Twenty years after its debut, The Wire continues to speak to the present just as it commands us to look back at the past. Set in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early 2000s, The Wire was not a ratings hit or even an award-winner when it was on the air. However, David Simon and Ed Burns’ masterpiece is considered one of the most significant pieces of television ever conceived.
Composed of five seasons tackling institutions and social issues, including The War on Drugs, Capitalism and Economics, Politics, Public Education and the Media, The Wire is a searing and compelling examination of our failing structures told through the lives of some truly remarkable characters.
In celebration of 20 years of The Wire, Shadow and Act spoke with Simon, executive producer Nina Noble, and a slew of the cast including Wendell Pierce, Jamie Hector ad Andre Royo about what the series meant to them then and how it speaks to them now.
“It had an overriding theme which was of a country that was no longer acknowledging its problems, much less solving any of them,” Simon said, reflecting on The Wire’s conception. “Problem number one that we wanted to do was the Drug War and mass incarceration and the divergent policing between the two Americas. That was season 1. We knew we would do more if they gave us more, but we didn’t know that they would give us more; that’s the thing. You make one season, and you hope to come back and do another. The truth is, after three seasons, we hadn’t gleaned a major audience. Our numbers were modest. We had to fight for the last two seasons to stay on the air. I’m very grateful to HBO that they left us alone to finish.”
The cast and crew knew what type of material they had on their hands, but making sure that HBO continued to renew the series was something that Noble took to heart.
“I tried to keep the budget in check,” she explained. “Whatever we agreed to, whatever number every season, that was it, and we took that very seriously. I always felt like it would be an easier decision to make in terms of picking up the show if the cost weren’t astronomical relative to what we were doing. That was my part of it in addition to just being able to execute well, that we were able to take the scripts HBO brought and execute in terms of the visuals and the performances.”
The performances are one of the reasons why the series has stood the test of time. Omar Little (the late Michael K. Williams), Bubbles (Andre Royo), Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), Michael (Tristian Wilds), and countless other characters will live on forever.
For Royo portraying Bubbles, a man who struggled with addiction was not something he took lightly. “For me to understand and see these people as human beings and to want to decide to play the humanity and the empathy and not the addiction was important,” he explained. “But I had to stay really focused. I had to stay in character as much as possible, which was hard. I couldn’t celebrate until the job was done.”
In contrast, Jamie Hector, who portrayed the vicious Marlo Stanfield, reveled in the ambitious gangster’s haunting ruthlessness. “Everything that shapes [Marlo] is just a force to be reckoned with,” Hector said. “He was just a new guy with a little frame. He has height, but we hear about him more than you see him. But then, he gets on set, and people know. It was fun.”
For Wendell Pierce, who played Detective William “Bunk” Moreland, The Wire has been a lifelong gift. “In my personal life, I try to look at my dysfunctions and evolve away from them. There were so many beautiful things about Bunk. For the two men I researched for the role, community was everything to them, and that’s what inspired them to join the police force. The criminality in many Black communities and underserved neighborhoods does not reflect the 99% of people in those neighborhoods. That underlined what I was trying to do with Bunk, and ultimately its best expression was with that scene with Omar in the third season where we talk about our community.”
Like Pierce, Dominic West, who portrayed Detective Jimmy McNulty, always reflects on what The Wire was and what it still means.
“I supposed it made me realize that the best things in my life, the richest things — have happened in spite of myself, have been a gift,” he shared. “This fell into my lap, and I was intensely fortunate for it to happen. It was the richest work experience of my life. That’s been a gift that’s kept on giving.”
Still, as relevant and timely as The Wire remains, the way we view policing in this country has drastically changed in the last two decades. Many of the actors from the series have had to grapple with that. “As things have gone on, I have to say the respect I had for law enforcement during The Wire has diminished greatly in the past 20 years,” Clarke Peters, who played Detective Lester Freamon, explained. “Now, that could be because of the media alone. Yet, I do know those men and women are on the front line, and we don’t always hear about what the good ones are doing because if it bleeds, it leads.”
Jim True-Frost, who portrayed Detective Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, a cop turned school teacher, has always understood that the work of 'The Wire' was about revealing the rotting aspects of our society.
“I think that respect for the dedication underlies David’s work,” he said. “He really wants to expose corruption and dishonesty, but he comes from a place — he has nothing against police or city government officials. It’s about what is preventing these institutions from getting better.”
Whether you watched it when it aired or more recently, The Wire was ahead of its time in many ways. Simon, Burns, and their cast and crew were willing to force us to face ourselves. It was almost like an omen. “It reminded me of this thing David Simon said to me,” Lance Reddick, who played Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, said. “He said, ‘One of the themes of The Wire is that I don’t believe that institutions can fundamentally be reformed. I believe only individuals can.’ When he said it to me, it was a little horrifying to think that it might be true. But 20 years later, just based on my life experience, I feel that it might be true.”
Check out the full interviews above.
The Wire is available to own on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital and to stream on HBO Max.