"Come at the king, you best not miss." -Omar
That's how this reviewer feels about the daunting task of attempting to summarize and analyze an epic achievement like The Wire: The Complete Series, the new box set compiling the entire five seasons of what has been called, not unreasonably, the single finest television program of our time. How do you sum up such a thing? What's more, what could possibly be added to the reams of paper and gigabytes of Internet space that have already been written about a program that, at its best (which is to say, most of the time), tackled some of the most vital and important elements of American life today?
Because the fact of the matter is that The Wire is The Great American Television Series, a sprawling, insightful, heartbreaking testament to what the medium is and what it can do. By turns ruthlessly intelligent, shockingly brutal, and darkly comic, The Wire is proof positive that it is indeed possible for television to be an art form, one with the ability to tell stories of greater scope and depth than films, plays, or even novels.
"We got our thing, but it's just part of the big thing." -Zenobia
It's unfortunate that perhaps the single most admirable element of The Wire is also what may have kept it from achieving the kind of popular and cultural success that its brother HBO show The Sopranos received, and that is its complexity. In more than one interview, series creator David Simon compared each season to a novel, with each episode a chapter. As a result, you can't just drop in to the middle of a season and watch an episode like it's a self-contained entity, any more than you could read a chapter out of the middle of a book. This isn't Law and Order, where crimes are solved and bad guys go to the slammer within the space of 52 minutes. Yes, there are other serialized dramas on television today (24 and Lost spring to mind), but none that demand the kind of focus and unwavering attention that The Wire does. (Plus, you can jump in to those shows in the season breaks with a fair amount of ease, but you pretty much have to watch The Wire from season one, episode one.)
On top of that, the series asks its viewers to follow a dizzyingly broad cast of characters, multiplied with every passing season. And on top of that, Simon, collaborator Ed Burns, and their talented cast of writers (including novelists Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and George Pelecanos) refuse to engage in shorthand storytelling--their scripts have astonishingly little in the way of expositional dialogue and no easy tricks like voice-over or flashbacks. Writing in short, tight, punchy scenes, they ask the viewer to do a lot of the heavy lifting, to make connections, to understand relationships, to remember details, and to figure out the jargon ("Been watching The Wire recently," Michael Scott noted memorably on an episode of The Office last season. "I don't understand a word of it.").
These demands could be irritating if the series weren't so consequently rewarding. The dialogue on The Wire feels more authentic than on any show on television--partially due to HBO's lack of language restrictions, partially due to the writers' insistence on accuracy and realism. People don't fill in obvious details and call each other by their full names in real life; likewise, cops and drug dealers and dock workers and journalists speak in their own language, rarely pausing to spell out their shorthand to outsiders. Seldom has the viewer felt more like an eavesdropper--which, to some degree, is the thematic thrust of the entire program.
As viewers, we're given such access to activities and operations seldom seen (or seldom really seen) on television. In many ways, we become co-conspirators, and when we draw the connections and realize what the characters are up to, it's genuinely thrilling. Simon and his crew ask us to be as smart as their characters (no easy task, in some cases), and while there are moments where we're not sure what exactly is going on, there's never a second where we don't have confidence in the skill and precision of the storytelling. It all makes sense in the end, and one of the many pleasures of watching The Wire is observing the miraculous ways in which the myriad of plotlines and characters are intertwined and paid off.
"I had such fucking hopes for us." -McNulty
If the ingenious storytelling and spot-on dialogue weren't enough, The Wire also develops one of the richest casts of characters in television history (there is no "star" of the show; on one of the special features, Simon states that "the star of the show is West Baltimore"). The writing is so sharp and the ensemble cast is so flawless that it's hard to know who to praise first; suffice it to say that, time after time, we see a perfect marriage of a well-developed character and a talented, effective actor. Any attempt to pinpoint favorite characters threatens to turn into a long, rambling list; there are so many memorable performances, so well-defined over the series arc, that it's a mission in futility. But by the series' end, what I came to appreciate most were the tiny details developed by the actors and writers, and how made these people so tangible, so real, so identifiable: Freamon and his dollhouse furniture, Omar and his Honey Nut Cheerios, Ziggy's car, Prop Joe's junk shop, the way Bunk smokes a cigar, the way McNulty works a bar girl, and the way Stringer Bell wears his glasses when he wants to look legitimate.
