Nowadays, HBO is at the forefront of television drama. Oz and The Sopranos may have helped it along, but it was The Wire, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary, that really solidified its place.
The Wire showed the war on drugs in a post-9/11 America; both sides of the battle, those in the middle, and anyone else affected. Taking place in Baltimore, the show displayed a very real picture of law enforcement and criminal activity. It ran from 2002 to 2008.
Many fans have been made over the years, including none other than President Obama. The commander in chief has said that The Wire is his favorite show. The Telegraph even calls it “arguably the greatest television programme ever made.”
The show was created by David Simon, a former reporter with The Baltimore Sun. His segue way into television came in the early 1990s when his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was adapted for television. That show, Homicide: Life on the Street, became a big hit with audiences and critics. But he would quickly learn that network TV could only do so much, and those limits did not exist on cable. So his following project, the miniseries The Corner based on the book he had written with former detective Ed Burns, was for HBO, and won the Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries. With a good relationship now in place, Simon brought The Wire, originating in Burns’s experiences with drug investigations, to the network.
Simon and Burns were also helped by famed crime writers like Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and George Pelecanos. For Lehane, this remains the only time he has directly written for the screen. Numerous distinguished directors also participated such as Brad Anderson, Clark Johnson, Timothy Van Patten, Agnieszka Holland, and Clement Virgo.
The somewhat central figure of the show is Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who is the one that gets the ball rolling. D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gillard Jr.), a drug dealer who works for his uncle Avon (Wood Harris), beats a murder charge when a witness recants testimony. McNulty is at the trial and afterwards talks to Judge Daniel Phelan (Peter Gerety), who presided. In their conversation, McNulty tells the judge that the Barksdale organization has been linked to more murders and is not currently being investigated.
Following this, the judge puts a call in to Deputy Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison). Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) of Narcotics is then tasked with putting together and running the detail. McNulty is put on the team, as are Detectives Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), Herc Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi), Roland Pryzblewski (Jim True-Frost), and Leander Sydnor (Corey Parker-Robinson). Supervising is Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy), who, once the arrests are made, will be handling the prosecution.
Meanwhile, D’Angelo is facing the fallout of his actions. Although he was victorious in court, the organization is not happy that the unneeded murder put them at risk. Avon’s second in command Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) demotes D’Angelo from the high-rise apartments to the low-rise projects, where he’ll have to earn back his place. Working alongside him are Bodie (J.D. Williams), Poot (Tray Chaney), and Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), low-level dealers who also are going to have to work their way up.
Other key cast members are Detective Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), McNulty’s friend and partner from Homicide; Major William Rawls (John Doman), a commanding officer of Homicide who is frequently angered by McNulty’s behavior; Bubbles (Andre Royo), a drug addict who works as a confidential informant; Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), a rival drug lord who prefers resolving conflicts by non-violent means; Wee-Bey (Hassan Johnson), the Barksdale organization’s main soldier; Sergeant Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams), who handles office police work; and Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a highly corrupt state senator.
And a character that stands out so much that he earns his own paragraph here, and President Obama’s favorite: Omar Little (Michael K. Williams). Omar makes his living by sticking up drug dealers, so he is placed somewhere in between the fight. However, he does cooperate with police on some matters and has the guts to testify in court against drug dealing criminals. When called out by a defense attorney as a profiteer of the drug trade, he sends the accusation right back. In one episode of the show, Omar wears a shirt that says “I am the American dream.” When watching, it’s hard to dispute that.
Another thing about Omar is that he is gay. It goes to show how well-developed and three-dimensional these characters are when something like this, which many a lesser program would use as the sole defining aspect of a character, is far down on the list of prominent traits.
That same complexity is distributed to all sides. The police we see here are human; they are prone to mistakes and miscommunication, voracious ambitions for advancement, acquiescence to pressures of keeping success statistics high by any means necessary. And the criminals are just as multi-faceted. Some operate with a degree of honor, some don’t; some won’t hesitate to drop bodies, others will.
Something else very notable about the show is that each season expanded its focus. Season 2, while still keeping an eye on the Barksdale organization, saw an investigation of a criminal crew of dock workers. And in the seasons after, Baltimore’s political, education, and journalism systems were covered, and all very much impacted by the crime and effort to fight it at the heart of the show.
But no matter what is being focused on, it never ever feels artificial. A great deal of this comes from having people with a great deal of experience in the field like Simon and Burns behind it. Over their years in Baltimore, they’ve made numerous contacts with law enforcement officials, politicians, and criminals. In fact, several from each group even play roles in the show.
In one of the show’s signature moments, D’Angelo teaches Bodie and Wallace how to play chess, using it as a metaphor for the drug trade and emphasizing that “The king stays the king.”
And ten years later, the king is still the king.
Here are two very special messages from Deirdre Lovejoy and Method Man (who played Cheese, Proposition Joe’s nephew):
Deirdre Lovejoy: “Being part of The Wire has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving. The show\’s popularity while airing was low-key, but it\’s afterlife has resonated beyond the bounds of popular culture in the years that followed. It\’s rich sociological commentary, couched in gritty reality and human story lines were, at the time, remarkable. In the years since it has become legendary. The scope and magnitude of it\’s reach, quite simply, are epic. The opportunity to work along side talented creators of the caliber of David Simon and his colleagues was a once in a lifetime experience I will forever treasure. I had no idea when the show began how important the experience would become to my life and to the world. Playing a small part in that machine was an amazing experience.
I can only hope that the ripple effect of the show, which continues to increase in popularity, will in some small way effect the change the show speaks to. Being an actor in an ensemble dedicated to truth was an honor and a privilege I am grateful for. It will be a long time, if ever, that another show will eclipse the success of The Wire. Baltimore (and the microcosm it illuminates) should be forever indebted to David Simon for his unflinching look at our world and the legacy of our systemic problems. I am happy The Wire lives on, and shall for a very long time to come.”
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#1 on Entertainment’s Weekly’s list of the Top 10 All-Time Greatest Shows.