- Brian Purnell
The Wire aired for five seasons, sixty episodes, from 2002–2006, on the subscription cable channel HBO, and it is considered by some critics as one of the best shows on television. Scholars and journalists praised the show for its penetrating presentations of modern urban life and its searing social criticism of bureaucratic dysfunction in contemporary American cities. The narrative arc of the series is packaged in fictional, episodic stories, which bundle together in a visual novel of police procedural urban realism that some have seen fit to call “Dickensian” in scope and style. Many laud the show for its authentic depictions of everyday life in police stations, prisons, political offices, and street corners, a point of praise that probably stems from the real-life occurrences embedded in episodes’ story lines. Created by a team of writers well-known for their fictional portrayals of crime, everyday life, hope, abandonment, struggle, politics, and suffering in a late twentieth-century American city, since its conclusion and DVD box-set release, The Wire also became the focus of dozens of articles, a few academic conferences, and the main text around which educators have built curricula and courses in criminology, sociology, law, film studies, and literary criticism.
Historical Backdrop of The Wire: The Urban Crisis and the American Underclass
Baltimore, Maryland provides the setting for The Wire, but one of the show's arguments, which sometimes comes through in poetic montages that conclude the seasons, is that The Wire could take place in any American city. Like many industrial cities, Baltimore expanded dramatically during World War II, however, it was also witness to exoduses of white working- and middle-class urbanites, as well as many middle-class city dwellers of all races during the 1950s to 1980s. The demographics of many American cities shifted, especially the residential pockets into which African Americans were funneled through decades of redlining, blockbusting, and racial segregation. As a major port city in a state that sat on the border between the American North and South, Baltimore's racial demographics were indelibly shaped by legal forms of residential segregation, as well as the informal practices of realtors and home owner associations who conspired through restrictive covenants to keep out black residents. Blacks in Baltimore settled in specific sections of the city's West and East sides, and those enclaves grew and grew as desegregation practices in the city and the suburbs opened more housing for black urban workers. But the desegregation of Baltimore's housing occurred simultaneously with the slow erosion of its manufacturing and industrial economy. During the decades after World War II, in which the American economy restructured away from urban-centered manufacturing and industrial production dominated by unionized workers and toward an economic system built around nonunion labor, automated technology, American suburbs, and, increasingly after the 1970s, foreign-based imports, those black communities also slipped into a massive economic depression characterized by high levels of unemployment and a seemingly permanent state of alienation from regular work. Sociologists referred to this group of people as the American “underclass.” Massive joblessness, irregular employment, and the decline of entry-level, union-protected manufacturing and industrial jobs engendered numerous social problems—crime, addiction to narcotics and alcohol, dissolution of stable families, high infantile death rates, poor health, and increased dependency on government welfare for food and housing assistance. Cities like Baltimore with large poor, black populations also experienced political and economic catastrophes when working- and middle-class populations moved away and took with them their much-needed tax dollars. Urban services, such as sanitation, transportation, education, housing, and health care, declined rapidly.
The noted scholar William Julius Wilson has argued that America's overwhelmingly black underclass no longer suffered most from widespread racial discrimination. Instead, they became locked in almost permanent disconnect from mainstream society by “structural” forms of class alienation and their attendant “cultural” practices that eschewed marriage, legal work, two-parent households, and social climbing through education, and instead practiced drug use, illegal work, welfare, and crime. “Ghetto poor communities,” Wilson contended, housed this black underclass and kept them permanently trapped and disconnected from the mainstream world of work, marriage, and educational aspiration.
At that same time, in the 1980s, as an underclass formed in American cities, new federal policies abandoned New Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society social welfare and antipoverty programs that had provided poor and working people with public housing, food support, and job-training programs, and increased government assaults on illegal drug use and narcotics sales. The combined effects of deindustrialization, increased poverty, middle-class flight to suburbs, decreased public support of social welfare programs, and massive public spending on drug-related crimes caused a powerful, full-blown social, political, and economic crisis in American cities. The Wire does not comment directly on these social and historical phenomena, but much of the show's content reflects the power legacies of residential racial segregation and postindustrial urban decline.
