Ten Years of The Wire

“Where did you grow up?” they ask.

“Baltimore,” I say.

“Oh, really. Are you a fan of The Wire?”

And I nod and say yes, of course I am. Everyone from Baltimore has seen The Wire. Some of us saw it as it aired; some of us (myself included) took years to come around. But everyone’s seen it. You have a better chance of connecting with a stranger from Baltimore by bringing up McNulty and the Barksdales than the Orioles.

That’s unusual, for either a city or a TV show. Manhattan is as much a character in Sex and the City as Baltimore is in The Wire, and yet you wouldn’t assume someone from the Upper West Side must have seen all six seasons. Nor would you presume the same about Treme and New Orleans, or the 90210 revamp and Los Angeles. Baltimore has become uniquely entwined with this one piece of pop culture – a show that, in the grand scheme of thngs, wasn’t even that popular – in a way that few cities are. I think the only comparable connection is New York and Sinatra’s cover of “New York, New York.”

Part of that has to do with the city. Baltimore doesn’t have a lot of other things going for it in the cultural eye aside from this one show. Sure, the Ravens won a Super Bowl over a decade ago, and the Orioles are top of the AL East for now (nothing matters before the All-Star Break, though). The Inner Harbor is a lovely collection of storefronts and museums, as everyone who’s ever spent a weekend in Baltimore tells me. I don’t tell them that they saw everything worth seeing. Despite being one of the oldest cities in America, there’s not a lot of culture or local industry anymore. So when every critic in America starts talking about your hometown, it’s a rare bit of attention.

Part of that, however, also has to do with the show.

The Wire is one of those rare shows that lives up to all its hype. If critics disagree on any part of it, it’s over whether the show is merely an epic look into the heart of a city and its residents that few forms of art, to say nothing of television, could ever achieve, or whether it’s the single greatest thing that the medium of television has yet to produce, up to and including coverage of the moon landing.

(Yeah, Season 5 wasn’t as good)

The Wire delves into Baltimore with both an intensity and a broadness that few artists can pull off, an immense clarity on both the microscopic and macroscopic scale. It’s filmed in diegetic locations, the actual housing projects and bars and corner stores and public schools that the characters, if real, would visit. It’s written and produced by people who lived and worked in Baltimore for years. In addition to its talented stable of actors, the show also features actual Baltimore residents – actual police officers and drug dealers, in major recurring roles. Nothing short of a documentary could achieve such verisimilitude.

That speaks a great deal to the show’s enduring popularity within Baltimore, even for the unflattering tableau it sets. Everyone wants to appear on TV. Showing up on the screen grants you a slice of immortality and fame. And there’s no doubt that The Wire tells the truth about Baltimore. It gets too many of the details accurate, even to the point of agony. People love to get their side of the story told.

Sure, The Wire makes Baltimore look like a crime-ridden, poverty-choked pile of crumbling bricks. But it’s nobody’s fault. The drug peddlers grew up on the streets, abandoned by schools that don’t have the resources to give all of them – or, really, any of them – useful skills and contacts, even presuming the curriculum were capable of doing so. They’re chased by cops, who are pressured by their commanders to reduce crime stats by any means necessary, who are pressured by civic government (City Council and the Mayor’s office) to reduce crime, who are pressured by the voters to keep gun battles from happening on their doorstep. All they can hope for is to die painlessly, or to live long enough to become irrelevant.

Who is at fault for that? Who’s the one person who, if you removed them from power or put them in jail or put a bullet in their skull, would stop damming the flow of peace and justice?

I’m hardly the first person to say this, and this isn’t the first time I’ve said it, but: The Wire is about the way that institutions can grind people’s lives into dust. An institution, anything with a code of conduct and more than one generation of history, becomes an organism in itself. It takes on interests different than those of the people who staff it. The Baltimore Police Department notionally wants to prevent crime and arrest criminals, but it really wants to guard its purview against the predations of elected officials. If mending its fences means allowing crime to go unpunished, then so be it.

