New HBO series `The Wire' taps into summer programming

BY TODD WEISER
Daily Arts Writer
Published June 16, 2002

Quality television lovers unite! HBO, the Mecca of excellent, smart and provocative television programs has launched a new series to fill all those empty summer days between seasons of "Six Feet Under" and "The Sopranos." However, this time execs over at HBO have become a little bored with their usual over-the-top, high action entertainment and are providing a much gentler, slow-paced crime drama. "The Wire" is certainly not for everyone and even those who eventually turn themselves over to the season-long storyline will be put off at first. But have patience, "The Wire" certainly does.

Paul Wong
Just trying to catch a break.
Courtesy of HBO

David Simon, the writer-turned-television genius behind "Homicide: Life on the Street" and HBO's Emmy award-winning mini-series "The Corner," has crafted a show like no other. Comparisons to "24" or "Murder One" would not go unwarranted with Simon putting the focus on a singular Baltimore joint investigation of a local drug boss for the entire season. Due to this limited concentration, "The Wire" is a slow, methodical exercise in television escapism. All those twists and turns that fly at you on shows like "Law and Order" will arrive on "The Wire," just at a leisurely pace. Viewers can ponder the most miniscule of actions and maybe by season's end, come to some greater conclusions about the war on drugs and the armies on both sides of the war.

"The Wire" portrays both sides of the investigation, nicknamed "The Law" and "The Dealers" according to the show's website. Homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) is responsible for starting the investigation. Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) controls the most powerful drug trade in West Baltimore, and "The Wire" opens its series premiere with Avon buying off witnesses to get his nephew D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) off on murder charges. McNulty causes a ruckus in the police department, most importantly angering the Deputy Commissioner by provoking a judge to criticize the department's lack of action on bringing down Avon.

Neither Narcotics nor Homicide even have a picture of the suspected drug lord. An investigative squad is quickly created to appease the judge's wishes but it is not given full technical support from the uncommitted department heads. Up and coming Narcotics Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick, "Oz") is put in charge of the investigation and McNulty quickly doesn't trust Daniels, who is afraid of damaging his reputation. Daniels eventually proves his dedication to the case; he just wishes to avoid stepping on all the toes McNulty continually crushes with his own rebellious decisions.

On the dealer's side, they have a hierarchy of their own. D'Angelo tries to teach Avon the rules of this brotherhood, which always means staying quiet among those who can't be trusted and sometimes means murder.

Directed by Clark Johnson, a former member of the cast of "Homicide," "The Wire" relies heavily on the powers of its script and action instead of impacting visuals. The series opener relies a little too heavily on expletives and stereotypical dialogue, giving capable actors nothing to work with and possibly driving away millions of viewers. The second episode, for all those faithful HBO lovers (and David Simon lovers) who stick by the show, is much more entertaining fare. The case slowly unravels, revealing the intricacies of the drug trade in greater depth.

Where the show is heading, thematically and plot-wise, becomes the magnet keeping viewers interested. It took 24 episodes until viewers could finally watch Jack Bauer kill the terrorists and saveSenator Palmer's life in "24" and it will take 13 episodes until we know if McNulty can persuade Avon to turn on his uncle or whether D'Angelo will once again defeat the drug war's efforts.

It may be a slow and sometimes boring ride, but the factually based investigation becomes a wonderful example of all the obstacles, governmental and personal, that get in the way of a normal investigation. If that isn't enough, "The Wire" provides just as much vulgarity and violence as any HBO show and sometimes that's just enough to keep viewers watching.