During the first season, Bunk and McNulty work an old crime scene together, splaying out the original scene photos and lining up the bullet holes, and they basically solve a murder (all the while, using only variations on one word: "fuck"). That's a great scene. Late in season three, Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale meet for a late night drink; both are about to betray each other, but they talk about old times and how far they've come, and they both know the words, but not the music. That's a great scene. Near the end of season four, Sgt. Carver tells young Randy that the police will protect him, but the young man already has good reason to know better, and taunts him accordingly, his voice filled with bitterness, anguish, and anger. That's a heartbreaking scene.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture. The plots are clever and the structure of the scripts is top-notch, but the brilliant cast and their three-dimensional characterizations are what bring The Wire to such vivid life.
"You play in dirt, you get dirty." -McNulty
Again, fully summarizing the 60-plus hours of great television in this box set is a fool's errand--for more detailed analysis, take a look at our earlier reviews of The Complete First Season, The Complete Second Season, The Complete Third Season,The Complete Fourth Season, and The Complete Fifth Season.
Each of the series' five seasons has a different focus, while maintaining a consistent through-line tracking the Baltimore Police Department's Major Crime Unit and their pursuit of the major drug traffickers in the city (first Avon Barksdale, then Marlo Stanfield). Each season's opening theme music is a different cover of the Tom Waits song "Way Down In The Hole", and every season ends with a brilliant (and often heartbreaking) montage summarizing where the characters have been, and where they're going. Every episode begins with an epigraph like the ones in this review--a particularly relevant line of dialogue from the upcoming hour.
"Dope on the damn table." -Daniels
Season One focuses on the Major Crime Unit and its extensive, surveillance-heavy investigation of ruthless drug dealer Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and his bright, all-business second-in-command, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). We meet the members of this unit, most of whom are major characters throughout the series--notably hot-tempered and hard-drinking good cop/bad cop combo Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), his partner and drinking buddy "Bunk" Moreland (Wendell Pierce), wise veteran (and investigative genius) Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), and their boss, hard-nosed Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick).
The central M.O. of the show is clear from the start. First off, there are no easy good guys or bad guys. The Wire operates in shades of grey, giving us flawed and human cops (some good, some not so much) interacting with dealers who are often bright and interesting but doing the wrong thing for a variety of possible reasons. There are no easy answers and no naïve solutions. But we see the drug epidemic from every angle, from the corner kids hustling it to the overlords profiting from it to the cops fighting it on the ground to the bureaucrats trying to spin it, and no one gets off easy. But the humanity of the characters is always front and center, and there is not a false moment to be found.
"They can chew you up, but they gotta spit you out." -McNulty
Season Two turns to the Baltimore docks, where tough times for working class longshoremen and the high cost of exerting political pressure have led union leader Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) and other dock workers to engage in less-than-legal activities, particularly moving contraband and drugs in their containers. The Major Crimes Unit has disbanded, but homicide detectives "Bunk" and Freamon start sniffing around the docks when a container of dead women turns up; they're aided in their investigation by a green port authority officer (Amy Ryan, later an Oscar nominee for Gone Baby Gone). Sobatka's son and nephew, meanwhile, turn to theft and dealing in order to make ends meet.
There are plenty of people who pinpoint season two as The Wire's finest, but to this reviewer's mind, it's the weakest of the five. The intermingling of the continuing Barksdale arc with the new storyline on the docks isn't entirely successful--it feels like we're being pushed and pulled between the two nearly-unrelated narratives. There are episodes in this season where it almost feels like we're channel-surfing between the two story threads, and at season's end, they don't really come together in a meaningful way (as opposed to the wrap-ups of the later seasons, particularly season three, when seemingly every scene, every line, snaps into place like a jigsaw puzzle). The season also doesn't contribute as much to the overall arc of the series, as evidenced by how few season two characters reappeared after it wrapped.
But, that said, season two is still better than just about anything that's been on television. So, you know, take that criticism for what it's worth.
