Review: ‘The Wire’ presents its case – beginning the all-time classic

I’ve watched and currently watch a ton of TV shows. There’s a reason I have a blog where I write about them. But there has always been 1 show on my list of things to watch that I’ve just never gotten to. That show is The Wire. Heralded by many as the greatest TV show of all time; I knew that one day I would have to watch it. Call it a critic’s right of passage. Well with me moving back home for the summer and a decent amount of time on my hands I decided it was finally time to crack open the great TV novel that is The Wire. I have a review of the first 7 episodes of Season 1 coming right up.

Think of the most dense and complex TV show you’ve ever watched. The Wire is more dense than and twice as complex as whatever you just thought of. This is not a show to watch while folding laundry. This is a show that demands your full attention. Every episode and every scene is packed with imagery and dialogue all in service of the themes of its story. So instead of recapping tons and tons of plot points this review is going to focus on a few of the larger themes of The Wire.


From it’s very first scene The Wire lays its themes out for you. After the murder of a man called, of all things, Snot-Boggie, we find Detective James McNulty (Dominic West) talking to a friend of these deceased who kept letting Snot-Boggie play in their weekly dice games even though he always tried to steal the jackpot at some point…

“Why’d you keep letting him play?” – McNulty

“Got to, this America man.” 

Snot-Boggie was killed because someone at the dice game got tired of his continued theft of the pot but became America is “the land of opportunity” these people felt like they had to let him keep playing instead of just baring him from the game. The Wire as a whole is about the broken institutions that make up America and how they adhere to such a rigid set of rules that effective work and progress becomes impossible.

We see this institutional gridlock when McNulty is forced to go above the head of his boss Major William Rawls (John Doman) to a circuit judge to get an investigation into drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) taken seriously. Rawls is furious because the horribly self-righteous McNulty would rather go after a target of worth than continue clearing murders to keep the clearance rates high.

After McNulty gets chewed out by Rawls, his partner Bunk Moreland in a hilarious reversal of a previous line of dialogue tells McNulty…

“There you go, givin’ a f*** when it ain’t your turn to give a f***.” 

That line is another defining theme of The Wire. The members of the various institutions represented on the show are only supposed to care when they are told to. God forbid they go above what is expected of them. Yet when we do see character rise above just the minimum we see them get punished for it. I.E when Rawls rips McNulty a new one over going above his head.

On top of the law enforcement side of the show, also represented with equal importance is the drug empire that is the target of the show’s main investigation. It is through this lens we learn that even “The Game” has a rigid set of rules that it adheres to.

We are first introduced to the empire of Avon Barksdale though his nephew D’Angelo (Larry Gillard Jr.). Dee has just gotten out from under a murder charge and is ready to get back in The Game. But when he does, he starts to see how broken and unnecessary all the violence is. He sees ways it could be changed but at the same time just accepts these things as part of the life.

One thing I learned about this show from reading the reviews of critic Alan Sepinwal is that these characters so “often do what is easy instead of what is right.” When they occasionally do the right thing, they pay dearly for it. For example when Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) stands up to Major Rawls to save the investigation into Avon, it likely costs him a long way on his path to career advancement. But Daniels decides that pursuing this case well is more important than being a lap dog. But as The Wire is fond of showing us through its character, there is always a price.

To be honest, there are a million quotes and other notes I took while watching these 7 episodes. To talk about each of them would likely take more words than I am willing to write and that you are willing to read. The truth of The Wire is that it is filled to the brim with meaning. Every other line of dialogue carries weight and adds meaning to this painting of the broken systems that populate our country.

All of this is without hardly even touching on the amazing cast that brought this world to life. It is a massive roster and actors, many of whom went on to become very prolific in the TV/movie world, like Idris Elba who plays Avon’s right hand man Stringer Bell. To mention each of them would again add hundreds of words to this post.

The Wire is not an easy show to watch. Not only is the narrative complex but it is also a slow burn. It takes around 4 episodes for all the players and their motivations to be established before events actually take place. It also takes just as long to familiarize yourself with the gargantuan cast and how they relate to one another. While that may seem like a detriment, it in no way is. By using its opening episodes to build its world, a lot of room is left in later episodes to show and not tell. The viewer understand their actions without the show having to explain to you why the act they way they do, because the time was taken to get to know the characters. This is not a show that is going to hold your hand through its story.

I have 6 episodes left in season 1 of The Wire. I fully intend to do a follow-up post once I have finished what I have left to write about how all of the seasons stories come together in the end. I am so glad I finally took the time to dive into this challenging and rewarding show.

Some Blog News:

My plan this summer is to watch the entire series with the free time I have. Hopefully that means I’ll be able to write a few posts about each season. For the future I plan to stick to one post at the halfway point and one at the end. If you guys want to follow along with me that would be awesome! It’s hard to say when each post will go up but feel free to read them as your watch! Or come back to them if you get ahead of me!

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