Each season of The Wire focuses on a different facet of the city of Baltimore. They are, in order: the drug trade, the port, the city bureaucracy, the school system, and the print news media. The large cast consists mainly of character actors who are little known for their other roles. Simon has said that despite its presentation as a crime drama, the show is "really about the American city, and about how we live together. It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how ... whether you're a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you've committed to."
Despite never seeing commercial success or winning any major television awards, The Wire has frequently been described by critics as one of the greatest television series of all time. The show is recognized for its realistic portrayal of urban life, artistic ambitions, and uncommonly deep exploration of sociological themes.
Simon has stated that he originally set out to create a police drama loosely based on the experiences of his writing partner Ed Burns, a former homicide detective. Burns, when working on protracted investigations of violent drug dealers using surveillance technology, had often faced frustration with the bureaucracy of the police department, which Simon related to his own ordeals as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Simon chose to set the show in Baltimore because of his familiarity with the city. He approached the mayor to get approval to portray it bleakly and was welcomed to work there again. During his time as a writer and producer for the NBC program Homicide: Life on the Street, which was based on his non-fiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, Simon had come into conflict with network executives over the show's pessimism, and wanted to avoid a repeat of these arguments. He chose to take The Wire to HBO because of their existing working relationship from the 2000 miniseries The Corner. Owing to its reputation for exploring new areas, HBO was initially dubious about including a cop drama in its lineup, but eventually agreed to produce the pilot episode. Simon hoped that the show would change the opinions of some viewers but said that it was unlikely to have an impact on the issues it portrays.
The initial cast was put together through a process of auditions and readings. Lance Reddick received the role of Cedric Daniels after auditioning for several other parts. Michael K. Williams got the part of Omar Little after only a single audition.
Several prominent real-life Baltimore figures, including former Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Rev. Frank M. Reid III, former police chief Ed Norris, and former mayor Kurt Schmoke have appeared in minor roles despite not being professional actors. "Little Melvin" Williams, a Baltimore drug lord arrested in the 1980s by an investigation that Ed Burns had been part of, has had a recurring role as a deacon since the third season. Jay Landsman, a longtime police officer who inspired the character of the same name, played Lieutenant Dennis Mello. Baltimore police commander Gary D'Addario served as the series technical advisor for the first two seasons and has a recurring role as prosecutor Gary DiPasquale. Simon shadowed D'Addario's shift when researching his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and both D'Addario and Landsman are subjects of the book.
Stories for the show are often co-written by Ed Burns, a former Baltimore homicide detective and public school teacher who has worked with Simon on other projects including The Corner. Burns also became a producer on The Wire in the show's fourth season. Other writers for The Wire include three acclaimed crime fiction writers from outside of Baltimore: George P. Pelecanos from Washington, Richard Price from the Bronx and Dennis Lehane from Boston. Reviewers drew comparisons between Price's works (particularly Clockers) and The Wire even before he joined. In addition to writing, Pelecanos served as a producer for the third season. Pelecanos has commented that he was attracted to the project because of the opportunity to work with Simon. Staff writer Rafael Alvarez penned several episodes' scripts, as well as the series guidebook The Wire: Truth Be Told. Alvarez is a colleague of Simon's from The Sun and a Baltimore native with working experience in the port area. Another city native and independent filmmaker, Joy Lusco Kecken, has also written for the show in each of its first three seasons. Baltimore Sun writer and political journalist William F. Zorzi joined the writing staff in the third season and brought a wealth of experience to the show's examination of Baltimore politics.
Playwright and television writer/producer Eric Overmyer joined the crew of The Wire in the show's fourth season as a consulting producer and writer. He had also previously worked on Homicide. Overmyer was brought into the full-time production staff to replace Pelecanos who scaled back his involvement to concentrate on his next book and worked on the fourth season solely as a writer. Emmy-award winner, Homicide and The Corner writer and college friend of Simon David Mills also joined the writing staff in the fourth season.
Directors include Homicide alumnus Clark Johnson, who directed several acclaimed episodes of The Shield,; and Tim Van Patten, an Emmy winner who has worked on every season of The Sopranos. The directing has been praised for its uncomplicated and subtle style. Following the death of Colesberry, director Joe Chappelle joined the production staff as a co-executive producer and continued to regularly direct episodes.
The opening theme is "Way Down in the Hole", a gospel- and blues-inspired song originally written by Tom Waits for his 1987 album Franks Wild Years. Each season uses a different recording of it against a different opening sequence, with the theme being performed, in order, by The Blind Boys of Alabama, Waits himself, The Neville Brothers, "DoMaJe" and Steve Earle. Season four's version of "Way Down in the Hole" was arranged and recorded specifically for the show, and is performed by five Baltimore teenagers: Ivan Ashford, Markel Steele, Cameron Brown, Tariq Al-Sabir, and Avery Bargasse. Earle, who performed the fifth season's version, is also a member of the cast, playing the recovering drug addict Walon. The closing theme is "The Fall", composed by Blake Leyh, who is also the show's music supervisor.
