Celebrating 20 years of the greatest crime drama ever made.
Twenty years ago – on Sunday 2nd June, 2002 – a new TV show called The Wire debuted on US cable network, HBO.
From the minds of David Simon and Ed Burns, it told the sprawling story of policemen and women in the Baltimore PD, city politicians and administrators, drug addicts, dealers, and inhabitants of some notoriously tough neighbourhoods and projects that proliferated the then crime capital of the US.
With this huge panoply of characters and shifting dynamics, Simon and Burns concocted an epic tale that was not only a credible and tense cop drama, but also a human drama that plundered the classics – the stories of the men and women on the street (the gangs, the power, the need for power, the betrayal) were reminiscent of Shakespeare. Add in some searing social commentary, and The Wire examined every aspect of life on – and off – the streets. From the projects and schools to the dockyards, it not only examined life within them, it offered up solutions to problems that society hasn’t been able to solve for decades.
So happy birthday, The Wire. Here’s the cast and the creator, telling the show’s story in their own words…
David Simon: “Thematically, it’s about the very simple idea that, in this Postmodern world of ours, human beings – all of us – are worth less. We’re worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It’s the triumph of capitalism.
“Whether you’re a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It’s the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It’s viable for the few. But I don’t live in Westwood, LA, or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore.” The Slate
Aidan Gillen (Mayor Thomas J Carcetti): “The Wire really tells it like it is. You don’t see that many dramas on TV where you see eight-year-old kids on street corners selling drugs in Baltimore ’cos they’re treated with more leniency if they’re caught.
“And because it’s Baltimore, it’s nothing like working on some TV show in LA with stars with blonde hair and white teeth and fuckin’ trailers and execs worried about such-and-such can’t be seen to be like this because of blah-blah-blah. It’s probably the most intelligent show on television over there; it’s a world away from the west coast sheen of something like CSI or whatever. I was very lucky, because they’re the smartest people I’ve ever come across.” Hot Press
Idris Elba (Stringer Bell): “Alexa Fogel was a casting director that was really into seeing new talent. She said ‘I love you, I gotta bring you into this audition, but you have to promise that you can’t tell him you’re from East London.’
“My parents told me not to lie – you gotta look someone in the eye and be honest.
“That’s when he had to spill the beans and admit that he was from East London. ‘Don’t fire Alexa, she told me not to tell you guys.’ Complex
Dominic West (Detective Jimmy McNulty): “To read, I was given one scene from the pilot and nothing else, and I put myself on tape.
“I didn’t think much of it, but it got too late in the night, and they wanted it the next day, so I got my girlfriend to read the dialogue. It was a scene between McNulty and Bunk, and she read the Bunk part and I held the camera and I did McNulty. She couldn’t stop laughing at my accent, so I sent her out of the room and I had no one else and it was late, so I just left a gap for when Bunk spoke and reacted to whatever he was supposed to be saying and sent it off to them.
“David Simon said he found that it was so funny, this fool reacting to complete silence, that he thought we’d better get him over and have a laugh.” GQ
David Simon: “I had never seen an audition tape like it. The camera was on him, and he was reading and then he was leaving the pauses for the other actors, who didn’t exist, and he was reacting to the lines. A lot of acting is reacting, and to see somebody doing it to nothingness is a pretty unusual audition tape.” GQ
Sonja Sohn (Detective Kima Greggs): “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.” HBO
Michael K Williams (Omar Little): “I play Omar from a very painful place.
“You know, it’s a very dark state of mind to be in, a very painful state of mind. And that’s… I identify a lot with him on that level, you know, having overcome a lot of pain in life and stuff. So, you know, Omar in my book and my eyes, I don’t play Omar as [an] alpha male, not one to beat on his chest. And he’s a very, very sensitive dude. He comes from a very humble place. You know, growing up in the hood, we always knew the quiet one, the one that would kind of go inside. That’s the one you kind of – you watch out for. You know, so I play it from that aspect.” NPR
Idris Elba on Stringer Bell’s surprise death: “‘Who died?’ I remember asking a few neighbours. And they go, ‘You, motherfucker. You.’” Hollywood Reporter
Andre Royo (Bubbles): “There’s so much of me and Bubbles that is connected. He was addicted, he was chasing the dragon, and he found his way clean. The actor in me is chasing that same dragon — I want to be a part of a structure like that again. I’ve been in some great shows, have some fantastic shows coming up, but will they do for me as an artist what The Wire did? I don’t think so.” HBO
Aidan Gillen: “It’s written like a novel, and it’s not dumbed down in any way, so they did get people like Pelecanos and Richard Price and Dennis Lehane on board, because they could see the quality was fuckin’ amazing. And they’re first rate crime novelists, all east coast as well.” Hot Press
Wendell Pierce (Detective William ‘Bunk’ Moreland): “We were screaming from the mountaintops that this whole idea of the war on drugs is really just a racist machine for mass incarceration, which is to reproduce a slavery system, where in America you have an incarcerated workforce for corporations to pay no money and reap benefit from. And that is something that I’m proud of when it comes to The Wire.
“I think now in this racial reckoning, and this cry for police reform, it is so profound that people are going back now and watching The Wire with a new eye to understand.” NME
Dominic West: “I think [The Wire] needs to be revisited myself. Some of us in the cast have been campaigning for that for the past 10 years.
“I would do that only if David and Ed [Burns] were involved in the writing. But I would do it at the drop of a hat.” NME
Wendell Pierce: I knew it was something different, knew it was speaking in a different way, and that it was unique in telling a story. David [Simon] 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.” HBO
David Simon: “I don’t consider myself to be a crusader of any sort. I was bystander to a certain number of newspaper crusades. They end badly, in terms of being either fraudulent or by inspiring legislations that makes things worse.
“So, I regard myself as someone coming to the campfire with the truest possible narrative he can acquire. That’s it.
“What people do with that narrative afterward is up to them. I am someone who’s very angry with the political structure. The show is written in a 21st-century city-state that is incredibly bureaucratic, and in which a legal pursuit of an unenforceable prohibition has created great absurdity.” The Slate
Andre Royo: “We get two types of people that come up to us. People saying that’s the greatest show ever and people saying they haven’t seen it yet. That’s it.
The other thing that people come up to me and say is ‘Thank you.’ Not for being an actor, but for telling this story. And I thank them for watching it and taking the time from their busy lives.” HBO