But what jumps out at my from this opening episode is the sheer number of fine actors in this cast. It's a big cast, and it can be overwhelming at first. But to the credit of the actors and writers, these characters are so well-defined that it doesn't take long at all for the viewer to get a sense of their distinct personalities.
One who has only a few minutes of screen time in the episode (written by series creator David Simon and Ed Burns and helmed by Joe Chappelle) but makes his mark is Reg E. Cathay (pictured right), who plays political strategist Norman Wilson to Aidan Gillen's youthful Mayor Tommy Carcetti (pictured above).
To my mind, Wilson has the best line of the episode when he chides his boss for being so politically minded as to refuse a $50 million bailout for the city's fiscal troubles from the state's Republican governor simply because the nakedly ambitious Carcetti, a Dem, wants to be the next governor and it would make his campaign more difficult. Instead, Carcetti scrambles to juggle the bills, starving the police department (despite campaign promises of raises, new equipment, etc.) to scrape together pennies to funnel to the schools. As it stands, Carcetti now is "just a weak-ass mayor of a broke-ass city," Wilson tells him.
This exchange is one of a dozen examples in this seg alone of how "Wire" gives its viewers credit for brains, and the ability to pick up the details of issues and predicaments that the characters face without resorting to strictly expositional dialogue.
To wit, we dive right into another scene with Carcetti and city council president Naresse Campbell (Marlyne Afflack, who's also fantastic) talking with the U.S. attorney for the region about getting some help on the law enforcement front from the feds. Sure, sez the federal prosecutor, so long as the state turns over its ongoing corruption probe of the unctuous State Sen. Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) to the feds. No way, replies Carcetti, and besides, it's not his call to make, and he already knows that the feds have already asked the state attorney general for the case, and it's not going to happen.
"He told your Republican ass to go fuck itself, right? Well let me double-down on that," Carcetti sez, with no histrionics but an intensity that makes Gillen stand out even in the glare of so many other talents.
It goes without saying that "Wire's" anchors -- Dominic West as Det. Jimmy McNulty, aka the Sonny Corleone of the Baltimore P.D.; Wendell Pierce as Det. Bunk Moreland; Sonja Sohn as Det. Shakima Greggs; Clarke Peters as Det. Lester Freamon; Robert F. Chew as dealer Proposition Joe; Jamie Hector as uber-dealer Marlo Stanfield -- are all back at it in fine form.
Others who stand out in the opening seg are Lance Reddick (pictured left) as the wiry, budget-chapped Col. Daniels and the new addition of Clark Johnson -- an alumnus of the NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," which Simon's book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" inspired back in 1993.
Johnson's wizened Baltimore Sun city editor Gus Haynes struts through the newsroom chiding his charges to cough up budget lines by 2 p.m. "in case anyone's threatening to commit an act of daily journalism." (Reporters everywhere will nod, smile and shudder as they hear that particular command.) Haynes does show a subtle bit of editor-decency when he gives the credit for digging up a big story out of the fine print of a city council agenda to the beat reporter, even though he was the one who actually noticed the tidbit.
This seg is titled "More with Less," and indeed, the consequences of budget cutbacks in the police department, at city hall and in the Sun newsroom are the engine of the plot threads. Life on the corner is also getting more cutthroat as there's a clear move by some to consolidate power and turf, and to jack up the wholesale dope prices on the littler fish.
But this ep seems to be just as much about the callous, greedy, morally bankrupt ways that everyone games the system to get what they want -- or what they need to get by. The pols manipulate everything to paint as rosy a picture as possible to position each elected official for his or her next campaign. Carcetti doesn't even try to spin it when he's delivering the slash-and-burn news to the top cops. He has to send all available coin to the schools, to satisfy other campaign promises. The cops manipulate dumb young defendants into giving confessions based on the hokiest Xerox-machine "lie detector" test you ever saw. The big-boss editor of the Sun manipulates coverage of race relations at the U of Baltimore because he happens to know the head of the journalism department.
In many respects, the dealers are the most forthright of the whole bunch. When they want something, they demand it in fairly plain terms and if others don't comply, shooting ensues. They don't hide behind press releases, photo ops and creative accounting.
"The bigger the lie, the more they believe," Bunk (pictured right) tells his partner as the swagger out of an interrogation room after duping a kid into a confession.
"One thieving politician trumps 22 dead bodies. Good to know," Reddick says after Carcetti informs him that an investigation into a string of homicides has to be shut down for lack of funds but he can have two detectives to pursue the politically expedient probe of Sen. Davis.
There's a great scene reminiscent of "The Godfather" of all the local dealer kingpins holding a summit meeting in a hotel. And the seg lays the thread of an old-fashioned pot-boiler mystery. What is Marlo Stanfield's end-game after all, and what does his crew want with a Russian dude who's in prison?
Finally, a linguistic observation. Based on this opening seg, it appears that the insult "bitch," to describe a male who is seen by his detractors as severely lacking in testicular strength, is to "The Wire" what "cocksucker" was to "Deadwood." There are at least 10 utterances in the first hour alone.
STUART LEVINE: Oh, yeah, Cynthia, the quality of the cast is what always strikes me as being remarkable. There are so many faces here that viewers will be unfamiliar with but all these actors blow me away week after week.
Wendell Pierce and Dominic West, although far from the major stars, may be the most recognizeable of the bunch, but folks such as Reddick, who brings such a cool demeanor to Col. Daniels, and Jamie Hector and Gbenga Akinnagbe, who portray Marlo and his lieutenant, Chris, respectively, with a lethal combination of a laissez-faire attitude and fear, are simply outstanding.
As for the latter two, no one would dare double-cross them under any circumstance. No one except Omar, of course, but our favorite gay thief who robs from the drug dealers (does that make him a good guy?) didn't make an appearance in this first ep, so we'll hold off on our praise of him for now.
A couple of scenes really resonated with me last night. The saddest one, by far, was Dukie sitting on the stoops of the corner, completely out of his element. Here's a smart, sensitive kid and where's his future? In charge of Marlo's ill-gotten gains. This is a kid who can have a wonderful, productive life but how will he escape this environment? Michael (pictured at left) feels for him as well and says he doesn't need to work the corners anymore, knowing Dukie's naiviete will eventually cost him — either with a beating or, maybe, even his life.
Though David Simon's genius has always been in exposing the mix between the drug dealers and the police and City Hall, it was never as evident in the scene when Chris comes to the courthouse and passes Assistant State Attorney Rhonda Pearlman in the hallway and asks for directions for a specific office. Next, McNulty recognizes him as well and goes to see what Chris was looking for. It's all part of that constant cat-and-mouse game that the cops and drug pushers play, with these Baltimore cops always three steps and hundreds of thousands of dollars, behind.
But while "The Wire" shows its brilliance in the fall of an American city in dramatic overtones, the show never fails to make me laugh. That scene at the beginning, where a busted kid falls for a copy machine acting as a lie detector, had me rolling. What made it work is that the guys sold it so convincingly to the kid. When Sgt. Jay Landesman tells him, "The machine tells the tale, son," followed by Bunk's, "Are you ready, Professor?" I was howling.
BRIAN LOWRY: Wait, "The Wire's" back?