Binge Watch: The Wire

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The advent of Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon, HBO GO, Roku, and AppleTV has inspired a new craze — binge watching. This is when people dive into television shows (past or present) and begin an intense “binge” or marathon viewing of every episode. So, since we’re television junkies here, we decided to dedicate a column to it. Here it is: our first suggestion for you to dig in and spend the next few weeks gorging yourself.

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Premise: The Wire is an examination of the urban jungle known as Baltimore, Maryland. It might be be nicknamed “Charm City” but the picture that former Baltimore police reporter David Simon paints is anything but charming. The series follows a unit of police officers who employ a wire tap in order to try and bring down various drug syndicates in the city. While the war on drugs and its victims is the overarching story, the series also examines Baltimore’s education system, it’s newspaper, the politics of the city government, and the police department itself. While it tackles broad, sweeping issues, the show sharply focuses on specific characters within the different facets of the city including: Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick); drug dealers Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) and Marlo Stanfield (James Hector); politician Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) and urban Robin Hood, Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams).

Watch It If You Like: If you’re into gritty anti-hero shows like Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, Boardwalk Empire, or even Mad Men; or, if you are a crime drama aficionado who lives and dies with every Law & Order marathon.

Seasons: 5 (2002-2006, 2008) Channel: HBO

View It on: While most shows can be viewed on multiple mediums, The Wire can only be streamed through HBO GO which can stream on AppleTV or through your various mobile devices.

British actor Dominic West portrayed oft-drunk yet sharp as a tack Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty
British actor Dominic West portrayed oft-drunk yet sharp as a tack Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty

Behind the Scenes: David Simon & Ed Burns created the hit NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street (look for a cameo from Homicide alumn Richard Belzer in Season 5) as well as the acclaimed HBO mini-series The Corner. Simon would later go on to produce HBO’s modern war drama Generation Kill and the New Orleans-based drama Treme.

Wait…Isn’t That: The Wire is loaded with actors who went on to bigger and better things after the series concluded. Idris Elba, who appeared in Season 1-3 as Stringer Bell is the show’s biggest success story having moved onto major studio films: Prometheus, Pacific Rim, and this fall’s Oscar-hyped Mandela (where he plays the iconic leader). He also won a Golden Globe for his performance on BBC’s crime drama Luther. Dominic West, the series’ “star” went onto become a staple villain in major motion pictures (like 300) and headed up the BBC series The Hour. Amy Ryan, is probably the third most recognizable face, having gone onto acclaim with The Office and her Oscar-nominated role in Gone Baby Gone.

HBO brought a few Wire alum back to the network for new shows including: Aidan Gillen who portrayed Baltimore politician Tommy Carcetti became “Little Finger” on Game of Thrones; Michael Kenneth Williams went from street vigilante Omar Little to AC gangster Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire; Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters traded in their detective badges to work on Treme; Chris Bauer who was a mainstay in Season 2 went onto become Andy Bellefleur in True Blood; and Frankie Faison who portrayed Burrell went on to become a regular on Cinemax’s Banshee.

Michael Kenneth Williams owned it as stick-up artist Omar Little.
Michael Kenneth Williams owned it as stick-up artist Omar Little.

The Walking Dead plucked Chad Coleman (Cutty) to play Tyreese while Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (D’Angelo Barksdale) makes his debut this season. First season cast member Michael B. Jordan (Wallace) went on to acclaim in Friday Night Lights and the controversial indie flick Fruitvale Station. Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels), another of the show’s main stars, spent a few season on FOX’s Fringe while Season 3 featured actor Robert Wisdom (Colvin) found a home on ABC’s Nashville.

Favorite Character: During the 2012 presidential election Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons asked Barack Obama who the best character on The Wire was. The president responded — “It’s got to be Omar, right?…I mean the guy is unbelievable.” While some may argue Obama hasn’t said many correct things during his presidency we can’t argue with him on this point.

Omar Little is a fascinating character. A shotgun-toting man of the streets who steals from drug dealers and gives (mostly) to the poor like an inner city Robin Hood — who also happens to be openly gay. Michael Kenneth Williams delivers a masterful performance as Omar taking what could’ve been a one-dimensional character and making him into a beloved, iconic television character. He’s able to balance the sensitive, emotional side of Omar with his hyper, gun-toting macho side. He’s as believable with a gun as he is with a guy in bed. He also brings a terrific amount of levity to the show with his quick wit. Omar’s shining moment comes in the second season when he testifies, or should we say perjures himself, sending Avon Barksdale’s main muscle “Bird” to jail for murder. The scene summates Omar’s character perfectly – he’s funny, he’s tough, he’s honest, and he’s utterly captivating. It’s also commendable that he was able to make a character, who’s a killer and thief, a sympathetic one.

