HBO's 'The Wire' is the best TV show ever made. There, I said it.
In 5 seasons over 60 episodes, David Simon's law and streets epic was literature on television, an experience so dense and rewarding that it somehow managed to simultaneously depict life in Baltimore as realistic and hyper-romanticized. It's one of those things you've either seen and worship, or have resisted all your friends screaming OH MY GOD YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE WIRE NO SERIOUSLY BORROW MY DVDS AND WATCH IT for like ten years.
This week's Sports On TV column is in reverence to this masterwork of Orioles jokes and cereal references, and my only real disclaimer is that there are tons and tons of spoilers inside, so it'll work best if you've seen the entire run of the show. If you haven't, you should still click through ... out-of-context Wire quotes are like gold, glittery paint on the Internet and should be experienced.
And yes, I took notes on a criminal f**king conspiracy.
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Episode: "Backwash" (season 2, episode 7)
What Happens: Because they are terrible police officers, Herc and Carver decide to buy an expensive microphone, hide it in a tennis ball, record what they need and return the mic later. They name their fictitious (white) informant "Fuzzy Dunlop", because the ball is fuzzy and says "DUNLOP" across the front. Again, because they are terrible, terrible police, one of the people they're recording picks up the ball, bounces it and throws it in the path of an oncoming truck. Herc and Carver use Herc's cousin Bernard as the "face" of Fuzzy Dunlop so they can get Fuzzy's informant money and pay off their test-driven surveillance equipment, and nearly three seasons of consequences follow.
Key line: "Snug." "As a bug." "In a rug."
Randy Wagstaff's heartbreaking "You gonna look out for me, Sgt. Carver?" becomes even sadder when you realize Herc and Carver couldn't take care of a tennis ball for an afternoon.
Cousin Bernard is pretty great though, and comes in somewhere behind White Mike on the list of hapless white guys who stumble through 'The Wire' and end up doing okay for themselves:
Isn’t technology the f**king bomb?
Episode: "Time After Time" (season 3, episode 1)
What Happens: McNulty, Bunk, and Baby Bunk hit up an Orioles vs. White Sox game at Camden Yards, as do McNulty Kid #1, McNulty #2, and McNulty’s babe of an ex-wife, except they’re sitting behind home plate with a lawyer friend of hers. For the first four and a half innings of the game, or enough time for Sidney Ponson to give up seven runs to the Big Hurt & Co. because he was TERRIBLE, McNulty Kids #1 and #2 are with their mom and “special companion”; for the final four and a half innings, they join their dad and the Bunks, who have less than spectacular mezzanine seats for a half-full stadium.
Key line: "Who comes to an Orioles game in a suit, spends half the time on a cell phone?" "Downtown lawyer. Something wealthy like that."
I’m not a father yet (*shudder*), so I can’t quite understand how embarrassed and angry McNulty feels when his ex-wife’s jerk lawyer friend gets better seats than he does, but...actually, no, I can because lawyers are jerks. Bunk tries to break the attention away from McNulty’s DIE DIE DIE stare-down by saying, “I’m thinking of becoming a woman,” which would be impressive considering his “big-ass dick,” but his buddy’s too far gone, imagining sticking the entirety of Jay Gibbons up a certain lawyer’s certain hole.
Also, at one point, Baby Bunk yawns onscreen, which is exactly the reaction I’d have if I had to go to an Orioles vs. White Sox game in 2004.
(Editors Note: What Bunk's kid is doing there with the Deer Park is the most realistic depiction of how a child handles a bottle of water in TV history.)
Episode: "Transitions" (season 5, episode 4)
What Happens: This is the kind of story Ervin Burrell was usually involved in, per Wikipedia:
Morale in the department is extremely low and while Burrell cuts operating funds as instructed he successfully convinces the Mayor to lift the cap on secondary employment to bolster morale.
