with shooting dead a man named Pooh Blanchard in the lobby of 221 West Fremont, a high-rise on the poor, mostly black west side of Baltimore. The Baltimore police department is spending a lot of time arresting and harassing the street-level drug dealers in the area, but there is no major investigation going on into the actual high-players and gang leaders involved in the trade. Homicide detective Jimmy McNulty believes D'Angelo is a mid-level player in the drugs gang led by his uncle, Avon, who seems to be gaining more power and control over the city and has beaten several murder charges through intimidation and elimination of witnesss. McNulty sees an opportunity to take the fight to the leaders of the drug trade, and follows developments in the D'Angelo case closely.

The Police* & Law Enforcement
*Sometimes referred to by fans as 'po-leece' in accordance with the Baltimore accent.

Jimmy McNulty
McNulty is the nominal 'main' police character who sets the events of the whole series in motion with an indiscreet chat with a judge leading to his department being turned upside down. McNulty is forthright, opinionated and exceptionally arrogant in his confidence that he can beat any criminal, no matter how smart they are. He is also a womaniser and is fond of alcohol. McNulty has a dangerous independent streak and is not the best team-player in the world, although he is fiercely loyal to his friends and his homicide partner, Bunk.

Cedric Daniels
Lt. Daniels was once a promising officer on a fast-track career until some indiscretions by his colleagues at unit based on the eastern side of the city caused him some problems. His career has stalled for a while, leaving him as second-in-command of the narcotics department and questioning the future of his career. Nevertheless, Daniels is a loyal, tenacious and extremely professional police officer with a severe lack of patience for incompetence and an inventive streak for thinking outside the box when needed. His idealism sometimes clashes with his career ambitions.

William Rawls
Rawls is the police major in charge of the homicide department. Rawls is under constant pressure to deliver arrests and convictions to help clean up the city's shockingly bad crime clearance statistics, and is not tremendously interested in long-running, in-depth and expensive investigations that would only turn up a few convictions. He is Jimmy McNulty's nemesis and loathes him with a spectacular passion. Rawls' ability to come up with long speeches detailing McNulty's failures and his fantasies over demoting, sacking or occasionally even killing him is utterly inexhaustible. That said he's not entirely cheery with most of his other officers either, although he does seem to be inexplicably tolerant of his second-in-command, the corpulent and sarcastic Sgt. Jay Landsman, possibly because his ability to unleash abuse on his detectives is almost as impressive.

William 'The Bunk' Moreland
Jimmy's homicide partner, the Bunk is an experienced and seasoned police detective who came from the streets himself, and has a great deal of insight into how life works there. He enjoys a good drink and is often wingman to McNulty's own drunken misadventures and womanising attempts. However, the Bunk is more centered, more professional and enjoys a long-term, stable relationship with his wife. The Bunk is considered a natural homicide detective and isn't pulled into the drugs investigation that grows over the course of the first season, although his murder investigations frequently overlap with those of the narcotics division.

Kima Griggs, Ellis Carver & Thomas 'Herc' Hauk
These are rank-and-file narcotics detectives working under Daniels. Although relatively young, Carver and Herc are old-school police who believe in coercive techniques, random shake-downs and intimidation, and have little patience for long, tedious investigations. Kima is the junior member of their team, but her less confrontational method of investigation often produces better results, to their irritation.

Lester Freamon & Roland 'Prez' Pryzbylewski
Freamon was once a very promising police detective whose unflinching idealism and unwavering commitment to justice without regard for police politics has landed him in the pawnshop unit for thirteen years (and four months). Freamon is a quiet, apparently solitary man who makes dollhouse furniture as a hobby, even during casework, as a way of focusing the mind. On the other hand, 'Prez' is a highly incompetent officer (famed for once shooting up his own patrol car in a panic and then calling it in as a fake drive-by) regarded as unsuitable for investigative work who remains on the force solely due to the fact that his father-in-law is the commander of the police in the south-eastern district of the city. Both these characters debut in the second episode.

Rhonda Pearlman, Judge Daniel Phelan & Maurice Levy
The legal wing of the cast. Rhonda is the Assistant State's Attorney assigned to the narcotics cases in Baltimore. Her job is to run political cover and handle the legal paperwork for the cases involving prosecutions of drugs figures in the city. She is also involved in a casual affair with Jimmy McNulty. Daniel Phelan (not pictured) is a courthouse judge increasingly furious with the lack of progress being made in eliminating the city's drug trade, which leads him into contact with the similarly frustrated McNulty. Maurice Levy, on the other hand, is the super-slick lawyer representing the Barksdale Organisation, whose ability to get people off the hook and plea-bargaining skills are legendary.

