“It seems to be a cop show, but we were actually trying to mask something different… The show is about the American city and how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals.” These are the words provided by David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, when asked to explain the inspiration behind the programme.
Some people have complained that the first season of The Wire is too slow-paced and feel that it did not really attain its unquestioned brilliance until season two. Moreover, the deluge of information which the viewer is required to absorb can prove startling for first-time observers. Hence, I found the experience of re-watching this episode infinitely more satisfying than my initial viewing.
The very first scene subtly outlines the show’s thematic concerns. It focuses on a murder scene, as detective Jimmy McNulty questions an associate of the slain victim who was nicknamed “Snotboogie”. He tells an anecdote about how the deceased constantly stole money from craps games, yet would perpetually be caught and reprimanded for his actions.
When McNulty asks why this miscreant was invited back to the games week-after-week despite his blatant misdemeanours, his response is curious: “Got to,” the character replies in the wonderfully rich Baltimore dialect which would become a staple feature of the show. “This is America, man.”
The scene is crucial for countless reasons. Essentially, it bears all the hallmarks of Simon’s aforementioned proclamation. The obstreperous police sirens and unsettling close-up of the dead body instantly reinforce the show’s generic expectations.
On the other hand, the tale relating to Snotboogie hints at the programme’s less overt preoccupations. The twisted morals which are applied to the craps game convey Simon’s avowal that “those who are excluded from the legitimate economy make their own economy”.
And most importantly of all, the anecdote was taken more or less verbatim from a real-life encounter which Simon heard about during his days as a journalist. It is indeed quite astonishing how often the show extracts material from real-life scenarios.
Furthermore, an inferior programme would undoubtedly begin with a straightforward depiction of the actual murder, or of some other moment of sensationalism. Yet The Wire’s opening is characteristically cerebral, but still manages to be indelible at the same time.
This deliberate failure to provide instant sensory gratification to viewers partly explains the show’s outright failure when it first aired. It was genuinely revolutionary in having the confidence to allow the story to unfold gradually over the course of each season, rather than pandering to whims of the more episodic structure beloved by television. Consequently, its rightful classic status was not ascertained instantly.
Another of the show’s key elements, which it exhibits from the outset, is its routine application of painstaking detail and complex contrivances. A case in point is the shot of D’Angelo and Wee-Bey as they discuss business outside a take-away shop.
At this point, D’Angelo represents the less experienced and morally conflicted member of the criminal duo. Conversely, Wee-Bey is a decidedly self-assured and competent felon, showing no evidence of remorse for his illicit behaviour. Therefore, the shot displays him standing beneath the “burgers” sign, while D’Angelo is below an advertisement for “chicken” – signifiers which accordingly act as metaphors for their differing philosophies.
In addition, the show is almost poetic in the approach it takes to storytelling. For instance, a scene depicting McNulty being viciously harangued by Rawles is followed by one which displays D’Angelo receiving a dressing down from Avon. Similarly, humiliating punishments are enforced upon both characters in light of their respective blunders. Therefore, The Wire parallels police and criminal operations, indicating that they are not entirely disparate entities.
There is also a considerable anomaly in this episode, as the show resorts to using flashback for the first and only time. This constituted a rare misstep by Simon and his collaborators. The moment in question regards a witness who is seen at the beginning of the episode testifying against D’Angelo Barksdale.
At the climax of the programme, the camera focuses on a close-up of the witnesses’ dead body, before briefly flashing back to the scene of his court appearance. Although it could be argued that this move helps the viewer to better understand proceedings, it is clearly out of sync with the show’s normal dependence on a real-time setting. Basically, it is embracing the tendency, which it normally avoids, of endeavouring to explain the plot to the viewer in an all-too obvious fashion.
Unsurprisingly, Simon concedes that he was pushed into inserting the flashback by HBO, who were concerned that the episode’s staunch complexity would alienate viewers. Thus, it stands regrettably as the one blemish of an otherwise perfect introduction to the greatest TV series of all time.
- Wendy Grantham who plays Chardene, the stripper who befriends D’Angelo during the episode is, ironically enough, a Harvard University graduate.
- The pilot episode originally aired on HBO on 2 June 2002.
- The New York Times criticised the series at its inception, accusing it of “going out of its way to be choppy and confusing” and argued, perhaps not unreasonably, that its dialogue was sometimes unintelligible.
- The pilot’s script did not overly impress the network executives at HBO and David Simon and Ed Burns were obliged to write two more episodes before the project was finally green-lighted.
- The episode was written shortly after September 11th and it correctly predicted that the FBI would devote much of its resources to the war on terror at the expense of the war on drugs.
When Jay Landsman spots McNulty and The Bunk working late at night, he sarcastically remarks: “Look at em Cole, don’t it make your dick bust concrete to be in the same room with two noble, selfless public servants.”
Bubbles’ discussion with Kima, as he gazes solemnly at his friend Johnny Weeks in intensive care. It is his blind refusal to emote or confide in her in anyway that makes the moment so special. The restraint with which actor Andre Royo plays the scene is particularly impressive and signals the audiences’ introduction to one of the show’s most compelling characters.
McNulty looks over at Stringer Bell during D’Angelo’s court case. Stringer subsequently reveals his artistic talents as he displays his sketch of superman to McNulty in conjunction with a speech bubble exhibiting the line: “F*ck you detective.”