During season finales, a song is played before the closing scene in a montage showing the major characters' lives continuing in the aftermath of the narrative. The first season montage is played over "Step by Step" by Jesse Winchester, the second "Feel Alright" by Steve Earle, the third "Fast Train" written by Van Morrison and performed by Solomon Burke, the fourth "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" written by Dr. John and performed by Paul Weller, and the fifth uses an extended version of "Way Down In The Hole" by The Blind Boys of Alabama, the same version of the song used as the opening theme for the first season. While the songs reflect the mood of the sequence, their lyrics are usually only loosely tied to the visual shots. In the commentary track to episode 37, "Mission Accomplished", executive producer David Simon says: "I hate it when somebody purposely tries to have the lyrics match the visual. It brutalizes the visual in a way to have the lyrics dead on point. ... Yet at the same time it can’t be totally off point. It has to glance at what you're trying to say."
Two soundtrack albums, called The Wire: "...and all the pieces matter" and Beyond Hamsterdam, were released on January 8, 2008 on Nonesuch Records. The former features music from all five seasons of the series and the latter includes local Baltimore artists exclusively.
The writers strive to create a realistic vision of an American city based on their own experiences. Central to this aim is the creation of truthful characters. Simon has stated that most of them are composites of real-life Baltimore figures. The show often casts non-professional actors in minor roles, distinguishing itself from other television series by showing the "faces and voices of the real city" it depicts. The writing also uses a lot of contemporary slang to enhance the immersive viewing experience.
In distinguishing the police characters from other television detectives, Simon makes the point that even the best police of The Wire are motivated not by a desire to protect and serve, but by the intellectual vanity of believing they are smarter than the criminals they are chasing. Many officers portrayed on the show are incompetent, brutal, self-aggrandizing, or hamstrung by bureaucracy and politics. The criminals are not always motivated by profit or a desire to harm others; many are trapped in their existence and all have human qualities. Even so, The Wire does not minimize or gloss over the horrific effects of their actions.
The show is realistic in depicting the processes of both police work and criminal activity. Many of the plot points were based on the experiences of Simon and Burns. There have even been reports of real-life criminals watching the show to learn how to counter police investigation techniques. The fifth season portrays a working newsroom and has been hailed as the most realistic portrayal of the media in film and television.
In December 2006, The Washington Post carried an article with local African-American students saying that the show had "hit a nerve" with the African-American community, and that they themselves knew real-life counterparts of many of the characters. The article expressed great sadness at the toll drugs and violence are taking on the African-American community.
Simon has identified the organizations featured in the show—the Baltimore Police Department, City Hall, the Baltimore Public School System, the Avon Barksdale drug trafficking operation, and the stevedores' union—as comparable institutions. All are dysfunctional in some way, and the characters are typically betrayed by the institutions that they accept in their lives. Simon described the show as "cynical about [its] institutions" while taking a humanistic approach toward its characters. A central theme developed throughout the show is the struggle between individual desires and subordination to the group's goals. Whether it is Officer Jimmy McNulty using all his cards to pursue a high-profile case despite resistance from his own department, or gang member D'Angelo Barksdale accepting 20 years in prison contrary to his strong desire to turn in his uncle Avon and take a plea, this type of conflict is pervasive in all aspects of the show.
Central to the structure and plot of the show is the use of electronic surveillance and wiretap technologies by the police—hence the title The Wire. Salon.com described the title as a metaphor for the viewer's experience: the wiretaps provide the police with access to a secret world, just as the show does for the viewer. Simon has discussed the use of camera shots of surveillance equipment, or shots that appear to be taken from the equipment itself, to emphasize the volume of surveillance in modern life and the characters' need to sift through this information.
Simon described the second season as
a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class.…[I]t is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that on its own, without a social contract, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many."He added that season 3 "reflects on the nature of reform and reformers, and whether there is any possibility that political processes, long calcified, can mitigate against the forces currently arrayed against individuals." The third season is also an allegory that draws explicit parallels between the War in Iraq and the national drug prohibition, which in Simon's view has failed in its aims and become a war against America's underclass.
Writer Ed Burns, who worked as a public school teacher after retiring from the Baltimore police force, has called education the theme of the fourth season. Rather than focusing solely on the school system, the fourth season looks at schools as a porous part of the community that are affected by problems outside of their boundaries. Burns states that education comes from many sources other than schools and that children can be educated by other means, including contact with the drug dealers they work for. Burns and Simon see the theme as an opportunity to explore how individuals end up like the show's criminal characters, and to dramatize the theory that hard work is not always justly rewarded.
