The Wire depicts an American urban dystopia, framed in our time, in which easy distinctions between good and evil and crime and punishment are challenged at every turn. In five successive seasons, the series depicts a Baltimore in which institutional prerogatives, economic inequalities and a brutalizing drug war confound the efforts to advance the city and its people. The series' first season lays out the futility of the drug war, while the second highlights the deindustrialization and the death of the working class. The third season introduces the city's political culture and lays out the forces that stand in the path of actual reform. The fourth season addresses the educational system and the actual opportunities that remain to coming generations. The fifth and final season examines the media culture and its role in perpetuating the status quo. Amid all of this, carefully drawn characters on both sides of the law and from a variety of Baltimore cultures move forward as best they can, human to a flaw, struggling against a system that seems weighted against civic progress.
In the pantheon of great television, 'The Wire' stands very near the top of the pile with such medium-defining series as 'The Sopranos', 'Mad Men,' and 'Breaking Bad.' David Simon's socially conscious, socially critical five-season tale of life in Baltimore explored every facet it could, from the residents living in economically depressed urban areas, to the endangered species that is the middle-class blue collar worker, to law enforcement, all the way up to the not-so-venerable and corrupt corridors of City Hall. The series seized on social notions and dared to look at the cause of these systemic problems, shining a light on the faces in government and law enforcement with the same impartiality as it did those selling drugs for $10 a pop. In doing so, 'The Wire' became a television phenomenon, a literary program delivering a critique on a society built on disparity that also happened to be filled with rich, well-drawn characters, turning the usual binary of good versus evil into something far more complex and lifelike.
That seems like a heavy burden for anyone looking to escape for an hour at a time with a little television. And yet with great style, commitment, depth of thought, and humor, 'The Wire' managed to be a consistently entertaining drama, and yet not be thought of as strictly entertainment.
Starring the likes of Dominic West, Wendell Pierce, Idris Elba, Lance Reddick, Michael K. Williams, Frankie Faison, and so many more, the series began life under the guise of another cop show that happened to take the concept of the procedural to its most minutely detailed extreme, focusing as much on the insufferable bureaucracy of state and local government as it did on the day-to-day grind of building a prosecutable case against criminals. More than that, however, the series sought equity in its storytelling, spending time trying to understand and live with the criminals (i.e., the Barksdale clan, headed up by Wood Harris as family patriarch and Baltimore drug kingpin Avon Barksdale), so as to see the socio-economic reasons behind their choices rather than paint them as one-dimensional thugs, so often seen in other avenues of popular culture.
Season 1 was a sly gambit. It was a dense, meticulously paced police procedural that also happened to be an incredibly erudite commentary on the inefficacy of the government's war on drugs. When the season (and the series) began, however, it looked as though the story was going to revolve around the hard drinking, womanizing, play-by-his-own-rules Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty (West). In the long run, that might have been okay; McNulty was, if not a terribly original concept for a character, an engaging onscreen presence, thanks largely to his desire to be a good cop, to evoke change, and to West's innate ability to play likeable bastards without making it seem like their bad boy status is the only thing about them that's interesting.
But 'The Wire' soon proved it was about something far greater than Jimmy McNulty. Within the first few episodes, the series devoted as much time examining the screwed up lives of other homicide detectives, like Jimmy's partner Det. William 'Bunk' Moreland (Pierce) – an equally hard drinking, and loveable bastard – Det. Shakima 'Kima' Greggs (Sonja Sohn), and even the determined, ladder-climbing ambition of Lt. Cedric Daniels (Reddick), just to demonstrate how everyone on the show had a unique want, and what that want meant to the larger story at hand.
The story did something remarkable, though. It took the idea of an antagonist – in this case, Avon Barksdale and his drug empire – and it turned that side of the story into its own equally compelling (if not more so) storyline, examining the same issue (i.e., the war on drugs), but from the unique vantage point of those peddling the drugs in question. Aside from filling the high rise drug den with a series of unique, fascinating characters, like Stringer Bell (Elba), D'Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), Bodie (J.D. Williams), and the tragic Wallace (a very young Michael B. Jordan) – all of whom challenged the conventional ideas of who a drug dealer was and what his motivations/wants were – the story did something truly unique: It demonstrated how both sides of the battle sought to profit from the dangerous enterprise they were engaged in.
That was radically different from a great deal of television anyone had ever seen. There's a good chance it was also radically different from any learned perspective on the war on drugs most people had been exposed to in their lifetime.
