Most crime dramas draw a sharp line in the sand between law enforcement and criminals, cops vs. robbers, good guys vs. bad guys. While shows such as Law & Order, CSI and its many, many spin-offs may provide a glimpse of the law enforcement community in all its crime-solving glory, they fail to capture the human element in crime and the complex underlying motives and elements which underlie why someone would commit a crime. In HBO's series The Wire, we observe the interaction between police, judicial, and criminal sides battling, not just each other, but amongst themselves over authority & proper conduct in each of their respective realms.
The trial of D'Angelo Barksdale appears to be a slam dunk with two eyewitnesses giving testimony, but Detective Jim McNulty is not convinced. As he observes the second eyewitness contradict her previous statement, presumably influenced by a group of somewhat unsavory gentlemen sitting in the audience, the case begins to unravel and McNulty's suspicions are confirmed. The man responsible for the testimony is Avon Barksdale, a.k.a. Stringer Bell, sitting quietly in the courtroom wearing dignified legal glasses and holding a legal pad. After a not guilty verdict is reached, he casually saunters up to the losing District Attorney and says, "You have a nice day", as though he were saluting a neighbor. In an ironic twist, the supposed criminal mastermind in control of drug operations in Baltimore, the criminals appear surprisingly civil and in control, while the justice system gets tied up in bureaucratic chaos.
McNulty is asked by the presiding judge how this happened and what his specific interest is. The detective spills the beans on the man he suspects of being a drug kingpin. This sets off a chain reaction pitting the detective against his own dept. for involving the judge in an inner dept. matter, thus violating the chain-of-command. Meanwhile, the recently acquitted D'Angelo returns to the streets and is demoted by his boss and uncle Stringer for his own reckless actions. The parallel is interesting to watch, as we can observe the inner workings of drug crime and police prevention to discover, in some ways, they are governed by the same rules, only with different motives.
The show's weave of complex character relationships could not be sustained without a strong cast, and the actors provide the anchor for this sometimes muddied drama. Idris Elba (Stringer Bell) exudes a confidence and control which is quite endearing. Dominic West plays Det. McNulty with a devil-may-care attitude, appealing to the rebellious side of human nature. He conveys the inner struggle over his character's actions very naturally and he commands sympathy and respect through his calm power. Larry Gillard, Jr. particularly shines as the misfit murderer D'Angelo, struggling against his own group as they shun his actions as well as an inner struggle for personal authority.
The storyline occasionally gets bogged down in the complexities of the chain-of-command with law enforcement, partly due to the slang filled dialogue (both a blessing and a barrier), but mostly because of a few poorly coordinated scene changes with little to no connecting segue. However, the complexity is certainly welcome, as it endeavors to challenge our basic assumptions towards criminal activity and the effort to combat it. The Wire is an undercover look into the criminal world.
Highs: Intimate human focus on criminals & law enforcement; Charismatic acting ensemble; shuns the black & white emphasis of contemporary crime dramas.
Lows: Story bogged down by inner complexities; a few trite scenes.
The Verdict: Thorough exploration of the inner workings of criminals, their motives, and the law enforcement who target them.