HBO’s “The Wire” might not be quite as startling as the cabler’s other original series, but that’s because this police show rather boldly seeks drama in dullness. That’s not to suggest that the show is boring — it’s actually very compelling — but this is a series that’s all about the fine print, finding its most emotional moments not in violent confrontations between good guys and bad guys in the drug war, but in depicting the battles of bureaucrats. So while it’s less original than genre-busting “The Sopranos,” the ultrapensive “Six Feet Under” or the uninhibited “Sex and the City,” “The Wire” is still sophisticated and significant television.
Creator David Simon collaborated again with retired detective Edward Burns — they teamed on “The Corner” — and “The Wire” certainly demonstrates another admirable degree of authenticity. Show examines the drug war from the perspectives of the Baltimore police and the dealers in a narcotics-infested housing project, presenting each side locked into a complex system of entrenched rules. The pilot episode begins with the trial of a young murder defendant, D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.), who made the mistake of shooting a competing drug dealer within the vision of two eyewitnesses, a security guard on duty and a janitor who just happened to be coming off an elevator. Still, he gets off, as the guard suddenly decides on the stand that D’Angelo wasn’t the shooter after all.
The judge in the case calls Detective James McNulty (Dominic West) into his office, seeking the scoop on what went wrong. And, in the real catalyst for the series, McNulty makes the one unforgivable error in a bureaucratic system: He speaks out, informing Judge Phelan (Peter Gerety) that the projects in question are controlled by D’Angelo’s uncle Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), who has managed to get 10 other cronies off on obvious murders in the last year or so. Phelan, a former prosecutor, makes a call to Deputy Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie R. Faison), who makes a call to McNulty’s boss, Maj. William Rawls (John Doman), who forces the detective to write a report laying out the facts — “When you list the cases,” Rawls says, “put a little dot next to each one. The deputy likes dots.”
McNulty is assigned to a detail looking into Barksdale, which Burrell hopes will result in quick arrests to pacify Phelan. Heading the investigation is Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) of the narcotics division, a straight-laced and ambitious “company man” who’s “on the short list for major.”
It’s a no-win situation for everyone involved, and Daniels is sharp enough to see it. With minimal resources and mostly untalented personnel assigned to the investigation, he has little chance of getting close to the big shots, and he knows that his career will most likely benefit by doing the most superficial job possible, just enough to allow the department to look good without doing any good.
This is the world of police bureaucracy, where the old-timers ask more about the overtime pay than the case they’re working on, the problem newcomers get shuffled from one assignment to another because of their family connections, and where the worst thing you can do for your career is care too much.
Amid this environment, it’s easy to be drawn to those who show even an iota of concern. That’s what makes West’s McNulty such an easy figure to like, and he finds a similarly street-wise and concerned colleague in Detective Shakima Greggs (Sonja Sohn). And in the most daring play on our sympathies, Simon gives the original murder defendant D’Angelo a heart, too. The young man is thrown when he sees the janitor who fingered him shot to death, an event that gives the whole plot a nice stirring. No easy good and bad here; D’Angelo has lots more potential than most of the cops we see, almost all of whom drink beer as if it were their true passion.
From the cold cubicle space of the police offices to the sun-drenched courtyards of the projects, Vince Peranio’s production design and Uta Briesewitz’s cinematography provide a purposefully unpretty view of both sides of the fence. It’s not elaborate work, and there’s no gimmicky camera movement. It makes this show look and feel a lot less fussy than NBC’s “Homicide,” a series that shared the Baltimore location.
In its drug war subject, the show is also similar to the film “Traffic,” which was based on an English TV miniseries. “The Wire” is very different. It stays mostly away from the personal sides of its characters and relies a lot less on the melodramatic. It is, however, a similar indictment on the efficacy of the never-ending drug war. “Wire” also hints at how this effort may be moving to the sidelines to make way for the war on terrorism.
The cast here, a deep ensemble, manages to locate the interesting in the mundane. The supporting characters can be difficult to keep track of at first, but that’s clearly intentional on Simon’s part. It’s often difficult to know all the players in a bureaucracy, or to know who does what or who reports to whom. The first two episodes belong mostly to West, Gilliard and Reddick — outstanding actors all — but there are plenty of other players already making a claim for more screen time.