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Greatest TV Pilots: The Wire

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 1: “The Target”268296-1020-a


Directed by Clark Johnson
Written by David Simon & Ed Burns
Aired June 2nd, 2002

“Let me understand. Every Friday night, you and your boys are shooting craps, right? And every Friday night, your pal Snot Boogie… he’d wait ‘til there’s cash on the ground and he’d grab it and run away? You let him do that?”

“We’d catch him and beat his ass but ain’t nobody ever go past that.”

“I gotta ask ya – If every time Snotboogie would grab the money and run away, why’d you even let him in the game?”

“What?”

“If Snotboogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?”

“Got to. This America, man.”

That’s it. That’s The Wire right there. Sixty hours of television, summed up in one exchange. This was a show about many things, but all of it came back around to the failings endemic to human institutions. We often do things because it’s the way that they are done, regardless of whether or not those procedures make any sense. People’s drive for self-preservation and self-promotion are often at cross-purposes with the right thing. It’s so much easier to do the easy thing, to cut corners. But when everyone is doing the easy thing, others suffer. The series started out by showing how this affected the populace of Baltimore through its police department. With each season, it expanded outward, including politics, the school system, and the press. The Wire had a cast so large it makes Game of Thrones look simple by comparison, but the real main character was Baltimore, and the point of following Baltimore for five seasons was to see how its problems reflected the problems of America as a whole.

“The Target” isn’t a premiere so much as it is a start. It has a lot of set up, having an hour to introduce several dozen characters, their situations, and their relations to one another. It has to establish two separate organizations: the Baltimore police department and the Barksdale criminal empire. By the end of the episode, Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) has cajoled the right people into getting an investigation started into the Barksdales, but that’s about it. In any other show, the pilot would end with the team assembled and their first major break having occurred in their mission. The Wire is not any other show.

The episode does not conclude. It just stops. You have to start the next episode to see what happens next, but that won’t end wrapped up in a bow, either. This is how this series works. Its seasons are like books, and each installment is a chapter rather than a self-contained piece. This is almost par for the course with serialized dramas nowadays, but back then, no one had seen anything like it. It’s part of the reason that the show had such a difficult time attracting a substantial audience, and why it never received any awards attention (another reason: most of the cast was not white).

Conventional wisdom holds that The Wire takes a few episodes to get its hooks into the viewer, that there’s a period of adjustment during which one must familiarize oneself with a whole new vocabulary, both of language and of storytelling. But re-watching this episode, I found it enthralling from the get-go, even if I knew where all this was leading. The cold open with the mesmerizing conversation about “Snot Boogie” immediately sets a tone that’s unlike any other drama you’ve seen before. Anyone describing The Wire as the best television series ever isn’t blowing smoke at you. While “The Target” may seem disorienting, sticking with the show will pay off incredible dividends.

“Fighting the war on drugs, one brutality case at a time.”

“Girl, you can’t even think of calling this shit a war.”

“Why not?”

“Wars end.”

– Daniel Schindel

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

 


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