On Saturday 2nd June, The Wire celebrated its 15th anniversary. It was first broadcast on HBO back in 2002, a cable network in the US that had become the touchstone for a new era of quality adult drama. At the vanguard of this new generation was The Wire – a word-of-mouth cult hit that showcased the lives of flawed law enforcement officers and drug-dealing gangs on the streets and in the projects of Baltimore. Often cited as the greatest TV show of all time, rightly so in my opinion, it was only fair that I doffed my cap to this staggering, rich, deep and sometimes shocking five-season series.
Created by ex-Baltimore Sun journalist, David Simon, and ex-homicide detective, Ed Burns, The Wire spanned five series and told stories within stories, presenting a fictional version of the city Simon and Burns knew so well. Simon had left the Sun in 1988, and had spent a year on the streets researching a book that would eventually become Homicide: Life On The Killing Streets. Asked to oversee a television adaptation, he soon teamed with Burns and returned to the streets of Baltimore, to write The Corner: A Year in the Life Of An Inner-City Neighbourhood.
Involved in turning that book into a six-part series for HBO, the duo then turned their attention to creating a police series with a difference. Burns had grown frustrated with the bureaucracy of the Baltimore Police Force, and had things to say. Simon also had plenty of things to say.
What followed was five series of sprawling, sometimes brutal, almost documentary drama – characters (real characters) Simon and Burns had known from the streets were reshaped, amalgamated and given new names. Because of this the characters – everyone from the cops and the gang members they were trying to bring down, to the dock workers, school teachers, judges and city councillors – had real depth and nuance. There was no black or white; every character was good and bad, the product of their environment. If you came from the streets, you could be good as well as bad. You lived by the rules made by the environment you were born into. Conversely, being a police person or a judge meant that you could be bad as well as good.
Real humans, real characters.
It was groundbreaking, both in the ways it depicted these characters but also epic in scale and ambition. It also dared to suggest alternatives – radical alternatives – to ingrained and previously inescapable situations and patterns of behaviour. Simon and Burns created something Dickensian, Tolstoyian, even suffusing it all with Greek tragedy and Shakespeare. It felt literary but was presented through the prism of televison. It was that meaty and diverse.
And those characters – so MANY incredible characters that you cared for and loved – kept you hooked right until the very end.
Nothing matched it then, and nothing matches it now.
Here are the leading players, telling the story of The Wire.
David Simon (creator)
Well, I was in Baltimore, and it’s a very drug-saturated city, or it certainly was in the early 1980s when I arrived. And this was a time where people thought they could arrest their way out of the drug problem, and then they actually tried to do that.And what became increasingly obvious to me over the years of covering it was that when you devote yourselves to street-level drug enforcement when you try to win the drug war, you only have a limited number of resources, a limited amount of resources. And I watched the police department in Baltimore, and then I noticed it in other cities — other cities with the same sort of problems of drug use — they stopped doing police work. They were arresting people for drugs, and that was presumptive police work, but actually, it wasn’t.And at the same time that the numbers of drug arrests and incarcerations for drug arrests went up — and they were small incarcerations, they were two, three months in jail, because you couldn’t put them everywhere, you couldn’t build prisons fast enough — meanwhile the arrest rates for rape, robbery, murder were going down.And the one thing that makes cities safer is competent, retroactive investigation of felonies. That actually can make a city safer. But to do that, you have to use and not be used by informants. You have to know how to testify in court. You have to write a search warrant that is going to hold up.
Andre Royo (Bubbles)
The city of Baltimore was the best character on that show. It was the stage that we got to play on. We were doing theater, not television. We were telling the story of the breakdown of a city. It’s like the line from the show, ‘All the pieces matter.’
I’m the kind of person who, when I’m writing, cares above all about whether the people I’m writing about will recognise themselves. I’m not thinking about the general reader. My greatest fear is that the people in the world I’m writing about will read it and say, ‘Nah, there’s nothing there.’ “
[From The New Yorker]
Aidan Gillen [Carcetti]
I didn’t find it daunting. I knew how good it was and I was very excited by the idea that we didn’t know where it was going and by the prospects of working with people like David Simon, George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane. And Simon in particular, his personality was so unlike the majority of people you might meet in film and television. The intelligence, dedication, humility, and just being interested in getting a job done and having something to say, and not any of the other stuff – the fame and fortune and where you sit in a restaurant. Maybe it’s a Baltimore thing.
[via The Guardian]
Sonja Sohn (Kima Greggs)
Shit. Every year we were fighting for our lives and we never knew if we were coming back. The first season, a lot of us were early in our careers, we were just trying to figure out asses from our elbows. We were getting used to a lot – shooting in Baltimore, getting a feel for the story and our characters. Wendell [Pierce] was one of the first to see how important the show was early on. I think by end of first season we could see how important the show was. And I think that grew with every year. When you came to work, everyone became more deeply invested: I’m actually going to work on something important and impactful and it means something to me. You just knew you were telling a story much bigger than your characters and much bigger than you.
