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The Wire at 15: Myths and Reality

June 2, 2017

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It’s been 15 years since the first episode of The Wire – a show I, and many others, consider to be the finest show American TV has ever produced to date (I admit ignorance of shows from other countries for the most part – premiered on HBO. To mark that occasion, I’m going to talk a bit not only why I think it’s so great, but also to clear up a few myths and misconceptions that have built up around the show (as well as about “prestige TV”, the category it gets tagged in), in the hopes people who are hesitant about tackling the show may change their minds and give it a chance. In no particular order (and by the way, these are not direct quotes; I’m paraphrasing):

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(1) “From what I’ve heard, it’s way too complicated to follow, so I’m going to be lost right from the beginning.”

In order to address this part, I of course must admit The Wire *is* complicated. Each season follows a different storyline: Season 1 takes on the drug war in microcosm through the eyes not only of the cops fighting it, but also the dealers, Season 2 deals with the eroding working class by following a group of dockworkers and the consequence of their leader making a deal with the devil, Season 3 looks at infrastructure among the police, drug dealers, and City Hall (along with being a thinly-disguised take on the War on Terror), Season 4 follows four young teenagers in school and why some go into the drug trade, and Season 5 asks why the media has not reported on the issues the first four seasons tackled. Also, with exception of Season 2 (and, of course, Season 5), these storylines, as well as many (though not all) of the characters carry over to subsequent seasons. Not only that, but the episodes are not stand-alone, and you need to keep all of the storylines and the characters in mind while watching. Finally, David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who created the show (along with ex-cop and ex-teacher Ed Burns) made it a point to not over-explain everything, so the viewer would have to really pay attention (Simon cared more about getting it right than catering to the average viewer). This was demonstrated most clearly in the fourth episode of the series, “Old Cases”, where Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and his partner “Bunk” Moreland (Wendell Pierce) visit an old crime scene and solve the crime, while their entire dialogue consists of variations on “fuck”. So, yes, it is a complicated show.

But you know what other type of television show is complicated? Soap operas, which have several plotlines going on at once, and require you to remember characters from years past. There are also genre shows as varied as Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, Lost, and 24, among others, that have complicated storylines and mythologies, with loads of characters, and who, at their best, respect the intelligence of their viewers like The Wire does. And that’s not even mentioning the D.C. and Marvel shows that deal with arc-long seasons and many characters and storylines (themselves based on comic books with even more complicated mythologies and stories, as well as character arcs). If you’re able to follow any of those shows, I don’t think The Wire will be too much of a stretch for you.

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(2) “Aside from being too complex and hard to follow, from what I’ve heard about The Wire, it sounds like homework. I just want something I can enjoy, you know?”

During the five seasons it was on the air, The Wire received a large amount of praise from TV critics, cultural commentators, and politicians (including former President Obama). The show has been praised for its intelligent storytelling, as mentioned above. It’s been called both a Greek tragedy on TV and also a novel on TV (drawing comparisons to Dickens and Tolstoy, among others). It’s been praised for being an indictment of how our cities are being left behind, as well as an indictment of the idea if you work hard, you can make a comfortable living for yourself and your family. It’s been praised for the realism of its storytelling and its characters, whether they be cops, drug dealers, junkies, dock workers, politicians, educators, students, or reporters. Finally, it’s been praised for it’s large, predominantly African-American cast, which had not been seen at the time (I’ll talk more about that below).

All of that praise is well-deserved, and may definitely make the show sound like homework. However, with some exceptions, most people who praise The Wire forget to point out it’s also consistently entertaining and funny. It may seem strange, not to mention insulting, to say a show with this much depth, intelligence, and tragedy (and there’s a lot of tragedy, especially in the next-to-last episode of every season) is also entertaining and funny (certainly, Simon seems to get irritated when people bring that up), but there is plenty of humor among the heartbreak. That scene I mentioned above with McNulty and Bunk is one example. Other examples include Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), the gay outlaw who robbed drug dealers, never pointed a gun at anyone not involved in the drug trade, and who became the breakout character on the show – testifying in court, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), one of the major drug kingpins in the city, attempting to run a meeting of drug dealers using Robert’s Rules of Order, one drug dealer thinking he’s about to be killed, only to find out his colleague wants him to take care of his fish while he’s in hiding (“These are my tetras. We got Kimmy, Alex, Aubrey, and Jezebel here somewhere. I don’t know; she think she cute”), and many others. And while the show doesn’t go for the type of set pieces seen in other prestige dramas like The Sopranos (or, from what I’ve heard, Breaking Bad), or in genre shows like Buffy (with some exceptions, like a shootout between Omar and his crew with Avon Barksdale’s (Wood Harris) crew), there’s still entertainment value from the humor, the storylines, and the richly developed characters. Keep all of that in mind the next time someone makes it seem as if the show is just homework.

