HBO // 2002 // 3600 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 17th, 2008
I was a music geek before I became a film and television fan, so I still keep a foot in both worlds. Back in 2002 I was surprised to hear that legendary musician (and battler of drug problems) Steve Earle was going to have a character on a new HBO show called The Wire. I didn't have cable at the time, so I put it on the back-burner. Then I heard Tom Waits was covering the show's theme song, and Method Man (of the Wu-tang Clan) was also going to have a role. Still, I just didn't get around to watching it. Finally, thanks to this release of the entire series, I caught up with one of the best bits of television I've ever seen. I was kicking myself each episode for not jumping on the Wire bandwagon sooner. Luckily, those like me who've missed out can now get all of this great show in one go. Not so luckily, those who have been following along with the individual seasons won't have much temptation to re-up.
The Wire follows a detail of Baltimore cops as they attempt to solve a number of drug-related crimes in a struggling urban environment. Although the criminals are bad enough, the members of the detail have to contend with limited funds, hostile bosses, and demanding politicians.
All five season of The Wire are included in this set, with 60 episodes spread out across 23 discs.
"You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don't know where the f**k it's gonna take you."
For just about the length of recorded time, human beings have sought to alter their consciousness through various means, including ingesting various foreign substances like alcohol, fungi, and plants. It's almost a basic fact of human existence: people want to get high. For some people that means lots of exercise, for others base jumping, but still others prefer to ingest the aforementioned foreign substances. In 20th century America, this became a huge problem, so the government got the bright idea of a "War on Drugs," which was going to eradicate the scourge of drugs from our fair cities. Never mind that people have been trying to get high for millennia, and certainly never mind the economic consequences of making drugs illegal. The big problem with the War on Drugs is that it targets supply, not demand. Because no matter how illegal it gets, many people just want to get messed up. Because that demand doesn't change, and the drug war targets supply, price goes up. When the price goes up, the pockets of criminals get lined, which gives them the ability to buy influence, whether that's with local politicians or through donations to the community in exchange for protection.
Although I feel passionately about this subject, I'm not just jumping on a soapbox here. This matters because The Wire is the first television show I've seen that treats the War on Drugs as the farce it really is, because all it does is put money in the hands of those brave (or stupid) enough to try to buck an underfunded institution like the local police department. For once we have a show that doesn't treat all cops as heroes, all drug-dealers as shallow wannabe pimps, or all drugs as immediately life threatening. Instead, The Wire treats drug dealers like businessmen, and the police that we see have a lot less problem with the product (drugs) the dealers are selling than with some of their business practices (like murder). On one level this is satisfying because it's novel, and I like to see television shows try new things. On another level it is satisfying because I can watch a cop show and not feel preached at with a bogus anti-drug message, when I know the War on Drugs is being lost across the board. To paraphrase a character on the show, if we can't win the war on drugs in prison, then where can we? This kind of straight-talk is refreshing.
The disdain for the War on Drugs has another consequence for the show. Because both the audience and the characters know that the murders surrounding drugs are a much bigger problem than the drugs themselves, a certain quixotic dimension is added to the characters in the show. They know that popping a junkie for a vial of heroin is a waste of time, even if those kind of arrests make the higher-ups and the politicians look good. The street-level reality we share with the characters gives them a kind of under-dog status that makes us want to root for them even harder, especially when the characters are forced to do stupid things by headline-hungry politicians. I know my summary of the show above was a little vague, and I hesitate to give more plot details from the show. However, it's not for the usual anti-spoiler reasons, but because the show itself is difficult to summarize, in the same way that your own life can be difficult to summarize sometimes. After these few season, the cast feel almost like family, and that makes it difficult to get the necessary distance to summarize their activities.
As for the characters, they are played by an able assortment of actors. The back of the box features a quote claiming that The Wire is the best television show ever. I don't know about that, but I would easily nominate it for best cast ever. The actors are note-perfect on everything from the deepest drama to the often-coarse comedy. There's a familiarity with each other and the Baltimore-milieu that's surprising, like these people really have lived in the area and known each other all their lives. I could spend all day praising the exquisite cast, but I would rather highlight one performance: Andre Royo as Bubbles. Most junkies in film and TV-land are pathetic creatures, slaves to their habit. Most writers let their addiction stand in for the rest of their traits, with perhaps a failed marriage or death to show how they fell. Bubbles is different. The writers make him a compelling character who can maintain human emotion despite the depths of his addiction, and Andre Royo brings their vision to life. Some of the looks on his face are priceless, and the entire show is worth watching for his performance alone. I think it's that powerful. And he's only one of a large cast of incredible actors.
Although the Baltimore PD may be underfunded, this complete series set from HBO is pretty impressive. The show's gritty texture is maintained in the full-frame transfers on all five season. Seasons One through Three look especially good, with a pretty drastic drop in quality for Seasons Four and Five, with artifacts become more prevalent. The show's still watchable, but those first three seasons look the best. The audio, especially the show's affecting theme, are well rendered in 5.1 surround mixes. The floor won't be shaking often, but dialogue and sound effects are well used.
All the extras from the single-season releases have been ported over. We get commentary on selected episodes for each of the five seasons from the creative teams as well as the actors. There are six different featurettes documenting various aspects of the show and its production. New to this set are three short prequel "episodes" that deal with the characters before the show's timeline started with Season One. We get a glimpse at slightly younger versions of Prop Joe, Omar, and Bunk and McNulty. These are obviously for the faithful, and don't add a whole lot to the scope of the show. There's also a 14 minute gag reel consisting of odds and ends.
All of this is housed in a hard-shell cardboard case in grey emblazoned with the name of the show. Inside the box are individual folding cardboard books that house individual DVDs inside cardboard sleeves. It's difficult to describe, but I can assure that it is both aesthetically pleasing and very functional.
Obviously less than 10 minutes of "prequel episodes" and a 14 minutes worth of gag reel doesn't do much to raise the profile of this set. Considering the show's critical success, HBO had the opportunity to produce a truly special edition of the series, one that would tempt fans to double-dip. Also, an upgrade to the video of the fourth and fifth season would have been nice. As it is, this set is great for new-comers, but leaves long-time fans out in the cold.
As for the show, The Wire's one problem in my eyes is that it makes few concessions to the viewer. Generally, I like that, but there's a lot of dialogue that gets thrown around (like "Title III wiretap" and "B of I photos") that take some getting used to. If you want every tiny detail of police procedure drawn out, this is not the show for you.
The Wire is an amazing piece of television, and my only real complaint is that 60 episodes just doesn't seem like enough. HBO has done a fine job on the technical side of things, offering solid transfers and good audio for the most part. The extras give a solid glimpse into the show's production and history, but the lack of new extras for this complete series set makes it a tough sell to all but new-comers, even if it will look very impressive on the shelf.
You don't need to be listening all that closely to realize that The Wire is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 3600 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentaries
* "Q&A with The Cast and Creative Team of The Wire"
* "Politics, Journalism, and Commercial Art: A Master Class on HBO's The Wire"
* "It's All Connected"
* "The Game Is Real"
* "The Wire: The Last Word"
* "The Wire Odyssey"
* "The Wire Prequels"
* Gag Reel