20 years later, 'The Wire' still enthralls : Pop Culture Happy Hour This year marks the 20th anniversary of HBO's crime drama The Wire. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns spent five seasons dissecting various institutions in Baltimore, producing what is now considered one of the best television series of all time. The large cast included many then-unknown actors who've gone on to become stars, like Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, Dominic West and the late Michael K. Williams.

20 years later, 'The Wire' still enthralls

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A warning - this episode contains language some might find offensive.


WELDON: This year marks the 20th anniversary of HBO's crime drama "The Wire." Creators David Simon and Edward Burns spent five seasons dissecting various institutions in the working-class city of Baltimore, producing what is now considered one of the best television series of all time.


He had some help from a large cast that included many then-unknown actors who've gone on to become stars, like Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, Dominic West and the late Michael K. Williams. I'm Aisha Harris.

WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "The Wire" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


WELDON: Here with me and Aisha today is NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Welcome back, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey, what's up? What's up?

WELDON: This is going to be fun. All right. So "The Wire" ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008. And each season, the show performed a kind of cultural autopsy on different sectors of the city - cops and drug dealers, dockworkers, city government, schools and finally, print media. Dominic West and Wendell Pierce played Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland, a pair of homicide detectives who tied the show's disparate elements together. It was never a hit in the ratings, never won an Emmy, but in the years since it went off the air, its status has increased. That's thanks to its smart and compellingly emotional exploration of the various institutions of urban life - the compromises individuals are forced to make, the moral and ethical demands placed upon them by overarching systems that resist even the smallest changes.

Does that make "The Wire" sound like social studies homework? Well, it isn't. It's a compulsively watchable series that immerses you in its characters and its situations and in its cast, many of whom were not professional actors but people drawn from the streets of Baltimore. It's now considered one of the greatest television shows of all time. And, look, before you send the emails, we can't get to everything that makes the series great in today's brief conversation. But let's start with our own personal relationships with the show. Aisha, how did you get into "The Wire"?

HARRIS: Well, I was definitely too young to have watched this when it premiered, and we also did not have HBO in my household. So I was the DVD generation, where - I think 2011, when I was in between college and grad school, and I had a lot of time on my hands - one summer, I just spent the summer watching all five episodes through Netflix. I ordered the DVD one by one as I needed them each season, and I got through it pretty quickly. And then I promptly rewatched it. Maybe, like, I took a month off, and then I rewatched it again. So, in total, I've watched it three times all the way through and have revisited it several times. And I've even had the pleasure of interviewing Michael K. Williams a few years ago when I was working at The New York Times. I love the show. I have read many, many pieces about it. I've read all of the rankings. There have been so many rankings at various places of, like, best "Wire" characters or best "Wire" seasons. I've evolved on what I think are the best seasons, and maybe we'll talk about that later. But I really do think that this is just one of the greatest shows of all time, and I don't say that lightly. It's just - every rewatch has given me more to think about and more to chew on and all these little moments that you will probably miss on just one watch. It's one of those shows you have to, I think, watch more than once if you like it enough.

DEGGANS: Oh, man, Aisha, you are making me feel so old. I was a working TV critic when the show came out, so I have covered "The Wire" as a critic since it debuted, and I was a fan from the very beginning. And I think a lot of my peers as TV critics were fans in the beginning. But what I think is hard for people to realize is that the style of TV that "The Wire" epitomizes is common today, but it was not common back then. And so to have a show where it doesn't spoon feed you what's happening, and it shows you rather than tells you things. It'll do something in one episode and then it'll connect to something that happens in an episode, you know, six episodes down the line, and you just have to notice it. Like, that kind of stuff wasn't common in mainstream television back when "The Wire" first debuted. That's why critics loved it. And I also think that's why when you watch it on DVD and you watch it on streaming, you enjoy it more...


DEGGANS: ...Because you're able to watch multiple episodes, and you're not forced to connect the dots quite so much. Now, I will fess up and say, you know, I've interviewed David Simon a ton of times. I've interviewed George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, the writers from "The Wire." I interviewed Lance Reddick. I interviewed Dominic West. I have written a chapter for a picture book about "The Wire" that's coming out in the fall about the fifth season.

HARRIS: Resident expert here.

DEGGANS: I passed Seth Gilliam, you know, on Hollywood Boulevard one time and talked to him about "The Wire." I - you know, I'm just - I'm not a super fan on the level of some of these folks. But I followed the show since it debuted, talked to a lot of people who made it. And, you know, it's just amazing how prescient this show has been about so many issues, from the death of, you know, organized labor to the futility of the war on drugs.

