There are two types of people in this crazy, mixed up world. Those who get "The Wire" and those who don't.
(Actually there's a third type, those who can identify Little Walter's "My Babe" by within a nanosecond of hearing the first note, and those people also usually fall into the category of "Wire" fanatics.)
To make the most of the HBO drama's fifth and final season, which bows Sunday at 9 p.m., Variety's resident "Wire" nuts -- including myself, Brian Lowry, Stuart Levine and any others who care to join in -- will be ruminating and riffing here on each of the upcoming 10 segs. Although we've have had the luxury of screening the first seven episodes (thanks HBO), we're going to be mindful of spoilers, so we'll take go one seg at a time, the Monday after their premiere telecast.
As always, we'd love to hear from readers in this space too about the series that has never been a major ratings success for HBO but does have its fiercely loyal cadre of viewers. "Wire" has always revolved around the life of drug dealers, cops and others in tough neighborhoods in Baltimore, but at its best, it's been more than a gritty slice of life -- it's a unrelenting look at the hypocrisy of the social order, the corruption, bankruptcy and decay of the civic institutions that were once America's pride. To my mind, the upcoming season is more plot-driven than the others, and it's a wild, wild ride, so buckle up.
A huge plus in season five is the addition of "Homicide: Life on the Street's" Clark Johnson (seated in pic below) to the cast, playing a seasoned editor at the Baltimore Sun. The newspaper storyline, as Lowry noted in his Variety review, is visceral and more true to life than any other ever attempted on the smallscreen.
As a warm-up for Sunday's preem, here's a link to a fabulous profile of "Wire" creator/exec producer David Simon by Margaret Talbot that ran in the New Yorker in October. According to HBO, Simon has steadfastly refused to do any press for "Wire" while the writers' strike is going on, so the New Yorker piece is likely to be his last word on the new season for a while.
However, posted below are Q&As with Simon and "Wire" exec producer Nina Kostroff Noble that HBO included as part of its press materials. Also posted are the HBO-provided Q&As with longtime cast members Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Andre Royo and Dominic West. West asserts that season five remarkably "ties up every single story strand of the series."
Also, check out these "Wire" prequel webisodes that are posted on Amazon.com.
Q: Now that THE WIRE is finally winding down, how do you feel?
DAVID SIMON: It's been six years of storytelling, and we've put in a lot of effort to create this universe, so to say goodbye is certainly bittersweet. But we got to say what we wanted to say, and it's time to tell other stories.
Q: Was the five-season arc something you had envisioned from the beginning, or was it a season-to-season process of developing the series?
DS: We had pretty much decided by the middle of the second season what we would like to cover in terms of this city we were slowly creating.
Q: In the beginning, did you have any idea the material would be so rich or diverse?
DS: Yes. I'd covered Baltimore [as a reporter] for a dozen years, and Ed Burns had policed it for 20, and taught in its schools for another seven, and we live here. We knew what was here – it was just a matter of convincing HBO to give us enough room.
Q: Can you summarize what THE WIRE is trying to say?
DS: I suppose that what we are trying to say, as a last consideration, is that if THE WIRE is at all correct in its portrayal of an American city, its problems and its inability to even fully acknowledge – much less attend to – its problems, then what exactly are we paying attention to? When the drug war went awry for generations, when the factories closed and the working class was hollowed out, when the police departments and the school systems all began critiquing themselves with fraudulent crime statistics and test scores, and when our political leaders exalted themselves with non-existent achievements, how exactly did we see ourselves?
Q: Do you think your depiction of Baltimore has had any effect on the life of the real Baltimore?
DS: Not at all. It's a television show, and as much as I would like people to pay attention, I don't have any illusions about the institutions or systems correcting themselves because we issued a critique.
Q: Why did you focus on the media, and more specifically, newspapers, for the fifth season?
DS: Newspapers, which for the duration of the American experiment have been the primary means of monitoring government and other imposed authority, are now being eviscerated nationwide. The people who once held us all to some basic account are being laid off, bought out and attrited from newsrooms. And newspaper managers – who have so much contempt for their own product that they give it away for free, misreading the internet as advertising for the product, when it was the product itself – they tell us they are going to do more with less. You do less with less, that's why they call it less. It made sense to finish THE WIRE with this reflection on the state of the media, as all the other attendant problems of the American city depicted in the previous four seasons will not be solved until the depth and range of those problems is first acknowledged. And that won't happen without an intelligent, aggressive and well-funded press.
Q: THE WIRE is often hailed for its uncompromising depiction of timely issues, but that kind of praise doesn't necessarily convey how much fun the show can be.
