Not your average police drama

January 18, 2008

Leela Yellesetty explains why you should be watching The Wire.

THE WIRE began airing its fifth and final season on HBO this January. Despite critical acclaim, this brilliant drama has never received the audience it deserves.

If you haven't been watching, here's why you should run out right now and get the DVDs to catch up. The story and character arcs are complex and develop throughout the series, making it essential to start from the beginning. And it can make for difficult viewing because it is an unflinchingly honest, often brutal look at reality.

Set in Baltimore, The Wire tells the story of a city all but destroyed by neoliberalism, poverty, violent drug wars, corrupt politicians and strangling bureaucracies. At the same time, its ability to draw out the often humorous absurdity of the situations and ultimate humanity of the characters, and the fact that this is done artfully, makes the show a pleasure to watch.

The first season is focused on a rag-tag city police detail's efforts to take down a drug kingpin who has been dropping bodies in the West Baltimore housing projects. This sounds like fodder your standard police procedural, but The Wire's approach is fundamentally different.

Review: Television

The Wire, written by David Simon and Ed Burns, starring Dominic West, Michael Kenneth Williams and Sonja Sohn.

For starters, cops and criminals get equal attention, and there are no good guys and bad guys. The police characters are often racist, violent, corrupt and stupid, while the criminals are frequently kind, funny, intelligent and sensitive.

While some characters are clearly more sympathetic, none of them are one-dimensional. Rather, they are shown in the context of the society and institutions that intimately shape their ideas and behavior.

The contrast between the two worlds is stark. The police commission is a giant, corrupt, numbers-obsessed machine that seems to have the goal of deliberately thwarting any initiatives that might actually solve skyrocketing crime rates. The drug ring, on the other hand, is a highly agile and sophisticated guerrilla organization, profiting off the lawlessness and endlessly lucrative market for drugs in a hopeless urban underclass.

THE SUBSEQUENT seasons, while never abandoning the original thread, widen the scope of the story. Season two centers on workers on the waterfront, symbolic of Baltimore's shrinking industrial working class. Corrupt union leaders turn to political patronage, theft and smuggling to combat their waning fortunes.

Season three returns to the drug story but gives more insight into the political machinations involved at the top, including efforts at reform, as well as reflecting on the drug war's fall in favor vis-à-vis the war on terror.

Season four, the most brilliant to date, focuses on the public school system, roughly following cowriter Ed Burn's own shift in career from Baltimore police detective to public school teacher. The episodes in this season offer a bitter indictment of No Child Left Behind and expose how every aspect of these children's lives destines them to become cannon fodder in the drug war.

Season five promises an equally intriguing look at the media, informed by writer and creator David Simon's experience as a Baltimore Sun police reporter. The writers' first-hand knowledge of their topic and love of their home city clearly reflect in the realism of the show.

Much of it is based on real situations and people they encountered in their work. Some former contacts and other community members act in the show themselves. The cast as a whole features some incredibly talented actors, the majority of whom are African American, extremely rare in TV dramas, but an accurate reflection of Baltimore's demographics.

"It is, in an abstract sense, the story of cheated workers at Enron, or sexually abused parishioners of the Catholic Church, or American soldiers sent to police a nightmare without sufficient supply or armor, or any number of instances in which modern institutions have betrayed their members," Simon said in an interview. "It is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy, that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many."

One could accuse The Wire of having an overly cynical outlook. The tone is dark and the sense of things continually getting worse is hard to get over. Throughout the show, in various ways characters act to try to change the direction things are headed, such as drug dealers trying to get out of the game and help their communities, a police major's attempt to decriminalize drugs and, in the most recent season, an experimental school program and a mayoral candidate who pledges to do things differently.

Yet these initiatives--while they offer real glimpses of an alternative--are almost always defeated. The characters seem so beaten and alienated from one another that the possibility of people challenging the status quo is hard to imagine. In this way, it is a pretty accurate reflection of how most people feel about the world today.

And yet the show nonetheless holds out hope. It's hard not to care for so many of the characters who, despite their jaded existence, continue to surprise us with moments of solidarity, courage and compassion. The Wire movingly makes the case for the people of Baltimore and why, despite tremendous odds, their--and all of our--humanity is worth fighting for.

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