WELDON: Yeah. I mean, it's amazing. It speaks to the power of immersion, right? OK, so we're visiting a series which I haven't revisited in over a decade. I got so many flashbacks to me and my husband in our first apartment, cordoning off Saturdays to shovel whole pints of java chip ice cream in bed while burning through entire seasons of Netflix DVDs, Aisha, of "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" and "The Corner," the David Simon-Edward Burns series that preceded "The Wire" by a couple years.

DEGGANS: Netflix DVDs - oh, my God, that's so quaint.


WELDON: I know, right? And I went through this revisit to prep for this show - right? - just refresh my memory. Maybe the pilot and the finale of each season - that was my plan. I put on that pilot, Season 1, Episode 1, and there was no hopping, there was only churning. So I only got - full disclosure - I only got through the first three seasons, so I'll be a little less fresh on talking about only - I mean, that's more than half.

DEGGANS: Yeah, that's really good, man. That's great.

WELDON: But, I mean, to your point, Eric, this show throws you in the deep end because it's confident that you're going to catch up. You have creators who know their subject, who know storytelling, who know - and I think this is key - who know dialogue. The reason this show feels as immersive as it does is because it trusts that we're going to get through, not based on our, you know, 100% comprehension of what people are saying in any given scene. But in how they're saying it, the meaning comes through in the emotional context of any given scene. So we start each season...

DEGGANS: Dude, dude, dude. We got to talk about the landmark, legendary scene that communicates all of that. You know what I'm talking about?

HARRIS: The F scene?

DEGGANS: The F-word scene.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

WELDON: The F-word scene. The F-word scene.

DEGGANS: Where Dominic West, Jimmy McNulty and Wendell Pierce as Bunk Moreland are trying to figure out how a murder got committed in an apartment. And they only say the F-word through the whole scene.

HARRIS: It's so great. It's so great.


DOMINIC WEST: (As Detective Jimmy McNulty) Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

WENDELL PIERCE: (As Detective Bunk Moreland) Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

WELDON: This is why the show can survive without the explanatory comma. This is why the show shows, not tells. Like, so on NPR - other places we have to say and for listeners who do not know, Batman is a children's character, a strong gentleman who fights crime nocturnally.


WELDON: And so that's one of the reasons it doesn't feel like it's coming from outside, like it's imposed by Hollywood. Like, I always remember there's this one episode of "Miami Vice" where a cop suddenly realizes her boyfriend is a drug dealer, and she says, I'm a cop. It's not what I do. It's who I am. And that is Hollywood. That is screenwriting. Nobody has ever said that. And this show doesn't need crap like that because it's concentrating on the right things. The pilot - I think probably the best pilot in television history - we spend so much time on things like paperwork, interdepartmental communication, making your boss look stupid and institutional resistance to change, which - that is the thesis of the show. If you were trying to set up what the show's about, that's the job. And it does it great.

DEGGANS: Oh, yeah.

WELDON: Now, we asked you all to send us some questions, some stuff you wanted to talk about. And boy, you got a lot. Here's the first one from Matthew (ph) from San Antonio.

MATTHEW: Hey, POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR team. In dialogue with many, Season 2 is often criticized as being a enormous dip in an otherwise stellar five-season run. I'm curious if you all feel the same way or if Season 2 holds up to the other seasons and especially to, you know, the kind of pinnacle that is Season 3 and Season 4.

WELDON: All right. This is the perennial question. This is the rankings you were talking about, Aisha. What do you think? What's your favorite? What's the best?

HARRIS: OK. So - different for me - my favorite is going to be - shocker - Season 4. It's just - it's the season where we're dealing with the school and the kids but also the election that's going on. And those kids are - there are many characters - or there's a few characters throughout the season or throughout the show that are the heart of the show. But I think that watching those four kids just navigate the world and see how the system fails them is my favorite, and I love it. Now, if we're talking about what is the best season, I do think it's Season 3.

Several reasons - first of all, we get the introduction of Carcetti and Marlo, who, throughout the rest of the show, are going to have huge impacts on every single tentacle of this giant beast. You also have Bunny Colvin getting bumped up to becoming a major character. He'd showed up a little bit in the previous seasons. When he shows up and he puts together Hamsterdam and the way that all just kind of falls apart, man - like, every season, there's something that really, really ties everything together.