The Street

D'Angelo 'D' Barksdale

D'Angelo is our main 'POV' character on the street side of the story in the first season. A mid-level dealer in his uncle Avon's drugs gang, D'Angelo is respected for his organisational skills but doesn't have the reputation for violence that others have. Other members of the gang suspect his position is down to his family connections. D'Angelo's interest in 'the game' often seems to be down to family loyalty and an intellectual interest (at one memorable point he likens the drugs trade to a game of chess) rather than an innate criminal nature.

Avon Barksdale & Stringer Bell
The brains of the drugs gang. Childhood friends Avon and Stringer make a formidable team. Avon has the street smarts and respect that comes from being street 'royalty' (his family have been players in Baltimore's crimeworld for decades), whilst Stringer is more naturally intelligent and thinks outside the box. Stringer's actions have seen a 'firewall' of legal red tape, cover businesses and legit enterprises being erected around Avon and his drugs money, and between Stringer and Levy's ideas, they've kept Avon out of jail. Stringer is also fascinated by business and economics, and tries to apply economic theory to the drugs game with surprisingly positive results.

Wee-Bay Brice
Wee-Bay is the Barksdale gang's chief enforcer and an old friend of Avon and Stringer's. Utterly ruthless and totally loyal, Wee-Bay is a formidable figure in the organisation. He is often given the toughest, dirtiest jobs to do for the gang, and does them without complaint.

Bodie, Poot & Wallace
These are three young drug dealers working out of the low-rise housing projects for the Barksdale Organisation. They are the lowest-ranking members of the organisation (apart from the 'hoppers', the little kids they employ to act as lookouts for the police) and provide a 'ground-eye' POV on the drug war as it escalates throughout the season. As the story progresses they catch the attention of the higher levels of the organisation, with varying results. Of the three, Bodie has the street-smarts, Poot is mostly concerned with chasing women and the youngest, Wallace (not pictured) is most concerned with his troublesome home life.

Omar Little
Omar is the leader of a 'stick-up' crew who rob drugs and money from the city's drugs gangs. Omar is driven by a unique personal code of honour which prohibits him from robbing those not involved in 'the game', and sometimes help them financially with his stolen wares. Omar enjoys a high level of respect and fear on the street, although the Barksdale Organisation is anxious to eliminate him and ensure that everyone knows of his homosexuality, although that doesn't really change anyone's opinion. Unlike virtually every other criminal in the entire series, who all sport small pistols and handguns that are easy to conceal, Omar wields a massive double-barrelled shotgun and is not reluctant to use it, either. Omar is President Obama's favourite TV character.

Reginald 'Bubbles' Cousins
'Bubbles' is an apparent down-and-out who (not very competently) forges money to fund his heroin habit. Whilst an amiable and apparently harmless figure who is frequently high on drugs, Bubbles has a formidable amount of knowledge and trivia on what's going on in the streets and, although not an obviously angry person, Bubbles can severely hold a grudge if he or his friends are hurt or abused by others. With the possible exception of McNulty and maybe Daniels, Bubbles arguably has the clearest 'story arc' spanning the first and last episodes of the entire series.

If you haven't seen The Wire before, I hope this helps set the scene. This is challenging, intelligent and gripping television the likes of which is very rarely seen these days (and arguably at a level not matched by the BBC since State of Play). Enjoy!

Charlie Brooker's assessment of The Wire.
The Wire Wiki
MSN Entertainment's own spotter's guide to the show


Anonymous said...

Unlike Boston, there is no Baltimore accent. And its uneducated idiots from the inner cities who refer to the police as the 'po-leece'.

Iain said...

Even though I watched it on FX and then bought all five seasons on DVD, I will be tuning into BBC2 tonight to watch every single, glorious episode again.

Perhaps now The Wire will get the audience it deserves having suffered at the hands of the overrated Six Feet Under and the once great, but ulitmately, disappointing, Sopranos.

Omar the Man.

Papasan said...

No Baltimore accent? Au contraire, Mr. Anonymous.

The Wire is a great series. And as much as I liked Season 1, I thought Season 2 was almost operatic in its intensity (the dockworkers story). Loved it. I'm in the midst of Season 3 now.

Unknown said...

Uh, there is a DEFINITE Baltimore accent.
Why do you think there are all those bumper stickers that say
"It's Bawlmore, hon?"
I live in Germantown, MD and everyone I know makes fun of the Bawlmore accent.

Alexander Field said...

Thanks for the recommendation of The Wire (and the very thorough set up - it sounds fantastic!). I've heard about this show for awhile now but have yet to check it out. I may have to go rent the thing and power through the whole deal in a weekend or two! : )

Chris Wooding said...

The Wire is fantastic. I wish the BBC had the guts to make drama like HBO does.

Season 3 is a bit of a low point IMHO, but it picks up with a new & more interesting focus in Season 4 and Season 5 is awesome.

Tree Frog said...

Season 4 is the best, with Season 3 following it. Two is generally considered the weakest.

Start here:

The above site is probably the best Wire discussion blog I found. It is no longer updated, but the people writing and commenting do so at a very high level. I believe it starts somewhere in the third season.