The greatest opening scene in television history fades in with a trickle of dark burgundy blood, clotting slowly, but still fresh enough to hint at a tapestry of possible actions and reactions that led to its unlikely resting place between the cracks of the cold winter concrete. Blue flashing lights illuminate both blood and pavement. The camera quickly pans, diligently and unceremoniously, to the lifeless body from whence the bodily fluid belonged. Sirens blare; a pair of gloves collect shrapnel; a small pod of children nervously peer from their stoop.
The greatest opening scene in television history is predominately a conversation. The conversation is between a detective and a witness. While they acknowledge the crime scene before them, for the moment, they exist within the backdrop.
The detective begins with an inquiry.
“You call the guy Snot?”
“Snot Boogie. Yeah.”
“Snot Boogie. He like the name?”
The witness shrugs. Undeterred, The detective presses on.
“This kid, whose momma went to the trouble of naming him Omar Isaiah Betts — you know, he forgets his jacket, his nose starts runnin’, and some asshole, instead of giving him a Kleenex, he calls him Snot. So he’s Snot forever.”
The detective pauses, evidently bemused.
“Doesn’t seem fair,” he observes.
We never discover if his conjecture is correct.
“Life just be that way I guess.”
“So,” the detective presses, his tone subtly altered.
“Who shot Snot?”
The greatest opening scene in television history belongs to, fittingly, the greatest show in television history. This, of course, is David Simon’s magnum opus The Wire, a quintessentially American masterpiece that chronicles the interactions, evolution and conflict between societal institutions in a troubled American city. While this story can be told in any number of unique American cities, in this instance, it is told by Baltimore, MD.
Perhaps the not-so-carefully guarded secret about the tale of “Snot Boogie” is that it is not an original story — or at least, from Simon’s frame of reference, as he would cheerfully admit. It was told to him by a police detective during Simon’s research period shadowing the Baltimore PD, which eventually led to the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which led to the television adaptation, which eventually culminated into the bulk of the creative material of The Wire. “Stealing life”, as Simon calls it.
The story, which the detective (Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West in an impeccable American accent) and witness play out, goes like this:
Snot Boogie was shot and killed. He was shot because he stole money. Specifically, he stole the pot of an alley craps game, and attempted to run away. More specifically, it is revealed that this scenario has repeated, ad nauseam, in the past. The usual consequences for the hapless but persistent Snot Boogie was a friendly neighborhood ass kicking. But on this instance, a particular individual felt that it was one transgression too far.
The story, while tragic, carries a tinge of comedy. This is not lost on the detective, who, out of all the particular details, cannot get past one seemingly baffling puzzle:
“If every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away,” he asks, “why’d you even let him in the game?”
“What?” asks the witness. There is a hint of impatience, perhaps even indignance, in his demeanor.
“If Snot Boogie always stole the money,” the detective repeats, “why’d you let him play?”
“Got to. This America, man.”
The punch line hits with a dash of poignancy. Detective McNulty at least seems to think so. He is left to chew the cud as the scene fades on a slow dolly zoom, revealing the lonely doorsteps of an abandoned housing project that serves as the ersatz interrogation room of the duo.
Left on its own, the scene is fantastic. It carries many properties that came to define The Wire — characters with endless charisma and authenticity, the cold and unrelenting backdrop of Baltimore, the perfect pacing of dialogue, the unabashed mixture of pessimism and dark humor derived from David Simon’s rich journalistic past.
But why tell this particular story?
Given the apparent banality of the scene, one would be forgiven for mistaking The Wire for a drab “cop show” — indeed, such a mistake was made by a large majority of its initial audience, and arguably part of the reason the show never reached the staggering audience levels of its contemporaries in the shortlist of television Valhalla (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, etc). Yet upon inspection, there are ever-so-slight tells that hint at an approach far more ambitious than a retelling of Law vs. Disorder.
“I’m the kind of person who, when I’m writing, cares above all about whether the people I’m writing about will recognize themselves,” Says Simon. “I’m not thinking about the general reader. My greatest fear is that the people in the world I’m writing about will read it and say, ‘Nah, there’s nothing there.’”
When the witness responds, “I ain’t going to no court,” the urgency in his voice is evident. It betrays the perpetual mask of distrust between the citizens of the Baltimore projects and the BPD. As a response, McNulty offers no reassurance, nor threat. He simply offers meditation, and after a reflective silence, the witness begins to recount. We now see the motivation behind McNulty’s prior, seemingly trivial explorations. The simple rapport built from a conversation as equals, begets a witness’s willingness to share in his pain.
This balance — the treatment of law enforcement and “the streets” as equal storytellers, and the subtlety in which it is communicated, is paramount to the philosophy behind The Wire. As seasons progress, they are joined by dock workers, the school system, the city government and the press, each institution a unique perspective with its own cadre of storytellers, who contribute to an overarching zeitgeist.
So then, says Simon, this is America, man. It’s a land of idealists who believe in the mantra that every man gets a fair shake, but also a land in which many are trapped in Sisyphean rhythm, huddled together playing out the same dice game, inexplicably resulting in only losers every time. And yet, we’re all in the game. The Game is dice. The game is the vicious cycle of the drug trade, in which addicts, dealers, suppliers and law enforcement dance the same tired tango, as bodies pile in the streets and in America’s prisons. The game is the depleted public educational system, more interested in shuffling the troubled youth along the conveyor belt of standardized testing than to enact real change in their lives. The game is the politicians, the press, the unions, the courts, all committed to perpetuating their own existence and importance, while snuffing out any of whom dare to suggest a different way.
Perhaps most of all, the greatest opening scene in television history highlights The Wire’s most prominent leitmotif —what David Simon calls the “Audacity of Despair”. As there are rarely clean solutions for the problems facing modern urban society, there are rarely clean outcomes for the characters and dilemmas in The Wire. To resolve them cleanly would be cowardice. It takes audacity to put the naked truth in front of us, and offer no recipe for its resolution. Simon asks us to despair.
Yet, curmudgeonly as Mr. Simon might be, underneath furrowed brows is an author with a burning love and unparalleled talent for building character. The Wire never feels preachy, because it is driven by its brilliant characters and even more brilliant cast, many of whom were plucked off of the Baltimore streets; sometimes, to act out portions of their daily lives. From their dress, dialogue, and setting, we can glean, in two minutes and forty-two seconds, more about the duo, and perhaps even the corpse, than most shows will expose in an entire season. Such is the genius of David Simon, such is the genius of The Wire, and such is the genius of the story of Snot Boogie.