DS: We think about the issues, of course, but we try not to be didactic. It's important first to let the characters breathe. The show is very confident in its own sense of story and its sense of character and its own sense of humor. It's a very funny show in many ways – sometimes in that “Dr. Strangelove” kind of way. If you walk in anybody's footsteps, you'll see that people have a way of laughing at the world, and at themselves.
Q: How do you think THE WIRE will be viewed five or ten years from now, as people continue to discover it on DVD?
DS: I think it will have a shelf life. It has survived by critical attention and by word of mouth. And I think that word of mouth will continue.
Q: Was it always your goal to do five seasons of THE WIRE?
NINA KOSTROFF NOBLE: That was always David's conception. While the original vision was to explore a different part of the city each season, the scope of the show has expanded each year. The characters from the Barksdale story [season one], for example, proved to be so compelling and interesting that they stayed with us through season three.
Q: What were some of the biggest logistical challenges?
NKN: With all the stories being interconnected, there was a lot of history to keep track of by season five. It became quite a juggling act! Once the story arcs were set, there weren't many changes you could make without unraveling the whole thing. Sometimes actors would request changes in certain scenes, but we didn't always have the flexibility to accommodate them.
Q: On the other hand, maintaining consistency in the characters and story lines has made the show more believable.
NKN: I think that's where the integrity of the show comes from. David and I believe that all these characters exist out there somewhere in the world once we've introduced them. There's a florist in season two who turns up again in season five.
Q: The diversity of the characters has been a noteworthy feature of the series as well.
NKN: One of the most interesting things to me is how far-reaching the impact of the show has been. Because of the different characters and story lines, different groups have related to THE WIRE in different ways. We've been covered in everything from hiphop magazines to education publications.
Q: What were the high points of working on THE WIRE?
NKN: There's so many things I enjoyed about working on the show. I really liked reading a script, filming it and then seeing the finished product, seeing the magic in the performances. The best thing about my job is going to work every day and not knowing what's going to happen. During this last season, we usually had two units shooting at the same time, which was quite a challenge, but we had a team of incredibly committed people that were always willing to go the extra mile. We've all worked just as hard on bad shows, so it gave everyone a sense of accomplishment to be involved in something we could be proud of. I feel tremendously proud of the work we've done.
On a hot summer day of location shooting in Baltimore last August, cast regulars Clarke Peters (who plays Freamon), Wendell Pierce (Bunk), Andre Royo (Bubbles) and Dominic West (McNulty) took a break from filming their final scenes to talk about what the series has meant to them. (Pictured from left, Clarke Peters, Dominic West)
Q: How does it feel to be near the end of THE WIRE?
CLARKE PETERS: I feel sad that it's coming to an end. It's a good piece of cinema. We feel like actors on a mission, telling stories that need to be told. Over the years, we've formed a company that could go anywhere and do anything, any time. I think that's what we're going to miss more than anything else – being with each other. After work, we'll go to dinner together, do things together. That's unusual. That makes it hard to just walk away.
Q: When did you realize THE WIRE was going to be something out of the ordinary, and not just another job?
CP: I had worked on “The Corner” with David Simon, so I knew from the quality of creative team that it was going to be something special. I didn't expect the show to run this long, but I'm glad it did.
Q: What lies ahead for Lester Freamon in season five?
CP: When we left him in season four, Freamon was finding all these bodies. That continues in season five, and we find out who did it. And we follow the money. All I can tell you is that I find the money.
Q: Where did the idea for Freamon's character originate?
CP: From what I understand, most of it came from Ed Burns – and from another cop who used to work with Ed in real life on wiretaps.
Q: Freamon is a complex and mysterious character in many ways. He makes dollhouse furniture on the side, for example.
CP: Lester is a widower, but you never get to see how he brought up three boys on his own after his wife died. You don't see that the dollhouse furnishings might have been something that was originally her hobby, that he later built into a business in her memory. He still wears his wedding ring.
Q: With a lot of loose ends being tied up, what can you reveal about the final episodes of the series?
CP: It's got a good ending. It has to be an open ending, because the life of the city is continuing. The city is Baltimore, but it could have been Detroit or Philadelphia – any city that suffers when industry goes and the working class is left behind.
Q: What will you miss most about playing Freamon?
CP: The detail room, learning about all that technology. And the chase. I think I'll just miss Lester period. I've learned a lot from him, like patience and observation. Lester Freamon is the man I'd like to be when I grow up.
Q: How do you feel with THE WIRE finally winding down?
