The Wire: Season One Movie Review

Baltimore probably doesn't make the top-ten list of most-documented American cities on film. It's a different matter if you're talking about best-documented cities, though, and the credit for that belongs almost entirely to David Simon. A former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Simon parlayed his tremendous 1991 book Homicide -- which tracked a year in the life of an exceedingly busy Baltimore homicide detail -- into a TV series of the same name. Despite the fact that NBC continually placed it in crummy time slots, the show deservedly survived for seven seasons. (Richard Belzer continues to play its most colorful character, the acerbic Det. John Munch, on Law & Order: SVU.) Simon returned to TV with the HBO miniseries The Corner, based on his book (co-written with former cop Ed Burns) chronicling a year in the life of the residents of a Baltimore drug corner.

Homicide and The Corner, in their concern for covering multiple aspects of race, class, and authority in an American city, made for some of the best television of '90s. The Wire, Simon's series about the intersection of police and the drug trade, ranks among the most nuanced television series in history; it is easily the best police-procedural show that's ever aired. That's in part because the show's writers stubbornly refuse to fall into the clichés of the usual police procedural. The bad guys -- in this case, the men who run the drug trade around Baltimore's housing projects -- are often as shrewd and smart as the cops, with characters just as layered as anybody else. The star of season one, to the extent there is one, is Larry Gilliard Jr., who plays D'Angelo Barksdale, nephew of Avon (Wood Harris), who runs the business out of an office above a strip club. (The show pretty much annihilates the notion of drug dealers living high-class lives in tony neighborhoods. The money's good, but you're always nervous about it, and you're still in the thick of the projects.) A tough-nosed but naïve adolescent, D'Angelo balances the day-to-day work of dealing with handling his friendships, girls, and his future -- to the extent he ponders something that abstract. Nothing in the formal structure of the show -- music, plotting, dialogue -- casts falsely melodramatic judgment on D'Angelo. He is what he is.

Another cliché destroyed: the cops are often hapless, corrupt screwups. Det. James McNulty (Dominic West) gets a read on Barksdale's attachment to one neighborhood murder, but his aggressive policework unsettles a few higher ups -- McNulty's a hard-drinking, often unlikable divorcee, and some police happen to have a vested interest in keeping McNulty's findings quiet. He's eventually given his own detail to investigate the trade, but he's given junk to work with: a trigger-happy son-in-law of the police chief, a couple of guys who know beatdowns better than anything else, and alcoholic deadwood. The idea is to remind McNulty of his place in the organization, let his wiretap idea die, and let the people in the projects do each other in. (And thank goodness nobody explictly says this -- the racism, dead morale, and general drift in the police department is telegraphed slowly.) But eventually McNulty gets something resembling a team doing honest policework. The underlying theme is that every cop can put his temperament to good use: Det. Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) can use his muscle without cracking skulls, the sagely Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) can use his intellect to perfect the wiretap, and so on.

But the same thing's true of the dealers. Avon Barksdale's right-hand man, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), takes night-school business classes to figure out how to better control his Baltimore turf. The Wire is slow, sometimes confusing going early on, as Simon (who wrote six of the season's 13 episodes) establishes who's doing what. But once everybody's settled in the plot is thick but engrossing, with some tremendously sharp dialogue moving the story forward. (Simon's attracted some top-notch hard-boiled writers to the staff, including the excellent D.C.-based thriller writer George Pelecanos.) And there's proof that great dialogue needn't have a deep vocabulary; at the end of one episode McNulty and a fellow detective sort out a murder using only the word "fuck."

Odd characters swim in and out of this milieu -- Bubbles (Andre Royo), a heroin-addicted police snitch, Omar (Michael K. Williams), a gay rifle-toting neighborhood menace, and the various hotheads both within the BPD and Barksdale's organization. The Wire has very little to offer those who insist the right folks come out on top -- because it blurs the notion of rightness. But it's an utterly convincing portrait of how multiple factions jockey for position, both amongst themselves and against each other.

Cast & Crew

Director : , , , , Gloria Muzio, Clément Virgo, Alex Zakrzewski

Producer : Nina K. Noble, Karen L. Thorson


The Wire: Season One Rating

" Essential "

Rating: NR, 2002


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