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(3) “This show is yet another example of SWPL (Stuff White People Like); black misery being paraded on screen so that white people can get off on it.”

As African-Americans struggle to get represented in movies and on TV (it’s getting better on TV, though there’s still a long way to go), there’s been a debate not only about how much they get represented, but *how* they get represented. In certain quarters, African-American writers and commentators (along with those sympathetic to their view) gripe the only type of entertainment with African-American leads tends to be either historical pieces, or pieces where African-Americans are victimized in some way (or both). They want to see African-Americans in the same type of stories white Americans are in all the time – superhero movies, sci-fi, thrillers, romantic comedies, and so on. They also feel these historical pieces are done to soothe whites today with the idea racism is just a thing of the past, while the victim stories allow whites to feel superior as well by getting off on African-American misery.

All of these are valid complaints, and should be addressed (the fact Hollywood and indie studios have been so slow in addressing these issues is yet another example of their many failings). However, I think it’s highly unfair to tag The Wire with this complaint. True, there are plenty of characters here who are victims in some way: in the street, at school, in politics, in the police department, and in other areas. And while there’s almost no obvious racism on display (the closest is when a random constituent accosts Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) while he’s campaigning for mayor, and who complains about minorities with a term so archaic Norman (Reg. E. Cathey), Carcetti’s campaign manager, is more bemused than offended), there is racism implied, or even shown (most tragically in a police-involved shooting midway through the series). But the African-Americans in the show aren’t just defined as victims; they have lives outside of that. The show also has African-Americans not only in the drug trade, but in all other walks of life – blue-collar, white-collar, police, politician, civil servant, and more – and while they’re all competing for time with everyone else, you get a sense of their inner lives. None of them come off just as stick figures in a victim narrative. It helps Simon and Burns based them off people they came across in their previous careers, so, for example, Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins (Andre Royo), a drug addict and sometimes police informant, is depicted in a way more honest than we usually see with drug addicts, along with dignity and humor.

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(4) “This show is yet another example of prestige TV’s, and popular culture in general, obsession with middle-aged white men, as well as Hollywood’s obsession with white savior stories.”

With the rise of quality TV (as well as quality in TV) in the last 20 years or so, it hasn’t gone unnoticed many of the acclaimed and talked about shows of that time (Breaking Bad, The Shield, The Sopranos) have centered on middle-aged white male main characters. In fact, much of the pushback that’s come against these shows recently has been because of that (along with another reason I’ll get to below). Although I would argue in many cases, the show is not celebrating its main character so much as skewering him (and would also argue, in the case of Mad Men – another prestige TV show that gets lumped in with that group – the show is as much about the women characters as it is about the middle-aged white male main character Don Draper), I certainly agree, as I said before, there should be more diverse viewpoints and main characters on TV (and in other forms of pop culture). But there was a recent article that lumped The Wire in with “middle-aged white male main character” shows, and that has me crying foul.