The show's creators are also willing to kill off major characters, so that viewers cannot assume that a given character will survive simply because of a starring role or popularity among fans. In response to a question on why a certain character had to die, David Simon said,
[W]e are not selling hope, or audience gratification, or cheap victories with this show. The Wire is making an argument about what institutions—bureaucracies, criminal enterprises, the cultures of addiction, raw capitalism even—do to individuals. It is not designed purely as an entertainment. It is, I'm afraid, a somewhat angry show.
These investigators were overseen by two commanding officers more concerned with politics and their own careers than the case, Major William Rawls (John Doman) and Deputy Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison). Assistant state's attorney Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy) acted as the legal liaison between the detail and the courthouse and also had a casual relationship with McNulty. In the homicide division, Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) was a gifted, dry-witted detective partnered with McNulty under Sergeant Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams), the jovial squad commander. Peter Gerety had a recurring role as Judge Phelan, the official who started the case moving.
On the other side of the investigation was Avon Barksdale's drug empire. The driven, ruthless Barksdale (Wood Harris) was aided by business-minded Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). Avon's nephew D'Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.) ran some of his uncle's territory, but also possessed a guilty conscience, while loyal Wee-Bey Brice (Hassan Johnson) was responsible for multiple homicides carried out on Avon's orders. Working under D'Angelo were Poot (Tray Chaney), Bodie (J.D. Williams), and Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), all street-level drug dealers. Wallace was an intelligent but naïve youth trapped in the drug trade, and Poot a randy young man happy to follow rather than lead. Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a renowned Baltimore stick-up man robbing drug dealers for a living, was a frequent thorn in the side of the Barksdale clan.
The second season introduced a new group of characters working in the Baltimore port area, including Spiros "Vondas" Vondopoulos (Paul Ben-Victor), Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), and Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer). Vondas was the underboss of a global smuggling operation, Russell an inexperienced Port Authority officer and single mother thrown in at the deep end of a multiple homicide investigation, and Sobotka a union leader who turned to crime in order to raise funds to save his union. Also joining the show in season 2 were Nick Sobotka (Pablo Schreiber), Frank's nephew; Ziggy Sobotka (James Ransone), Frank's troubled son; and "The Greek" (Bill Raymond), Vondas's mysterious boss. As the second season ended, the focus shifted away from the ports, leaving the new characters behind.
The third season saw several previously recurring characters assuming larger starring roles, including Detective Leander Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson), Bodie (J.D. Williams), Omar (Michael K. Williams), Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew), and Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin (Robert Wisdom). Colvin commanded the Western district where the Barksdale organization operated, and nearing retirement, he came up with a radical new method of dealing with the drug problem. Proposition Joe, the East Side's cautious drug kingpin, became more cooperative with the Barksdale Organization. Sydnor, a rising young star in the police department in season 1, returned to the cast as part of the major crimes unit. Bodie had been seen gradually rising in the Barksdale organization since the first episode; he was born to their trade and showed a fierce aptitude for it. Omar had a vendetta against the Barksdale organization and gave them all of his lethal attention.
New additions in the third season included Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), an ambitious city councilman; Mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman), the incumbent whom Carcetti planned to unseat; Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), leader of an upstart gang seeking to challenge Avon's dominance; and Dennis "Cutty" Wise (Chad Coleman), a newly released convict uncertain of his future.
In the fourth season, four young actors joined the cast: Jermaine Crawford as Duquan "Dukie" Weems; Maestro Harrell as Randy Wagstaff; Julito McCullum as Namond Brice; and Tristan Wilds as Michael Lee. The characters are friends from a West Baltimore middle school. Another newcomer was Norman Wilson (Reg E. Cathey), Carcetti's deputy campaign manager.
The fifth season saw several actors join the starring cast. Gbenga Akinnagbe returns as the previously recurring Chris Partlow, chief enforcer of the now dominant Stanfield Organization. Neal Huff reprises his role as Mayoral chief of staff Michael Steintorf having previously appeared as a guest star at the end of the fourth season. Two other actors also join the starring cast having previously portrayed their corrupt characters as guest stars - Michael Kostroff as defence attorney Maurice Levy and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as senator Clay Davis. Crew member Clark Johnson appeared in front of the camera for the first time to play Augustus Haynes, the principled editor of the city desk of The Baltimore Sun. He is joined in the newsroom by two other new stars; Michelle Paress and Tom McCarthy play young reporters Alma Gutierrez and Scott Templeton.
The investigation is triggered when detective Jimmy McNulty meets privately with judge Daniel Phelan following the acquittal of D'Angelo Barksdale for murder after a key witness changes her story. McNulty tells Phelan that she has probably been intimidated by members of a drug trafficking empire run by D'Angelo's uncle, Avon Barksdale, having recognized several faces at the trial, notably Avon's second-in-command, Stringer Bell. He also tells Phelan that nobody is investigating Barksdale's criminal activity, which includes a significant portion of the city's drug trade and several unsolved homicides.
