Joys of ‘The Wire’

Some critics have called HBO’s hit series ‘depressing’ and ‘nihilistic.’ They couldn’t be more wrong.

Brian Cook

Wrapping up its fifth season, 'The Wire' drags the casualties of the drug war into our homes.

In a recent story in The Nation, Chris Hayes used 2,200-plus words to argue why progressives should back Sen. Barack Obama. I’ll use only seven: Obama’s favorite TV show is The Wire.” It’s certainly true, as Hayes noted, that Obama, like every presidential candidate, won’t be saying one word about the prison-industrial complex or the disastrous consequences of the war on drugs.” But it’s heartening to think that at least he’s tuning in to one of the few public forums that fiercely drags such issues into our consciousness.

Throughout its five seasons on HBO, The Wire” has created riveting fictional drama out of the residents living, policing and selling dope on the streets of Baltimore. Described by its co-creator David Simon as the ultimate anti-cop show, a rebellion … against the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television,” The Wire” obliterates easy dichotomies of good cops” and bad drug dealers.” Instead, it builds morally complex characters on both sides of the law whose individual decisions are largely shaped by political and economic forces outside their control. After detailing the ravages of the drug trade in its first season, the show broadened its scope in each subsequent season, examining the city’s collapsing industrial sector (and unions), political system, public schools and, finally, journalistic institutions. 

The result has been a show that can’t seem to garner enough critical accolades: Extraordinary” (San Jose Mercury News), revolutionary” (Entertainment Weekly), Dickensian” (New York Times) and the best television show ever” (Salon and Slate). And yet quietly simmering beneath this loving consensus, there have been recent murmurs of discontent and unease with the show’s portrayal of inner-city America.

In the January issue of The Atlantic, Mark Bowden cited the qualms of Yale inner-city sociologist Elijah Anderson. I get frustrated watching it,” Anderson told Bowden, because it gives such a powerful appearance of reality, but it always seems to leave something important out. What they have left out are the decent people. Even in the worst drug-infested projects, there are many, many God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism.”

This bleakness,” Bowden followed up, is Simon’s stamp on the show, and it suggests that his political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness.”

Bowden’s concerns have been echoed online, from both the right and left. Conservative cultural critic Reihan Salam, blogging on The American Scene, argued, David Simon thinks he’s constructed a critique of capitalism, but in fact he’s prepared an elaborate moving brief for despair and (ultimately) indifference.” On the other side of the spectrum, at the American Prospect Online, Ezra Klein wrote plaintively of Simon’s nihilistic, unrelentingly grim vision.” Simon himself hasn’t done much to dissuade such readings: Last year, he told The New Yorker that The Wire” is a story about the decline of the American empire,” which steadfastly maintains, no, we are not going to be all right.” 

But these criticisms are remarkably off-base, in a number of ways.

The silliest of the recent critics is Anderson, whose desire for a Manichean fairytale in which God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people … set themselves against the gangs and the addicts” is precisely the type of falsely comforting delusion that The Wire” aims to explode. The Wire” depicts its share of individual acts of bravery by conventional heroes – police officers getting shot while in the line of duty, citizens testifying against drug dealers despite menacing death threats. 

But what makes the show so powerful is that it extends such admirable traits to characters who are not unambiguously good. The Wire” recognizes that a heroin junkie struggling mightily against his addiction, or a corner boy” who refuses to cede his territory to a rival gang member in the face of certain death, can act more courageously than, say, a respectable” police official who is willing to mute his personal conscience in order to flatter his superiors and advance his career. In The Wire,” morality is not defined by what one is (whether churchgoer or gang member), but by what one does.

If Anderson’s critique is most obviously wrong-headed, the others are no less muddled. Taken as a whole, The Wire” has made several arguments about the direction of American society over the last three decades. Among them: the drug war” has not only been futile, but devastating to the black underclass; the government has essentially abandoned the working class in post-industrial America; the defunding of our public institutions has had disastrous consequences, most conspicuously for our education system; and when the demands of profit have become so all-consuming that notions like the public good” are cast aside as quaint, something valuable is lost. The Wire,” then, is a searing indictment of the contemporary United States. In response, Bowden equates its bleakness” with political bias and thus questions its accuracy, and Klein conflates its grim view with nihilism. But these assertions beg the central question: Is Simon’s grim view of American society, and the plight of the black underclass in particular, warranted?

Evidence suggests it is. The findings in, say, Punishment and Inequality in America, the 2006 book by Princeton sociologist Bruce Western, are not happy. Western notes that blacks are incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than whites, that 60 percent of black high school dropouts are either imprisoned or ex-convicts, and that if one includes prisoners when calculating unemployment rates, joblessness among black high school dropouts jumps from 41 percent to 65 percent. In a majority-black city like Baltimore, where half the adult black male population is unemployed and where an estimated 60 percent of high school students drop out, foregrounding the disastrous consequences of such statistics – or better yet, crafting a compelling narrative that humanizes them – is not nihilistic. Indeed, it’s a necessary first step if such disparities are ever to be rectified.

To Salam’s credit, he at least marshaled evidence for his argument that the plight of the black underclass was not necessarily as bleak and predetermined as The Wire” might suggest. Salam cited Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman, whose 2006 book Chutes and Ladders tracked the fortunes of 40 working poor minorities across a decade. Though far too small a sample size to draw broad conclusions (which Newman was careful to note), she did find that nine had been able to break into the middle class, suggestive, at least, that even at the bottom rungs of the economy, upward mobility is still possible. To Salam, such possibility flies in the face of The Wire,” which he claimed, is ultimately premised on our inability to engage in self-help, and especially, the inability of the black poor. It is about their lack of agency and their status as eternal victims.” 

To answer this charge, one could note that Newman also found that one-third of her subjects were either still unemployed or working for minimum wage, and that the decisive factor for the success stories was whether they belonged to families who could support them (or whether they didn’t need to support a family themselves). In other words, personal agency had little to do with it. 

But Salam’s (and others’) charges against the show’s worldview are wrong at a much more fundamental level. Despite its heavy subject matter, The Wire” is an absolute joy to watch.

Much of this pleasure is derived from how well-crafted the series is. Its plotting is intricately structured, with themes and subthemes playing symphonically throughout the series. It also provides all the thrilling twists and turns of any great serial. Its characters are almost lovingly drawn: complex, sympathetic, flawed, human. The dialogue is not only painstakingly realistic, but often wildly funny. The performances – from an ensemble cast of more than 70 actors – are uniformly excellent. In this way, The Wire” suggests an answer to the intractable social problems it details: If we approached those problems with the same care, attention to detail, passion, intelligence and love as its creators collectively bring to the show, the world would be a better place. 

But ultimately, the show is most enjoyable because – contra Salam – the value it holds most high is struggle. Its heroes and anti-heroes might be victims, but they are not passive. Rather, they are actively driven by a dissatisfaction with the status quo. What marks the show’s few villains are their complacency and acceptance of the way things are.” What defines the show’s heroes is that they will fight–their clueless bosses, their politicians, their rivals, their lovers, their addictions, themselves. 

Will they win these struggles? This season, most signs point toward no.” But rather than despair, that leads me to recall the words of journalist I.F. Stone:

The only kinds of fights worth having are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing – for the sheer fun and joy of it – to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it. 

The bleakest thing about The Wire” is that it’s ending after the current season. Desperate Housewives,” meanwhile, is set to go on until 2011. Now that’s a depressing thought. 

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Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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