I was late to The Wire when it first came to HBO, and decided on one random weekend to binge the first three seasons, a result of buying them on DVD of course. And the moment that it clicked for me was after I had finished watching Season One and started watching Season Two, and the confidence with which that show runner David Simon decided to switch the backdrop altogether. I do not know if Simon communicated the larger intent on the show at the time, but in learning about it later, that only made it all the more amazing (Note: If you would like to see how DVD Talk has written about The Wire in past seasons, click here, which goes to the review of the standard definition release of the complete series, which includes links to the individual seasons within it).
For the uninitiated, The Wire is set in Baltimore, though could be set in just about any industrialized American city really. As an aside, that these events occur 30 miles away from Washington D.C. is telling for just about any reason you can think of. Each season is set against a different background, though the theme is the same. Whether it is law enforcement, the offices of city hall, the public schools, the offices of a respected newspaper or even the realm of the blue-collar worker, the institutions had some form of corruption permeating them, and as some characters dealt with it and others were exposed to it for the first time, the results were sometimes frustrating, and other times heart-breaking.
Simon had handled work in Baltimore before on the crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street, but that seemed like it was on ketamine compared to The Wire. There was never going to be a pretty bow put on the events in The Wire, and early on in Season One, you get a sense of it. The dealers are so far advanced in their communications which ironically remain analog that the cops and their technology take hours, even days, to catch up. And by that point, the dealers have moved on. Take a look at the difference in communication between dealers in Season One to Season Three for an even wider scale. The cops aren't stopping the bleeding, they are trying to minimize it however they can. Witness the "Hamsterdam" experiment in Season Three even when they wildly swing towards (and past) the latter.
So many of the performances felt so authentic, to the credit of those Charm City locals who appeared in the show. Lots of local Baltimoreans occupying roles on the show, with a mix of actors from Simon's "stock company" both before and after The Wire like Callie Thorne (from Homicide, played McNulty's ex-wife; fellow HLOTS alum Clark Johnson directed several episodes and appeared in Season Five) or Bunk (Wendell Pierce, who would go on to star in Simon's Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans). Even a few actors made their first announcement of sorts on the entertainment horizon, like Idris Elba (RocknRolla), who played Stringer Bell. Or Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) as the scheming Councilman Carcetti, with a name and an accent that Marylanders like yours truly were convinced by. You can even spot a young Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) in the series' first few episodes.
With the recent events in Baltimore gaining national attention, an additional factor to ponder is if The Wire was prescient about how some of the things in the city have changed and if so, to what degree. Simon certainly has some opinions about them, and other people do as well. It would appear that as some of the reality based ideas which appeared in The Wire continued on to real-life Baltimore, to degenerative effect. As did the lack of any real connection between the city's inhabitants of various sects of influence. I am sure there are smarter folk than I who have made that connection or are trying to do so, but in rewatching The Wire now, it certainly seems like the signs were there to some degree.
Even without the events of Freddie Gray and the subsequent outrage, The Wire is a story not just about Baltimore but about modern America, as Simon is fond of saying. The themes in the show remain as resonant now as they did a decade ago, and there is something for everyone in the show. Want a social message, or a breakthrough performance, or a compelling individual storyline? The Wire has them here and in abundance. It remains as emotionally effecting a show now as it did then, and remains one of the best shows in television history.
The Blu-ray Discs:
The big topic of conversation upon the news of this release was the 1.78:1 widescreen presentation of the Blu-rays, as the show originally aired in 4:3. But HBO involved Simon (and Simon's collaborator/producer Nina Noble) in the remaster/reformat, and the results look excellent. If one wants to look at comparison footage of the before and after, along with more detail on the involvement, I highly recommend Simon's blog which discusses this in further detail.
With the obligatory discussion of the remaster out of the way, looking at the presentation without any context, it's quite the solid one. Colors look excellent, such as the night lights of Ballmer. And the drab neon lights of police offices are accurate in how depressing their appearance is. The image is sharp and detail surprisingly abundant. There is a side of me that leans towards the grass is always greener, in that this snazzy high-definition appearance takes away from the grit and raw visuals of the show when it first aired (pouring one out for the 35mm shots of the show). But at the end of the day I enjoyed diving headlong back into The Wire and the Blu-rays do not disappoint.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround for all of the episodes and they were almost as revelatory. Simon-produced shows have some good music behind and around them and this was no different. Dialogue has moments where it fluctuates, but booming bass from a car rolling through the city streets is clear and even has subwoofer activity. The source material wasn't one for directional effects or channel panning but when it does show up, it is effective listening. By no means is it reference material but holds up nicely.
The extras are mostly the same as the prior standard definition series release, with a couple of changes. Season One includes three commentaries (on episodes one, two and twelve), two which include participation by Simon and they are pretty good, along with the one from Johnson. Season Two has two commentary tracks, one crew based (on episode 12) and a cast-based one (on episode 6) with Michael K. Williams (Omar) and Dominic West (McNulty). Sadly, neither track is all that entertaining and doesn't complement the show that well. Season Three includes five commentaries (on episodes 1-3 and 11 & 12), three of which Simon takes part in, but all of the tracks are quality listening material.
Season Four is where business starts to pick up, as commentaries are present on six of the episodes (Simon appears on two), and Edward Burns appears on one, along with director Joe Chappelle and writer George Pelecanos though admittedly, the latter two appear elsewhere through the show's commentaries. There are two segments on the show to boot. "It's All Connected" (28:50) is on Disc Four and looks as the cast and inspirations for the characters, and Simon's work on the show. The town, people and dialogue of Baltimore is given a look, and some of the moments in the show that transpire to that point. Burns' past is given some background too, along with Simon's. It serves as partly a preview piece but worth the time. Even more so it "The Game is Real" (30:01) on Disc Five, which looks at the social and economic themes of the show compared to those in Baltimore, and the diversity among the cast (and other Simon shows, for that matter). It covers the city's history, the impact of the show domestically and internationally, and the generational evolution of Baltimore through the years. Quite fascinating.
Season Five starts with six commentaries (episodes 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 10) with a mix of cast and crew. Johnson, Burns, Pelecanos, Chappelle, West and Pierce are among those who share their opinions and all are worth the time to listen to. A number of cast members reunited for a panel at the 2014 Paleyfest hosted by critic Alan Sepinwall and it is included here (1:25:27). They discuss the cops and the crooks and when the show started to click for them that it was something special. They recall their favorite moments and adapting to the city dialect. Sohn shares a story about where she almost quit the show in Season Three as well. It is a fascinating piece and worth checking out. "The Last Word" (26:35) looks at the Baltimore Sun as the setting for Season Five and on journalism's slow decline in general, including the rise of blogs as reporters of news. It is a nice addition to the season extras. "The Wire Odyssey" (28:41) examines the past four seasons of the show before the fifth season, memorable moments, and the show's legacy, along with favorite characters and what roles some of the cast originally read for. Three prequels (5:55) examine the origin stories of notable characters. Digital copies on Ultraviolet and iTunes are included. It should be noted that the Blu-rays exclude the gag reel feature that the standard definition discs had.
The power of storytelling within The Wire reached into other areas of television while it was on, and one could make the case that it continues today into more serious areas of life in America in recent years. Technically, the discs look and sound great and the bonus material is intellectual and even thought-provoking. I do not think you can go wrong with either the standard or high definition versions, but if one is dismissing the Blu-rays out of hand, I'd strongly urge you to check them out first. Definitely tops in terms of releases so far in 2015.