Phelan takes issue with this and complains to senior Police Department figures, embarrassing them into creating a detail dedicated to investigating Barksdale. However, owing to the department's dysfunctionality, the investigation is intended as a façade to appease the judge. An interdepartmental struggle between the more motivated officers on the detail and their superiors spans the whole season, with interference by the higher-ups often threatening to ruin the investigation. The detail's commander, Cedric Daniels, acts as mediator between the two opposing groups of police.
Meanwhile, the organized and cautious Barksdale gang is explored through characters at various levels within it. The organization is antagonized by a stick-up crew led by Omar Little, and the feud leads to several deaths, bringing further police attention. Throughout, D'Angelo struggles with his conscience over his life of crime and the people it affects.
The police have little success with street-level arrests or with securing informants beyond Wallace, a young low-level dealer and friend of D'Angelo. Eventually the investigation takes the direction of electronic surveillance, with wiretaps and pager clones to infiltrate the security measures taken by the Barksdale organization. This leads the investigation to areas the commanding officers had hoped to avoid, including political contributions. When an associate of Barksdale's is arrested by another team and offers to cooperate, the commanding officers order a sting operation to wrap up the case. Detective Kima Greggs is seriously hurt in the operation, triggering an overzealous response from the rest of the department. This causes the detail's targets to suspect that they are under investigation.
Wallace is killed by his childhood friends Bodie and Poot, on orders from Stringer Bell, after leaving his "secure" placement with relatives and returning to Baltimore. D'Angelo Barksdale is eventually arrested with a large quantity of drugs, and learning of Wallace's murder, is ready to turn in his uncle and Stringer. However, D'Angelo's mother convinces him to rescind the deal and take the charges for his family. The detail manages to arrest Avon on a minor charge and gets one of his soldiers, Wee-Bey, to confess to most of the murders, some of which he did not commit. Stringer escapes prosecution and is left running the Barksdale empire. For the officers, the consequences of antagonizing their superiors are severe, with Daniels and McNulty both assigned to undesirable jobs.
McNulty harbors a vendetta against his former commanders for reassigning him to the marine unit. When fourteen young unidentified women are found dead in the port area, he makes a point of proving that they were murdered in his commanders' jurisdiction. Meanwhile, police Major Stan Valchek gets into a feud with stevedore union leader Frank Sobotka over competing donations to their old neighborhood church. Valchek demands a detail to investigate Sobotka. Cedric Daniels, having impressed the major with his work on the Barksdale case, is assigned to lead the detail.
As with the previous season, the targets of the investigations are explored and fully realized as characters. Life for the blue-collar men of the port is increasingly hard and work is scarce. As union leader, Sobotka has taken it on himself to reinvigorate the port by convincing politicians to support much-needed initiatives. Lacking the funds needed for this kind of influence, Sobotka has become involved with a smuggling ring. Around him, his son and nephew also turn to crime, as they have few other opportunities to earn money.
It becomes clear to the Sobotka detail that the dead girls are related to their investigation, as they were in a container that was supposed to be smuggled through the port. They again use wiretaps to infiltrate the crime ring and slowly work their way up the chain towards The Greek, the mysterious man in charge. But Valchek, upset that their focus has moved beyond Sobotka, gets the FBI involved. The Greek has contacts inside the FBI and starts severing his ties to Baltimore when he learns about the investigation.
After a dispute over stolen goods turns violent, Sobotka's son, Ziggy is charged with the murder of one of the Greek's underlings. Sobotka himself is arrested for smuggling; he agrees to work with the detail to help his son, finally seeing his actions as a mistake. However, the Greek learns about this through the FBI and scuppers the case against himself by having Sobotka killed. The investigation ends with the fourteen homicides solved but the perpetrator already dead. Several drug dealers and mid-level smuggling figures tied to the Greek are arrested, but he and his second-in-command escape uncharged and unidentified. The Major is pleased that Sobotka was arrested; the case is seen as a success by the commanding officers, but is viewed as a failure by the detail.
Across town, the Barksdale organization continues its business under Stringer while Avon and D'Angelo Barksdale serve prison time. D'Angelo decides to cut ties to his family after his uncle organizes the deaths of several inmates and blames it on a corrupt guard to shave time from his sentence. Eventually Stringer covertly orders D'Angelo killed, faking it as a suicide. Avon is unaware of Stringer's duplicity and mourns the loss of his nephew.
Stringer also struggles with the loss of his drug suppliers and bad quality product. He again goes behind Avon's back, giving up half of Avon's most prized territory to a rival named Proposition Joe in exchange for a share of his supply. Avon, unaware of the arrangement, assumes that Joe and other dealers are moving into his territory simply because the Barksdale organization has too few enforcers. He contracts a feared assassin named Brother Mouzone. Stringer deals with this by tricking his old adversary Omar into believing that Mouzone was responsible for the vicious killing of his partner in their feud in season one. Seeking revenge, Omar shoots Mouzone, but realizes Stringer had lied and calls 9-1-1. Mouzone recovers and leaves Baltimore, and Stringer is free to continue his business with Proposition Joe.
