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‘A man must have a code’
Listening in on The Wire

You don’t so much watch The Wire as decode it. One of my favorite thumbnail critiques of this HBO dramatic cops series (Sunday nights at 9) came in Entertainment Weekly during the first season, something along the lines of, "The next-to-last show of the season, and we still haven’t figured out what’s going on." That’s okay, the writers of The Wire want you to be as confused about what’s going on as their characters are. The lingo traded by the black drug dealers on the show is doubly removed from standard English: ghetto slang transformed into a code that’s meant to elude the cops. When one of The Wire’s dogged investigators is able to translate a key bit of wire-tapped dialogue after hours of monitoring, one of his colleagues expresses astonishment. To which the sharp-eared investigator deadpans: "Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans." "What the fuck is that?" asks his annoyed pal. "Rolling Stones, first two lines of ‘Brown Sugar.’ I bet you’ve heard that song 500 times, but you never knew, right?"

The point is clear: patience is the key, and The Wire doesn’t demand any more of its viewers than it does of its characters. Which sometimes seems a lot to ask. But its rewards are a satisfyingly dense story and an array of rich characters. When critics talk about the series’s novelistic approach, they’re talking about rhythm and pacing (one not governed by the beats of your average drama series) and an extraordinary level of detail both in milieu and in characterization. Like Dickens in London or Joyce in Dublin, the creators of The Wire plop you down in the crime-spattered streets of West Baltimore and let you fend for yourself. You find yourself in a self-contained, ambiguous moral universe, one that bears a creepy resemblance to our own.

The Wire started its third season on HBO last Sunday night, and The Wire: The Complete First Season, a five-DVD set, is due from HBO Video on October 12. The show was created by former Baltimore Sun writer David Simon with retired Baltimore homicide detective Edward Burns, with whom he also created HBO’s The Corner. The set-up has a renegade cop, Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), using his relationship with a district-court judge to coerce his superiors into creating a special investigative unit to track down a powerful drug gang headed up by one Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris).

When the show first hit the air, it looked as if McNulty were going to be its focus, the way Helen Mirren is the center of the BBC’s Prime Suspect. Here was a detective driven by a combination of missionary zeal and pure ego. By the end of the first season, you can begin to lose count of how many times one of the other characters has offered a variation on "This isn’t all about you, Jimmy."

Fortunately, it’s not. McNulty’s recklessness ignites most of the plot lines of The Wire (and West is the central figure on the DVD box illustration), but this is an ensemble show, and ensembles don’t come any sweeter. In fact, in his one-dimensional functionality as the Dirty Jimmy of the series, McNulty is probably its flattest character.

Simon and his crew build these characters with patient deliberation. The police bosses oppose the special-investigation unit, which they see as stirring up nothing but trouble, and so they staff it with misfits. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) has spent 13 years and four months (he’s always quick to specify) behind a desk in the department’s pawnshop detail for an act of insubordination (read: integrity), and at first, he seems content to sit at his desk and make antique French dollhouse furniture. It’s not until a couple of episodes in that you realize he’s been tracking key evidence all along — "natural-born police," as one of his colleagues from the old days puts it. And is it any coincidence that this most laid-back of jazz-loving cops is called Lester and that his in-office sidekick, Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost), is called Prez — a possible double reference to the laid-back father of coded hipster lingo, jazzman Lester "Pres" Young?

Another "minor" character who scores every scene he’s in is Andre Royo as Bubbles, the junkie informant with a heart of gold. Bubbles has an easy way with his cop contacts, insisting on calling McNulty "McNutty" and joking with lesbian detective Shakima "Kima" Greggs (Sonja Sohn) when she reveals a gap in her knowledge, "Right now I am perfectly ashamed to be your snitch." We never do get Bubbles’ full name, even when he has a run-in with an unsympathetic interrogator, but it’s possible that his nickname comes from those bubbles that form in his drooling saliva as he starts to nod. Bubbles’ attempts to kick heroin provide some of the most moving moments in the series (his sponsor is played by real-life recovering addict Steve Earle, who addresses an AA meeting and is named, of course, "Waylon"). When Bubbles does kick, at least briefly, he’s given a great moment on a park bench, taking in life sober, looking at the birds in the trees and little kids blowing soap bubbles.