When season 1 concluded, it seemed like the battle between the Barksdale's and the Baltimore P.D. would become the ongoing storyline. And it was, in a way: the Barksdale's were a consistent presence throughout the run of the series, but with each successive season, 'The Wire' sought to do something different: it looked to examine a larger issue within the framework of Baltimore and the lives of the characters it had created.
From that point on, each season was defined by how the narrative played out within the context of a larger social concern. Season 1 was the drug trade; it examined why the drug war is little more than a racket. But then season 2 made the startling shift to the port, to discussing the lack of jobs for blue-collar workers, and to sort of bear witness to the dying off of the unions. Season 3 was all about the nature of reform and who is doing the reforming. It pondered the notion of socio-economic imbalance and began to look at why the economic disparity in a place like Baltimore is so profound. Season 4 is the education season. Possibly the most thematically dense storyline of the series was the one devoted to a discussion of where the education system has failed young people, and why those failures contribute to them becoming criminals. Season 5, the final season, explored journalism – a topic close to Simon's heart. And with the same boldness it did every other topic the series examined, season 5 held a mirror up to the media, and explored the battle between sensational journalism and deep, investigative reporting on meaningful topics.
The final season was not without its detractors, but looking back at it now, the complexity and richness in character Simon and his writing staff managed to imbue into a rather large, late-in-the-game addition to the cast is rather remarkable. One has to wonder if the season had been 3 or maybe 4, if it would be looked upon with less scrutiny.
Nevertheless, 'The Wire' isn't just one of the best televisions dramas in the history of the medium; it's a program that will almost certainly be as culturally relevant in 30 years as it was when the series premiered in 2002. In some ways (mostly due to recent events involving police), the series is even more culturally relevant today than it was while it was on the air, if that tells you anything about the show's staying power. This is undoubtedly the masterwork of David Simon's career. It is brilliant and unforgettable, and truly worthy of all the praise that has been heaped upon it over the years.
The Blu-ray(s): Vital Disc Stats
'The Wire: The Complete Series' comes from HBO Home Entertainment as 5 4-disc sets of 50GB Blu-ray discs. Each disc set comes in an oversized keepcase, each with its own unique, season-specific artwork on the insert. Each insert is double-sided, providing episode titles and special feature details, such as commentaries and documentaries/interviews that are contained on the final two seasons. The keepcases are all housed in a single cardboard box that is visually simple yet striking. There is also an Ultraviolet digital download for the entire series.
There was some controversy when the HD re-mastering of 'The Wire' was announced. It wasn't because the show would be getting an HD makeover, but because the remastered image would do away with the 4:3 aspect ratio the show originally aired in. This alteration caused concern for purists, who were upset that the vision of David Simon, the various directors brought in throughout the run of the series, and DPs like Uta Briesewitz, Russell Lee Fine, David Insley, and Eagle Egilsson, were all being trampled on in the name of television progress. As it turns out, the show was originally framed for 16x9, "as a way of future proofing", with only the later seasons having been framed for 4x3.
Here's the official statement from HBO regarding the re-mastering process:
"The entire series has been beautifully re-mastered in 16x9 Full-Frame HD from more than 8,000 reels of original 35mm camera negative, allowing for a tighter fit on widescreen TVs and computer/tablet screens. The original negatives were scanned, edited, dust-busted and color-corrected with great care and attention taken to stay true to the look and feel of the original Standard-Definition 4x3 version."
So what does that mean for this re-mastered edition of 'The Wire'? Well, the impact is nominal. While eagle-eyed viewers might be able to spot a problem here or there, the overall impression is that the image remains intact, despite having been altered.
Whatever your thoughts on the aspect ratio, the image looks very good. The re-mastered image maintains a lot of the original look and feel of the series. That means that while the image delivers strong detail and plenty of vibrant colors, it also has the grittiness of the show when it first aired. The image hasn't been sterilized. Grain is still evident in certain scenes; while others still demonstrate a soft focus that somehow preserves the stark, real-life feel the show was so well known for.
Contrast remains high throughout, with shadows ranging from gray to deep, inky black. The image is free from any hint of crush or banding. Daytime scenes are also well balanced, as light never burns too hot, and whites are clean without blowing out the rest of the image. The image has also been cleaned up, so there are no traces of artifacts or specs anywhere on the transfer.
Overall, the image looks very good. Some soft focus issues aside, this is a great transfer.