But I really think that the failure - the rise and fall of Hamsterdam is, like, one of the more tragic aspects of the show. And then you also have the fissure between Stringer and Avon and how, on the street level, those things start to fall apart, and we see that sort of play out later in the other seasons. And that's - final scene between Stringer and Avon. They both betrayed each other. They both seem to recognize this. And the acting in that scene, where Avon is just like - he asks him, you know, when are you meeting up with that real estate developer? And then Stringer's like, ooh, you know, why you ask? And in that whole scene, there's just so much subtext going on there. And they're communicating it mostly with their body language and their shifting. It's just so entertaining and also just so deep. And so, Season 3 - best. Season 4 - my favorite.

WELDON: Okay, Eric, what about you - favorite, best?

DEGGANS: Well, I'm going to stick in that I think Wood Harris, who played Avon Barksdale, is one of the most underrated actors on television. That dude brings it every time he plays somebody, and he's amazing in "The Wire." Favorite and best for me would be Season 4, I think, because it's sort of the culmination of a lot of things that the show is trying to say about how systems work and how inescapable they are and how, you know, people wind up getting trained for the lives that they are destined to lead by this dysfunctional, broken system. It is a theme that "The Wire" returns to again and again and again.

But the - Season 4 with the young kids and a look at the educational system really brings that home. And, you know, it's something that Ed Burns, who, you know, worked on the show with David Simon, a guy who was a former cop who then became a teacher and then worked on "The Wire" with David Simon - it's a culmination of his journey, as well. And we meet all these wonderful new characters played by these wonderful new actors, these young people. Season number 3 is a close second to me. They go back and forth for me. Then I would say Season 1, Season 5. And then Season 2 is the least interesting to me.

WELDON: Well, I mean, for me, it's going to be very simple - favorite and best Season 3, mostly because of the culmination of the Stringer Bell arc. And, Aisha, you already talked about that wonderfully. So I'm not going to add anything to that. I will say justice for Season 2 very briefly.


WELDON: It's a huge curveball only because, you know, it came out of the blue, and that is the show calling its shot, saying, we are taking an anthology approach. We're trying for something more holistic here. Rewatching Season 2, I found a lot to love in that season. All right. What's the next question, please?

ED: Hi. This is Ed (ph) from Rochester, N.Y., and my question about "The Wire" is, is it copaganda (ph)? Given that all the characters on the show are complex and flawed, given that McNulty is something of an antihero, still two questions trouble my mind. The first regards the Pryzbylewski redemption arc, which, even though we're looking at it through the post-BLM lens of 2022, still seems to me highly problematic at best regarding police violence. And then regarding police corruption, the absence of any sustained engagement with the question of cops on the take feels to me fundamentally flawed. These two issues together have me wondering whether I'll ever go back to a show that I have long celebrated and recommended to friends.

WELDON: All right, Eric, let's start with you.

DEGGANS: I think it is easy to confuse humanizing characters with valorizing them. And so I would say "The Wire" is most definitely not copaganda. And, in fact, one of the points of "The Wire" is that the people who succeed in the police department are the people who are the most venal. They're the most ruthless. They're the most focused on useless statistics. And they are the ones that are pushing this war on drugs that is turning the police force into an occupying force that sees the people it's policing as the enemy instead of people that they should be protecting. And there's an amazing speech where Robert Wisdom's Bunny Colvin, who's a lieutenant, kind of gives a speech to his young sergeant, trying to explain to him how the war on drugs has ruined policing and created a situation where cops just roll up in neighborhoods and grab vials and slap bracelets on people and arrest them. When murders happen, when typical crime happens, no one trusts the police to solve the crimes, so no one talks to them.


ROBERT WISDOM: (As Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin) I mean, you call something a war, and pretty soon everybody going to be running around acting like warriors. They're going to be running around on a damn crusade, storming the corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And soon the neighborhood that you're supposed to be policing - that's just occupied territory.

DEGGANS: I can't imagine somebody watching "The Wire" and coming away from that feeling like the police department and police are this wonderful thing. Even the main character, police character, Jimmy McNulty, is horrifically flawed. The show shows that he's only good at being a cop. And when he does that job, it destroys his life.


DEGGANS: I can't imagine how anybody could see that as copaganda.

WELDON: Yeah, but it is complicated, right, Aisha?

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I think Eric's point about the people who succeed being basically the worst ones, like, as humans, is accurate. When you think about Pryzbylewski, he succeeded at being a teacher, and part of the reason he wasn't good as a cop was because he was incompetent in many ways but also because his "heart," quote, unquote, was not in it. He's not someone who is naturally kind of, for lack of a better word, brutal or into brutalism in that way. And when you compare him to someone like Herc - oh, man, I think Herc might actually be one of the top worst characters on the show in terms of just, like, what they do and who they are.