If that doesn't make you want to fire the guy simply for forcing you to read that sentence, I don't know what to tell you. Mayor Carcetti wants to put him in a garbage can and throw him into the sun, but everybody he knows has a great reason why he shouldn't. "You've got to do favors for Nerese Campbell!" "Burrell knows shady shit about Cedric Daniels!" "Burrell's got this mini-golf game in his office and he hasn't gotten great at it yet, you need to give him more time!" Frustrated, Baltimore-area sports fan Carcetti compares the situation to the worst thing he can imagine ...
Key line: “Christ, you'd think I was putting Ray Lewis out to pasture. Alls I'm trying to do is dump Burrell.”
Getting rid of Burrell and making Ray Lewis stop playing football turned out to be a lot more similar than Carcetti imagined, per this 2011 interview about an impending NFL Lockout:
Perhaps his most controversial statement was about the possibility of no NFL season. Lewis painted a grim picture across America of people without jobs and nothing to do on Sundays.
“Do this research. If we don’t have a season, watch how much evil, which we call it crime, watch how much crime picks up when you take away our game,” he said. (via CBS Baltimore)
Maybe he should've tried taking all the bored football fans and putting them in some abandoned inner-city real estate to talk about the Ravens where they can't hurt anyone.
Episode: "Lessons" (season 1, episode 8)
What Happens: Right before telling his kids, Sean and Michael, all about “Front and Follow,” a game in which you trail after someone, in this case “that tall black,” I mean, “African-American man” Stringer Bell, without them noticing, Jimmy McNulty plays a different sort of game with his younger son: guess the Baltimore Oriole by his jersey number. Thus, Melvin Mora factors into one of the more memorable scenes from one of the greatest shows of all-time — and no one will ever forget he wore number six.
Key line: "David ... Segui?" "Melvin Mora, numbnuts."
OK, obviously “Front and Follow” is a brilliant idea, even if it’s a bit “unprofessional” to make your kids actively involved in one of your criminal cases. McNulty, who later gets called out by Bunk because he’s “no good for people, man,” a comment that still stings 10 years later, deserves props for coming up with it — but why is he such a dick to Michael after he confuses Segui’s numbers with Mora’s? HE LAUGHS AT HIM. “Stupid kid, can’t even tell the difference between that one guy who sucked when he was on the New York Mets and that other guy who sucked when he was on the New York Mets.”
He then drinks his lemonade, spiked with copious amounts of booze.
Episode: "Boys Of Summer" (season 4, episode 1)
What Happens: Mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti is forced by smoking hot (and totally vanished from popular culture) campaign manager Theresa D'Agostino to make fundraising calls against his will, so he spends his time cursing into the phone at imaginary people, playing darts, staring at posters of hot girls and complaining about the EXTREMELY ACCURATE REALITY of the Orioles constantly signing power-hitting, 40-year old infielders while maintaining a pitching staff of three 17-year olds and a goat. Whoever's on the other end of that phone call says "yeah, you're totally right" and gives him some money.
Key line: "No f**kin' way... they got enough power in the middle of the line, what they need is pitching."
I lived in Cleveland and am a die-hard Tribe fan (look out for 'Sports On TV: The Drew Carey Show's 20 Greatest Sports Moments' when I never get around to watching that), but I grew up in southern Virginia rooting for the birds. O's pitching is occasionally epic, with Jim Palmer in the 1970s and Mike Mussina in the 90s, but everything between/other than them in the club's 100+ year history has been ass on a plate.
The key to being an Orioles fan is this: knowing your team is bad, but justifying it because you've got THESE GUYS IN THE MINOR LEAGUES who are gonna come up and be HUGE, not remembering that Baltimore f**king trades away 70% of them to the Mets or whoever and brings up the other 30% too early or too late, so you're left with these cool images of Jeffrey Hammonds as Bo Jackson and Ben McDonald as Roger Clemens, but no, they're Orioles and you have to deal with it. You even lost the "Jeremy Guthrie is good!" talking point when he got shipped to Colorado for an Idahoan and a box of crackers.