An institution has desires and fears and powers, just like any melodrama villain. But an institution is not captained by villains. An institution is not ten people conspiring to do evil; it’s ten million with no incentive to do good.

So, yes, there’s something obviously soothing about a show that tells you that the evils which plague your city are not your fault. But The Wire isn’t meant to soothe. It’s meant to agitate. When you see Wallace flipping on light switches with power that’s boosted from a neighboring tenement and pushing snacks into the hands of half a dozen other kids, you realize how useless the mantra of “stay in school” is. When Tommy Carcetti learns that he can’t get education funding from the Governor without throwing his own career away, you wonder how sincere anyone’s commitment to “putting our children first” can be.

All this has been covered before, in greater detail and by better writers. So why bring it up now? Because it’s my hometown that it’s happening to.

Critics praise the artful though melodramatic way that Mad Men depicts the struggles of women in the workplace throughout the 60s. In doing so, it calls attention to the subtle and unconscious forms of sexism that still afflict women today. And yet it’s easy to dismiss those lessons because of Mad Men‘s fictional remove. Oh, this is a show about the 60s; we’re better than that now. This is a show about advertising executives; our office has sexual harassment training. This show is about a fictional firm; my real company (which has been around since the 40s) doesn’t have these problems.

You can take away similar lessons from Game of Thrones, with its unflinching look at the effects of war and nationalism on the underclasses. Hell, even Friday Night Lights shines a piercing light on the way high school football can animate – or paralyze – an entire town. And yet the veil of fiction protects us from the full brunt of these shows and their themes. We watch, we nod somberly, and we don’t feel compelled to do more.

But The Wire is, for all the art in it, not fiction. This is actually happening! That’s my hometown where tens of thousands of young men and women are condemned to a life of poverty that they’ll pass onto their children. Where the police swing from one high-concept policy to the next, from buy-busts to elaborate stings to CompStat grill sessions, treating the city they’re sworn to protect like an occupied territory because that’s the only way they can get results. Where industries that built this country, like shipping and fishing and construction and power, are withering or fleeing.

In this light, the muted discussion that accompanies serious dramas like this one feels like a sick joke. This is an actual city full of real human beings who are suffering and dying. To discuss it with intellectual detachment, murmuring about how cruel institutions can be, seems inhumane.

And yet that’s the best option available to us. Because The Wire has another lesson to teach us: doing something, purely in the name of taking action, is just as likely to make things worse as better. Burrell’s CompStat program; Colvin’s hellish Hamsterdam; Carcetti’s bold policies; even McNulty’s faux serial killer. To charge down a worse path, blindly, is no better than trudging down a bad path.

So what do we do, then? If the plight of Baltimore affects us – and who could watch The Wire and remain unmoved – what is our course of action?

I couldn’t tell you. I don’t have an answer to the riddle of convincing people to look on each other as humans, not statistics on a government ledger or fiends to be hustled. But somebody out there must. And the thing that inspires them to find a creative solution to generational poverty and institutional neglect might be seeing the fate of Wallace, Frank Sobotka, Stringer Bell, Randy Wagstaff or Omar Little. Until right action can be uncovered, awareness must serve.

So keep doing what you’ve been doing: asking your friends if they’ve seen The Wire yet. Because it’s just as good as everyone says.

17 Comments on “Ten Years of The Wire”

  1. J Jones #

    Ten years ago, “the best ever depiction of black people selling crack as told by a white guy” was a prohibitively unattractive sell. Ten years since of raving coming exclusively from a particular type that’s thoroughly distant from the subject, which apparently expanded to “a distractingly microcosmic look at how black metropolis fails to govern itself” doesn’t advocate well for its actual social value.

    There are successful institutions. That an institution can fail is barely something worth pointing out; and it’s meaningless to use the possibility of failure as some sort of criticism of institutions themselves.

    Institutions are not “the issue”. We know what the issue is – historical theft that was never economically rectified and continuous social ostracism. Any “deeper look” just obscures actual problem along with its obvious solution; give them back their money and stop being mean. Solutions that apparently are simply not on the table. Hence essays (and TV shows) like this charging at windmills like institutions.

