The Complete Series
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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
e’ve just gotten ourselves through a presidential election cycle – the longest in memory – so anyone who pays even the slightest attention to the news ought to have heard a lot this year about the challenges facing this country’s infrastructure. Roads and bridges need to be repaired, utilities need to be upgraded, airports need to be modernized, and our urban areas – particularly those in major cities not named New York, Los Angeles or Chicago – have some major issues to address. It’s appropriate, then, that “The Wire,” David Simon and Ed Burns’ critically acclaimed HBO series, chose 2008 to conclude its five-season run, because perhaps no show in the history of television has taken such a long, unflinchingly honest look at American urban life – and in one of the country’s toughest cities, to boot.
In 1977, on his classic Little Criminals album, Randy Newman recorded a track named after the city of Baltimore in which he lamented, “Hard times in the city / In a hard town by the sea / Ain’t nowhere to run to / There ain’t nothin’ here for free” – and though those lyrics were written more than three decades ago, they could just as easily apply to the Baltimore of today, where the murder rate is nearly seven times the national average (higher than New York and L.A.), and decades of lost jobs and a shrinking tax base have conspired against the city’s ongoing efforts at renewal. It is against this backdrop that “The Wire” played out for five seasons, telling one of the largest, most ambitious stories ever seen on the small screen. Although the stars of the show, nominally speaking, were the cops who made up the detail that provided the framework for each season’s arc, “The Wire” employed an enormous ensemble cast, shifting nimbly as the show’s focus shifted each season: from drug crime, to the port, to City Hall, to the school system, and finally, in the fifth season, the media. It sounds like a lot to handle – and it is: “The Wire” demanded close attention more persistently, and more confidently, than most other serial dramas have ever dared.
Of course, it also rewarded that attention more richly, thanks to some incredible writing (guest writers included Dennis Lehane and Richard Price) and uniformly stellar acting from a cast whose principals have gone on to higher-profile work (Idris Elba appeared in “RocknRolla” earlier this year, Dominic West stars as Jigsaw in “Punisher: War Zone,” and Lance Reddick is currently part of the cast of Fox’s “Fringe,” just to name a few). Funny, moving, gripping and horrifying all at once, “The Wire” reflected the real-life experiences of Simon, who was a reporter for the Baltimore “Sun,” and Burns, who was a homicide detective for the city – which is perhaps why it never enjoyed the buzz of bigger HBO successes like “The Sopranos.”
All five season sets have already been made available individually, but for the fan who hasn’t picked up any of them – or the introductory viewer who doesn’t want to shell out $40 for each season as he goes along – there is now “The Complete Series,” a 23-disc set that bundles up all the episodes and bonus features from the individual season DVDs, tacks on a gag reel and three prequels focusing on “Wire” characters, and rolls them all into roughly 60 hours of prime television viewing. From a packaging standpoint, it suffers by comparison to the individual sets (although the box itself looks great, the seasons are held in foldout slipcases that offer too much room for disc slippage), but in every other way, it offers more bang for your buck, especially now, thanks to holiday sales (Amazon.com is selling it for the ridiculously low price of $134.99).
In an era that finds television networks increasingly relying on reality television, and quickly pulling the trigger on underperforming scripted series, it can be easy to forget exactly what the medium is capable of, and to assume that we’ve run out of ways to challenge or redefine its conventions. During the course of its 60 episodes, however, “The Wire” proved that the serial drama format is still capable of producing art – by presenting hard truths, asking questions that have no answers, and presenting a picture of us as a society so ruthlessly compelling that we never want to stop watching. Buy it, gift it, add it to your Netflix queue. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.