The event was four days ago and I think I’ve finally stopped hyperventilating enough to write about it. Thursday night I was lucky enough to be in the same room as many of the cast members of The Wire, my favorite TV show of all time. This wasn’t even a bucket list item, since never in my wildest dreams did I conceive of having the possibility to see so many cast members in the same place. I rarely get ridiculously keyed up and excited about anything, but for this I let my inner fan-girl flag fly. I was positively giddy as I waited in line.
While I wasn’t one of the first people on The Wire bandwagon, I did discover the show before a lot of other people. A lot of TV critics that I respected kept referencing The Wire and I finally broke down and watched the show. It was a bit of a challenge – the pacing seemed leisurely and the viewer is thrown into the world of drug dealing in Baltimore without much to orient them. But despite the fact that I wasn’t 100% sure that I knew everything that was going on, I was immediately drawn to the show and the tapestry of stories that it was telling. After a few episodes – and occasionally using closed captioning – I felt like I finally had a grasp on this world that had been so meticulously crafted. The characters on The Wire didn’t feel like characters; instead, they felt like actual people. While most shows, especially those about police and criminals, are very black and white, the stories and characters of The Wire existed solely in the shades of grey in-between. No one was all good and no one was all bad – you understood the perspectives of both law enforcement and criminals. A character on either side of the law could do something questionable and you may not have agreed with it, but you totally got why they were doing what they were doing. It was like someone built a terrarium over parts of Baltimore and we were the voyeurs watching the people inside going about their daily lives. That’s how authentic it felt.
I binge-watched the show and eventually caught up with the new episodes airing on HBO. The 4th season of The Wire still ranks as one of the most powerful 13 hours of television that I’ve ever seen. While the central arc of the show was the tension between the drug trade in Charm City and the police that are trying to bring it down, each individual season had a slightly different focus. The (occasionally maligned) second season focused on the docks, the third season was all about politics and the fifth season was about the media. The fourth season was on the public school system and stands as one of the most damning indictments of how we as a society often fail the children that need us the most. As much as I love The Wire, that season of television destroyed me emotionally and I haven’t been able to re-watch it since; it’s been eight years since that season finale, but I can still remember sitting on my couch and uncontrollably crying at what I was watching. That’s powerful television.
So as soon as I heard that a large portion of the sprawling cast of The Wire were going to reunite for a panel at Paleyfest, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be there. Never mind that it was occurring on a Thursday night and that I had just been to NYC the Saturday before for an event; I was going to do everything in my power to get a ticket and get myself there. I wasn’t exactly sure how the logistics were going to work – I do, after all, have a full time job that is not blogging – but I figured the details would work themselves out. First I had to land myself a ticket, which was going to be no easy task. The venue was small and this was going to be a hot ticket among pop culture aficionados like myself. I contemplated buying a membership to the Paley Center – kind of ludicrous since, despite all evidence to the contrary, I don’t actually live in NYC – since they got the first dibs on tickets, but I decided to take my chances with my Citicard presale and hope for the best. By some stroke of luck, I was able to procure a ticket; I later found out that the tickets were sold out before they even went on sale to the general public and that some slower moving members were even unable to get tickets. As I chatted with fellow audience members before the panel began, it appeared that I was one of the only people there who was not a member. The fates had smiled down upon me and for that I was extremely grateful.
I have to say, it was really nice to be with people who know and love The Wire as much as I do; so many people that I know have never heard of the show, let alone watched it, which can be extremely frustrating. While it’s nice to be part of an elite little club, it’s no fun when I’m dropping The Wire quotes around the office or with friends and being greeted by nothing but blank stares. This is absolutely a first world problem, but when you love something as much as I love this show and practically no one knows about it, it just makes me so sad.
The panel kicked off with a video montage from The Wire’s five seasons, which was like a nice stroll down memory lane. We were then greeting with a video from Dominic West, one of the ostensive stars of the show, who was unable to attend in person. That was all fine and good – McNulty is a great flawed character – but I was ready to be breathing the same air as these people. As an added bonus, the panel was moderated by Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix, my favorite TV writer. If I was capable of half the critical analysis of television that he does week in and week out, I would consider myself a success. I basically live and die with what Sepinwall thinks – if he praises a show, I’ll give it a chance – no questions asked. Not only is he a great writer, but our sensibilities generally line up. He is just far more eloquent in expressing them than I am. Seriously – he’s the best.
