‘The Wire’ at 15: Celebrating the Groundbreaking HBO Show
Hyper-realistic drug dealers-and-cops drama from David Simon debuted on June 2, 2002.
Fifteen years ago this Friday (June 2), those lucky enough to have an HBO subscription—and a discerning mind—were introduced to The Wire.
Former journalist David Simon’s epic television series would stretch for five seasons and six years, and end up being hailed by critics and viewers alike as one of the greatest shows of all time. A hyper-realistic but fictional account of how the City of Baltimore, Maryland, handles the street-level drug trade—with each season focusing on a different aspect of city life—The Wire so struck a chord that a sitting president was compelled to interview its creator (see below). And since it wrapped, the show’s landed on pretty much every best-of listicle somewhere near the top.
It’s worth setting the scene a bit: The show couldn’t have come at a more historically charged and poignant time in American history—the perfect table-setter for such a bleak show. Just nine months prior to its pilot episode airing, the country had been shaken to the core by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With the image of the smoking rubble of the Twin Towers still fresh in viewers’ minds and most of the Western world donning NYPD/FDNY hats in solidarity, the show’s “cops as heroes” theme fit the times perfectly.
The Wire‘s debut also came at a time when viewers were just starting to be exposed to edgier television; they were getting a taste of realist fare on NBC’s The West Wing and HBO had another critical darling in the mob drama, The Sopranos. Just weeks prior, viewers said goodbye to the highly influential (and limits-pushing) The X-Files. Like the original Twin Peaks, every character on the show had his or her own spiderweb of a sub-plot; that included everyone from main characters like Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and drug kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) to heroin-shooting-bum-turned-confidential-informant-du–jour, Bubbles (Andre Royo).
Conceived and written by former Baltimore Sun journalist, award-winning author, and veteran TV screenwriter David Simon, the show would not only be a ringing endorsement of urban police life and the hardships involved, but also an introductory class to drug dealing lingo, gang-related activity, and the seemingly Shakespearean dramas that played out between the two opposing forces.
It was also a bit of a chip off the old block of Simon’s own nonfiction book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which was later adapted for television as the Emmy-winning ’90s drama Homicide: Life on the Street. Simon also found a home at HBO for the miniseries The Corner, which had been adapted from his and writing partner Ed Burns’ book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood.
Having itself been passed up by the Primetime Emmys (it was nominated twice), The Wire has been living a comfortable second life on HBO Go, the cable net’s streaming service, as well as all over the internet, where it’s written about maybe as much as any other show on TV (search “The Wire” on Google, and you’ll get over 63 million hits).
While RealClearLife would love to recap the entire series for you, HBO’s already done the heavy-lifting on its Wire hub page.
Instead, RCL has provided you with a list of 10 things you may not know about The Wire (and should) for that incredible first season (with a few other seasons thrown in for good measure).
1.) The Wire‘s theme song, “Way Down in the Hole,” was originally written and recorded by musician Tom Waits. It was performed by a number of different artists throughout The Wire‘s five seasons, but Season 1 honors went to The Blind Boys of Alabama.
2.) At the time, the show featured many unknowns in lead roles—some of whom were also from the U.K., deftly doing American accents. Lead actor Dominic West (Det. Jimmy McNulty) is originally from Sheffield, England; Idris Elba (Russell “Stringer” Bell) hailed from London, England; and Aiden Gillen (Councilman Thomas Carcetti) came out of Dublin, Ireland. If you take the time to rewatch the first season, you’ll catch some of the British actors stumble from time to time, and drop a particularly English- or Irish-sounding phrase.
3.) Speaking of Elba and Gillen, the two co-stars—with the exception, maybe, of Michael K. Williams (see immediately below)—have had the most post-Wire success. Elba, who starred in the critically acclaimed BBC cop drama, Luther, is set to play Roland “The Gunslinger” Deschain in the Stephen King adaptation, The Dark Tower, out this August. Gillen, of course, plays Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish on HBO’s Game of Thrones.
4.) Michael K. Williams landed the part of The Wire‘s best-loved character—the openly gay, scar-faced, double-barrel-shotgun-toting prince of thieves, Omar Little—after just a single audition. Of taking the role of a gay gangster, Williams told journalist Joel Murphy in 2005: “I’m a character actor, I always look for challenges. I look for things that are going to make me stand out. I’m a black dude from the projects of Brooklyn with some talent. It’s like, ‘Get in line.’”
5.) While Omar’s first appearance in the series is episode three, “The Buys,” the one that fans will remember the best is when the character slowly makes his way down a street, strapped in a bulletproof vest, packing a double-barrel shotgun, with a long, gray trench coat on, whistling “The Farmer in the Dell.” It prompts a kid on the corner to grab his friend and say, “Omar comin’!”
6.) Former President Barack Obama was such a huge fan of the show that he sat down and interviewed creator David Simon about it—and how it played into America’s ongoing “War on Drugs”—at the White House. Watch the full interview above.
7.) One of the reasons why The Wire has such a hyper-realistic flavor to it is because it crosses over into real life in several key ways. One of the show’s main writers, Ed Burns, was himself a former Baltimore PD homicide detective. Simon also liberally cast actual former drug dealers, politicians, and community figures from the city, including police officer Jay Landsman, who played Lieutenant Douglas Mello (another actor plays a character named “Jay Landsman” in the show); and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.
8.) Enough can’t be said about Simon’s positive, hyper-intelligent, and progressive portrayal of African Americans in the show—and the seemingly otherworldly casting that was done to enliven his fictional world with out-of-nowhere stars. A few Season 1 stars-in-the-making included a young Michael B. Jordan (Fright Night Lights, Creed), who played upstart drug dealer, Wallace; Russell “Stringer” Bell (Idris Elba), the all-business, all-the-time consigliere of drug kingpin Avon Barksdale; and the aforementioned Bubbles (Andre Royo), who tightrope-walks between Shakespearean comic relief and gut-wrenching drama throughout the seasons.
9.) The show also had an untouchability to it—a fearlessness rarely seen on the small screen. It leapfrogged over Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out episode five years prior by casting actress Sonja Sohn as the show’s second major gay character, this time a cop: Police Detective Kima Greggs. Of her groundbreaking role, Sohn told Uproxx in 2015:
“I was excited to play this black, lesbian cop because, to the best of my knowledge, at the time, there had not been a black lesbian on TV ever. And so I felt that I had an opportunity to give a face and a voice to this character, to a population of people who had not been represented in entertainment in a big way at the time.”
10.) The Wire became such a cultural phenomenon that it went on to be taught in college classrooms across the nation. The Harvard Kennedy School of Government was an early adopter. And as Slate reported in 2010, Duke, U.C. Berkeley, and Middlebury all followed suit. Courses on The Wire have since been taught at Rutgers, Boston University, and University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Talk about revolutionary.
Because we can’t get enough of this incredible show—and we know you can’t either—watch a compilation of some of its greatest quotes below. Be advised that it includes spoilers and language that may not be suitable for an office environment.
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