A fresh look at America’s urban decay

Review: The Wire

WHEN US presidential candidate Barack Obama was asked his favourite TV show and character, his answers were The Wire and Omar Little (more on him later).

Don’t be surprised if these names don’t ring any bells. Unless you stay up very late or have pay TV, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of The Wire. And that’s a shame, because you’re missing out on the best examination of crime and modern America ever to make it to the small screen.

The Wire is set in Baltimore, a major city on the US east coast with a predominantly black population. Like many American cities, Baltimore is a once prosperous industrial centre trapped in a vicious cycle of declining population, high unemployment, drug addiction and violent crime.

The show’s central focus is the cat and mouse game between cops and drug dealers. However, this isn’t a police procedural drama. The Wire eschews the generic format of shows like CSI and Law and Order, where the police are noble characters who always solve the crime by the end of the episode. Instead it is structured as a “visual novel”, with vast and complex plots built on a central theme unfolding over an entire season. This format allows us to go deep inside the world of the participants and understand their motivations.

We follow the police as they try to take down major drug gangs with a mixture of old-fashioned street work, such as the use of informants, and sophisticated surveillance techniques such as wiretaps (hence the title). But far from lionising the police, the writers show that they are guided by cynical and often cruel motives. They act not out of civic duty but a desire to show they are smarter than the criminals they are chasing.

Even the most well-intentioned officers are trapped by the refusal of the powerful to consider the radical solutions needed to address the drug trade. Police bosses, under pressure from their political masters, resort to manipulating statistics because they have no viable strategy for reducing crime.

The difficulty of reforming the political system is a major theme of the third season. Disgust at the pointlessness of the “war on drugs” eventually prompts one brave commander to decriminalise drugs narcotics in his district to cut violent crime. His plan works but predictably draws the wrath of his superiors, politicians and the media.

What really sets this show apart is its sympathetic portrayal of Baltimore’s working people and underclass. In this show, drug dealers, addicts and dock workers get as much screen time as the cops. They are depicted not as monsters but as products of their environment, faithful to Karl Marx’s notion that “people make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing”. The extremely limited opportunities for Baltimore’s many poor residents creates both a large market for cocaine and heroin and a desperate pool of young men prepared to take risks to improve their lot.

Unlike any other show I can think of on TV, The Wire provides structural explanations for social problems such as crime and urban decay. Creator David Simon said he wanted to focus on the role of institutions such as gangs, the city council, the police force and the school system, and how individuals are shaped and constrained by their relationships to these bodies. The result is a cynical attitude towards institutions but a sympathetic presentation of characters who, whether they are cops or dealers, are trapped to varying degrees by their circumstances.

A fine example is the central character of the first season, a young drug dealer named D’Angelo Barksdale. He is nephew to one of the most powerful drug lords in the city and a rising player in his own right, but begins to question his uncle’s ruthless methods. D’Angelo and the other “corner boys” are used by their bosses but we are left in no doubt that they have also been let down by a system that cannot provide an education or opportunities for them. This theme is explored in depth in the fourth season, which examines Baltimore’s public school system through the experience of four boys.

The cat and mouse game between the police and the criminals is highly absorbing (it’s nice to see a realistic depiction of law enforcement for once) but is really only a starting point. As the show progresses from season to season it forensically uncovers the realities of power and inequality in the city to produce a devastating critique of modern America.

At its core, The Wire is a sociological investigation of the fate of the American city in the era of “post-industrialisation”—the hollowing out of urban centres that came with the massive industrial restructuring of the 1970s. This process has had a terrible impact on the US working class, a topic explored in the second season. Here, the multiracial stevedoring workforce at Baltimore’s port is steadily shrinking as factories close and humans are replaced by machines. Union leader Frank Sobotka is forced to take drastic measures to look after his members.

According to series creator David Simon, the second season was “a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class… 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.”

The Wire is one of the most brilliant TV dramas ever produced, and a welcome antidote to the hype surrounding the US presidential election.

Omar Little, by the way, is a gay, shotgun-wielding vigilante who robs drug dealers, a sort of Robin Hood. So maybe there is hope for Barack Obama yet.

Jarvis Ryan


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