WENDELL PIERCE (pictured right): I have mixed emotions. I'm happy we were able to complete the novel. This has definitely been the best job of my career. It's fun to be Bunk. I was real nervous about the role at first, because my character is loosely based on a real detective, but it turned out he loves the show, so that made me feel good. Bunk is a great character to play because he's fleshed-out – a troubled man who's a really good cop at the same time. That gives him focus when the rest of his life is falling apart. He's not lost, exactly, but he's susceptible to his inadequacies.
Q: What happens in season five? Can you share any secrets?
WP: About all I can say is that each character is challenged by his moral compass, and the choices people make put them at odds with each other. The best thing about being on the series is seeing the way the characters interact. One of the interesting things about THE WIRE is that even if you like a character, you can't be sure they're going to do the right thing. There's always that ambiguity about whose moral compass is off and whose is on. You can't take stereotypes for granted, whether you're looking at a judge or a kid who's swinging on the street. I love that about the show.
Q: What are you going to miss most about playing Bunk?
WP: The camaraderie with McNulty and Freamon and all the other police. Playing Bunk brought me a sense of ease that I hadn't found before. I'm a lot more relaxed in my work now.
Q: How do you think THE WIRE will be remembered in coming years?
WP: We're going to be like “The Bicycle Thief.” People will say, “Here's my top ten – and do you know about THE WIRE?” I think we'll get a whole new fan base after the show is done, because people will be able to pop in the DVDs. The show has already touched people across the spectrum who want to be challenged as well as entertained – young and old, black and white, rich and poor.
Q: What are you feeling as THE WIRE nears the end?
ANDRE ROYO (pictured below): A whole bunch of emotions all at once. It's great to be able to complete the story. It's been an honor. David Simon and Ed Burns made it so much like a novel that I think all of us wanted to come back and finish it. With all the chapters written, I think we're all kind of sad – and happy in a way. You know, five years of playing a junkie is enough. I'm ready to get clean! I'm ready to take a hot shower! So I'm looking forward to putting on a suit and tie, but we're all going to miss the show. We're all going to miss Baltimore in its unique way.
Q: What do you like best about being a part of THE WIRE?
AR: The accolades are great, but to be part of a show that's so much more than just entertainment is really something special. It brings a lot of spiritual satisfaction.
Q: You're fortunate to be playing one of the more interesting characters.
AR: I'm glad to hear that. When the show started, the plan was to have Bubbles around for seven episodes, so to still be here five years later – I must have been doing something right! When people see someone like Bubbles in the street, they overlook a lot. He's just a human being with afflictions. We all have our own addictions to a different variety of things. Bubbles has been through a lot.
Q: What can you tell us about Bubbles in the final season?
AR: For all his life, Bubbles' purpose was looking for ways to get high. Without that purpose, he doesn't know what to do, doesn't know where he belongs. That's the journey he's on in the fifth season. Greggs said it best a long time ago: “What am I going to do with a clean snitch?” He has to reestablish what life is about for him and discover what kind of enjoyment he can have without the dope.
Q: With THE WIRE finally winding down, how do you feel?
DOMINIC WEST: It's pretty strange. I think it's just beginning to hit me. I feel a bittersweet mixture of immense relief and nostalgia.
Q: McNulty went through a lot of changes in the first four seasons. Does that continue in the final year?
DW: [Laughing] I think in the fifth season we realize that he's actually not changed at all. One of David Simon's big themes is that you can't change the world, you have to change yourself, and for a guy like McNulty to change himself is very difficult. He does transform himself in season four, but in season five we see him back to his old tricks. He has to go through the mill to have any chance of liberating himself from his demons in season five. Bunk says to me that I'm bad for everyone around me.
Q: It must be fun to play a character like that, though.
DW: Oh yeah, it's great. What's great about THE WIRE is that everyone is so well-drawn and three-dimensional. There's no good guy who doesn't have a dark side.
Q: What's the hardest thing about being McNulty?
DW: The accent. I use a general east coast American accent. People tell me I have a great Baltimore accent, but it's not really a Baltimore accent at all.
Q: Do you have a favorite scene?
DW: Probably the one where I'm undercover in the brothel and I get caught in flagrante. I remember thinking at that point how ridiculous my job is. I'll never forget that.
Q: THE WIRE has constructed quite a detailed universe over the course of the series.
DW: I don't know what the exact tally is, but I think David has over 350 characters! And he's kept tabs on all of them. What's amazing about season five is the way he ties up every single story strand of the series.
Q: So, in the final estimation, will McNulty be ok?
DW: I think he's going to be fine.