    About the show in particular, despite the gushing about its “nuanced treatment” of unfamiliar types, the show is cringe-inducingly “othering”. The entire series opens with the classic trope of a black character saying something stupid as if it were profound (“this is America”), presented as if there really was some wisdom in there that open-minded people would get. The creator has a thing for playing up the alienness of the black locals. I dropped out of The Wire after the first episode but tried out Treme when it first aired and saw the same MO; right after gawking at the weird, unfamiliar nature of the blacks who spoke in an unengaging, disconnected way as they practiced for a parade(?) we land on some nude hippie white guy who’s immediately relatable (despite the fact that we’re supposed to find his naivete ridiculous), in part thanks to the warm, domestic shot he’s introduced in.

    The one thing this show really has in its favor is getting some good acting careers started. I’m often embarrassed these days, when seeing some new impressive black actor in shows that I like, to find out immediately in comment sections that he was somebody from this show.

     
    • John Perich #

      Two comments:

      1) Re: Treme – I found the nude hippie white guy more ridiculous than relatable, and explained why at length here.

      1a) As to the “otherness” of black characters in Treme … yeah, I can’t argue that. For me, the appeal of Treme S1 was that peek into a world that was completely foreign to me, while simultaneously being reminded that no, this isn’t some other country, this is New Orleans, LA. These people share a President and a tax code with me, and yet I have no idea how they live.

      1b) That said, “you have no idea how these people live!” is often the first tool Simon reaches for, and he doesn’t always wield it with finesse.

      2) I’ll concede that damning institutional power is a quick and easy stance for me to take, but “give them back their money and stop being mean”? Which do you think will end first – the War on Drugs or innate human cruelty? If you can find a way to implement your solution, you’ve solved more than just racism and classism: you’ve solved the human condition.

       
    • zipgow #

      It seems to me that one can’t drop such a large story-arc as The Wire after the first episode and then convince themself that it had little more to offer than manufactured depth via “cringe-worthy” stupidity of dumber characters.

      That would be like reading one thirteeth of a novel, and then saying that the plot lacked strenghth or nuance because you didn’t like how it started out.

      By the way, you yourself commented on the fact that this was a launching pad for good actors. You ever stop to think that maybe they were depicting cops and crackheads accurately? Based upon experience, that’s how they talk and act.

      As for the institution argument, I think it is important to remember that whether or not you agree with Simon’s argument, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by his presentation–you know, if you take the time to watch a season.

      The show manages to leave its audience deeply invested in the outcome of every police investigation, and every political campaign, but by the end, whether the crooks are caught, whether the old regime is replaced by a more idealistic or a more scrupulous one, each season, and the series as a whole, inevitably ends with Pyrrhic victory, and an overwhelming sense of defeat.

      And its true. Simon does attack institutions, but he does so to point out the problems he noticed during his years as a reporter. He attacks the police for the numbers game, but he doesn’t leave it at that. After all, if the police are accountable, then so are the politicians who use quotas to get re-elected and so on and so forth.

      The Wire should be commended, if nothing else, for attacking every cog in the machine. So many people think that the problem with the education system is the teachers, but so few people place any blame on the institutions that provide them with low pay and a lack of resources. Etcetera.

      Society needs commentaries like The Wire, if only for the sake of the few people who will see the importance of its message, that society needs fixing, and we better not be thrown off track when we realize there is no quick fix.

       
      • J Jones #

        Ah, I was trying to remember where it was that I read a direct examination of McAlary. The thing about your criticism of him is that despite being negative, it’s evidence of his being relatable. You personally understand what would make someone like him repulsive in real life; nothing he does is completely alien and inscrutable (my favorite in the list is his opening of someone else’s expensive wine).

        And whatever the shows’ quality as social commentary, their “otherizing” voices shoot themselves in the foot by alienating a chunk of potential audience. I’m not going to trudge through an entire series that constantly reveals it’s indifferent to my being a viewer by indicating “this is how ‘they’ are” as if I’m used to thinking of “them” unfamiliar beings. The authenticity of the characters is a liability when its used to distance them.

