Newbie-friendly spoilers for episode 1, "The Target," coming up just as soon as I haggle over the price of wood...
David Simon likes to say that the first scene of each season of "The Wire" encapsulates the themes of that season. In the case of Detective Jimmy McNulty investigating the murder of one Omar Isiah Betts, known to friends and family as Snot Boogie, Simon gets to explain what the entire series will be about.
As a surprisingly helpful witness (by "Wire" standards) explains, Snot Boogie played in the local craps game every week, and every week after a few rolls, Snot would grab all the money in the pot and try to make a run for it, and someone would chase him down and beat his ass and take the money back. McNulty, being the inquisitive sort that he is -- and the series' symbol of what happens when you start asking the right questions of people who think they're the wrong questions -- has to interrupt his witness' narrative to ask what is, to him and to us, but not the witness, the obvious question: if they knew Snot would rob the pot every time out, why did they keep letting him play? And the witness, confused by the very premise of the question, lays out the basic message of the series:
"Got to. This America, man."
The America of "The Wire" is broken, in a fundamental, probably irreparable way. It is an interconnected network of ossified institutions, all of them so committed to perpetuating their own business-as-usual approach, that they keep letting their own equivalents of Snot Boogie into the game, simply because that's how it's always been done. It doesn't matter that it makes no sense. Only a rugged individualist/cocky narcissist like McNulty would even think to suggest that things could and should be run differently.
Without giving away too much about what's to come, the first season of "The Wire" is the story of two men on opposite sides of the drug war -- McNulty with the cops, D'Angelo Barksdale with the dope slingers -- and what happens when each one starts to notice that his bosses and co-workers are following a rigid and often nonsensical set of rules. When McNulty needles his partner, Bunk Moreland, for taking a Homicide call when it was someone else's turn in the rotation and, therefore, "giving a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck," it's the last time he'll speak up for established department protocol. (Bunk takes no end of pleasure in turning the phrase back on Jimmy later in the episode.) The entire series, essentially, is about people who decide to give a fuck when it isn't their turn.
And the chilling thing about the show is that, when someone like McNulty decides to care out of turn, he's not confronted by corrupt or otherwise evil people. Bill Rawls, the middle finger-raising Homicide chief, isn't a bad guy, though he seems like one when he bitches out McNulty. He's just a guardian of the system. His job is to keep the murder rate down and the clearance rate up, which in turn helps the department get funding to keep doing its job, keeps cops on the streets, etc. You'll note that the thing that angers Rawls most is the fact that Jimmy dragged in the Gerard Bogue case, which happened in the previous year and therefore has no bearing on this year's stats. Bogue may have had family and friends who loved and miss him, but he is of no use to Bill Rawls in his quest to make the numbers look good, and therefore he doesn't matter. That's not evil, not "one bad cop ruining the system for everybody else." It's just cold, cruel pragmatism, the best way Rawls knows to do the job he's been given.
Even more ambiguous is our introduction to McNulty's temporary new boss, Lt. Cedric Daniels from Narcotics. Because we first get to know him through his relationship with Detective Kima Greggs -- who herself was introduced as a good and sympathetic cop, and who clearly likes and respects Daniels -- we take it that he's a decent guy. But we also see that he's a company men, one willing to take explicit and limiting orders from Ervin Burrell, the department's "deputy ops" (the number two man on the organizational flowchart) and loudly try to impress those orders on a renegade like McNulty. There's no obvious black-and-white, good-vs-bad conflict here. "The Wire" is all shades of gray.
Now, if you're brand-new to the series, you can be forgiven for not getting much, if any, of that from the experience of actually watching "The Wire" pilot. Though it has some roots in previous TV shows -- most specifically NBC's "Homicide," which was based on Simon's non-fiction book (and which Simon himself wrote for in its later years) -- for the most part, "The Wire" took a very different approach to narrative from any series in American history, so much so that it essentially had to teach you how to watch it. The cast is huge -- and the season one cast is tiny in comparison to later seasons, which would bring in new characters from the Baltimore docks, City Hall, schools, newspapers, homeless community, etc. -- and almost everyone you meet will play a key role in the unfolding storylines.
Back in 2002, I would say it took me at least three or four episodes to get even a tenuous grasp of who all these people are, what they're about, to whom they owe their loyalty, etc. (If you are, in fact, watching the series for the first time -- or even for the first time in a long time -- I'd strongly suggest watching at least that many in a concentrated burst before attempting to move to a weekly schedule, even though that's the rate at which I'll be doing these reviews.)
In the DVD commentary for this episode, in the official "Wire" companion book, and elsewhere, Simon has complained about the flashback at the end of the pilot, the glimpse of William Gant testifying against D'Angelo. HBO made him insert it, he said, because they were afraid that people wouldn't understand the significance of the dead body and why it upset D'Angelo so much. While I appreciate Simon's desire to respect his audience's intelligence and hope that they would get it, this was, again, the first hour of a series attempting a denser, more complex form of longform narrative than any drama that preceeded it, and one that, again, had to teach you how to watch it. The end of hour one wasn't the time to risk the audience not understanding the climax because they weren't able to keep track of the 50 or so characters wandering in and out of the narrative, you know?
