catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 7 :: 2008.04.04 — 2008.04.18


No rest, no peace in The Wire

The most generous, depressing, and ambitious television series has concluded.  Yet, it is foolish to suggest that any character on The Wire will rest in peace.  Show creator David Simon remains restless, angry and ready to rumble. 

I recently had the privilege of hearing Simon speak at the University of Southern California.  The event was hosted by Diane Winston, the Knight Chair of Religion and Media at the Annenberg School of Communication.  Diane is committed to deepening the media’s understanding of religion and their subsequent coverage of spiritual issues.  Diane and David worked together as reporters for The Baltimore Sun.  Simon has ample reasons to worry about the future of journalism.  But alas, current USC journalism majors may have been too busy chasing down the ever-shrinking job market to pay attention. 

The Wire is a prophetic rant against the system, “the game,” we all play.  David Simon described the acclaimed HBO series as, “A political tract masquerading as a cop show.”  What is his main thesis?  “Every day human beings matter less.”  As we allow corporate interests to overrun individuals, we become complicit in our collective demise.  Those at the bottom of the social ladder pay the biggest (and earliest) price.  But The Wire demonstrates how inextricably intertwined our institutions and our citizens remain. 

When committed cops on The Wire like Detectives McNulty and Freamon are forced to fake crimes to get the resources they need to solve genuine murders, we’re all in trouble.  When sharp students and energetic teachers are crushed by a school system that teaches toward test results, our collective future is threatened.  When newspapers start chasing Pulitzer Prizes for stories about their stories rather than uncovering everyday graft at City Hall, our democracy is endangered.  The Wire is a wake up call, aimed toward America at a crossroads.  The modest audiences tuned into this novelistic drama do not lessen its importance.  Time will tell whether The Wire served as a canary in our cultural coalmine. 

Simon suggested that the final season of The Wire was constructed as an elaborate ruse.  Just as McNulty played a trick on The Baltimore Sun, so Simon pulled a slow one on his former field.  While the media protested The Wire’s portrait of a craven journalist who shades the truth in search of prizes and promotions, they missed the real point of this season.  How does a paper like The Baltimore Sun continue to miss the real stories happening in their city (both on the show and in everyday life)?  The final season of The Wire demonstrates why none of the genuine problems get attention in the press.  Simon noted how “in every episode—everything you know to be nuanced and subtle about Baltimore will not find its way into the newspaper.”   Journalists chase headlines while editors chase prizes, while owners chase dollar signs.  And the people and the city suffer in silence, unreported and unrepresented.

I was introduced to The Wire by journalist John Marks.  As a former reporter for U.S. News and World Report and a producer for 60 Minutes, Marks understands how tenuous reporters’ livelihoods have become.  And yet, as a novelist, Marks was also drawn to the broad canvas depicted in The Wire.  No show depicts black America with more depth, variety, and compassion.  At the same time, no show portrays a city and its officials with more unsparing contempt.  Baltimore is shown as full of flaws and brimming with broken humanity.  It is a paean to a once great city.

John Marks gave me the DVD collection of The Wire as a gift.  He sent it as a comfort on the heels of my wife’s diagnosis with Hodgkins Lymphoma.  Somehow, our fight against cancer seemed small compared to the struggles on The Wire.  Certainly, the absurdity of battling cancer by nearly killing my wife via chemotherapy matches the tone of the show.  Baltimore’s best efforts to clean itself up always carried a high, human price.  The gallows humor animating the police precinct matched Caroline’s struggle to survive Hodgkins.  (Thankfully, she just celebrated her second year of being cancer free!)

I became so enthralled with The Wire that I ended up writing a chapter for a forthcoming book edited by Diane Winston.  Small Screen, Big Picture:  Lived Religion and Television will be published by Baylor University Press in 2009.  It looks at television drama from the perspectives of a variety of disciplines, but the common thread is “lived religion.”  How does faith impact the lives of the most enduring television characters?  At USC, David Simon revealed the worldview that distinguishes The Wire from its competition.  While most television dramas draw upon Shakespeare, upon characters who determine their own fate through noble or foolish decisions, The Wire reaches back to Greek dramas for inspiration.  The people in West Baltimore may think they define their own future.  But in The Wire, we are all pawns in a much larger game. 

Simon may have identified why his show attracted so few viewers.  It is an assault upon our civic religion, the notion that we control our own destiny.  At USC, Simon suggested, “As modernists, we have a hard time with religion.  No book is the answer.  We have a hard time placing ourselves beneath fate itself, beneath God.  We want to believe we’re in control of things.”  Simon calls it “that great illusion of being in control.”

Occasionally on The Wire, a junkie like Bubbles may clean up and get off the streets.   But right on his heels, a well-intended teen like Dukie will take his place in an addicts’ shooting gallery.  A Robin-Hooded figure like Omar may rage against the drug kingpins, but his time and his ability are limited.  A good kid like Michael will replace Omar, robbing from the rich dealers and redistributing amongst his circle of the poor.  He will burn brightly for a season.  But as we look back on Baltimore in The Wire, we join Detective McNulty in noticing how little has changed.  We may occupy different roles and seats, but the game remains the same.  Everybody on The Wire has to serve somebody.  The only mistake we make is thinking we’re exempt.

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