Episode: "All Prologue" (season 2, episode 6)
What Happens: Sergei Malatov, a threatening character from a less subtle TV show, intervenes on behalf of Nick Sobotka and gets Proposition Joe to fork over cash for a burned-up Camaro and settle Sobotka's cousin's debt with Joe's nephew Cheese. How he accomplishes this is simple: the threatening goon he brings along as backup muscle is none other than Oleg Prudius, aka former WWE Tag Team Champion and Slammy Award winning superstar Vladimir Kozlov.
Key line: "Fool, if it wasn't for Sergei here you and your cuz both would be cadaverous motherf**kas."
I LOVE DOUBLE-DOUBLE-IRE!
Okay, so this in and of itself isn't technically a sports moment, but Prudius is a shoot USA Open Heavyweight Sambo Champion and was once the 53rd best professional wrestler in the world according to Pro Wrestling Illustrated, so shut up. When it comes to alternate-role USA Network jokes it was either this, or the time McNulty hooked up with Dr. Dani from 'Necessary Roughness'.
I only wish they'd let him talk.
(Guest contributor Jon Bois)
Episode: "All Due Respect" (season 3, episode 2)
What Happens: While sitting in the car and doing "police work" (in other words, absolutely nothing), Carver proposes a game of "One guy, one act, one time," to Herc. This is a thought-experiment in which Herc can have sexual relations with any woman he wants, but only if he also names the man he is willing to have sex with for all of this to come to pass. Later, after much trepidation, he settles on Gus Triandos.
Key line: "It's got nothing to do with sex. It's about sympathy. It's about giving a guy a break...He looked like this little kid who got left at a bus station by his parents. You know why? Because he had to catch Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleball. Five f**king years. The worst gig in baseball. It was like trying to catch a greased pig with wings. I mean, he even told a reporter once, 'Wilhelm nearly ruined me.' Gus Triandos. Big slow guy."
Herc is talking about Gus Triandos as though he actually watched him play ... but Triandos finished his career with the Orioles in 1962 ... and this show is happening in 2004 ... so that would put Herc at age 50 or something?
And although Herc sort of strikes me as David Simon's id, Simon is also too young to have seen Triandos play, so I don't really think he's using Herc as a sock-puppet here (as he pretty clearly did many times with many characters throughout the show). There must have been one annoying-as-hell old guy on the writing staff who wouldn't shut the f**k up about Orioles catchers from the Cold War era.
I can only assume that the guy responsible for the Triandos callback is the same guy who, like Herc, thinks it would be great to have sex with both of the Olsen twins at the same time. That, more than anything, is what firmly anchors 'The Wire' in the aughts. Because for a lot of that decade, not only did men want to have sex with a child and her sister, they actually said this shit out loud to other people! The 2000s were weird and skeevy, and i think this will become clearer the further we separate from it.
Episode: "Unconfirmed Reports" (season 5, episode 2)
What Happens: Dutiful Baltimore Sun reporter M. Scott Templeton is dispatched to write a color story for Major League Baseball Opening Day at Oriole Park At Camden Yards, hoping to profile a dedicated fan. When he realizes the Baltimore Orioles don't have any fans, he makes up a story about a disabled street-rat named "E-Jay" who couldn't afford a ticket. City Desk Editor Gus Haynes has a sneaking suspicion the story isn't on the level, because seriously, like a black kid would go to an Orioles game.
Key line: "F**k baseball!"
Scott's Opening Day question-and-answer montage might be the most realistic depiction of baseball fans in television history, including actual fans at real-life baseball games broadcast on live television. People either ignore him or are "too busy" to stop and say "yes I like the Orioles" into a microphone, and the one dude who'll talk HATES baseball and won't stop complaining about Bud Selig and Barry Bonds doing steroids. True to life, every single one of these morose motherf**kers is less interesting than a fictional black invalid created by an assy newspaper fluff guy.
This is the second appearance of OPCY on 'The Wire', and I like to think they snuck it in here just to get Nick Markakis' name broadcast on the show before it ended. Fans of the Orioles are well aware that Markakis was only drafted by Baltimore because of his connections to The Greek.
