Judge Elizabeth Skipper thoroughly enjoyed tapping into this taut, twisty, cops-and-robbers series.
Our reviews of The Wire: The Complete Third Season (published August 8th, 2006), The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season (published January 9th, 2008), The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season (published August 25th, 2008), and The Wire: The Complete Series (published December 17th, 2008) are also available.
I realized about halfway through this first season of The Wire that there wasn't a single character I liked completely. The bad guys had some good in them, and the good guys had some bad in them, so I was left without any heroes, without anyone I knew would swoop in and save the day. Just like in real life—and unlike in any TV show I've ever seen—everyone was flawed, everyone lost his or her way at some point, and everyone disappointed me a little by the end. But just like in real life, I couldn't stop hoping that everything would turn out okay.
Facts of the Case
You can't even call this s*** a war…wars end.
The Wire is the story of the Baltimore police department's attempts to bring down drug lord Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris, Remember the Titans) and his organization. This first season takes place over 13 episodes. Despite being divided into episodes, though, the show is not episodic; instead, it is one story divided into 13 hours. Therefore, any summary at all will be a spoiler, so I will only list the episode titles:
• "The Target"
See, that's why we can't win…they f*** up, they get beat; we f*** up, they give us pensions.
Despite its appearances as just a "cop show," The Wire is so much more. It is, yes, a show about cops, but it is also a show about criminals. It is Law and Order combined with The Sopranos, opposite viewpoints presented as two halves of a story. Where we are usually given only one perspective—the cops or the criminals—we can now see the whole picture. And, unlike most "cop shows," The Wire does not glorify the police. Neither does it demonize them, though; it merely shows a more honest, realistic portrayal of cops. To some, police work is a calling and a passion; to others, it's a power trip; but to many, it is just a job, a paycheck, a path toward retirement with a pension. This is not a picture we see very often, instead believing that every officer's sole aim is to get the bad guys and protect the innocent.
The Wire also tells us a different story about the bureaucracy of police departments. We watch a show like CSI and start to believe that money is no concern when it comes to solving crimes, that the highest-tech equipment and the best-trained experts are at police disposal. We start to believe that police departments, with their honor, duty, and mission, are immune to the red tape that slows down progress in the rest of the world. But not according to The Wire, which shows that rules, customary procedures, and automatons are just as alive and well in police departments as they are everywhere else.
Along with this unique picture of police departments comes an equally unique picture of drug dealers, who are shown as having a bureaucratic organization all their own. With hierarchies, assigned territories, and absolute practices and procedures, Barksdale's organization doesn't look so different from the Baltimore police department. And, apparently, that was the intent: Writer/creator David Simon tells us in his commentary that he views the drug dealers and the BPD as "competing institutions." Employees of both organizations are reprimanded for not following protocol, often in adjacent scenes. The first episode shows Avon's cousin, D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard, Jr., Simply Irresistible), demoted for violating his organization's rules and therefore being arrested. It also shows Detective McNulty (Dominic West, Mona Lisa Smile) assigned to undesirable duty (with a threat of much worse) for violating his organization's hierarchy. We usually see drug dealers as part of a gang, with no chain of command and violent intimidation as the only motivating factor. The Wire again lets us look at the picture a different way.
As I mentioned in my "Facts of the Case," this show is divided into episodes for ease of viewing, but it is anything but episodic. It is more akin to a 13-hour movie than it is to anything else on TV (except, perhaps, for 24). Only one story is told in this season—that of the BPD trying to fell Barksdale—and no episode can stand on its own or be watched out of order. Other "cop shows" tell a new story each week. Sometimes they have an overarching storyline as a subplot, but they don't rely on it solely.
Again mentioned by David Simon in his commentary, this format allows for a more intricate and subtle story that almost begins to resemble a novel, drawing us in slowly, keeping us hooked because we know the best is yet to come, but not feeling it necessary to reveal too much at once. The format leaves time for character development to keep pace with plot development, which will always make for a better story. When we become involved with the characters and their motivations, we become involved with the story and enjoy the whole experience more.
That experience is made even more enjoyable by The Wire's top-notch acting. Most notable are Andre Royo as Bubbles, Sonja Sohn as Detective Greggs, Dominic West as Detective McNulty, and Michael K. Williams as Omar, but I honestly wouldn't be able to come up with a single complaint about any actor on the show, which is reflected in the perfect score I've assigned to the "Acting" category. They could not be better.
And as you'll see by the score for "Story," neither could the writing. With street-slang that certainly sounds authentic (though this white girl from Ohio really couldn't tell you if it wasn't) and the perfect mix of sarcasm and heart, The Wire's writing, just like so much else related to the show, is impeccable.
The audio and video transfers continue the trend. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track makes effective use of the surrounds during shoot-out and chase scenes and adds a kick to its music with the subwoofer. And the full-frame video transfer is crisp and clear with deep blacks and only barely noticeable errors.
If only the disc's extras could be as perfect as everything else. But alas, they are, except for three audio commentaries, basically nonexistent. Luckily, the "Extras" score is saved by the quality of those commentaries, which are interesting and succinctly informative. Make sure to include them in your viewing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Wire doesn't use music to cue audience emotions. (Again, David Simon also discusses this in his commentary.) In fact, it doesn't use artificial music at all, choosing instead to include only music that would occur naturally—from a car stereo, for example. It's nothing I noticed on my own, but after it was pointed out, I realized how definitively it affects the feel of the show. It allows surprises to stay hidden for longer, and it allows audience members to make their own decisions about how a scene makes them feel.
If I haven't already made it abundantly clear, I loved every minute of The Wire. I loved the acting, the writing, the cinematography, the humor, and even the theme song. I'm not usually a fan of stories about cops and the drug dealers they chase, but this one is different. The characters drew me in immediately and their magnificent dialogue and development wouldn't let me turn away.
If you haven't seen this show, you absolutely must. It's so good that you have no choice. Because I don't see The Wire as highly rewatchable, I won't insist that you purchase this first season, but you're missing out on one of the most innovative shows on television if you don't at least rent it.
The Wire is found not guilty of violating civil rights with the use of surveillance technology, although, with the advent of the US Patriot Act, that should have been a foregone conclusion. All parties are free to go.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentaries on "The Target" by Writer-Creator David Simon, "The Detail" by Director Clark Johnson, and "Cleaning Up" by David Simon and Writer George P. Pelecanos
Review content copyright © 2005 Elizabeth Skipper; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.