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Top TV Series of the Week: The Wire

2009-10-05 14:55

The Wire tells the story of the US city of Baltimore, with the police mostly as the force behind the main plot. Character driven, with no cheap tricks, no cheesy montages, and vernacular dialogue so realistic that some first-timers have been forced to watch it with subtitles in order to follow the action, this series refuses to talk down to a couch-potato, cabbage-patch-brain TV audience.

Many say it’s the TV series for movie people. It delivers canny dialogue, and the action develops in character-driven plots where characters reveal their good and evil and everything in between slowly, and confusingly, just as people do in real life.

A lot is left to your imagination. Every scene is simply but beautifully shot. And while you rarely if ever notice the camera (making watching this show as absorbing as reading a great novel) the cinematography, lighting and attention to detail is subtle and fascinating, especially the second time to get round to watching it. It's been called a “visual novel” for this reason. While most films and TV series take a short story and tell it all, or take a novel and tell one of its stories, The Wire has the bravery to tie them all together, and let you fill in the gaps.

The characters link the different areas of society that each of the five series explores – from the drug dealers on the street corners, to dockworkers afflicted by redevelopment of their industry, to ordinary kids, to the suits in City Hall whose every decision leaves an indelible effect on them all. While arty, it’s realistic, and the fact that none of the actors in it were famous before the series means they really seem to be who they play. You’ll also get no wistful musical montages to help you figure out how you're meant to feel about a particular scene, a la The O.C. or Grey's Anatomy. With the exception of the title track, sound is all situational. In the Irish bar where the cops drink, it’s The Pogues. In the dealers’ cars it’s rap; on troubled cop McNulty’s drunken drives it’s radio rock (once, hilariously, a track from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack), and legendary stick-up artist Omar loves his old-skool divas.

The scenes are detailed, with graffiti, and the stuff lying around on people’s desks providing often ironic comment on what they do. Think “I [Heart] city life” - the sticker pinned to McNulty’s cubicle wall.

The Wire combines the best of what the film discipline offers with the addictive qualities of the TV series. It's TV for people who think. And if I had teenage kids, I'd make it required viewing – screw the age restriction. It’s the kind of TV that teaches you about life.

Key Characters (Season 1 only – we don’t want to spoil it for you)

Jimmy McNulty – The good bad cop
Detective McNulty, played as devilishly attractive by British dude Dominic West, is the rebellious anti-hero and sometimes martyr of the show. He's passionate about his job, but it's the trigger for all his problems and addictions. He's that office loose cannon who breaks the rules, womanises, drinks too much and drives his car into walls while pissed. He's always willing to do what's wrong so that the right thing happens. Although McNulty isn't always the primary character in a story, a character who mirrors him in another role always is. In a way, McNulty is the series' Everyman.

Bunk Moreland – The dry-witted partner
Two images stick in your head: McNulty’s friend and sometimes partner in crime (played by Wendell Pierce) smoking a cigar over a corpse, or pissing on a railroad track. You’ll just have to be there.  

Omar – The Robber in the ‘hood
Omar robs the dealers, snitches to the cops, and cares deeply for the men he sleeps with and his father-figure. He's a legendary tyrant with a soft spot, played by Michael K. Williams.

Bubbles – The junkie snitch
A heroin addict with a heart of gold, Bubbles provides an ongoing subplot interrogating the damage that addiction does, and the courage it takes to overcome it. But that's not as preachy as it sounds. If his character wasn't so well done, he'd be comic relief.

Ronnie – The Assistant State's Attorney
Tough... but not that tough. Sexy, cute, but not obviously pretty. Too clever to put up with McNulty's crap in her professional capacity as prosecutor, but desperately in love (or lust?) with him, because he has that effect on women. Deirdre Lovejoy plays her perfectly.

Daniels – The company man with a secret
Like all characters, complicated. Like many of us, Daniels (Lance Reddick) has one secret that could ruin everything. Like most of us, he still has the courage to fight for his dreams. This fight can get dirty.

Kima Greggs – The loyal
Sonja Sohn delivers a dry, vulnerable take on this tough lesbian cop. Has more in common with McNulty than she cares to admit to.

Stringer – The druglord’s lieutenant
Russell "Stringer" Bell, interpreted with charm by Idris Elba (who previously played a corpse in Mission Accomplished and got killed in Middle Ground) applies his business talents to running the drug trade. His charm masks a frightful ruthlessness in protecting his empire.

D’Angelo Barksdale – the drug king’s nephew
The sweetness with which Lawrence "Larry" Gilliard, Jr interprets this role as the up-and-coming kid who’s too emotional for his tough job fits with The Wire’s basic strong point – its refusal to stereotype. In The Wire, there are no good guys, and no villains, only guys who will do whatever it takes to see them through another day - and many willing to do worse.

Avon Barksdale – The street king
The original criminal with a code, and a strong (but not infallible) sense of family, Avon’s name endures.  

William Rawles – Deputy Police Comissioner (and bastard)
John Doman’s portrayal makes it hard to figure out whether he’s a good or a bad guy – his willingness to play the game puts him and the insubordinate McNulty at loggerheads.

Det. Roland 'Prez' Pryzbylewski - The problem cop
Shooting up his own car, assaulting a suspect, letting off a clip at a wall… Prez gets away with it because he’s married to a high-ranking officer’s daughter. But his character (played by Jim True-Frost) is full of surprises.

Partners Thomas "Herc" Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam)
These two provide both comic relief, commentary on male professional friendships and a views on the career trajectory in the policing profession.

Lester Freamon - A lesson to the rest of us
This former murder detective knows what happens when you buck the system. Buried for years, he ends up on the detail with McNulty, and surprises everyone with his leadership and the obsessive way he follows the trail. His saying sums up a big part of what The Wire is all about: "You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don't know where the fuck it's gonna take you."


Producer / director / and chief writer David Simon was a police reporter at the Baltimore Sun before he went into film.

The Wire is the longest-running series (apart from Soul Food) featuring a cast of mainly-black American characters. (Wiki says “African-American” but I beg to differ.)

The Tom Waits–written theme tune "Way Down in the Hole" is performed by a different artist for each of the five series. Blind Boys of Alabama, Waits himself, The Neville Brothers, DoMaJe and Steve Earle.

Real-life Baltimore mayor approved permission for Simon to shoot the show in his city, and most of the scenes are shot in real locations.

Listen carefully...

Det. James 'Jimmy' McNulty: Well, you know what they say: "stupid criminals make stupid cops". I'm proud to be chasing this guy.

Bunk (to McNulty):  There you go again, givin' a fuck when it ain't your job to give a fuck.

Det. Shakima 'Kima' Greggs: Fuck me. I still cannot type.

Det. Thomas 'Herc' Hauk: If white boys wanna sell drugs in Baltimore, they have to make different laws for it, like even it out for 'em.
Det. Shakima 'Kima' Greggs: Affirmative action.
Det. Thomas 'Herc' Hauk: Leave no white man behind.

Johnny: It'll be better tomorrow, Bubs.
Bubbles: Tomorrow, man. What kind of dope fiend be talking about tomorrow? Tomorrow ain't shit. Today, Johnny, today.

Omar: A man gotta have a code

Omar: Boy, you got me confused with someone who repeats himself.

Omar: Money ain't got no owners, only spenders.

If not the best TV series ever made, The Wire is at least the best one I’ve seen. While The Sopranos - often credited with changing TV - came first in 1999, The Wire (first aired in 2002) set the bar for the next decade.

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