Episode: "Game Day" (season 1, episode 9)
What Happens: Baltimore's Eastside and Westside projects call a truce in their ongoing war for one day a year when they meet at a playground to play a basketball game for bragging rights, with each side coached and bankrolled by their respective drug kingpins. (Prop Joe for the East, Avon and Stringer for the West.)
Key line: This entire exchange -- "Ayo, wassup playboy? How come you wearin' that suit, b? For real, it's 85 f**kin' degrees out here and you tryin' to be like Pat Riley." "Man, look the part, be the part, motherf**ker." "N*gga please. You walkin' around with a fake f**kin' clipboard! You can't even read a playbook, b! For real. Buncha bitches."
I love everything about this scene. I love the concept of the two sides calling off their war for a day to play basketball. I love that Herc and Carver show up and start interacting with Bodie and Poot like fans instead of cops. I love that Avon and Stringer bring in a ringer from JuCo. I love that the ringer's coach/handler doubles the price at the last minute on two notorious drug dealers and suffers no repercussions (maybe the cleanest hustle in the show's entire run). I love that Avon is essentially playing the same character Tupac did in Above the Rim, and that he calls Prop Joe "Slim." I love that Prop Joe gives Avon and Stringer the first half rope-a-dope, renegotiates their wager, and then sends in a Hot Sauce-style "f**king midget" who goes HAM like a project Iverson. I love the trash talk. I love all of it. But, mostly, I love that Prop Joe is wearing a suit.
I am not a fat person. I know a lot of fat people, though, and if there's one thing I've learned about them, it's that they hate the heat. Hate it. They get all sweaty and gross just sitting down on hot days -- even in light, breathable fabrics like cotton tees and mesh gym shorts -- and will happily go places they despite if they know that place has air conditioning. I know one dude who carries a towel everywhere from like May-September just to mop up sweat all day. I know others who pack an extra shirt when they leave the house in the morning so they can switch them out at lunch if necessary. In short, being fat in the summer requires planning, and it seems terrible.
But despite all that, noted fat person Prop Joe was so committed to coaching the Eastside basketball team that he woke up that morning and put on a piecemeal, Men's Wearhouse-looking suit (Yo, Joe. You are a millionaire, my man. Go down to the Waterfront and get fitted with some Armani) even though he knew he'd probably sweat through it by halftime in the "85 f**kin' degree" weather. Why would he make himself miserable like this? Simple: Look the part, be the part, motherf**ker.
Words to live by.
Episode: "React Quotes" (season 5, episode 5)
What Happens: Season 5 develops a story about McNulty and Lester Freamon
making minature chests-of-drawers fabricating a local serial killer to get the wire tap equipment necessary to spy on/capture The Boy Marlo. It involves a little too much fantasy and coincidence, but whatever, after season 4 of 'The Wire' they could've had McNulty do nothing but enter ATV races at a beach club and I would've praised it. Anyway, to get a wire tap they have to have their fictitious murderer use a telephone, and if he's gonna do that he needs someone to call. Who's the coolest person you can call in Baltimore? Cal f**king Ripken.
Key line: "He's got to call someone." "Who?" "The mayor. Cardinal Keeler. Cal f**kin' Ripken. Who gives a f**k?"
Sorta like the "Ray Lewis promises crime" thing, TV episodes about clandestinely screwing around with Cal Jr. become less funny when you realize people in real life are always trying to kidnap his mother or whatever. I'd make a connection to the art of 'The Wire' emulating life and vice versa, but it's simpler than that: everyone on 'The Wire' has a miserable time and ends up threatened or shot or dead, just like everyone in Maryland. You can't make a show about southern California without showing a few palm trees.
Season 5 would've gotten pretty amazing if they'd followed through on their plan to have a serial killer threaten Cal Ripken (instead of calling the boring offices of the Baltimore Sun), if only for Billy Ripken picking up the phone and having a Taken moment where he screams at McNulty and calls him "f**k face".