Wendell Pierce [Bunk]
I knew it was something different, knew it was speaking in a different way, and that it was unique in telling a story. David had high expectations to write a show about moral ambiguity, the life and dysfunction of our society. To see all these years later, that there are classrooms around the country examining this in an academic setting, and to know that the men and women in power – all the way to our president – is impacted by the work that we did all these years ago is a pretty amazing thing.
Idris Elba [Stringer Bell]
My wife was about eight and a half months pregnant by the time I got the news I was going to be on The Wire. If I didn’t get it, I was going to leave the U.S. We knew that if I didn’t have acting work after my daughter was born we would be up shit street.
[via The Express]
Dominic West (McNulty)
Within a day I was standing in the trauma unit of a hospital with the family of a guy who had just been shot three times in the head but was still alive. I was thinking: I just hope nobody speaks to me because I hadn’t learned to do the accent yet.
[From The Guardian]
Wood Harris [Avon Barksdale]
On The Wire, we had a strip club on set that was a real strip club that me and Stringer Bell ran. And there was real strippers in it. Yes! That was a real strip club with real strippers! Just wildness in the air. It was a very invigorated world.
The guy who was the model for the character, Omar, in “The Wire,” was a real guy named Donnie Andrews. He’s a guy who lived the life on the street. He spent years robbing drug dealers. He lived hard. And he eventually caught a 17-year bit, and he deserved it.But he went in — he wasn’t caught. He actually went in unconscious because it finally got to him. And he did everything that the prosecutors wanted him to do. And he came out 17 years later, and all he wanted to do was to give back to West Baltimore. He’d taken so much. And he’d been in for 17 years; he just wanted to address himself to the disaster. And on paper, that man — he’s an extraordinary man, he was one of the most amazing people I met in my life — on paper, he was a convicted felon and a convicted murderer. And there was nothing that could get him from that extremity. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of lives that had been disconnected and have no way to channel back into.
Michael K Williams (Omar)
I love Omar, he’s one of my favourite characters of my career. His arc was sad because it was almost a person that could have gotten away. That’s what hurt me the most about Omar on being murdered the way he was. He had so much potential, he had an opportunity to change his life and to see what impact he could’ve had on society. Although it hurts to see a child killed, it rings true to me. That’s the average kid on the street, they’ll blow your head off in a minute, life is cheap on streets. That’s the truth, that’s what’s happening. It was very fitting, as harsh as it was, that’s just what it is.
[From The Collider]
I gotta say Omar is my favourite as much as I want to go against the tide. You see the complexity in a human being when you look at Omar. None of us are all good. Or all bad. I hate to use bad or good. We have tangled up reasons why we do things.
You know we would be looking at scenes together, me and Idris and going through it, you know there’s so much love there because there’s care about the outcome.
Idris Elba [Stringer Bell]
People I’d been raised with in London made money as a hustle, whether it was drugs or being a pool shark. Flash drug dealers went to jail, cool drug dealers didn’t. I had that embedded in my system since I was a kid. My dad was a pool shark. We’d go to pubs and he’d pretend he didn’t know how to play, put down a bet and win. The point is, Stringer was in my system. And when I got to America, I understood what was happening in the hood. I lived in Jersey City, which is a rough neighbourhood, and in Flatbush for a while. That was my preparation for the role.
[via The Daily Mail]
Clarke Peters (Lestor Freemon)
Lester’s the guy I’d like to grow up to be.
[via The Guardian]
It put the ownership on the audience – you can’t claim ignorance anymore. We already knew that shit is fucked up. That things are happening that shouldn’t be happening. But we could always say, “Oh, I didn’t know.” Now, you can’t do that anymore. David Simon always said, “We don’t need any awards.” I was like, “Stop saying we, motherfucker.” But he was right, it wasn’t the type of show that was looking for that. It was the kind of show that was looking to expose the audience to what was really going on. What we’re going through with society right now is that we’ve forgotten how to connect with each other, how to be human, how to have compassion. And this show shows why. Shit is hard and people are not being respected the way they should be.
The Wire is dissent. It is perhaps the only storytelling on television that overtly suggests that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right.
After filming the last episode, we were all teary-eyed. We were sad about the show ending, but also scared about what we were going to do next. It was a show that was underrated, wasn’t that watched, never got nominated. Wendell [Pierce] was the one to say, ‘This show was so important, what we did was special. You’ll never find a show with this kind of cast, this many people of colour, that isn’t just entertaining, but educating and inspiring. It’ll never be better than this.’