"Don't matter how many times you get burnt, you just keep doin' the same." -Bodie
For my money, Season Three is The Wire's finest hour (er, 12 hours). This season, the focus is on the Baltimore political machine, specifically the mayoral candidacy of Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen), an ambitious young white politician who attempts (through some smearing and mild deception) to win an office traditionally held by African-American candidates. Elsewhere in big-city bureaucracy, police major Howard "Bunny" Colvin (Robert Wisdom), nearing the end of his career, looks for a new way to clean up drug traffic, and ends up trying out a controversial social experiment.
Avon Barksdale is released from jail and threatens to undo all of Stringer's hard work by engaging in a messy street war with cold-hearted up-and-comer Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector). Allegiances shift, secrets are told, and Robin Hood-style thug Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) shoots many, many people.
The season's various threads weave together in the season's exhilarating final episodes, where Colvin's experiment proves valuable, in different ways, to both Carcetti and Stanfield. Colvin is one of the series' most fascinating characters, an effective leader and good cop who goes a little off the reservation and has to pay the price (a narrative successfully revisited in season five). Stanfield also proves a valuable addition, providing a very different kind of antagonist for the remainder of the series.
"No one wins. One side just loses more slowly." -Prez
One of the most disturbing (but accurate) motifs of the series is that of youth; the kids who work the corners and the towers are astonishingly young, and Simon and Burns (who worked as a teacher for seven years after retiring from the Baltimore PD) explore that trend in Season Four, which deals with the problems of the public school system (and how their ineffectiveness ultimately populates those corners and towers). Major Crimes investigator Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) is dismissed from the force after an unfortunate accident at the end of season three, and he decides to become a school teacher. A great deal of time is spent in his middle school classroom, and with a quartet of his students, who end up taking divergent (and unexpected) paths into and out of "the game."
The fourth season also navigates effortlessly between the school interests and the ongoing narcotics investigation; Major Crimes is again effectively shut down, but the (well-hidden) body count of Stanfield's takeover eventually leads to a stunning discovery that reassembles the unit. This is another solid season, with stellar performances by the talented young performers and continuing excellence from the (still growing) cast.
"Just 'cause they're in the street doesn't mean that they lack opinions." -Haynes
The series ends (too soon) with Season Five, which widens the net to include the media, particularly the staff of The Baltimore Sun (where Simon worked as a writer earlier in his career). This season introduces another terrific character in the Freamon/Colvin mold (i.e., very smart people who are astonishingly good at what they do, played by an actor you've never heard of before but will hopefully see again): City Editor Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson, who also directed several episodes, including the pilot and finale). Haynes is an old-fashioned newspaper man, firm but fair, and one of the season's many fascinating subplots involves his battle with a career-minded writer (Thomas McCarthy, director of The Station Agent and The Visitor) who, in shades of the Blair and Glass scandals, has a tendency to get quotes and stories that are just a little too perfect.
Major Crimes, meanwhile, is shut down again when the Stanfield case goes cold; the city's huge school deficit means belt-tightening at Baltimore PD, and the lack of overtime and resources puts morale at an all-time low. In desperation (and with a potential new line on Stanfield), McNulty (and later Freamon) engage in a scheme that could bring the whole department to its knees. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit being more than a little befuddled by this storyline, but when it starts to pay off, it's a stunner. The final, 93-minute episode is particularly solid, tough and funny and moving (the conclusion of reformed addict Bubs' journey--"Ain't no shame in holding on to grief"--still gives me goosebumps), bringing an exquisite series to a worthwhile and entirely satisfying conclusion.
The Wire: The Complete Series comes in a brick of a package, with handsome individual season sleeves inside a small cardboard box. Inside, the five seasons are presented as originally released individually, with very minimal new bonus features on the fourth disc of season five (see below).
The series is presented in a 4:3 image as originally aired on HBO (I wondered why it never made the widescreen switch, as most of the network's other hour-longs did, but no matter). Most discs present three episodes to a disc (sometimes only two or one, particularly if bonus features are included), and it's a good-looking transfer, rich with contrast and detail (an impressive feat, considering how much of the show takes place in bars and on dark streets at night). Some grain (apparently intended) and minor aliasing are occasionally visible, but there are no noticeable compression issues. Overall, a very solid image.
