TV Review: The Wire, Season One
Topic: Film & TV
Critically acclaimed since its debut in 2002, The Wire is another in the long line of excellent original series from HBO. I recently watched the first season of this show on DVD.
Here's the setup: A mid-level Baltimore drug dealer, D'Angelo Barksdale, is acquitted of murder charges after obvious witness tampering that the state can't prove. The judge in that case calls in Detective McNulty (Dominic West) and wants him to pursue this guy further, after hearing that there are more murders attributed to D'Angelo and his pals. Then one of the witnesses is murdered, and McNulty becomes one of a ragtag bunch of detectives in a task force formed to try and uncover the extent of the crimes related to this initial case.
The team starts investigating the vast drug-funded empire of Avon Barksdale and his crew, in the housing projects of West Baltimore. Avon is D'Angelo's uncle, and is the leader of the drug ring. Stringer Bell is Avon's trusty sidekick; he's the brains behind the operation, and is vicious and calculating. The detectives first follow the bodies, then the drugs, and finally the money these things lead in different and dangerous directions. They use informants and (obviously) a wiretap to build their case. There's tension between the police department's top brass, the city/state politicians, and the team; the detectives have to fight to keep the investigation open, especially after they start to uncover evidence of political corruption by the very people to whom they report.
On the surface, you could call this just another Gritty Crime Drama, but I think The Wire deserves better than that. It's not your typical "one story per hour" drama like Law & Order; the entire season focuses on this one huge investigation, which branches out in a million directions, and is so vast that it's not even truly concluded at the end of the 13th episode. There are more characters for you to track than in your usual show, and because we take a long time to get to know them so well, we're treated to a higher level of subtlety that is lacking in most other dramas.
Most "good guys vs. bad guys" shows pick one side or the other, and tell their story from that point of view. In a remarkably balanced effort, The Wire tells both sides of the story. You get to know and empathize with both the detectives and the drug dealers yes, I said "empathize with...drug dealers" and I think this quality raises The Wire out of the level of stereotype. The writers realize that the good guys aren't all 100% good, and the bad guys aren't all 100% bad. The scripts take the time to explain, explicitly or implicitly, just why things are as they are in the projects of West Baltimore, or the conference rooms in police headquarters, without condoning or even necessarily forgiving the actions of the ones making wrong decisions.
Another important note is that there are some well-timed moments of lightness and comedy. This isn't all shooting and spying (although there's plenty of both) almost all of the characters are likeable, or funny, for at least an instant. And I think it's these moments that make the stupid decisions and bursts of violence all that much more dramatic, because you've seen a hint of good in (almost) all of these people, and want them to do good things. You are only disappointed in them because you've already come to care about them.
This is the kind of show that benefits greatly from a DVD release, where you can watch several episodes in close succession. I think the complex storylines, and the large number of named characters, would be difficult to remember if you only had the chance to see it once a week.
I give The Wire 3.5 stars out of 4.0. This is gripping stuff I'm hooked. Season One is thirteen episodes on five discs, and has a commentary track on three episodes (I didn't listen to them). Season Two was released on DVD today (January 25), and is twelve episodes on five discs, with commentary tracks on two episodes. Parental Warning: contains violence, sexuality, and lots of very strong language. The landscape is littered with F-bombs, so to speak.
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