Idris Elba played the cerebral Stringer Bell in Seasons 1-3.
Idris Elba played the cerebral Stringer Bell in Seasons 1-3.

A Close Second: Dominic West as Detective Jimmy McNulty. This guy is the lovable bastard. He was Don Draper before Don Draper. He’s the kind of guy who consistently screws up his personal life with his love of drinking and loose women. You never hate him for it, you just feel disappointed; you know he’s better than this. West is perfect — he’s charming and arrogant yet never shies away from showing the cracks behind Jimmy’s whiskey-soaked facade. He’s the perfect embodiment of The Wire — no matter his best efforts, he always seems to come up short whether through his own fault or the shortcomings of the system he works in.

The Best Episodes…Spoiler Alert!! We’ll try not to give too much away…

First Season, Episode 12: “Cleaning Up”
Probably one of the most emotionally wrought episodes in the series’ run. In it, Stringer Bell asks two corner boys Poot (Tray Chaney) and Bodie (J.D. Williams) to execute one of their friends who may be a snitch. The suspense in the scene is almost unbearable and it comes from the boys’ reluctance to pull the trigger. Their street corner bravado melts before our eyes and we see that these two are still two, young kids who’ve been put in a terrible situation. When they finally do shoot their friend, the loss of the boys’ “innocence” is as heartbreaking as the newly murdered corpse hunched over in the corner.

Second Season, Episode Six: “All Prologue”
Oh, Omar. This is the aforementioned scene where Omar perjures himself on the stand to help convict Barksdale’s enforcer Bird. We’re not spoiling anything by telling you this is perjury, it’s in fact the worst secret in the room. Michael Kenneth Williams completely owns the scene with his combination of quick wit and sincere intensity. The following exchange is the absolute best scene of dialogue in the entire series…

Wendell Pierce portrayed homicide detective William "Bunk" Moreland.
Wendell Pierce portrayed homicide detective William “Bunk” Moreland.

Maurice ‘Maury’ Levy: You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You are stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from our city. You are a parasite who leeches off the culture of drugs…

Omar Little: Just like you, man.

Maurice ‘Maury’ Levy: Excuse me? What?

Omar Little: I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though, right?

Third Season, Episode 12: “Mission Accomplished”
Wow, how to not spoil this one. Let’s just say that the cerebral Stringer Bell is learning he’s not as smart as he thinks and his world is spinning out of control. However, he shouldn’t worry about that as the pissed off assassin Brother Muzone and a vengeance-fueled Omar Little have a plan in place for him.

Fifth Season, Episode 5: “React Quotes”
Omar has returned from “retirement” down in the Caribbean to avenge the execution of his friend/mentor/father figure Blind Butch. He plans on killing Marlo Stanfield by laying siege to the apartment he’s hiding in. Turns out he’s not there (Marlo used a body double) and it’s all one big bullet-laden set-up. It’s one of the most intense action sequences in The Wire’s run and worth sticking around to the almost unexplainable end.

Is It Worth The Marathon?: Absolutely, 100% yes. Entertainment Weekly named The Wire the best television series of all-time (which was my motivation to check the show out) and it’s really hard to argue with them.

Clarke Peters portrayed Lester Freamon, the brains behind many of The Wire's investigation.
Clarke Peters portrayed Lester Freamon, the brains behind many of The Wire’s investigation.

The storytelling is excellent. Every season, new layers and dimensions are added to the plot and never once do you feel yourself drowning in a sea of story lines. The characters are just as dynamic — never do they find themselves stuck in neutral as they evolve emotionally each season. Some of them take a turn to the dark side, others make a turn for the better, while some vacillate between the two. It’s fascinating to watch.

Thematically, The Wire is a stark, sober and gritty view of the urban landscape of Baltimore and the never ending cycle of violence, corruption, graft and futility that are inherent in all urban centers.

It’s a portrait of a terrible aspect of American society, one that keeps you hooked from the moment you first lay eyes upon it. If you’re going to binge watch any show, The Wire is it.

Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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