Sound is a vital component on The Wire, so the audio has to be first-rate. The show does not come up short; the 5.1 mixes throughout the series are terrific. Dialogue is front, center, and clear (though some volume jockeying is occasionally required for quieter characters like Daniels). The surround channels are quite rich, with plenty of separation and directionality in street scenes, shootouts, and pursuits, and frequent doses of hip-hop music (usually from cars on the corner) pounding the bass of the LFE channel. In short, this is a full, dynamic track that compliments the series well. (An English 2.0 track is also offered, in addition to Spanish and French dubs and English, Spanish, and French subtitles.)
The only place where The Wire's DVDs come up short is in the bonus features department. All seasons feature Audio Commentaries on selected episodes (more during the later seasons than the early ones), by rotating combinations of cast and crew. Each season also features "The Players," a flow chart of who's who on both sides of the law (that's right folks, we've got a show so damned complicated, you might want to use our handy flow chart). But that's all you get for seasons one and two.
Effort for extras was apparently stepped up a bit for season three, and we get a couple of interesting features on that set. First we have a "Q&A with The Cast and Creative Team of The Wire," (1:00:18) recorded at a panel discussion at the Museum of TV and Radio shortly after the conclusion of this season. As is the norm with the MT&R recordings, the shooting and editing is on the dull side, but this is a very informative session, with lots of background on how the show works. It also offers a semi-voyeuristic opportunity to observe the relationships of some of the cast and crew.
Creator Simon gets a lot of the attention in that featurette, but he is the sole focus of "Politics, Journalism, and Commercial Art: A Master Class on HBO's The Wire," assembled from his Q&A session at Eugene Lang College. This one is a little more scholarly and focused, beginning with some discussion of Simon and Burns' previous HBO collaboration, the mini-series The Corner, before moving on to The Wire with some in-depth scene analysis. It's a little dry, but still of interest.
Season four gives us a two-part documentary on the series, under the titles "It's All Connected" (28:40) and "The Game Is Real" (29:51). Both are very well put-together, expertly cutting interviews with much of the talent (and some real-life Baltimore cops and politicos) with behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the show. Maybe it's because the show is more interesting than the average series or film, but this mini-doc seemed a bit deeper and more thoughtful than your average EPK featurette. The first half deals with the roots of the characters, the backgrounds of the creators, the reality of the show, and the creation of season four's public school arc. The second part covers the audience reaction to show, in addition to placing it within its Baltimore context. The documentary pops around a bit, jumping from topic to topic in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, but it works; there are also some very interesting stories about the backgrounds of some of the cast members that come from, well, a non-traditional acting background.
The two-part mini-doc format returns for season five. First we have The Wire: The Last Word" (26:33), an extended (and interesting) look at the print media motif of the season, including interviews with some well-known reporters (as well as Simon's reminisces of his time in the newsroom). It is followed by The Wire Odyssey" (28:39), an all-encompassing look back at the series from top-to-bottom, season-to-season. Some of the general themes are familiar from the previous featurettes, but it's still well worth a look.
The set's exclusive bonus features are tacked on to season five's final disc, and there's not much to them. We have "The Wire Prequels," a series of three short subjects (very short; they may have even been promos) showing characters in earlier days: "Young Prop Joe (1962, Baltimore, Maryland)" (1:40), "Young Omar (1985, Baltimore, Maryland)" (1:41), and "Bunk and McNulty (2000, Baltimore, Maryland" (2:54). These are mostly played for laughs, so they're kind of a treat for fans--even if they engage in the kind of expositional back-filling that the series, as a rule, steers clear of.
The only other new features is a Gag Reel (13:37), but it is less of a gag reel than a montage of out-of-context lines and moments cut together to sound ridiculous. Thanks for the effort guys, but this is one to skip.
The added value of the less than 20 minutes of exclusive bonus features isn't nearly enough to push those who have bought The Wire season-by-season to (in the parlance of the show) "re-up" for The Complete Series set. But if you've somehow managed to miss a singularly outstanding series, now is the time to make the buy (slim bonus features be damned). The kudos thrown to this show, in this review and countless others, are not mere hyperbole. Believe the hype; this is a phenomenal series, and a necessary addition to the DVD Talk Collector Series.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.