First Impressions: The Wire, HBO (2002)

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The Independent Culture

Baltimore returns to prime time and it does so on the most prestigious stage in American television: Sunday nights on HBO, the home of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. The news is that The Wire, a 13-week series about life on both sides of a major drug investigation in the Baltimore housing projects, deserves to breathe that rarefied air.

Like those two dramas, The Wire might be an acquired taste for viewers who warm to innovative programming slowly. But those who stick with the show for two or three episodes are going to find themselves caring about people with whom they might never have imagined becoming acquainted.

For some viewers, though, the biggest reward will spring from the way the show speaks to widespread feelings – anger, disillusionment, unease – about the workplace or other once-trusted institutions.

The pilot for The Wire starts out looking like a traditional police drama – specifically, Homicide: Life on the Street. That's not surprising since The Wire's creator is David Simon, author of the book upon which Homicide. Furthermore, Clark Johnson, who played Detective Meldrick Lewis on Homicide, directed the debut episode.

The first episode is not perfect. At times, it assumes an insider's sense of city government. And in the drug dealers' world, the use of dialect and slang make it difficult to catch the nuances of what is being said. Some viewers may bristle at the idea of Simon, a white writer, creating this sort of dialogue for African-American characters. There also are problems with how women are portrayed. Overall, the combination of flaw and innovation is enough to give me pause in predicting how large an audience the series will ultimately find. But I'm rooting for The Wire – not because it is produced in Baltimore and creates local jobs, but because of how high it tries to reach.