The demolition of the towers that had served as the Barksdale organization's prime territory pushes their dealers back out onto the streets of Baltimore. Avon Barksdale is released from prison early, as promised for his role in unveiling the cause of the inmate deaths. Stringer Bell continues his reform of the organization by cooperating with other drug lords, sharing with one another territory, product, and profits. Stringer's proposal is met with a curt refusal from Marlo Stanfield, leader of a new, growing crew. Against Stringer's advice, Avon decides to take Marlo's territory by force, and the two gangs become embroiled in a bitter turf war with multiple deaths.
Omar Little continues to rob the Barksdale organization wherever possible. Working with his new boyfriend and two women, he is once more a serious problem. In a heist gone wrong, one of Omar's crew is shot and a Barksdale enforcer is killed. The violence related to the drug trade makes it an obvious choice of investigation for Cedric Daniels' now-permanent Major Case Unit.
Councilman Tommy Carcetti begins to prepare himself for a mayoral race. He manipulates a colleague into running against the mayor to split the black vote, secures a capable campaign manager, and starts making headlines for himself.
Coming to the end of his career, Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin decides to achieve some real change in the neighborhoods he has long been responsible for. Seeing the spread of drug dealing into previously unscathed areas following the destruction of the towers, he assumes the task of containing the problem. Without the knowledge of central command, he sets up areas where drug trade would go unpunished and cracks down on any traffic elsewhere. His scheme achieves his aims and reduces crime in his district, but is eventually exposed to his superiors and city politicians, including Carcetti, who uses the scandal to make a grandstanding speech. With top brass outraged, Colvin is forced to cease his actions, accept a demotion, and retire from the department on a lower-grade pension.
Dennis "Cutty" Wise, once a drug dealer's enforcer, is released from prison alongside Avon. His struggles to adapt to life as a free man show an attempt at personal reform. Cutty tries to work as a manual laborer and then flirts with his former life, going to work for Avon. Finding he no longer has the heart for murder, he eventually uses funding from Avon to set up a boxing gym for neighborhood youths.
The Major Case Unit learns that Stringer has been buying real estate and developing it in order to fulfill his dream of being a successful legitimate businessman. In order to grow his income before he is able to realize significant returns from his real estate deals, he continues to manage his organization in the drug trade. Believing that the bloody turf war with Marlo is poised to destroy everything the Barksdale crew had worked for, Stringer gives Major Colvin information on Avon's weapons stash. But Stringer is himself being betrayed by Avon: Brother Mouzone had returned to Baltimore and tracked down Omar to join forces. Mouzone tells Avon that his shooting must be avenged. Avon, remembering how Stringer disregarded his order which resulted in Stringer attempting to have Brother Mouzone killed, possibly still furious over D'Angelo's murder (Stringer having finally confessed the truth), and fearing Mouzone's wrath, informs Mouzone of Bell's upcoming visit to his construction site. There, Mouzone and Omar corner him and shoot him to death.
Colvin tells McNulty about Avon's hideout, and armed with the information gleaned from selling the Barksdale crew pre-wiretapped disposable cell phones, the detail stages a raid, arresting Avon and most of his underlings. Barksdale's criminal empire lies in ruins, and Marlo's young crew simply moves into their territory. Thus the drug trade in West Baltimore continues with little change.
The show introduces Dukie, Randy, Michael, and Namond, four boys from West Baltimore, as they enter the eighth grade. At the same school, Prez has begun a new career as a math teacher. Despite mentorship from the more seasoned faculty, Prez has difficulties maintaining order and keeping his students focused in the chaotic and sometimes violent classroom. Namond, and later Michael, work as drug runners for Bodie, who has had middling success selling Proposition Joe's product independently.
The cold-blooded Marlo has come to dominate the streets of the west side, using murder and intimidation to make up for his weak-quality drugs and lack of business acumen. His enforcers Chris Partlow and Snoop conceal their numerous victims in boarded-up row houses where the bodies will not be readily discovered. The disappearances of so many known criminals come to mystify both the major crimes unit investigating Marlo and the homicide unit assigned to solve the presumed murders. Marlo coerces Bodie into working under him, and attempts to bring Michael into the organization as well.
McNulty has found peace working as a patrolman and living with Beadie Russell, and refuses promotions from Daniels, now a major commanding the Western District. Detectives Kima Greggs and Lester Freamon, as part of the major crimes unit, investigate Avon Barksdale's political donations and serve several key figures with subpoenas. Their work is shut down by Commissioner Ervin Burrell at Mayor Clarence Royce's request, and after being placed under stricter supervision within their unit, both Greggs and Freamon request and receive transfer to the homicide division.
