It wasn't difficult to find a cop drama when you switched on your television twenty years ago. For starters, the Law & Order and CSI franchises were in their respective heydays, with multiple shows spread across multiple nights of primetime network television. Meanwhile, upstart cable series like The Shield, Monk and The Dead Zone were offering up their own versions of the classic cop show formula. But despite the plethora of police procedurals on the air in 2002, there wasn't a show on any network quite like HBO's The Wire. And series creator David Simon knows that firsthand, since that was part of his pitch to the home of breakout hits like The Sopranos and OZ.
"There's a show bible that somebody leaked maybe a decade ago that had a cover letter that said: 'This is what the networks do: They catch the bad guy,'" Simon tells Yahoo Entertainment during an all-star 20th anniversary press event for The Wire. "I said, 'What you should do now is go to the meat and potatoes of network TV — the cop show — and you should undo it. You should invert it so that it's not, 'Are they going to catch the bad guy?' It's 'Who is the bad guy and why do you think so?'" (Watch our video interview above.)
Simon's pitch to "undo" the typical police procedural intrigued then-HBO executives Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht. "They told me later that they hadn't been thinking they were going to go into the network wheelhouse, but then it started to appeal to them and they gave us a shot," he says now.
Simon repaid HBO's early faith in The Wire many times over. While the series was famously stiffed by the Emmys during its five season run from 2002 to 2008, it remains a pillar of the prestige television era, one that's mentioned in the same breath as The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The show also served as the launching pad for stars like Idris Elba, Dominic West, Wendell Pierce and the late Michael K. Williams. And two decades later, its layered portrait of a city in crisis resonates more than ever against the backdrop of real world headlines.
"It wasn't just about what was happening in police stations," observes Clarke Peters, who played Baltimore Police detective Lester Freamon. "It was the whole city." Adds Lance Reddick, whose alter ego, Cedric Daniels, rose through the ranks to become police commissioner, but left the department rather than compromise his ethics: "It was the first time television tried to portray the police in such a completely realistic way. Several times, cops could come up to me and say, 'Man, that s*** was too real.'"
The Wire didn't waste any time announcing how it would depart from the traditional procedural playbook. One of the show's signature moments arrived in the fourth episode of the first season, when homicide detectives Jimmy McNulty and "Bunk" Moreland (West and Pierce, respectively), arrive at a murder scene and piece together what happened using only F-bombs.
"David described that scene to us saying, 'Hey, [HBO] is gonna be on me about the language, so I figured we are just, we are just gonna go all out," Pierce remembers, laughing. "For me, it was just about playing off of Dominic, which was great — we had fun with it. And then once it aired, I knew that scene would be iconic. Everyone would remember that scene. It wasn't until after the show ended that I realized how iconic the show would be."
As much as he enjoyed filming it, West also remembers thinking at the time that the scene was something of a "departure" from The Wire's commitment to realism. "The show was highly naturalistic, and then suddenly this quite stagey and artificial scene came up," he says. "I thought, 'I don't know if the audience is gonna buy this.' And they did! We acted it well, but David was great at finding those moments where he could get artificial and operatic."
While dysfunction within the Baltimore police force was a major focus of The Wire, Simon and his writing team paid equal attention to what was happening on the city's streets. The Barksdale organization — overseen by kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) — was the central spoke around which the rest of the local drug trade operated. And as the series unfolded, characters that were only minor parts of early episodes took on major roles in future events. That's what happened with Michael K. Williams, whose charismatic performance as equal opportunity robber, Omar Little, made him an in-demand actor. (Williams died of a drug overdose in 2021.)
"David Simon told us in the beginning when Mike and I came on, 'You guys are sub, sub, sub storylines," remembers Andre Royo, who played heroin addict-turned-police informant, Bubbles. "The cops are trying to catch Barksdale, and you guys are outside of that storyline on your own and I don't know if you're gonna make it. Every time we got a new season, he and I would be like: 'You coming back? Yeah, me too!'"
Williams also functioned as a kind of mentor for some of the younger performers on the show like Jamie Hector, who was 29 when he joined The Wire as one of Barksdale's many rivals, Marlo Stanfield. "My first day on set, I saw him walking to his trailer and I was like, 'Mike, what's up man? My name is Jamie and I just started on the show.' He looked at me and said, 'What character are you playing?' I told him and he looked right at me, took a drag of his stogie and said, 'No arguing about the wardrobe.'"
"He dropped a jewel on me," Hector continues. "Because I went to the trailer with respect for wardrobe and hair and make-up. If there was a time where I wanted input, I would provide input, but mostly I was like: 'You have an artistry of your own, you're creating a world for my character." So that was a jewel, man — a memorable moment for me."
In the years since Simon brought the curtain down on The Wire, we've seen several of the storylines and subjects the series tackled play out in real life. Most recently, a rash of school shootings from Florida to Texas has spurred debate over the level of police presence in public schools. The Wire made the Baltimore school system the central focus of its fourth season, following former detective Roland Pryzbylewski, played by Jim True-Frost, as he transitions into the role of middle school teacher.
"Everything that's happening now in the real world is illuminated by things that happen in The Wire," True-Frost says when asked how his character's journey has impacted his perspective on current events, including school shootings. "When my character went into the school system, I was taking a trip into what essentially was my lens on Baltimore. My wife was a teacher at a tough, under-resourced school, and I certainly heard from her and from other teachers that they really appreciated the kind of spotlight the show put on that situation."
For Simon, the show's continued relevance is something to be concerned about rather than simply celebrated. "I wish The Wire was not relevant thematically to where the country still is," he notes. "There have been improvements and modest retrenchments in our laws, but the truth is that a lot of this is dependent on who we elect. We're not addressing ourselves as a society. We're still struggling to recognize our own problems and to act on them."
As shows like The Sopranos and Deadwood have found new audiences amongst the streaming generation, HBO has found ways to bring those dormant series back via prequel and sequel features like The Many Saints of Newark and Deadwood: The Movie. But Simon and executive producer Nina Noble have so far resisted the temptation to continue The Wire. "We've moved on," says Noble. "I'm glad The Wire is still part of the conversation, but we have other things to say and other ways to say things."
For his part, Simon makes it clear that the story of The Wire is too personal to him to hand off to another creative team to continue. "Stories have a beginning, middle and end and there are other universes to build," he says, pointing to his recent six-episode HBO series, We Own This City, as a "coda" to The Wire. "That show says what we would now want to say about this next generation of policing, and what the wages of sin have brought to a place like Baltimore."
While The Wire creators may not be interested in revisiting their version of Baltimore, several members of the cast are raring to return. "There's a whole generation of police officers who probably came up on The Wire, and a whole bunch of criminals who learned from it as well," says Peters. "It's a non-stop drama. And I have to say that there was always that debate on what was a better show: The Sopranos or The Wire. Hands down, it's The Wire. The real deal is the real deal: You can sit back and follow one man's life or you can look at a whole city where you live and figure out which is the better story to be told."
The Wire is available to own on Blu-ray, DVD and digital and to stream on HBO Max.
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by John Santo