On Thursday night, the New York branch of the Paley Center for Media hosted an unprecedented reunion in honor of HBO’s “The Wire,” routinely lauded as one of the greatest shows in TV history. Returning castmates included John Doman, Wendell Pierce, Sonja Sohn, Michael Kenneth Williams and Seth Gilliam, alongside co-creator and showrunner David Simon.
For nearly two hours the roster recounted tales from the set, as well as reflections on Simon’s creative process — giving each season a new foundation within the complex political and economic structure of Baltimore — and the show’s overall impact in retrospect.
One of the many interesting nuggets of trivia dispensed over the evening was this: “The Wire” was never renewed for a season ahead of time.
“Every season,” said Gilliam — who played Sgt. Ellis Carver — “it was like, ‘Are we coming back? Are we not coming back?’ I think David had a plan in his mind to tell the story he wanted to tell, but we told it a lot slower than a lot of other shows would allow at the time. I’m not sure that anyone aside from him knew the scope the series was gonna have.”
Star Seth Gilliam confided, “Before I got the part, I couldn’t pay my electricity bill and I was selling candles at a bar owned by a friend of mine. I started to get paid, really paid, for acting — not the kind of paid where you can’t afford to act. It was a transformative job for me, one of the first jobs I had where there wasn’t something a little bit off about the script.”
“Wire” fans roared with laughter as Simon teased his stars about the mechanics of killing off a character, or coming up with pages of new dialogue — some of which was workshopped in his legendary writers’ room with the likes of Dennis Lehane and Richard Price.
Simon elaborated on the red carpet: “HBO were pretty indifferent to the controversial content — they just would’ve liked to have an audience while the show was on the air. To their credit, they stayed with it, because I’ve never actually done anything for them that had an audience while it was on.”
“You know, television has more of a shelf life than it used to, so… because this was five seasons, they had to have a certain amount of faith in it. But the last couple seasons were kinda hairy. They were looking at it like, ‘Look, you’ve got all the critical notices on this, why are we trying to snatch something more? We don’t seem to be building an audience,” he added. “That’s also what the show was about: bad short-term decisions affecting the long run. We were considering a season on the topic of immigration, it was debated in the writers’ room, but it’s like, by the time we do the research, learn the Spanish, the train’s already rolling along and you can’t stop it. We were just begging HBO to give us another season.”
Topics on the panel included “The Wire’s” impact in depicting a criminal system described by stars Michael K. Williams and Sonja Sohn as “dysfunctional” and “broken,” and the topic of hopelessness.
“The fourth season (focusing on inner-city education) spurred people to action,” Sohn told a rapt audience. “You started to realize that the change agents, out there trying to change policy, create programs, make this country better, were so, so influenced by this show. And by what David and his writers and his producers did. There’s no greater honor for an actor than to be able to be a part of a project that changes people’s lives, and awakens them.”
Onstage, Simon described the series’ philosophy as such: “The show was always in danger of not being renewed. I don’t think I ever said the show was about something it wasn’t about, but I was always grabbing onto something — okay, we’ll do education for this season. Sure. But I think it’s safe to say the show is most overtly about the failure of the drug war, because that was the universe we spent a lot of time in.”
“But yeah, it’s about the other America, it’s about people who got left behind, and that runs through all five seasons,” he added. “And it’s about the fact that we are now very comfortable, living and experiencing different qualitative societies and cultures. I live 20 blocks away from a completely different Baltimore. And that schizophrenia, as a part of our society, I don’t think is sustainable…. A hard decision is gonna have to be made, of ‘Are we in this together or are we not?’ And I think ‘The Wire’ is a dystopia where we are not.”
Tristan “Mack” Wilds, who stepped out from acting last year to become a rap superstar, watched the talk from the front row of the Paley Center’s too-small amphitheater. Wilds described his career trajectory like this: “I did the show, I did ‘90210,’ I did ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ and now that the music is going, people are like: ‘My god, he was in ‘The Wire’?! We gotta get him on this!”
The event included a 15-minute montage of “The Wire’s” most legendary scenes, plus video messages from stars Dominic West — who couldn’t attend because he was at the London Film Festival — and Idris Elba, who could only say he was recording his greeting from “an exotic location.”
“But I gotta wrap it up now,” Elba told the crowd with a wink, “Because I think the Feds are coming.”
Watch the PaleyFest panel in its entirety below.