The Wire: Season 1 review by Matt Fuerst


I didn't do any scientific polling but I feel pretty confident in saying that Crime Dramas of various sorts are the most popular thing going at the moment. We've got three CSI's, three Law & Orders and many, many other shows of this type on the airwaves. The major broadcasters aren't the only ones playing in the sandbox though, as Cable and Pay Cable channels are making their own entries in the field (and I have to stop a second and recommend The Shield as a really great crime drama). I have found myself at the end of my rope as far as these things go, once considering myself mildly interested in them, but currently the only thing I would go out of my way to watch would be Law and Order: Criminal Intent, though that probably will change since I understand Private Pyle, I mean, Vincent D'Onofrio is leaving the cast. Regardless, HBO's entry into the genre takes a different approach (don't they all say that): it looks at one single case in excruciating detail.

The Wire is set in motion when Detective James McNulty (Dominic West), frustrated by losing yet another case in court, lets loose to a friendly judge that a new kingpin has quietly taken over the drug trafficking in their entire area of Baltimore. No one knows anything about the mysterious character, Avon Barksdale other than the fact that he's the king of the hill. Said Judge sets in motion a firestorm that makes the police form a special squad to take down Barksdale and his crew. Consisting of 13 one hour episodes (being on HBO, they all last the full hour as well) The Wire has a very large cast of characters on both sides of the law (and several who straddle the middle) and a ridiculous amount of investigation detail. Surrounding McNulty are Detective Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and his supervisor Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) amongst others in the squad. Throughout the episodes we explore the Barksdale crew from top to bottom (all the way down to the street hustlers pushing vials). The 'bad guy' who gets the main focus is D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), a recently demoted member of the organization, and a man who flirts with the right path, the fall back into his old habits.

As mentioned, the show gets into tremendous detail. For a show called The Wire, we don't actually get into the wiretapping aspects of the investigation until 4 or 5 hours into the story. Instead the first hours the investigation is met with struggles from both within their own organization and from the Barksdale crew. The Police higher ups are not very appreciative of the way McNulty went about arranging for the investigation, and are exerting pressure on the task force to wrap up the investigation quickly and quietly. Grab a few low level players and close the door on it. Things don't go much better in the investigation either, there is no information on Barksdale in their files, no license, no property. They don't even know what he looks like, and puzzle over whether Barksdale is a white or black man.

Spending this much time allows for some good characterizations to arise. The main players on both sides of the case have well fleshed out stories. We learn McNulty is recently divorced, and is struggling to maintain a connection with his two boys. Greggs is written and acted well, being a lesbian on the force being as difficult at times as you would expect. Low level D'Angelo Barksdale continually plays both sides of the line: though not directly involved, he feels remorse for the deaths and suffering that occur around him. He continually sells himself as a genuine gangster to the underlings in his crew, but we question if these stories are just that: stories.

The other aspect of this format is the focus it allows us to put on a single investigation. During the show we see the police listen to a 5 minute telephone conversation between two of the bad guys. Unlike most shows where the conversation is what's important, The Wire is able to do this to setup the fact that the police now have the ability to listen in on the conversations of the bad guys. The investigation begins to run wild as the police crunch the numbers and realize that Barksdale is bringing in millions a month, yet has 0 in assets. Obviously he's hiding a lot of money, but where and how? The paper trail leads to lots of very unwelcome places: politics, businesses, even right to the doorstep of the police department. All this brings even more pressure on police from very powerful people.

The Wire is presented in a full frame, 1.33:1 format. The 13 episodes are spread out over 5 discs. While I was slightly disappointed with the framing (having recently acquired a 16:9 TV) the picture is very good and well presented. The DVD's are very highly polished, 3 of the 13 episodes have commentaries, which seems to be a decent amount of contribution for a series like this. The price for the set is wince inducing: a MSRP of nearly $100 is enough to make most people quickly shy away. At that price no one can afford to "blind buy" the DVDs, that's just too much to put your faith in the quality (even with a good review from such a quality web site as Jackass Critics). Sadly, I don't think The Wire was popular enough so that just your average corner video store will have a copy, you might have to search this one out kids (Netflix to the rescue! Which is how I checked out the whole series).

And while I liked the series, I really don't think there's enough there to hold your attention for multiple viewings. The series strength, it's largely decompressed nature in storytelling, will also be it's downfall. Spending hours of time going through the infant stages of the investigation would be a tedious and numbing experience. A show like The Shield I find to be far more re-watchable than The Wire. Still, I have to recommend this one to fans of the Criminal Investigation genre. Instead of just saying it's something different, it truly is playing with a different set of rules. But I would also suggest The Wire for someone that's not particularly interested in Crime type shows, but is looking for an interesting tale that isn't told in a hurry.

6 out of 10 Jackasses
blog comments powered by Disqus