Any discussion of what the greatest TV show ever always seems to get back to The Wire. I have tried, more than once, to watch it all the way through. Life always got in the way. The first time I was partway through season three when I met a gal who eventually became my wife, and she would have wanted to watch the show from the beginning but she couldn’t keep track of everything going on. The second time, years later, I had to move while about two-thirds of the way through season one.
Will I make it this time? Who can say? Wednesdays will be for The Wire now that Game of Thrones is gone for the time being.
I gave myself some rules for this project. All shows would be hour long dramas. All would have a reputation for some level of quality. And all of them would be mostly new to me. That means Breaking Bad is out since I’ve seen it already.
Why The Wire?
Could there be two more different shows than Game of Thrones and The Wire? Sure. But aside from the HBO connection, what connects these two that made me select The Wire as one of the five? Well, both deal with large casts, heroes who are less than heroic, villains with good sides, and a major cast member who has a different nationality than most of his co-stars (American Peter Dinklage on GoT and Brit Idris Elba on The Wire) that ends up as something of a break-out star. Yes, Elba isn’t the only person in the main cast for The Wire who isn’t American (Dominic West is another), and Elba made a name for himself elsewhere as well, but I’m counting him.
Besides, most important of all…I really want to finally finish The Wire. While I am coming in more fresh for the other shows, I did get pretty far into this one. It would be nice to finish it.
There’s a lot going on in just this one hour of television. The viewer gets to meet a dozen or so characters, and there are still major ones that haven’t appeared yet.
Let’s try to get some of them more or less classified.
- Detective James McNulty (West) and his partner Bunk Moreland. Two Baltimore Homicide detectives who tend to get drunk at nights. McNulty is one of those cops who seems to irritate his superiors, an ex-wife, and everyone around him. McNulty’s talking to a judge about unsolved crimes in a single tenement gets the whole plot rolling here.
- Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. The “target” in the episode’s title, Avon is a mysterious (to the police) drug kingpin that nobody seems to have any information on at all. Stringer (Elba) is his second-in-command, a well-dressed man who acts as the face of the organization. Just his presence can throw off potential witnesses.
- D’Angelo Barksdale. Avon’s nephew, on trial for murder in the opening minutes of the episode. D’Angelo has something of a conscience. He may not always act smart, but he’s more on the ball when he needs to be. He’s given a crew in this episode where…holy crap, look how young Michael B. Jordan is here!
- Lt. Cedric Daniels. An up-and-coming guy in narcotics, Daniels soon finds himself in charge of the special Barksdale detail.
- Detective Kima Greggs and her crew, Carver and Herc. Daniels’ best narcotics team.
- Bubbles. A drug addict and confidential informant who comes forward to Greggs when a buddy of his is savagely beaten by D’Angelo’s crew.
And those are just the major players we meet for now. The series sets things up well. Avon may be distant, but he does care for his nephew, and D’Angelo’s conscience is clearly bothering him when the one witness at his trial who didn’t redact his statement when Stringer walked in is found murdered in the street. The cops, meanwhile, are hampered by the law, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t assholes. McNulty seems to be universally hated by everyone aside from Bunk, and while at first glance that may seem like a questionable thing (West sure doesn’t seem like an asshole when you see things from his point of view), understanding that he poked his nose where it doesn’t belong and, whether intentionally or not, violated the chain of command tells you all you need to know about why the man is so unpopular.
McNulty is also fairly opinionated. Is he right about the best way to catch Avon? Well, maybe, but he doesn’t exactly win friends when he tells people how to do it. If anything, McNulty is the closest the series comes to a TV stereotype of the rogue cop doing his own thing.
The home viewer gets a bit of a glimpse into how the dealers deal, and how the politics of the police department works for the opening hour, as well as a suggestion as to why Federal help is unlikely given the local FBI are being taken off narcotics and onto anti-terrorism.
Series creator and head writer David Simon was a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun prior to going to work on television, and his goal was to make this series as true-to-life as possible. This isn’t Breaking Bad where artsy shots and cool character moments defined the show much more than any sort of realism. If there’s an underlying theme to The Wire, it’s that the infrastructure of a major American city is failing in every way, and maybe the War on Drugs isn’t helping. But for now, the players have been set up and we’ll have to see where the story leads us.