The Wire portrays the world of the American urban crisis and the failures of the war on drugs. “The Wire was not a story about America,” its creator, journalist and writer David Simon, told television journalist host Bill Moyers, “it's about the America that got left behind” (Moyers 2009). The show's main characters, story lines, and themes address that forgotten and discarded sector of American life at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
The Wire: Setting, Themes, Format, and Summary.
While the series initially focuses on West Baltimore's poor, predominantly African American neighborhoods, over the course of five seasons, viewers travel from abandoned West Side row houses and public housing courtyards, the domain of cocaine and heroin dealers, users, and the police who watch them, to other parts of the city. Season two brings viewers to the city's docks and port, and the social world of black and white stevedores. Several seasons open a window into the everyday worlds of police precincts and prisons. Viewers witness subtle changes in gentrifying neighborhoods in the Locus Point and Federal Hill sections. The world of politics, especially frustrated court rooms and double-dealing antechambers of City Hall, open up in seasons three, four, and five. The harried world of a mayoral campaign is a focus of season three, and the struggling newsrooms and editorial boards of the Baltimore Sun become the central scenery in season five. The show even highlights dark homeless enclaves and speedball shooting galleries. Some of these worlds, on the surface, seem universes totally separate from the West Side's omnipresent poverty and alienation, but, as the series digs deeper, these apparently disparate worlds become united through a mazelike web of graft, patronage, and profit.
The stories of The Wire come through in an unconventional police procedural narrative format. In some ways The Wire is part of a tradition of urban cop shows and legal dramas, such as Hawaii Five-O, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order. Those conventional police procedurals continued story-telling practices from the earlier “Western” shows and movies. In a typical Western, characters remedied the acts of injustice around which the fictional drama unfolded in relatively uncomplicated ways. Immoral criminals went to jail. Upstanding sheriffs restored justice. When such shows ended, viewers turned off their television sets having watched a story about an unbalanced moral universe set right by judicious individuals and institutions.
The Wire dispensed with traditional morality dramas centered on “good” versus “evil,” where, in the end, right inevitably defeats wrong. David Simon, one of the lead writers and creators of The Wire, spent thirteen years as a crime and politics reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He spent over a year during the late 1980s shadowing a group of Baltimore homicide detectives, which led him to write, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the book that became the basis for the NBC television series, Homicide: Life on the Streets, which aired from 1993 to 1999. As in Homicide, both the book and the television show, in The Wire, there are few if any neat resolutions or conclusions: the “good guys” are oftentimes bad, and the “bad guys” can sometimes seem good, and viewers are invited to think critically about how dysfunction, greed, careerism, betrayal, and cowardice destroy American institutions, and how those institutions fail, and can destroy, the individuals within them. Simon followed his book and the television series, Homicide, with an HBO miniseries, The Corner, based on his book of the same title. The Corner switched the point-of-view of life on the mean streets of West Baltimore from cops to criminals, hustling heroin junkies, and corner boys nickel-and-diming their way through the drug trade. In The Wire, in a narrative technique that Richard Price uses in the masterfully written novel, Clockers, viewers toggle back and forth between these two takes on the streets—the cop perspective and the hustler perspective.