Also scoring is Delaney Williams as the rotund Sergeant Jay Landsman, who’s jolly and mischievous. Williams uses his lumbering body and huge appetite to full comic effect. (He plays one scene beautifully while hanging over a colleague’s cubicle wall eating a sandwich.) Jay takes pleasure in ironic rhetorical flourishes. When one colleague is stumped trying to clear an old case, Jay plays a cruel joke, referring him to a psychic named Madame Larue: "The woman — she has unexplainable gifts in matters of death investigation — she transcends the rational." In the new season’s third episode, he delivers a eulogy for a fellow detective at an Irish wake in a barroom. With the corpse laid out on the bar, the scene threatens to become a maudlin mess (or a Six Feet Under outtake), but Williams wrings pathos from it. Here’s hoping he gets to play Falstaff some day.

There are myriad other wonderful characters in the show. Idris Elba as Avon’s lieutenant, Stringer Bell, takes business classes in order to instruct his charges in the nature of "elastic" markets. Stringer is handsome, cold-blooded, and charming in his intelligence. Willard Pierce has shown up on episodes of Law & Order as an Ivy League–educated African-American defense lawyer — here he’s Detective William "Bunk" Moreland, McNulty’s amiable, savvy drinking buddy. In season one, he and McNulty parody CSI’s hi-tech investigations. Armed with nothing but old photos, a magic marker, and a tape measure, they enter a "cold" crime scene. For a good 10 minutes, their dialogue consists of variations on the word "fuck" — expressing disgust, anger, astonishment, and finally satisfaction as the evidence falls into a logical chain. David Mamet never had it this good.

Probably the most outrageous character is Omar, a scar-faced, frightening denizen of the projects who also happens to be openly gay (but is as butch as anyone on the block). Michael K. Williams (who has also shown up on Law & Order) is as natural as Royo’s Bubbles, and some of his lines come out like poetry. Omar makes his living by raiding the drug stashes of the Barksdale crew and drawing away their customers with handouts. ("Robin Hood shit," as one of the other dealers complains.) In a scene at police headquarters, Omar explains to Bunk that he began robbing Barksdale because of that crew’s habit of murdering civilians: "I ain’t never put my gun on nobody that wasn’t in the game." Bunk responds approvingly, "A man must have a code." It turns out that he and Omar attended the same high school.

Avoiding the fast-paced cutting of typical action shows, the first season of The Wire laid out careful visual and verbal cues. The courtyard of the low-rise housing projects where the Barksdale crew do business becomes a psychological space, with an abandoned orange couch at its center from which Barksdale’s nephew D’Angelo runs things, and from which he can see the complex arrangement of negotiations and drug buys going on around him. The second season moved to the Baltimore docks and the unionized Polish workers who get sucked into nefarious dealings with imported Russian prostitutes and drugs. Season two had its moments, but some of its characters were overdrawn, and the subculture of third-generation Polish dock workers never came to life with the same kind of complexity and nuance as those housing-project ghetto kids. Perhaps that’s because those "codes" of ghetto life were richer in their universal application — we "know" the broad outlines of that life in a way we don’t know Baltimore’s Polish dock workers. But it also came in the easy interaction among the cast of fine African-American actors playing characters on either side of the law.

The new season has returned us to the Barksdale crew who all but eluded the cops in season one. There’s the promise of new, compelling characters — Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin (Robert Wisdom), who’s under pressure to reduce the homicide rate but remains confident that he’s six months away from retirement with a major’s pension. On the other side is Cutty (Chad L. Coleman), out on the street after 14 years in prison and weighing the benefits of going straight versus those of getting back in "the game."

Still in the show’s favor are its depiction of a complex web of corruption and politics, the full Dickensian strata of urban life, and its refusal to find neat solutions. Neither of the first two seasons ended in what could be called a triumph for the cops, despite arrests and some minor prison terms. (As Bunk asks McNulty after the anti-climactic convictions at the end of season one: "Are you happy now, bitch?") What’s more, Simon and Burns keep luring fancy names to the production: writers Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos, director Ernest Dickerson. That first season is preserved as a small masterpiece on DVD. But The Wire shows no sign of going dead.

Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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