        As for the innate cruelty of humanity being solved; its particular expression through racism would be a lot easier to address if there were fewer fantasies that the causes of its symptoms were anything but exactly that.

         
        • zipgow #

          Perhaps you have a point about the alienation a viewer feels when faced with a show about “them,” even when the subject matter is you, but I think that this article points out, quite excellently, that the show is effective, specifically due to the fact that viewers watched it without being able to distance themselves from it. Unlike Game of Thrones or Mad Men, these social injustices don’t exist in a far off reality, and a large demographic of viewers is moved by that.

          Although the approach of the show is largely educational, the action and direction is went about realistically, so that the viewer is focusing on the plot while the message festers in their subconscious.

          And seriously, every single cable drama (besides that one fantasy series) goes about with the attitude that people are watching it because they want to know about what the real-life mafia is like, or what its like to live in a bizaaro plastic surgeon universe. Cop shows are no different. Law and Order. CSI. All of them are much more interested in showing you how a trial or a forensic test works than a good story.

          The Wire went about showing its viewers how the war on drugs works, but instead of spending all of its time on boring procedural work, it developed interesting characters, and gave them a backdrop to move in that more closely resembled our own world.

           
    • sognodisonno #

      I really don’t see this show, or Treme, as “cringe-inducingly othering.” What I see is two shows that look at aspects of our country’s culture that tend to be neglected elsewhere in our entertainment.

      It makes sense that this would have the result of those watching taking note that what they’re seeing is different than the norm, but the show does a good job of fleshing out the characters of various types on the show and making them people you seriously care about.

      Isn’t that precisely one of the things we look to art to do — make the unfamiliar into something understandable and show why people we might not find much in common with on the surface are in fact people with complex lives and personalities that we should care about?

      In short, isn’t one of the greatest values of quality fiction that it teaches us empathy?

      I admire The Wire and Treme, but I’m not one who’s intent that there’s not criticism to be made of them. For example, with only a couple of notable exceptions, women in the world of the Wire are given the short shrift. I’m just not convinced by your arguments against the show and really feel they’re hurt by your insistence on only watching one episode before decrying the praise of those who are commenting on 5 rich seasons of television.

       
  2. Leigh #

    Definitely my favorite television program of all time. Although this show is known for its social commentary, it also had great acting, strong character development, and suspenseful plotting. But I think the main reason I liked it so much was that its weight felt real. At the end of every episode, I felt like a bear was sitting on my chest. The hopelessness and fury I felt toward society and humanity itself were overpowering.

     
  3. Dan #

    You know what? I grew up in Baltimore, and I’ve never seen “The Wire.” Further, I think it’s a great town with a lot to see past the Inner Harbor. So pbbt.

    Sorry I’ve got nothing deeper to add.

     
    • John Perich #

      Okay, I’ll bite. What would you send a tourist to, strictly within the city limits of Baltimore, outside of the Inner Harbor? Maybe I’m being unfair.

       
      • Dan #

        The Walters Art Gallery and the BMA for starters. Like all of the northeastern cities, it’s full of American history if that’s your thing – Fort McHenry, the Flag House, the shot tower, and the Charles Caroll House are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

        Camden Yards is a beautiful ball park, even if the Orioles haven’t been doing so well the last twenty-five years or so. The Baltimore Symphony is one of the best second tier orchestras in the country and has been extremely innovative in its programming. Center Stage is a terrific theater.

        There are also museums to Babe Ruth and Edgar Allen Poe, among others.

        Oh, and Tom Mitchell’s Golf Gridiron is the best miniature golf course I have ever played on, bar none.

        Bear in mind, too, that I haven’t lived there in twenty years, so I’m probably forgetting a few things.

         
  4. Stokes #

    I have always had a problem with the “the Wire tells us the TRUTH” argument (made very well and elegantly here, by the way), but I have a hard time articulating why.