It’s true Jimmy McNulty is the first major character on the show we see, as he’s chatting up a witness at a crime scene (inspired by an incident Simon depicted in his great book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets). And it’s true he’s the driving force behind the major plotline of Seasons 1 and 5, as well as figuring significantly into Seasons 2 and 3 (he was only seen in a few episodes of Season 4 because Dominic West was involved in a movie shoot, and also wanted to spend more time with his family). But as I alluded to above, there’s a large African-American cast on the show, and many of them get equal, if not more, screen time on the show. And while McNulty is praised on the show (both generously and grudgingly) as a good, dogged detective, the show also regularly called out for his womanizing (when the Major Crimes Unit is debating who to send undercover at a brothel for a sting operation, and McNulty walks in, Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), one of his colleagues, cracks, “Takes a whore to catch a whore”), his drinking (in one memorable scene, while driving drunk, he smashes his car, gets out, looks at it, gets back in, and smashes the other part), and the fact he feels because of his hard work and intelligence, he feels he can break the rules whenever he wants, whether fudging evidence or going against the bosses (as Bunk tells him at one point, “You’re no good for people, Jimmy”). And while McNulty’s work may eventually get results, most often, it’s not the results he wants; he never gets the main target he wants in the first three seasons, and what he does to try and catch the main bad guy in Season 5 proves to be the final straw for the police department (I’m being deliberately vague here for those who haven’t seen the show).

And that goes for the other major white characters on the show as well – or, at least, the ones who are trying to do good (unlike humps like Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi), a detective who remains almost as useless in Season 5 as he was in Season 1). Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), for example, is the main character in Season 2, a dockworker and union rep who is trying to save the port for the union and make things better for his colleagues. In order to do that, however, he’s made a deal with the devil in the form of a mobster known only as The Greek (Bill Raymond), which comes back to bite him during the season. To avoid this coming out, he’s regularly butting heads with Nat Coxson (Luray Cooper), an African-American union leader who feels Frank is overreaching in trying to protect the union (he thinks they should focus on protecting the pier instead of trying to dredge the canal, as Frank wants). Again, as it turns out, Frank comes up short. In Season 3, Carcetti, then a city councilman, starts his mission to run for mayor of the city because he thinks he can help the city, and while he does have genuine concern for trying to tackle the problems facing the city, in the end, his ambition overcomes his desire to do good. Finally, in season 4, Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost). a former detective, ends up a teacher in the Baltimore school system, but while he also wants to try and help the kids in his class – particularly Duquan “Dukie” Weems (Jermaine Crawford) and Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell), two of the four kids who are the main characters that season (and whose fates are the most tragic) – and unlike Carcetti, doesn’t let ambition trip him up, the only person he ends up helping is himself; helping himself to learn to survive (it’s actually Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom), another former member of the police department now involved in education, who ends up helping one of the four kids the most; Namond Brice (Julito McCullum), son of Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey Brice (Hassan Johnson), who starts out in the drug trade but decides it’s no longer for him). This is hardly the stuff of “white savior” narratives, and Simon and Burns are consciously going out of their way to subvert those narratives.

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(5) “This is yet another show that claims it wants to help combat the problems we face, but is merely trading in on cheap cynicism about our cities, our institutions, and our country.”

As we’ve seen all too often in this country the past few decades, there is a sizable minority in this country who believes racism is a thing of the past – assuming they admit it ever existed in this country in the first place – and it’s actually the people who are complaining about racism who are perpetuating the problem, and betraying a cynicism about this county. And according to this point of view, people who raise a stink about the way the poor are treated in this country are doing the same thing.

Obviously, I don’t think much of that point of view. Having said that, I will readily admit The Wire is very pessimistic about institutions, or at least at how these institutions have become today, due to a combination of factors (lack of money, bureaucracy, racism – both obvious and covert – government indifference, and more). However, if the show were as cynical as its detractors say it is – both the people in positions of power at those institutions (and their dislike of the show and what it brings up is understandable, if distressing) and the few cultural commentators who have taken issue with the show because of this (most notably film critic Armond White) – it wouldn’t be honoring the people who struggle to better their own lives, as well as those who try to make a difference and help others. There’s Bubbles, as I mentioned above, but also Dennis “Cutty” Wise (Chad L. Coleman), a former member of the Barksdale organization who tries to go back to the life when he gets released from jail, only to decide it isn’t for him, and opens up a boxing gym to try and get poor city kids to box. There’s Bunny, as I mentioned before, who, in Season 3, while he’s a major in the police department, comes up with an audacious plan to try and fight the drug war, and while it has its flaws, it also helps cut back on crime more than the war on drugs ever did. Finally, there’s Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), who heads up what becomes the Major Crimes unit in the first three seasons, and Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), a detective in that unit. Both of them are taken for granted by McNulty at first – Daniels for being a company man, and for possibly having a dirty past (which we get hints at, but never really find out about), and Freamon for being an eccentric (he makes toy furniture) who was originally in the pawnshop unit for 13 years (“and four months”), but both of them not only turn out to be more than meets the eye, but both of them set out trying to improve the police department way of dealing with the drug war (as well as other police work), despite the bureaucracy they’re up against. That’s not cheap cynicism.

