1) It’s an HBO series, one of the those sprawling multi-season epics like The Sopranos and Deadwood, a novelistic world you can get completely lost in without ever feeling lost; demonstrates that art and entertainment not only marry well, but ought to stay married: writing, direction, production equal to anything from Hollywood with one extra ingredient: this thing called soul, vibrant and angry.
2) Its setting and theme: The Wire is the creation of David Simon (with Ed Burns), a veteran newspaperman; its setting is the battered American city of Baltimore; you’ll never see most of its themes portrayed on CSI or other cop shows—the futility of the “War on Drugs” and how it may worsen the current situation; the inevitability of human corruption, especially in politics and business; how the best of us are always frustrated by circumstances of class, race and politics (both in the office and on the campaign trail).
3) The Fundamental Pleasures of Genre Fiction: The show’s roots go way back to old timey Good v. Evil fantasy series as The Untouchables (and from there, back to Little Caesar). But in the modern world of HBO (with scripts by George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, et al.) it takes off in two ways: (A) For those of you who were there, recall how The Untouchables never questioned the Prohibition laws that Eliot Ness enforced? The Wire gives today’s prohibition a good scorching. (B) You like good, well-plotted, suspenseful action-packed cop shows? This one’s the best ever; and (C) there’s also an intriguing element of pinball randomness in the plot lines; characters tend to wind up with results they (nor we) expect.
4) Michael K. Williams as Omar Little: Maybe the most compelling and mythic character; a blithe Robin Hood who rips off drug dealers (including the lead bad guys, the Avon Barksdale gang) with Errol Flynn élan and bracing animal spirit; always brings an atavistic grin when he storms through the door, shotgun at the ready; Omar’s perjured testimony at a gang trial is a gem of satiric comedy.
5) It’s not all about Race. In fact, it’s more about Class as in the gulfs and struggles between the rich and the poor and those with power and those without (in one episode, a knee-jerk liberal naively accuses a rural white male of being a racist cracker . . . only to have the accused’s African-American wife walk into the picture.) The Wire is unapologetically anti-unregulated Capitalism.
6) Not that there won’t be problems with regulated Capitalism (see no. 2); namely that corruption, as The Wire scathingly dramatizes in seasons three through five, dealing with the shenanigans at City Hall; if it’s not money, it’s power that contributes to corruption.
7) Andre Royo as Bubbles, the soul and moral center of The Wire; a big-hearted but desperately addicted homeless man and occasional informant to the detectives investigating the Barksdale mob; a raw and nuanced portrayal of a good, but desperate man seeking not only a way out, but also a reason why he should take it; during a third-season seminar on The Wire featuring cast and crew members, the moderator begged David Simon: “Please don’t let anything bad happen to Bubbles.” Brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s line: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
8) Season Two portrays how Baltimore’s dwindling society of dock workers become involved in desperate criminal entanglements; it end in breathtakingly plotted, heartbreaking tragedy.
9) Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, partner in crime with gang leader Avon Barksdale (the wonderfully cat-like Wood Harris); for all his brains, Stringer is obsessed with a fool’s sense of his own destiny; The Wire’s major chick magnet; may see big stardom soon.
10) Gritty, gritty gritty: I don’t know about you, but the portrait of poverty in the film of Angela’s Ashes was about as searing as a Rough Guide vacation next to this; like Deadwood, captures precisely the grime and grind of desperate lives.
11) Third Season: Omar Little and Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) vs. Stringer Bell; Brother is a true and great oddball; when he asks you to fetch him the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, you’d better bring it.
12) Felicia Pearson as “Snoop” and Gbenga Akinnagbe as Chris: two of the creepiest guttersnipe villains since Deliverance; Snoop is an especially unnerving creation; Ms. Pearson has her own compelling story.
13) Colonel Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) and State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy) make a very nice couple.
14) Okay, it’s not all perfect:
A) The show’s relentless realism at times becomes determinism; there must be an unhappy ending, no matter what . . . even if it’s as vaguely plotted and far-fetched (the murder of DeAngelo [Larry Gilliard, Jr.] in Season Two) as a Hollywood ending;
B) Season Five (i): Detective McNulty (Dominic West) concocts a bizarre, far-fetched, extremely ill-advised scheme to bring the bad guys to justice, breaking the show’s bond with realistic situations and responses; we were unable to return our lower jaws to our upper jaws for the rest of season no matter how hard they tried to make it work; great loss of sympathy and respect for McNulty resulted; Mr. West deserves credit for not losing his actor's cool, but character deserved Death by Embarrassment.
Maybe 4 seasons were enough.
15) All the actors: in case any The Wire’s cast members read this, please accept apologies for not citing all of you, because you were all wonderful, down to Drunk Guy Lying on Sidewalk; like HBO’s The Sopranos and Deadwood, you made me want to write screenplays for all of you. HBO Films continues to showcase some of the greatest character actors seen since the passing of the Hollywood studio system.
Causes Thomas Burchfield Supports
The Nature Conservancy; Africare; Capitol Public Radio