We talk about Ziggy a lot, but, like, Ziggy and Herc to me are kind of similar in that they both do terrible things, but only one has a lot of power. And Herc - in Season 4 alone and in one episode alone, he sets off a chain of events that harms both Bubbles - because he fails to, like, protect him, Bubbles, from someone who is harassing him and beating him up. And then that leads to the death of one of Bubbles' friends on the street. And then he also ruins Randy, the young - one of the kids, his life, because...

WELDON: Right.

HARRIS: ...He's just an incompetent cop. So seeing Herc and the way he diverges with Carver - and Herc and Carver were partners and were often sort of, in the earlier seasons, really close and also really kind of bumbling, you know, dumb-ish cops. But seeing Carver sort of gain this conscience in a way that that Herc doesn't and how Herc just keeps getting worse and worse and never realizes how terrible he is - to me, that's proof that this show - it's so complicated. It's not just there are good apples in this bunch. Like, none of them are actually good, per se.

WELDON: Yeah, I mean, watching the show, you're always going to root for the cops. You're always going to root for the Barksdale crew because they're created so well, so completely, with such attention to detail. And you used the magic word, Eric, humanize. You're humanizing them. I think it's very important, however, that you don't get the scene that you get in the "CSIs" of the world and the "Law & Orders" of the world. They exist - which - those shows exist to comfort viewers - right? - to reassure them that, yes, you can delight in all this lurid violence and criminality. We'll serve it up for you very happily. But we're going to also provide you a cathartic moment where the cop gets to give these moralizing speeches and dress down the murderer or the drug dealer. And we can all relax because we agree that they're bad people, so now we're good. I mean, "CSI" has this one episode where they give a speech about how, you know, these kids are going to raves and taking drugs.


WELDON: And it's like, OK, all right. But on this show, on "The Wire," everybody's grasping. And I think it's important that the fact that law enforcement is corrupt is planted in the pilot. It's a fact of life. It's systemic. They are people who don't want to be bothered. They don't want to be inconvenienced. They are the ultimate bureaucrats.


WELDON: They are avoiding work when they can.

DEGGANS: Well, I would say there's a definition in "The Wire" of real police that emerges. And they do care about justice. They do care about solving murders. And that's McNulty, and that's the core of his crew. They do care about that stuff. But I do want to talk about one scene that epitomizes for me what you're talking about, the difference between what a network TV show would be and how "The Wire" does it. There's a scene in the second season where they discover all these dead bodies inside a storage crate in a dock where, you know, women were being smuggled into the country. And unfortunately, the pipe that provided their air was squashed. And so they suffocated inside of this storage unit.

The bodies get discovered, and because it's on a dock, it's multi-jurisdictional. So there's all these people from these different agencies have gathered. Now, if this was "Law & Order" or if this was "Chicago P.D.," they'd all be saying, we want the case. I want the case. You know, I'm going to bring justice. You know, they'd be fighting to get the case. What they do on "The Wire" is they fight to fob the case off on somebody else...


DEGGANS: ...Because they know it's a - what they call a stone-cold whodunit. They're probably not going to figure out who was behind these deaths. And it's going to be 13 or 14 unsolved deaths on their record that's going to screw up their clearance rate. Again, another mission statement moment to sort of say to the viewer, this is not the kind of cop show that you might expect to see.

WELDON: Right. It's a very humanizing show, but it's by no means an exculpatory show. That's not what it's about. All right. Let's get to our third and final question. This is a good one.

JOHN: This is John (ph) in Brooklyn. My question about "The Wire" is, of all of the many, many characters on the show, which one do you think is the most underappreciated?

WELDON: OK. this is a good question. Not necessarily the actor but the character - there's a lot to choose from. Aisha, who'd you go with?

HARRIS: Oh, this is a tough one, but I had to go with my man Gus Haynes. He is - Season 5 he shows up. He is the editor of The Baltimore Sun's city desk. It's very clearly David Simon putting himself into this character. He is sort of a crusader for getting the story but also getting the story correctly and accurately and abiding by the rules and ethics of journalism. And this is coming in an era of, like, Jayson Blair. They even, like, reference a few famous real-life cases of plagiarism and whatnot. And so you have Gus Haynes going against Templeton, who is one of his reporters who starts fabricating these stories. And at one point, he actually fabricates this interview he did - quotes from an interview he did with a homeless veteran. I want to actually play this scene that's between Gus and the managing editor, Klebanow. They've been butting heads this whole time about Templeton. And it kind of comes to a head after Gus starts to really suspect that Templeton has been fabricating these things.