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(6) “I’m tired of prestige TV because it’s working to hard to try and be ‘art’, and being more concerned with ‘arcs’ and ‘mythologies’, than in trying to tell a story.”

In his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman wrote his famous phrase, “Nobody knows anything”, about how film executives have no idea what will work at the box office. However, he added, they do know what *has* worked in the past, and they figured if it worked in the past, it’ll work again, so they try to create past magic. That also goes for TV executives as well, which is why every new fall season, you see a lot of shows that borrow a lot from, or are blatant copies of, shows that were hits the previous season(s). When that happens, critics and commentators will pick through those shows (most of which are inferior at best, awful at worst), and while the good ones will point out how these lesser shows are learning the wrong lessons from the shows that became hits, other critics (even, unfortunately, the good ones), will start to turn on the type of show that impressed them in the first place. Such is the case with prestige TV nowadays; in addition to the criticism of the “white middle-aged male character” aspect (which, as I said before, is justified, though not in the case of The Wire), there’s also a wish TV shows could just go back to simple storytelling, with stand-alone episodes that were good stories instead of arcs and mythologies, and acting as if they were “better” than just TV.

Now, I will freely admit the copies haven’t been as good as the originals, unless they find a new twist on them (The Americans, for example, is a prestige TV show that has a woman at its center, which is one of the many reasons why I like the show so much), but that doesn’t mean we should act as if prestige TV has never been any good in the first place, or to act as if the cliches of prestige TV are any worse than of any other type of genre. And The Wire demonstrates why the prestige model works when it’s done right. You don’t just get plot arcs, but you also get character arcs, and you see characters develop over the course of the series and grow. Characters like Preston “Bodie” Broadus (J.D. Williams), a low-level dealer in the Barksdale organization. When we first meet him in Season 1, he acts just as another know-nothing low-level dealer. But while Bodie never rises above that level, he starts to show more awareness not only on how to conduct himself (whereas he routinely beats up addicts for no reason in Season 1, he learns by the end of the Season the futility of that), but about his place in the world (D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gillard), Avon’s nephew and Bodie’s boss in Season 1, gives him a lesson about chess and how it relates to what they do; in Season 4, Bodie tells McNulty he knows he’s just like a chess pawn). Then there’s Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam), who starts out as a narcotics detective who is content to, as Herc puts it, collect bodies and split heads “the Western district way”. Yet as the series progresses, he learns the futility of that approach, comes to see the wisdom of Bunny’s strategy in the drug war, and learns enough to be a leader of men to eventually get promoted to lieutenant. In addition to that, with the stand-alone episodes, you also wouldn’t get the breadth of the large ensemble cast. You wouldn’t get to do things like introduce Omar in an episode before he becomes important to the story (Simon had to fight with HBO execs over that part). And you wouldn’t be able to see things pay off with story details introduced early on.

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Admittedly, if there’s one criticism the show deserves, it’s the treatment of the women characters. There are interesting women characters on the show – Kima, Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), a detective on the docks who’s important in Season 2, and Snoop (Felicia “Snoop” Pearson), a fierce killer introduced in Season 3 come to mind – but in general, they’re supporting characters to the men. Also, there are aspects of the show that, due to the ever changing times, come off as dated (the fact a police officer who’s retiring, for example, planning on going into the video store business because he thinks it’s easier money). But in my opinion, The Wire still holds up not only as a show that lays bare what America has sunk to, but also a damn entertaining show as well. Don’t take my word for it, just watch the show. You’ll be glad you did. Just remember, when you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back.

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