Though much of the drama in The Wire builds around the seemingly typical “cops and robbers” story line, the show develops into trenchant social commentary on and criticism of the political and economic conditions that create and worsen underclass poverty, as well as the widespread bureaucratic dysfunction that plagues modern institutions. The heroin and cocaine trade and the legal system's failing war on drugs sit at the dramatic center of the series. Through it, viewers see how powerful members of drug syndicates intimidate and murder witnesses, rule over public housing complexes with terrorism, and dominate public space throughout the urban landscape with their open air drug markets. Drug dealers can be terrible people who verbally and physically abuse their clients, wantonly murder other drug dealers, employ children as drug runners and touts, and spread social chaos in the same places where they live. Some drug trade workers also grow tired of “the game”: the lying, killing, scheming, and dehumanized relationships that seem to be its very heart and soul. On the flipside of the drug world, The Wire delves into the working lives of police officers and shows how the good ones fight losing battles against both gangsters and a justice system crippled by careerist-minded police bosses, judges, and state's attorneys. Bad cops in The Wire are inept, violent, and corrupt. They steal money, lie to suspects, brutalize citizens, intimidate people in the community, abuse alcohol, and have dysfunctional personal lives. The challenge that the show offers to viewers, however, is that the moral compass of its characters is not fixed. For example, if not a hero, then a very sympathetic character in The Wire is the character “Bubbles,” a heroin addict who lives on the streets, hustles for money to live and buy drugs, and becomes an important confidential informant in the police officers’ investigations into a murderous drug syndicate. Another fan favorite is “Omar Little,” a shotgun-wielding, gay stick-up man who preys on predatory drug dealers, robs them of their money and product, and occasionally maims and murders those in “the game” who defy him. In The Wire the lines of good and bad blur, and often the characters fall victim to their circumstances and social situations. Poverty, addiction, and venality corrupt every institution in the show's fictional universe, and those institutions destroy many of the characters.
Over the course of the entire series, the show's team of writers, which included Simon; fellow journalist and award-winning television writer David Mills; Edward Burns, a retired twenty-year veteran detective of the Baltimore Police Department; and acclaimed novelists such as Richard Price and George Pelecanos, detailed how, for the most part, life can be terrible for poor people living on the margins of American cities, and modern institutions—government, media, economic—inevitably seem to betray people and sometimes destroy them. Yet, in the midst of the show's palpable anger, The Wire, as Simon told Bill Moyers, “is a love letter to Baltimore” (Moyers interview, 2009). It is an angry show, but it is also a homage to the ability of union workers and neighborhood residents and reporters and police officers and people struggling with addiction to try, in the midst of so much pain, to struggle to make choices and live lives that are good and decent and right.
The Wire and African American Communities and Culture.
Many of the show's main characters are black people living in poor urban neighborhoods, and much of the show's central drama concerns America's black “underclass.” Some black characters, however, depict working-class dock workers, middle-class professionals, ambitious and politically savvy strivers, and civic minded, churchgoing folks. In The Wire, one black experience does not dominate the show. For example, one character's narrative arc shows him move from ex-con to drug cartel enforcer to youth recreational boxing organizer. Henry Louis Gates once summarized that if forty million black people exist in America then there are forty million different ways to be black. Viewers should keep in mind the show's diversity of presentations of black life.
Viewers should also not assume, however, that the mission of The Wire is to portray African American life and culture. That is not the show's intent. It is not, nor does it claim to be, a black show. That many of its characters are black relates to the show's social commentary on, and homage to, American cities at the turn of the new millennium. Urban America in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries contained many poor, economically alienated, and socially isolated black people. Black people, especially those from economically depressed cities and victims of punitive antidrug laws, filled American prisons. The Wire highlights these social realities of modern American ghettos. But since The Wire revolves around stories about urban crime, drug users, drug dealers, cops, and street hustlers, some critics condemned the show for its seemingly one-sided depiction of black life. African Americans portray many deplorable and tragic characters in the series, but this reflects the fact that black people dominate those social positions in contemporary American cities. Although it provides glimpses of different sides of modern black life, The Wire rarely comments on how black urban communities evolved throughout the twentieth century. The historic policies and practices that created specific racial social dynamics in crisis-ridden American cities go largely unexamined. Instead, it can be argued that the show hints at ways that tragedies connected to deindustrialization, drug war policies, and corruption have hurt all poor and working-class Americans, regardless of their race.
- Alvarez, Rafael. The Wire: Truth Be Told. New York: Grove Press, 2009.
- Busfield, Steve, and Paul Owen. The Wire Re-Up: The Guardian Guide to the Greatest TV Show Ever Made. London: Guardian Books, 2009.
- Moyers, Bill. Interview with David Simon, Bill Moyers Journal , April 17. 2009. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/04172009/watch.html
- Price, Richard. Clockers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
- Simon, David. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.
- Simon, David, and Edward Burns. The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.
- “Special Issue on The Wire.” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 1 (Autumn 2011), 164–233.
- Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
- Wilson, William J. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
- Wilson, William J. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Knopf, 1996.