Each episode has been given a very nice DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that delivers clear, distinct audio from start to finish. There is very little to complain about with the audio mix here, as dialogue comes through with remarkable clarity, while sound effects and ambient noise is filtered throughout the various channels to give the viewer a better sense of immersion.
Much of the sound is delivered through the front end, with the center channel handling most of the heavy lifting when it comes to dialogue and certain sound effects. The front right and left channel pick up a good deal of the music, while handling sound effects when directionality calls for it. And speaking of directionality, that element is surprisingly good and consistent across all 20 discs. Balance is also handled well, as layered elements on the mix never impinge on the quality of something more important, like, say, dialogue.
The rear channels aren't given a particularly strenuous workout, but they do make their presence known. Atmospheric noise is used wisely, making bustling offices, street corners, and markets come to life. While the halls of a courthouse echo with the footsteps of those walking down them, giving the mix a lived-in feel that's appropriate to the tone of the series.
Episode 1: 'The Target' – Commentary by writer/creator David Simon
Episode 2: 'The Detail' – Commentary by director Clark Johnson
Episode 12: 'Cleaning Up' – Commentary by creator David Simon & writer George P. Pelecanos
Episode 6: 'All Prologue' – Commentary by stars Dominic West and Michael K. Williams
Episode 12: 'Port in a Storm' – Commentary by co-producer Karen L. Thompson and editor Thom Zimmy
Episode 1: 'Time After Time' – Commentary by David Simon and Nina K. Noble
Episode 2: 'All Due Respect' – Commentary by Richard Price
Episode 3: ' Dead Soldiers' – Commentary by David Simon
Episode 11: 'Middle Ground' – Commentary by George P. Pelecanos and Joe Chappelle
Episode 12: 'Mission Accomplished' – Commentary by David Simon and Karen L. Thorson
Episode 1: 'Boys of Summer' – Commentary by David Simon and producer Ed Burns
Episode 4: 'Refugees' – Commentary by editor Kate Sanford, producer Karen Thorson, and cast member Jim True-Frost
Episode 6: 'Margin of Error' – Commentary by director Dan Attias and story editor William F. Zorzi
Episode 11: 'A New Day' – Commentary by cast members Robert Chew, Jermaine Crawford, Maestro Harrell, Julito McCullum, and Tristan Wilds
Episode 12: 'That's Got His Own' – Commentary by director Joe Chappelle and writer George P. Pelecanos
Episode 13: 'Final Grades' – Commentary by David Simon and executive producer Nina K. Noble
Hour-long Behind-the-Scenes Documentary (HD, 60 min.) – Split into two parts: 'It's All Connected' and 'The Game is Real' make for a compelling behind-the-scenes look at how 'The Wire' was made, and what the people creating it were thinking about when they created it. Both segments feature some great insight from David Simon, as well as several of the writers and producers, as well as the cast. It was clear that by season 4, the series was going to be a defining part of the television landscape, and this documentary is a testament to that thinking.
Episode 1: 'More With Less' – Commentary by director/co-producer Joe Chappelle and cast member Wendell Pierce
Episode 2: 'Unconfirmed Reports' – Commentary by writer/cast member William F. Zorzi and director/cst member Clark Johnson
Episode 4: 'Transitions' – Commentary by writer/co-executive producer Ed Burns and producer Karen Thorson
Episode 5: 'The Dickensian Aspect' – Commentary by producer George P. Pelecanos and director Seith Mann
Episode 7: 'Took' – Commentary by director/cast member Dominic Wet and editor Kate Sanford
Episode 10: '-30-' – Commentary by David Simon and executive producer Nina K. Noble
The Wire: The Last Word (HD, 27 min) - Really a discussion about season five and the role that the media plays. It depicts news as big business, and explores the way people want sensational stories, not reporting committed to the daily grind and stories of life in the inner city.
The Wire Odyssey (HD, 29 min) – This is a retrospective of the first four seasons, wherein Simon and the other creators break down each season in terms of theme and structure.
Prequels (HD, 6 min.) – These three prequels depict life before the events of season 1-5 of 'The Wire.' They depict the first time McNulty and Bunk meet, a young Proposition Joe, and a young Omar.
There probably isn't enough praise that can be heaped upon 'The Wire' for the brilliant way it sought to tell a massive story about the large problems facing our cities, citizens, and governments, by bringing the narrative down to the personal level. The series is smart, and its achievement is nothing short of astounding. This series will undoubtedly stand as one of the deepest, most rewarding viewing experiences you can have. This Blu-ray set is a must own.