Anne’s Note: The actual episode review starts in the 7th paragraph. Everything before that is an explanation of the overall project, which may or may not interest you. Paragraphs five and six are specific to The Wire, but discuss its larger legacy and why I picked it for this project rather than my personal opinions of the show.
Hey readers! I hope you all are doing well. There’s a non-zero chance that you initially found this blog via TV Pilot Reviews. First there was 30 Pilots in 30 Days in August 2017, then 100 Pilots in 100 Days in the beginning of 2020. That means that at the time of this writing, tv pilot reviews are roughly one third of the content on this blog.
I love tv pilots, and I doubt I’ve reviewed my last one. But more recently, I thought it might be fun to take on a new kind of challenge: reviewing individual episodes of a series in its entirety. I love how pilots get my brain moving, envisioning all the different possibilities that might unfold. I also think it could be fun to see what a series does with those possibilities. I’m looking forward to analyzing later episodes and explaining why they’re so much better because of that thing we talked about three episodes ago, or why a show isn’t taking full advantage of previously established potential.
So here we are. A full series review, episode by episode. Unlike my pilot review challenges, I won’t be committing to one episode review per day. I’ll watch it when I watch it, but I will make a point of writing each review while the episode is fresh in my mind before I move onto the next one. You might even get 2-3 episode reviews in one day. We’ll see.
Why I picked The Wire
I picked The Wire for a couple reasons. One is that it’s a relatively low commitment (60 episodes total) while still being long enough to build the kind of complex arcs that make a project like this worthwhile. Another is that I’ve never seen it, though it’s been on my list for a while. It has a reputation for great writing that paved the way for other shows that came after it. Since many television fans have seen it, I thought it would be interesting to them to watch a first-time viewer follow the series, analyze each episode, and predict its trajectory.
The Wire is also one of those shows that predates the “binging” model of television (it ran 2002-2008) yet has benefitted immensely from it. When it originally aired, The Wire was beloved by critics, but only had average ratings. It earned its status as One of the Best TV Shows Ever over years and years of people discovering it online. Now, if there is such a thing as the Prestige TV Canon, The Wire is no doubt in it. I’m curious to see how processing it one episode at a time, as it originally aired, affects my viewing experience. Is it a show that can only thrive as a binge watch?
For what it’s worth, I’ve already reviewed the pilot for The Wire, but it was a while ago. I didn’t re-read that old review before writing this one.
Actual Episode Review: The Wire S1E1
The pilot for The Wire is truly genius in its ability to use a single murder case to shine a light on so many characters and the role those characters play within the system. Perhaps the most important thing it does is illustrate just how formidable an opponent the drug gangs are.
In the first episode, we learn that this gang can protect one of their own from a murder conviction by getting a security worker to lie on the stand. Now mind you, everyone knows this dude is guilty. The judge knows it, Detective McNulty knows it even though he wasn’t on the case, and it seems like it should be pretty open-and-shut. Instead, one key witness reverses her prior story. She told police this man was guilty, but now that she’s on the stand she’s saying she was confused and he’s innocent.
The show never really tells us exactly what the gang did, maybe it was a bribe, maybe a threat, maybe blackmail. All we really learn is that “it costs money” and that gang leader Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) isn’t too happy about cleaning up this mess. By the end of the episode, the man who did testify against the gang member shows up dead. It’s a perfectly executed Show-Don’t-Tell that unfolds over the course of the episode.
We now know that you can commit murder with impunity as long as the right people are looking out for you. If ordinary people do try to aid law enforcement, the gang will make sure there are consequences. This gang can do whatever it wants, and law enforcement seems powerless to stop it.
McNulty seems to be the only cop (with maybe the exception of Kima) who understands just how intricate and organized these gangs are. Too many other cops seem to think they can fix the city’s drug problem with one-off arrests of dealers on the street. Upper management doesn’t want to listen to McNulty, and they’re mad that when given the chance to talk to a judge, he was quite candid about the police force’s structural ineptitude.
From what I gather, even after just one episode, this seems to be the thing that makes The Wire so revolutionary. It invests ample time in developing both the gang world and the cop world. While at least this pilot certainly paints cops as “the good guys” and gangs as “the bad guys,” it also makes it clear that “the bad guys” are able to be so bad because law enforcement isn’t all that good at being “the good guys.”
There have definitely been other cop shows where guilty people walked free. However, I feel like in these situations, we’re often asked to pity the cops. They did everything they could possibly do, and yet didn’t get the results they wanted. Poor cops! In the worst versions, the takeaway seems to be that law enforcement would be so damn good at imprisoning the baddies if only that pesky Constitution would get out of the way.
Here, the thesis is “criminals walk free because the cops are bad at their jobs. The cops need to be better.” Not “the cops who worked this particular case,” the whole damn police force. Leadership is mishandling things because they care more about their egos than solving problems. They don’t even have an accurate understanding of those problems.
Moving forward, I think it’ll be interesting to see if this ever changes. How long are they going to try to play the McNulty v. Upper Management conflict before police leadership finally wises up, if they ever do? Maybe the police force improves, but the gangs just get better at outsmarting them.
I’d also love a sort of Come-to-Jesus moment for McNulty, who’s a bit of a know-it-all here. Right now, there’s this sense of “well if everyone just shut up and listened to McNulty everything would fine and dandy!” I think it’s likely the intricacies of how Stringer Bell operates his gang go far beyond even McNulty’s understanding. McNulty also seems like the kind of character who won’t know how to admit he’s wrong should it ever happen. If we get a few episodes in and suddenly he realizes he bit off more than he could chew? That would lead to character growth for him and an interesting story for us.