Episode: "Time After Time" (season 3, episode 1)
What Happens: 'The Wire' loves to parallel everything that happens with everything else, so in the same episode as Bunk and McNulty's trip to Oriole Park At Camden Yards, we get a scene in prison where Avon Barksdale waltzes across the field in the middle of a game to talk to his friends and everyone just calls time and shuffles their feet trying not to make eye contact with him. Avon joins Wee-bay and Cutty by a chain-link fence (because PRISON METAPHORS) to discuss The Game, and whether or not The Game changes or remains static.
Key line: "But I mean, you know, shit, some things just stay the same, man. I mean, the game is the game."
If you've ever been to a real pick-up baseball game, you'll laugh at the normally photo-realistic 'The Wire' doing that thing where a bunch of guys are playing ball and everyone's pointing and punching their gloves and there are like 200 people going WOOO YEAH WOOO in the stands cheering everything when nothing is happening.
It's also funny to realize the messages of 'The Wire' and Ken Burns' Baseball are almost exactly the same -- our lives are crazy and people come and go, but the game is the one great constant. Also, I would pay good money to watch a documentary where Buck O'Neil wistfully remembers the time his friends bought him ice cream off the truck and threw them piss balloons at them terrace boys.
Episode: "All Due Respect" (season 3, episode 2)
What Happens: Prop Joe's nephew and crew chief "Cheese" Wagstaff loves three things: over-acting, dramatically smoking cigarettes and underground dog fighting. He gets to do all three in this scene, where he brings his prized pitbull in for a milk bath and throat ripping, is forced to shamefully carry it out of the ring and put it down. When he cries over a tapped phone about having to kill "his dog", unit interrogators bring him in thinking "dog" means "person" because that weird fat stereotype lady who shows up to translate jive gave them hip-hop flashcards.
Key line: "Bait."
Dog fighting is the worst, and I'm only okay with including it here because 1) it's not portrayed as something admirable, 2) it's performed by a bunch of poser scumbags and 3) TV shows are not real life and those dogs are probably rich TV actors.
I don't think I'm alone when I say Cheese was the worst semi-regular character on 'The Wire', or how happy I was when one of the best (Slim Charles) took care of him. Seriously, the best thing he did on the show was watch his dog get killed and burn a crackhead duck-coveters muscle car. Maybe it had something to do with me being able to accept the rest of the cast as their characters, but thinking "oh, here's Method Man" every time Cheese walked in.
He does get one of the best lines in the show, though:
Episode: "Middle Ground" (season 3, episode 11)
What Happens: A combination of Not Having It In Him No Mo and a Deacon's urgings leads legendary soldier Dennis 'Cutty' Wise to quit The Game and open a boxing gym. He tries to train a few local youths, but they make fun of him for operating out of the dusty-ass set from the LL Cool J 'Mama Said Knock You Out' video. Cutty gets together a presentation package about wall displays and bronze and silver packages like he's f**king Penny Arcade to sell the idea of a tricked-out gym to Avon, who just kinda scoffs and wanks at him and gives him 15 grand. Cutty uses the money to buy the children what they need to box: padded helmets, a professional ring and gigantic white t-shirts that go all the way down to their ankles and make them look like Alvin & The Chipmunks characters.
Key line: "Where you get this stuff at? The town of Bedrock?"
When I think about Cutty, I think of that bug-eyed stare he did about everything. I bet he did that to waiters when they tried to take his order at restaurants. Sure, the waiter might want to know if he wants white bread or wheat bread but CUTTY IS THINKING ABOUT THE GAME.
Cutty's Gym comes along at just the right time to receive the kids from season 4 and do what everything else that touches those kids does: become the saddest thing ever. He thinks Michael is a natural boxer and wants to train him, but Mike's too busy being roped into nailgun murders and developing a taste for Honey Nut Cheerios. Eventually Michael just drops off Dukie at the gym, and we've got to watch Dukie fail at defending himself and get a lecture about using his brain and leaving Baltimore, which is what, another 10-12 inches in Dukie's goddamn elevator shaft freefall into sorrow?
Maybe the Deacon should've suggested Cutty open a f**king bus station to field-trip those kids off the corners and ship them to cities with nothing but cul-de-sacs.