Beyond the clumsy and/or necessary flashback, "The Target" doesn't do a lot of audience hand-holding. McNulty's there in the first scene and prominent throughout, so it's obvious he's important. Ditto D'Angelo, who gets to close the episode. After those two, the episode's a bit like a kid's game of memory match. You see a face and have to try to remember it as other faces are introduced, wondering who belongs with whom. But if you focus long enough, the picture starts to make sense. When we meet veteran junkie Bubbles (aka Bubbs) and his rookie partner in scamming Johnny, it's not clear what they have to do with anything that's happened before, and then Johnny gets beat up by D'Angelo's underlings (which sparks D's first questioning of the way things are done), and then we find out that Bubbs has worked as an informant for Kima Greggs, who's just been reluctantly assigned to the joint Homicide/Narcotics task force put together after McNulty started mouthing off to Judge Phelan, etc...
Still, you can be forgiven if you weren't clear on who was giving D'Angelo the lecture about talking in the car (that would be Wee-Bey Brice, lead enforcer for the Barksdale/Bell crew), or who outranks whom in the police and crime hierarchies.
(Interestingly, but on point, both the pilot and the series as a whole tend to give more screen time to each organization's number two man -- Rawls for the cops, profane cartoon-doodling Stringer Bell for the drug players -- than to the actual bosses, Burrell and drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, D'Angelo's uncle. It's a nice comment on who actually does all the dirty work in an organization, and "the Wire" features a whole lot of dirty work.)
Though Simon, writing partner Ed Burns (the real-world inspiration for McNulty), director Clark Johnson and the late producer Robert Colesberry for the most part hit the ground running as much as they could with something this sprawling and unusual, there are some definite growing pains evident in the pilot. D'Angelo's growing unease with the violence of the drug game -- specifically, his objection to the savage beating of Johnny after he got caught passing off the fake $10 bills -- doesn't really track with the guy who was laughing off beating a murder rap earlier in the episode. (It, and other complaints he'll voice, works better after this episode's end, when he realizes Gant was murdered simply for testifying against him, but I suppose there was a desire to establish D as an unorthodox thinker as early as possible.)
Meanwhile, when Rawls chews out McNulty, he complains that Jimmy is talking to Phelan about "some project nigger," which is phrasing that's too loaded for our introduction to a character who's supposed to be more nuanced (and smarter) than that. We hear politically incorrect and flat-out racist language from characters in all walks of life as the series moves along, but in that scene, this early in the series, it stacks the deck too much against Rawls.
Overall, though, "The Target" succeeds at the ambitious task it sets for itself in trying to introduce a huge cast of characters, a new model of narrative, and a more complex moral compass than viewers had any right to expect from a cop show.
But then, as anyone who watches the show for even a handful of additional episodes can tell you, "The Wire" is much, much more than a cop show.
Some additional thoughts on "The Target":
- In addition to Ed Burns as the inspiration for McNulty, the Barksdale/Bell crew is modeled on a number of Baltimore drug crews of the 1980s, most notably that of Melvin Williams, who would himself become one of the show's recurring players (as a church deacon) starting in season 3. The high-rises where Williams' crew worked were demolished before the series began filming, which is one of the real-world reasons why D'Angelo gets reassigned to the courtyard of the nearby low-rise housing project (aka "The Pit"). Whenever we see characters hanging around what are supposed to be the actual high-rise towers, you'll note that the scenes are shot in a way that keeps you from seeing how big the buildings actually are.
- A stylistic conceit introduced here by Johnson, and not really used again until the Johnson-directed series finale: scenes are frequently shot from the point of view of a mirror, or a window's reflection, or security camera footage, which suggests not only the number of ways people can be observed in Baltimore (and, therefore, modern America) but also the number of perspectives you can take on any person or situation.
- One of the mysteries of the show that I never quite cracked -- or, if I did, Simon never told me that I did -- is the symbolism of the train tracks where McNulty and Bunk frequently gather (as they do near the end of the pilot) to get drunk and complain about their jobs, their wives, etc. Just keep the tracks in mind as the season unfolds and we can make some more guesses again at the end of this project.
- Some fans complained that the fifth season featured dialogue that was too didactic and on-the-nose. To those people, I give you, from this first episode alone, Detective Carver's line about how the War on Drugs is misnamed because "wars end," or McNulty's line to FBI Agent Fitzhugh about how the War on Terror has superceded the War on Drugs: "What, we don't have enough love in our heart for two wars? Jokes on us, huh?"
- Though Carver and his partner, Herc, are introduced as complete lunkheads who can't even do a proper search of a vehicle for a weapon (which, in turn, quickly establishes Kima Greggs' bonafides as a natural police), they're great sources of comic relief. Here, I especially enjoy their debate about whether piss can flow downhill.
- Also very funny: Bunk cursing under his breath and threatening his corpse to not come back a murder, lest he get stuck with an unsolveable case. That moment is the first of many quintessential Bunk-isms that puts him near the top of every fan's list of favorite "wire" characters.
- Another questionable early element: Dominic West's American accent. It would get (slightly) better over the years, but it's especially shaky in the Snot Boogie scene.
- Though D'Angelo is presented as the leader and (relatively) wise old head of the Pit crew, you'll note that it's young Wallace who's the only one to know that Alexander Hamilton's the guy on the $10 bill, and that Hamilton wasn't a president, while D insists that only presidents get their faces on money. That scene is the first of many in the series to show just what a limited worldview the players on the west side of Baltimore really have.
What did everybody else think?