David Simon, a Baltimore Sun reporter, followed a drug-trafficking case in the winter of 1984. Two detectives, Ed Burns and Harry Edgerton, used wiretaps to set up an elusive drug dealer and his associates.
The case involved a trafficker named Melvin Williams. He imported a bulk of heroin into Baltimore over the years as economic opportunities dwindled. While forming an intricate communication system of beepers to work his drug trade, on the surface, he owned a few legitimate businesses and was a family man. Williams even took business classes at a local community college (like Stringer Bell).
Simons tracked Williams throughout the years, from when he was a respected member of his neighborhood to when he was incarcerated. Through writing a series of articles on Williams, entitled “Easy Money,” Simon made himself known to officers like Ed Burns.
After a majority vote in the department, Simon eventually observed a Baltimore police unit for a year. This close insight into the workings of the department led him to publish “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” In his book, he provided a study of “how the detectives attempted to unravel murder cases and the humanistic toll it took on them.”
Burns, who worked as a patrolman, plainclothesman, and detective, often butted heads with his superiors. He was well-read and always asked the wrong questions. After ten years, after learning how frustrating it was to change the system, he quit the force to teach instead. Just then, Simon approached him for a collaboration. They interviewed dealers and users in West Baltimore, gaining their confidence, hearing their stories. After their in-depth research, “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood” came out. This book, rather than romanticizing drug dealing or using, “offered a voice to those who had been left behind as forgotten casualties of the war on drugs.”
After Simon left journalism, he shifted his writing to television. His insistent curiosity led him to pitch a mini-series (The Corner) to HBO. Only they would allow him the freedom to capture the humanity, the realism, of the drug war from the perspectives of a struggling family. After “The Corner” won multiple awards, he finally got enough leverage to start a new project: The Wire.
Simon learned hard lessons from following the Williams case. While Melvin (avatar to Avon) and those lower in his organization were convicted, other members such as Chin (avatar to Stringer), went in for less time. The wiretap investigation, while elaborate, soon fell through. Before shooting “The Wire,” Simon found real examples for the tone of his new show in the failing drug war. He wanted to demonstrate that “everything can be replaced. Everything is endless. The dysfunction of this thing goes on.”
While many television shows were about redemption and happy endings, this show was about political dissent. Systems were not working, policies were not working, putting those policies into practice did not work. While “The Corner” dealt with a culture of addiction, not from an abstract place, but from your family, your neighborhood, “The Wire” expanded to the whole city. Every setting became a character.
The first season dealt with two institutions: the Barksdale organization (drugs) and the police department. Many characters were “composites drawn from real-life inspirations and often consigned names recognizable in Baltimore lore.” Both institutions showed similar issues in their hierarchies: inefficiency, corruption, greed, power struggles, addictions, and violence.
Many actors, to study the humanity of their parts, did extensive research. They spoke to former addicts and those still in the street, observed police at their work, watched film, and moved to Baltimore. Some of those reading for the show already grew up in the city. Others were actual people that the characters were based on.
Ranging from low-level drug dealers to high-ranking officials, from informants and addicts to judges and veteran cops, “The Wire” unfolded like a novel, each episode another chapter. It blended cinematic beauty with photojournalism and documentary presentation. In those law courts and low rises, in those grit alleys and round the harbors, every detail had to feel real. Even down to an orange couch.
“VINCENT PERANIO (PRODUCTION DESIGNER): In so many vacant houses where we were filming, we’re filming in a natural light or making it look like natural light, because it didn’t have electricity… Some of the lighting to me was almost like a painting from the past, like from the seventeenth century, a Rembrandt look about it, the darkness of the house and the sunlight searing through the boarded-up windows. I think the show was bleak and beautiful in the way that looking at ruins in a ruined civilization are.”
“The Wire” unraveled its realism with so many characters, in so many natural settings. The show allowed its audience to interpret scenes that were not so easily explained, like in the famously shot “fuck” scene, where McNulty and Bunk investigated an old murder case of a young woman. While the meanings layered from season to season, while the overarching themes developed, characters were still real, still human, in a rigged game. In Chekhovian fashion, people never said what they felt directly. They said what they wanted to believe, avoiding truths about themselves. They acted destructively with good intentions, feeling conflicted, afraid, vulnerable.
These characters were fully human: contradictory in their choices, flawed, suffering from their own environments. Even the “bad guys” weren’t completely sociopaths, not all the time. They rationalized their crimes, survived and adapted in unjust worlds.
Simon wrote that “By choosing a real city, we declare that the economic forces, the political dynamic, the class, cultural, and racial boundaries are all that much more real, that they do exist in Baltimore and, therefore, they exist elsewhere in urban America.”