Episode: "Old Cases" (season 1, episode 4)
What Happens: Omar comin'. Actually he already came (hayoooo!) and robbed one of Avon Barksdale's prized trap houses. Now, Avon and his boys have to have a pow-wow over how to handle the situation. Where else to discuss the proper way to murder a crack thief than over a game of "watch Avon Barksdale shoot free throws?" The beauty of the scene comes when it's revealed to Avon that Omar is actually homosexual. His reaction is priceless! What results is literally 30 seconds of guys finding new ways to say that Omar likes having sex with dudes. We get all kinds of c*cksuckers and f*ggots and dingleberry pickers and...do I need to keep going on? Actually, you'll see this scene on your TV screens in a few months as Chick-Fil-A has purchased this footage for its next series of commercials.
If there's anything to gain from the scene it's that Avon doubled the price on Omar's head after finding out he's gay. You hear that? Dead gays are worth twice as much as dead everyone else. Score one for the GLAAD exchange rate.
Key line: "We doubling down on sugar lips." (A movie by the same name is probably heading to a Brazzers near you)
Obviously I play basketball with the wrong crew. Here are a few topics we've never discussed over a pick-up game: killing gays, controlling the towers, prison yard orgies. Actually, I'm content with just talking about fantasy football and DragonBall Z with my friends.
You know why The Wire is the greatest show ever? Because scenes start out with "you know what cracker mother*ckers do when they kill a deer?" Avon is the most lovable homophobe this side of every WWE star ever. And while the dialogue is hilarious, the basketball "game" is a little perplexing. Let's build a little backstory here: I can't help but imagine that Avon and Wee-Bay showed up to play ball in matching orange outfits causing Avon to yell out all kinds of "I'm not no f*ggot and we not wearing matching unis...I'll just play shirtless instead."
Then that made Stringer all self-conscious (note: There's no evidence here to suggest that Idris Elba has ever seen a basketball court in his life) because he's wearing a head-to-toe powder blue uniform. So when Avon passes him the ball to shoot, he passes it right back and is the designated alley-oop-passer of the crew. Sadly, the guy that caught the alley-oop wasn't Wood Harris, which means there's some guy out there that's known around his neighborhood as "Alley-Oop Dunker" for his contribution to the greatest show of all time. His life is infinitely cooler than mine.
(Guest contributor Bill Hanstock)
Episode: "The Buys" (season 1, episode 3)
What Happens: D'Angelo Barksdale teaches Wallace and Bodie about the wholesome game of chess! What a delightful group of fine, upstanding lads!
Key line: "The king stay the king", or, "The pawns, man, in the game ... they get capped quick. They be out the game early." "Unless they some smart ass pawns."
This is arguably the most iconic scene in the entire run of 'The Wire' (the competition is probably any one of the close-ups of Ziggy Sobotka's wing-wang). D'Angelo uses the sport of chess to teach Bodie and Wallace not just about, you know, chess, but uses it as an analogy for the drug game and foreshadows not only his own tragic end, but the entire arc of the series. Which means that The Wire is about sports. QED.
What makes this scene so great is not that it is so great (although that certainly helps), but can you imagine anyone else on television trying to pull off anything this poignant? Imagine, hell, I don't know, 'How I Met Your Mother' trying to sum up the intricacies of inner-city existence and the crushing weight of the innate racism and classism built into our society by explaining how beer pong is just like life, you guys! "The red cup stay the red cup!" /uproarious laugh track
Basically, we should enjoy this scene and the entirety of 'The Wire' now, because in like 2021 McG will get hired on to write and direct a big-screen version, where McNulty and Bunk are Marine Space-Cops and have to stop an alien shipment of space-drugs. They'll fire lasers at each other and fight a dragon and in the climax, where McNulty has to fly a shuttle with its self-destruct sequence engaged into the hangar bay of the diabolical alien overlord that everyone calls "The Greek," it will be considered enormous fan service when McNulty smirks and says, "Checkmate, bitch" right before his noble death.