Meanwhile, the city's mayoral primary race enters its closing weeks. Royce initially has a seemingly insurmountable lead over challengers Tommy Carcetti and Tony Gray, with a big war chest and major endorsements. Royce's lead begins to fray, however, as his own political machinations turn against him and Carcetti starts to highlight the city's crime problem. This propels Carcetti to victory in the primary, and he easily wins the general election to become Baltimore's new mayor. Carcetti's desire to reduce crime leads him to restrict Burrell's duties and promote the more competent Daniels, whom he is considering later appointing Commissioner.
Other familiar characters become involved in the same middle school where Prez works. Howard "Bunny" Colvin joins a research group attempting to study potential future criminals while they are still young. Dennis "Cutty" Wise continues to work with boys in his boxing gym, and accepts a job at the school rounding up truants. Bubbles takes a homeless teenager named Sherrod under his wing. He encourages the boy to attend class, which he fails to do. The two of them later find themselves assaulted and robbed constantly by a persistent drug addict.
Prez has a few successes with his students, but some of them start to slip away. Disruptive Namond is removed from class and placed in the research group, where he gradually develops affection and respect for Colvin. Randy reveals to the assistant principal knowledge of a murder in a moment of desperation, leading to his being interrogated by police and thereafter labeled a "snitch" by his classmates. Michael is unresponsive to the adults around him, including Prez, Cutty, and Bodie, who all see promise in him. When Michael feels he must make his hated stepfather leave home in order to protect his little brother, he calls on Chris, the only authority figure whom he thinks he can trust. Dukie, who had been nurtured by Prez, is transferred to high school through social promotion, and thus will have to leave their relationship behind.
Proposition Joe engineers a conflict between Omar Little and Marlo in order to convince Marlo to join the New Day Co-Op. After Omar robs Marlo, Marlo frames Omar for a murder and attempts to have him murdered in jail, but Omar manages to beat the charge with the help of Bunk. Omar learns Marlo set him up, and gets revenge on him and Proposition Joe by robbing the entire shipment of the Co-Op. Meanwhile, the co-op members, including Marlo, are furious at Joe for allowing the shipment to be stolen. Marlo demands satisfaction, and as a result, Joe sets up a meet between him and Spiros Vondas, who assuages Marlo's concerns. Having gotten a lead on Joe's connection to the Greeks, Marlo begins investigating them to learn more about their role in bringing narcotics into Baltimore.
Freamon discovers the bodies Chris and Snoop had hidden. Bodie offers McNulty testimony against Marlo and his crew, but is shot dead on his corner by a young Stanfield soldier named O-Dog. Sherrod dies after ingesting a poisoned vial of heroin that, unbeknownst to him, Bubbles had prepared for their tormentor. Bubbles turns himself in to the police and tries to hang himself, but he survives and is taken to a detox facility.
Michael has now joined the ranks of Marlo's killers and runs one of his corners, with Dukie leaving high school to work there. Randy's house is firebombed by school bullies for his cooperation with the police, leaving his caring foster mother hospitalized and sending him back to a group home. Namond is taken in by Colvin, who recognized the good in him. The major crimes unit from earlier seasons is largely reunited, and they resume their investigation of Marlo Stanfield.
On April 30, 2007, production for season five officially began. Filming wrapped early in the morning of September 1, 2007 and the first episode aired on January 6, 2008. The series finale aired March 9, 2008.
15 months after the fourth season concludes, Mayor Carcetti’s cuts in the police budget to redress the education deficit force the investigation of Marlo Stanfield to shut down. Cedric Daniels secures a detail to refocus on the prosecution of Senator Davis for corruption. Detective McNulty returns to the Homicide unit and to drinking heavily and womanizing out of frustration. McNulty decides to divert resources back to the police department by faking evidence to make it appear that a serial killer is murdering homeless men. The Baltimore Sun newspaper also faces budget cuts and the underfunded newsroom struggles to adequately cover the city, omitting many important stories. Ambitious reporter Scott Templeton is secretly fabricating details of stories. Commissioner Burrell continues to falsify crime statistics until Deputy Commissioner Valchek leaks unmodified figures to Carcetti. Carcetti fires Burrell and positions Daniels to replace him. Templeton falsely implicates Daniels in Burrell's departure and Burrell passes the file on Daniels' history of unexplained assets to politician Nerese Campbell. Free from investigation, Stanfield plots to accumulate more power. He learns from Proposition Joe how to launder money and evade investigation. Once Joe is no longer useful to him, Stanfield has Joe killed and usurps his position with the Greeks and the New Day Co-Op. Stanfield lures his enemy Omar Little out of retirement by having Snoop and Chris Partlow murder Omar's mentor Butchie. Michael Lee continues working as a Stanfield enforcer despite openly questioning orders. Michael uses his earning to provide a home for his friend Dukie and younger brother Bug. Dukie tries to distance himself from the drug trade and take his life on a different path.