Whereas season one showed life from the perspectives of cops and drug dealers, season two shifted to the decaying Baltimore waterfront. Through the Sobotka family, viewers got to see how drugs were smuggled into the city. Although radically different in its focus from former episodes, and sometimes called “the white season of The Wire,” season two set the scale for further seasons, widening the show to panoramic vision. Leaving the corners for the harbor, “The Wire” examined the industrial decline of the city, and the death of the working class.
Season three dealt with dirtiness in local politics, tackling issues of race, the failure of police procedures, corruption, drug decriminalization, the competition of criminal organizations in capitalistic society, and more. Mayor Tommy Carcetti (loosely based on Martin O’ Malley), young and naïve and full of altruism, began his career with hope but ended with political ambition. Other characters, like Major Bunny Colvin of the Baltimore police department, showed how small decisions in archaic institutions could still have a significant influence.
While Carcetti gained political power and didn’t want to damage his rising career, he chose to not bailout the Baltimore school system. In season four, the school system’s breakdown (like other institutions in previous seasons) led to children suffering from a lack of opportunities. Greed from one corrupted, bought system could negatively influence another. Innocent kids were pushed to the streets, unsupported. On normal days, they were exposed to drugs and crime, deprived of resources. At school, stunted emotionally and mentally, they strained to understand the strict expectations placed on them. Exhausted teachers, meanwhile, were struggling against their own limitations. Almost powerless in a dysfunctional institution.
While season four dealt with the hopelessness in the education system, season five continued to examine the police department and drug syndicates. They went after the newsroom as well, depicting the media’s role in modern decline.
Even though “The Wire” didn’t receive widespread attention until the fourth season, many of its writers were accomplished novelists, playwrights, and journalists. David Mills, Kia Corthon, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, George Pelecanos, among others, competed and collaborated, combining their talents for naturalistic dialogue, intricate plots and themes, realistic people, and experience with crime drama.
As Richard Price said about the writing process, “In a script, there’s no writing. It’s just dialogue and directions. There’s not one sentence of prose. There’s no writer of a script. It’s a one-hundred-twenty-page memo to the director: ‘Do this. Say this.’ What ‘The Wire’ had that ‘Clockers’ didn’t have is, I kept ‘Clockers’ on the worm’s eye view. It rarely left the trenches. It rarely got higher than the Homicide Squad, if it did at all. He went top to bottom. It was like he went from the general’s tent to the grunts. I always admired that about the ambition of the show. I couldn’t have written it. I didn’t know anything about how the DA’s office works, the interoffice politics in the police department, how City Hall works—any of that. That’s a lot of Ed Burns because he had been a homicide cop. Before that, he was a military man. Zorzi had the city desk at ‘The Baltimore Sun.’ Simon was a police reporter for the most part. They each had different areas of expertise. I did best with the guys on the street, in my opinion.”
Sometimes the writers had to kill a main character, a beloved character, to further the narrative. As much as a character’s death devastated the crew, the story’s creators had overarching themes to cover. A storyteller’s job was to unfold a storyline as excellently as possible, not to play favorites with one character or think about fulfilling an audience’s expectations.
As Richard Price, one of the staff writers, said, “That’s what I love about the show. It always foiled expectations. Just when you thought you were gonna get an uplifting story, you got smacked in the face.”
“The Wire’s” story was what truly mattered. After years of almost being canceled, low ratings, crewmembers passing away, actor burnout, and depression, everybody pushed on. Everybody believed in the work, even if it took a while to see its fruition.
“CLARK PETERS (DET. LESTER FREAMON): It was more like [season] four when it started to feel like more than just a show. That’s when I think we all began to realize that we had been hired to be actors on a mission. The mission was to educate the public to connect the dots, between local government, the economic situation that a city might find itself in, what’s happening with your children in school, and while you might get frustrated about that, the drug situation, the so-called war on drugs, which we know is a complete farce… It’s that the American public, or American citizenry, rather than being sort of jerked around by sound bites of things, if they’re better informed, like any citizenry, then you have a better chance of surviving and moving forward as a nation, as a country. When we start looking at people who are strung out on drugs as criminals rather than victims, it changes our attitude toward all of that. How can we possibly heal anything like that if we have the wrong idea about it?”
“The Wire” confronted realities that many people were afraid to talk about. It showed—from a multi-dimensional perspective—the cyclical nature of crime, oppression in race and class, the failure in institutions, and the war on drugs. More than an examination of these subjects, the show challenged its viewers to ask themselves: What are we all going to do to help?