CLARK JOHNSON: (As Augustus "Gus" Haynes) They always start with something small, you know, just a little quote that they clean up. And then it's a whole anecdote, and pretty soon they're seeing some amazing shit. They're the lucky ones who just happen to be standing on the right street corner in Tel Aviv when the pizza joint blows up, and a human head rolls down the street with the eyes still blinking.

DAVID COSTABILE: (As Thomas Klebanow) The pictures...

HARRIS: I just think Gus is such a great character. He's so fascinating. He's very - he curses a lot, and it gets him in trouble sometimes. And I love it. So, Gus Haynes, to me, is one we don't talk about enough, in part because Season 5 is not really the one that a lot of people like to talk about as much.

WELDON: OK, good pick. Eric, what about you - underrated character?

DEGGANS: So first I want to cosign what you said about Clark Johnson's character. And it's worth noting the actor who plays Gus, Clark Johnson, also directed the first two episodes of "The Wire" and directed the final episode of "The Wire." So he's a talented director in addition to being a great actor. And, you know, that whole media storyline was complicated by the fact that it was set in The Baltimore Sun, and David Simon was a former police reporter at The Baltimore Sun. And there was a lot of personal stuff that went on there, including conflicts that he had with an executive named Bill Marimow, who was also an executive at NPR at one point. So I think that season also got judged because people saw it as Simon's way of settling scores with people at The Baltimore Sun. And when you can watch it sort of free of those concerns, it - I think it holds together much better, and you can enjoy it a lot more.

My sort of underappreciated character I mentioned already - Bunny Colvin, played by Robert Wisdom. He's the voice of the conscience of the police department. He's old-school police, and he's trying to figure out how to train up the younger guys to teach them how to be ethical - not ethical but how to be good police, how to be police officers that protect their communities and actually solve crimes. But he's pushing against a tide that he cannot really succeed against, where all the trends inside the police department are focused on numbers - how many arrests, how many convictions. How much drugs do you take? How many weapons do you take?

And so eventually, he's out of the police force when he does this incredible act of trying to find a portion of a poor community and declaring it a police-free zone where people can use drugs as much as they want to and trying to confine the problems to that area. That blows up in his face. He has to leave the police department. Then he tries to work with the educational system and the schools, and he has the same problem. But when you look at "The Wire," there are really only a couple of characters who really come at the end and have a happy ending. And one of them is Bubbles, and the other one is a kid that gets adopted by Bunny Colvin. So in the end, he gets something of a victory, even though he winds up not being able to be a cop and not really being able to work with the school system in the way that he wanted to.

WELDON: Yeah, that's a good pick, too. I went through a bunch of different people in my head. Can't be Lester Freamon. Lester Freamon is everybody's favorite character with his world weariness and his dollhouse furniture. A strong case could be made for William Rawls, played by John Doman. That is such a great portrayal of...

DEGGANS: He's the best villain.

WELDON: ...Of a bad boss who holds grudges and claws his way up to the top. And when you watch it again, that Doman performance is so funny. They tried to give him some dimensions. They - there's one scene where we see him in a gay bar for no reason, and then we never revisit that. And it's like, OK, I guess that's your backstory. But I think the strongest case is Detective Kima Greggs, played by Sonja Sohn. She is an out cop who is very good at her job. She's flawed, but she still remains the show's throughline. She's the one who ends McNulty's career by doing the right thing. So you could say she contributes to the copaganda element because she is, you know, a moral center. But the show takes such pains to show everyone around her being awful. And this performance - I don't want to say it grounds the show because the show is already really gritty and grounded, but this show does need a moral center, even if it's a very flawed one. And she is great.

HARRIS: I love Kima.

DEGGANS: You know, it's worth pointing out, too, that they were initially going to kill that character off. In the first season, you may recall that she gets shot working undercover. The character was supposed to die.

HARRIS: Yeah. And to kill off also your queer - your, like - your one...


HARRIS: Besides Omar, your queer character. Like, that wouldn't be a great look, I feel. So I'm very glad. That's a great pick, Glen.

WELDON: Yeah, we haven't even talked about Omar, and we can't because we're running out of time. So maybe we will return to this because there's a lot more to say. We want to know what you think about "The Wire." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Eric Deggans, Aisha Harris, thanks to both of you for being here.

HARRIS: Thank you, Glen.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure.

WELDON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Audio engineering was provided by Stu Rushfield. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.

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