Omar returns to Baltimore for revenge against Stanfield but is ambushed and is forced to leap from a window to escape. He injures his leg but continues to kill Stanfield organization members, steal and destroy their money and drugs, and spread the word that Stanfield is too cowardly to face him directly. Omar's mission has just begun when he is shot and killed by Kenard, a young boy who deals drugs on a Stanfield corner.
Templeton claims to have been contacted by McNulty's fake serial killer. City Editor Gus Haynes becomes suspicious, but his superiors are enamoured of Templeton. The story gains momentum and Carcetti spins the resulting attention on homelessness into a key issue in his imminent campaign for Governor and restores funding to the police department.
Bubbles is recovering from his drug addiction while living in his sister's basement. He works selling the Sun newspaper and also volunteers at a food kitchen. Bubbles finds it hard to bear his grief over Sherrod's death, but after befriending Sun reporter Mike Fletcher, ultimately opens up to his Narcotics Anonymous group about the boy's death. Fletcher writes a profile of Bubbles.
Disgraced police officer Thomas "Herc" Hauk now works as an investigator for Stanfield's attorney Maurice Levy. Herc leaks Stanfield's phone number to the police department. Bunk is disgusted with McNulty's serial killer scheme and tries to have Lester Freamon reason with McNulty. Freamon helps McNulty to perpetuate the lie and uses the funds for an illegal wiretap on Stanfield. Bunk distances himself from them and resumes working the vacant house murders. Bunk's efforts lead to a murder warrant against Partlow for killing Michael's stepfather.
Freamon and Leander Sydnor gather enough evidence to arrest Stanfield and most of his top lieutenants, seizing a large quantity of drugs. Stanfield suspects that Michael is an informant, and orders Snoop to murder him. Michael realizes he is being set up and kills Snoop instead. Michael separates from his makeshift family for their protection. He persuades an Aunt in Howard county to take in Bug with money and a promise of more to come. With his support system gone Dukie lives with drug addicts. Michael begins a career as a stick-up man.
McNulty is unable to end his elaborate lie and cannot enjoy Freamon's success. McNulty feels guilty about interfering with crime scenes and the wasted manpower expended on the fictitious homeless murders and tells Kima Greggs about his fabrications to prevent her wasting time on the case. Greggs tells Daniels about the scheme. Daniels and Rhonda Pearlman take this news to Carcetti, who orders a cover-up because of the issue's importance to his campaign.
Davis is acquitted, but Freamon uses the threat of federal prosecution to blackmail him for information. Freamon learns that Levy is involved in selling copies of sealed indictments to drug lords and tells Pearlman. Levy is thrilled when Herc intimates that the source listed in the Stanfield arrest warrants could be an illegal wiretap. Pearlman approaches Levy to negotiate a deal and he manages to reduce his own corruption to a bargaining chip because of the wiretap. Levy ensures Stanfield's conditional release while his subordinates will have to accept long sentences. Pearlman insists that Stanfield must retire from drug trafficking and Stanfield sells the connection to The Greeks back to the Co-Op. Stanfield plans to become a businessman with his profits but cannot resist the lure of the corner.
As the cover-up begins a copy cat killing occurs and McNulty is aghast at the consequences of his actions, but quickly identifies and arrests the culprit in a final act of police work. Pearlman tells McNulty and Freamon that they can no longer be allowed to do investigative work and warns of criminal charges if the scandal becomes public; both detectives opt to retire. Haynes exposes Templeton but the managing editors ignore the fabrications and demote anyone critical of their star reporter. Carcetti pressures Daniels to falsify crime statistics to aid his campaign. Daniels refuses and Campbell intervenes, threatening to expose his history. Daniels decides to step down quietly and promotes Ellis Carver to lieutenant before his departure. As McNulty faces the future without his career he gazes over the city and scenes from the past and the future flash by: Freamon enjoys retirement; Templeton wins a Pulitzer; Carcetti becomes Governor; Haynes is sidelined to the copy desk and replaced by Fletcher; Campbell appoints Valchek as commissioner; Dukie injects heroin; Michael becomes a stickup boy; Pearlman becomes a judge and Daniels a defense attorney; Bubbles is allowed upstairs where he enjoys a family dinner; Chris serves his life sentence alongside Wee-Bey; the drug trade continues; and the people of Baltimore go on with their lives.
Despite the critical acclaim, The Wire has received poor Nielsen Ratings, which Simon attributes to the complexity of the plot, a poor time slot, heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters and a predominantly black cast. Critics felt the show was testing the attention span of its audience and felt that it was mistimed in the wake of the launch of the successful crime drama The Shield on FX. However, anticipation for a release of the first season on DVD was high at Entertainment Weekly.