And then, without further ado, a large portion of the cast began to file in to take their seats. I was not surprised that I got as excited as I did to see Michael Kenneth Williams, who played Omar (my favorite character), but I had not expected the level jubilation that I had at seeing other familiar faces – Wendell Pierce (Bunk Moreland), Sonja Sohn (Kima Greggs), Seth Gilliam (Ellis Carver), Jim True-Frost (Roland Pryzbylewski), John Doman (William Rawls), Lawrence Gilliard Jr (D’Angelo Barksdale), J.D. Williams (Bodie), Robert Wisdom (Bunny Colvin), Tristan Wilds (Michael Lee), Jamie Hector (Marlo Stanfield) and creator David Simon. Jim True-Frost had played a major role in the season 4 storyline and seeing him brought back all sorts of emotions back to the surface. Really, the only way I could have possibly been more excited were if Idris Elba (Stringer Bell) or Aidan Gillen (Tommy Carcetti on The Wire; Littlefinger on Game of Thrones) had been there. Elba also sent a video message, which was as charming as I expected it to be. I do love that man.
Sepinwall actually didn’t have to do a lot as moderator; the panel came ready to talk and tell stories. One thing that was immediately evident was how much this cast really did love and respect one another; many of them had not seen each other since the show had wrapped and they were in a festive mood. In fact, Sepinwall told the audience that the cast had sung “Way Down in a Hole”, The Wire’s theme song, on the elevator from the green room to the auditorium. I had heard that this was a cast that had formed a tight bond over the years, but to see it in person was a beautiful thing. They all loved The Wire as much as we did.
As I said, the cast came ready to talk and talk they did – Sonja Sohn was surprisingly very chatty – and they treated those of us in the audience to quite a few interesting nuggets of information. Among the highlights:
- The cast didn’t think the show would make it through their first season
Sonja Sohn and Wendall Pierce told the story of watching the pilot episode on the monitors and thinking that the show didn’t have a chance. “It’s really slow” they thought. Pierce actually called his agent and said that he’d be available for Law & Order episodes in a few weeks.
- The cast was not always happy when their characters were sidelined.
The season two move to the docks was especially confusing to many of the actors who had been featured prominently in the first season but now had less of a role to play with the show’s new focus. Michael Kenneth Williams said that he approached creator David Simon and said “How come when we make the show hot, you want to give it to the white people?” Simon reassured him that just because Omar was not front and center that it didn’t mean that the show was forgetting him. Seth Gilliam had similar frustration with his character in later seasons when he and Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc) were stuck on a surveillance subplot that was going nowhere. The actors eventually came around and realized that they were part of something bigger than their individual characters, but it did give Gilliam the opportunity to do his dead on Lombardozzi impression while telling the story.
- The death of characters was celebrated.
Though no one was particularly happy when their character met their demise – Lawrence Gilliard Jr. in particular was not thrilled with his early exit from the show – a tradition was born to show respect for the work that the individual actors had done while on the show. Spearheaded by Sonja Sohn, whenever a death scene was filmed, the rest of the cast would be on hand to support the actor who was meeting their demise. This started early on the show and carried through until the final season as a way to thank that actor for what they added to The Wire and to pay tribute their contribution. It was something that the actors all seemed to appreciate and further illustrated the bond of the cast. J.D. Williams seemed the most at ease with his character being killed off; he said it was time and that the story came to its logical conclusion. When he got the call, he was ready.
- Kima wasn’t supposed to make it out of the first season alive.
Originally, when Kima Greggs is shot in season one, she was supposed to die. Sohn, who portrayed Greggs found out about this from another actor on the show and was dismayed; The Wire was her first acting job in two years and now she was going to be unemployed again. Fortunately for her, an executive at HBO liked the work that she was doing and the character that was created and strongly urged Simon to change course and spare Kima. Simon agreed and the rest is history.
- Season five almost didn’t happen.
HBO took so long to renew the show for its fifth (and final) season that the contracts for the actors had all lapsed. Simon assured them that if they got the renewal, he’d get the cast back, though he wasn’t 100% confident in that actually happening. When the renewal finally came, not a single actor said no to coming back, a testament to their love of the show.
- The Wire is over.
Despite the growing fan base of the show, there will be no revisiting of The Wire, per Simon. He said that the stories only work when there is an end and that the need to stretch out telling a story is one of the great problems with American television. I completely agree. Several actors on the panel, however, indicated that they would love to be part of Simon’s new show.
It was an awesome night that I am so glad that I got to be a part of; The Wire means a lot to me and it was refreshing to see that it meant as much to the cast and crew. The genuinely came across as a family and I was delighted that many of the actors had as much personality as the characters that they portrayed. I could have sat and listened to them tell stories forever, but I’ll make do with the ninety minutes that I got. I’ve been meaning to sit down and revisit the show for some time now and this panel made that commitment even stronger. As soon as I get my DVR cleared out, I’m going to re-watch the show from the very beginning and relive the magic. I think I’m ready to experience season 4 all over again. The panelists were all great and I can now saw with even more conviction that The Wire is the greatest show in the history of television.
Paleyfest partnered with Yahoo to make streaming video of all the panels online, so you can watch The Wire panel here (and you actually see me in the audience around the 4 minutes left mark).