    Maybe it’s because so much of the show is so richly textured and verisimilar, it makes it feel like everything about it must be true to life, and it isn’t? So just for instance, you have those decrepit storefronts, and that wonderfully captured language, and then you have an inner city plagued by every kind of crime… and no rape to speak of. I heard somewhere that there’s an interview (although I’m looking now, and I can’t seem to find it) where one of the writers pretty much said “yeah, sex crimes are a huge part of the actual Baltimore gang culture — but we needed our dealers to be sympathetic, so we left all of that out.”

    Sort of by the same token, you look at something like Hamsterdam or Stringer Bell’s co-op, and tell yourself “it’s all so simple, don’t they see, it could work, it really doesn’t have to be the way it is, we have proof,” but really we don’t have proof. We have reasons to believe that decriminalization would be a really good idea — some academic, some extrapolated from other nations — but those reasons aren’t what The Wire shows you. It shows you the verisimilar “truth,” and expects you to believe your eyes.

     
    • John Perich #

      That is an unfortunate omission, although let’s not forget S1 features a woman at a gang party ODing and being left in a dumpster. Also, during Cutty’s brief time as a soldier in S3, he gets a teenage girl to roll on her boyfriend (who’s skimming from the Barksdale crew) by cuffing her in the face. I was re-watching S3 with a friend of mine a few weekends back; at that scene, she winced and said, “Wow – I used to like you, Cutty.”

      But! Those are few and far between, and the toxic culture surrounding women is largely overlooked.

      This touches on the difference between a documentary and a hyper-real narrative. Neither are impartial, especially not documentaries (consider Bowling for Columbine or The Thin Blue Line or Grizzly Man), but fictional narratives are even less so. The Wire has always clearly had an agenda. So elements that serve that agenda get heightened, even exaggerated, and elements that distract from that agenda get pruned.

      I think we can still say a work is “true to life” even if it’s not complete. But, yes, the obscuring of what happens to women is unfortunate.

      (Also: I don’t think the show’s take on Hamsterdam is as positive as you suggest)

       
      • Bob #

        Remember as well that Season 2 features a rather extensive arc about forced prostitution. And it includes one of the more appalling institutional failures that you can wiretap drug dealers but if they are selling women the same rules don’t apply.

         
        • S #

          True but misleading, as it puts the sex crime on the Russian (Greek?) mobsters and lets the drug dealers off the hook.

           
  5. lordemostab #

    so in the past 3 weeks i just watched the whole series for the 1st time. just a couple of points: I thought the non-actors in acting roles hurt the show’s believability. Actors whole raison d’etre is to convince you they are someone they aren’t. Non-actors are unconvincing to me, even when they play themselves. there’s craft involved they don’t possess.

    but what really bothered me most was the way the show ultimately did take sides and say that while yes, everyone’s corrupt, the law is still the law and the street game are the bad guys, so naturally their opposite number are the good guys. so, prez finds redemption after remorselessly half-blinding a child, but no one from the street really does. (i know i just watched it, but i can’t remember wee-bey’s kid doing anything that would establish a parallel, though he does seem to have escaped the ghetto.) or the (heavyhanded, preachy) way in which the “hamsterdam” experiment is dismissed.

     
    • zipgow #

      Firstly, the performances on that show are amazing, even by the non-actors.

      As for your comment, regarding Prez, do you really think he finds any palpable redemption? He leaves the force in disgrace, and manages to find a profession that he is more equipped to handle, but what else comes of it? He is still the same man with demons in his past, who consistently attempts to redeem himself with his teaching post.

      And the finale leaves a strong indication that most of the people he tries to help fall through the cracks, something he and his awesome beard will be forced to deal with for the rest of their miserable lives.

       
  6. yellojkt #

    While The Wire is perhaps the defining Baltimore show, it treads ground set up by the necessarily more sanitized Homocide which set up Baltimore as the go-to metaphor for urban decay, supplanting Newark from that role.

    But it’s not the only Baltimore cultural touchstone. There is also the Hairspray era of John Waters as perpetuated by Cafe Hon in Hampden.