The Guardian described the second season as even more powerful than the first and praised it for deconstructing the show's central foundations with a willingness to explore new areas. One reviewer with the Boston Phoenix felt that the subculture of the docks failed to come to life as well as that of the housing projects. However, the review continued to praise the writers for creating a realistic world and populating it with an array of interesting characters.
At the close of the third season, The Wire still struggled to maintain its ratings and the show faced possible cancellation. Creator David Simon blamed the show's low ratings in part on its competition against Desperate Housewives and worried that expectations for HBO dramas had changed following the success of The Sopranos. The critical response to the third season remained positive. Entertainment Weekly named The Wire the best show of 2004, describing it as "the smartest, deepest and most resonant drama on TV." They credited the complexity of the show for its poor ratings. The Baltimore City Paper was so concerned that the show might be cancelled that it published a list of ten reasons to keep it on the air, including strong characterization, Omar Little, an unabashedly honest representation of real world problems, and its unique status as "broadcast literature." It also worried that the loss of the show would have a negative impact on Baltimore's economy.
As the fourth season was poised to begin, almost two years after the previous season's end, Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that The Wire "has tackled the drug war in this country as it simultaneously explores race, poverty and 'the death of the American working class,' the failure of political systems to help the people they serve and the tyranny of lost hope. Few series in the history of television have explored the plight of inner-city African Americans and none—not one—has done it as well." Meanwhile, The New York Times called the fourth season of The Wire "its best season yet. Doug Elfman of the Chicago Sun-Times was more reserved in his praise, calling it the "most ambitious" show on television, but faulting it for its complexity and the slow development of the plotline. The Los Angeles Times took the rare step of devoting an editorial to the show, stating that "even in what is generally acknowledged to be something of a golden era for thoughtful and entertaining dramas—both on cable channels and on network TV—The Wire stands out. TIME Magazine especially praised the fourth season, stating that "no other TV show has ever loved a city so well, damned it so passionately, or sung it so searingly." The website Metacritic, which gathers reviews from published news sources and translates them into a percentage score, has assigned to The Wire's fourth season a weighted average score of 98%, the highest for any television show since Metacritic began tracking them in 2005. Several reviewers have called it the best show on television, including TIME, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, the Chicago Tribune, Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Daily News. Charlie Brooker, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian has been particularly copious in his praise of the show, in both his column "Screen Burn" and his BBC Four television series Screenwipe, in which he often speaks highly of it, calling it possibly the greatest show of the last 20 years.
In the May 4, 2008 issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, in a profile of Andrew Stanton, the oscar-winning director and writer of Finding Nemo and A Bug's Life was quoted as saying that The Wire is one of his two favorite TV shows (the other being Battlestar Galactica) because, "There will never be a smarter show.
American basic cable network BET also airs the show. BET adds commercial breaks, blurs some nudity, and mutes the word fuck and its derivatives. Much of the waterfront storyline from the second season is edited out from the BET broadcasts.
In the United Kingdom, the show has been broadcast on FX. In a world first, British newspaper The Guardian made the first episode of the first season available to stream on its website for a brief period. In Ireland, season 5 of the show is currently broadcast on Monday nights on TG4 and season 1 is now being shown on Channel 6. In Australia, the fourth season is currently broadcast on the free-to-air Nine Network at varying times soon after midnight on Wednesdays as well as seasons 1 and 2 on the cable television channel FOX8. It also airs in France, under the title Sur écoute ("wiretapped") on the pay channel Jimmy. The Polish channel TVN shows the series under the name Prawo ulicy ("law of the street"). The Swedish public service network SVT has shown the first four seasons of the series. In Norway, the NRK aired the first season of the show in the autumn of 2007. In Israel, the show is broadcast on the Xtra Hot channel, under the name HaSmuya (הסמויה - The Covert Unit). The show airs in Canada, on The Movie Network, Movie Central and OMTV channels. In Finland the series is shown on Subtv and MTV3 channels under the name Langalla ("On the wire"). The show has been broadcast in Hungary on Duna TV since March 2007 under the name A drót ("the wire").
|Season||Release dates||Episodes||Special features||Discs|
|Region 1||Region 2||Region 4|
|1||October 12, 2004||April 18, 2005||May 11, 2005||13||5|
|2||January 25, 2005||October 10, 2005||May 3, 2006||12|
|3||August 8, 2006||February 5, 2007||August 13, 2008||12|
|4||December 4, 2007||March 10, 2008||August 13, 2008||13||4|
|5||August 12, 2008||September 22, 2008||N/A||10|
|The Complete Series||December 9, 2008||December 8, 2008||N/A||60||28|
The DVD sets have been favorably received, though some critics have faulted them for a lack of special features.