Review: The Wire, Season 1 (Simon, 2002)

Still from the season 1 of the TV show The Wire

The reputation of the HBO show The Wire so much precedes this review that it almost seems pointless to add my voice to the consensus that it’s solid TV. Nevertheless, as you know, I will.

For the few of you out there who haven’t yet seen it, the first season of The Wire introduces us to a team of narcotics and homicide detectives working inner-city Baltimore, as well as the crew of drug dealers they’re targeting. The series opens with Detective McNulty (Dominic West), a playful but single-minded maverick in the homicide unit, reporting to Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety) that the drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) is turning state witnesses and is connected to several other murders. More damning, however, is his confession that the police department is doing nothing about it. The judge makes a call to Deputy Commissioner for Operations Erv Burrell (Frankie Faison), who, professionally embarrassed, unleashes his fury down the chain of command until it smacks the uncontrite McNulty upside the head. As a consequence, a special unit is formed under the grim-faced, toe-the-line Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) whose aim is to make a nominal (read: political) gesture of pursuing Barksdale. Meanwhile, McNulty continues to undermine his bosses by trying to do “real police work.” The cast of characters is too large to enumerate in this review and at first so overwhelming that your head will spin trying to keep track of everyone. Still, with persistence, you will eventually grow fond of (or at least familiar with) everyone, from the corner money collector Wallace in the Lowrises (Michael B. Jordan, whom you might recognize from the later seasons of Friday Night Lights) to the crabby homicide chief Major Rawls (John Doman).

One of the most commonly issued praises of The Wire is that it’s “so realistic,” portraying as it does the complicated tangle of police, politics, bureaucracy, drugs, and poverty in inner-city Baltimore. The series captures an institutionalized absurdism that rivals that of Catch-22 or Kafka, only this absurdism is more uncomfortable for all its resemblance to our understanding of the facts. Whether or not we get frustrated watching laziness, incompetence, ass-kissing, petty thievery, ignorance, bigotry, brutality, or greed, we accept them as a part of human nature and of life. No wonder Baltimore is in the mess it’s in, we think, watching the show. How could it be otherwise? In fact, maybe what’s miraculous is that not every city is like this. (Though, I admit, for an incurable optimist like me, the sense of futility the show emanates can be galling.)

So The Wire is realistic in the situations and attitudes it depicts. Slightly less so in its character arcs, which sometimes tend toward the redemptive. It’s a little too feel-good how much the detective team starts to gel at the end of the season, the lumps shaken loose, everyone with his or her role, but unified, lock-step, exhilarated to be doing something “real.” This tendency is nowhere more extreme than in the character of Detective Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), who starts out as a bigoted, trigger-happy cop and grows (without much guidance) into a dedicated and meek paper-trail expert. Similar crowd-pleasing transformations occur for Lieutenant Daniels, Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), and, to a lesser extent, Detectives Carver (Seth Gilliam) and Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi). These redemptive streaks are not only limited to the police force. We see it also in D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), Avon’s nephew, the only gangster with a heart.

But kudos to the writers for not letting too much of the characters’ personal lives creep into the show–just enough to give them coloring but not enough to occlude The Wire‘s real gem: its treatment of intractable inner-city problems. While a documentary could have the same aim, only a well-done fictionalized portrayal could make it come so vividly to life, and entertain us at the same time.