The Wire Is TV As Dissent

by | Nov 29, 2009

Darby and I have been intently viewing seasons one through four of HBO’s The Wire (care of Netflix), which leaves just season five to go. I’m afraid we’re already dreading the end of the series. We don’t want it to end, the way you don’t want a great novel to end. But end it must.

In preparation for this coming conclusion of what one critic calls the “greatest TV show ever made,” I’ve begun searching for and processing the criticism.

Mark Bowden of The Atlantic called the show’s co-creator, David Simon, “the angriest man in television.” In an interview with Bill Moyers on PBS, Simon says he doesn’t mind “being called that” and asks rhetorically if there’s a better response to the America of the last decade.

Bowden also makes note of the literary form advanced by The Wire.

Some years ago, Tom Wolfe called on novelists to abandon the cul-de-sac of modern “literary” fiction, which he saw as self-absorbed, thumb-sucking gamesmanship, and instead to revive social realism, to take up as a subject the colossal, astonishing, and terrible pageant of contemporary America. I doubt he imagined that one of the best responses to this call would be a TV program, but the boxed sets blend nicely on a bookshelf with the great novels of American history.

It’s a point well taken. I’ve often thought that Shakespeare, were he alive today, would be successful in Hollywood. It’s also interesting to understand Simon’s background as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. For 12 years the man told detailed, well researched, fact-filled stories, but those stories didn’t change policy in City Hall, Annapolis or Washington, DC. Simon isn’t holding his breath to see these changes come as a result of his TV show either. He sees the problems in America (like the failed War on Drugs that his show dramatizes) as systemic, and argues that conditions will have to become much worse before they get better.

Here, let’s listen to the man:

Simon says our economy doesn’t need the underclass, and that’s why these urban black communities have been pushed completely from the frame of American life. He’s right about the extreme marginalization, but I would counter that this nation does need the underclass and that poor, under-educated workers can become productive and change their station in life and possibly the country’s future in the process.

President Obama is conducting a “jobs summit” this week to help spur jobs training and jobs creation. In my opinion, we need to get off our collective ass now and institute a 1930s-style public works program. It doesn’t take a genius to see how much work there is to do. The nation’s roads and bridges need repairs and we must build high speed rail from Seattle to San Diego and from Miami to Boston. Moving to energy, the nation’s entire electrical grid needs to be refitted to store and conduct DC current produced by solar and wind. And the list goes on. Meanwhile, little progress is made.

In one episode of The Wire, “Bunny,” of Baltimore city police, says he doesn’t know what the answer is to getting kids off the corner and returning the streets to the citizens of Baltimore, only that it can’t be a lie. That’s correct, and it can’t be a lie in real life. Yet, empire is a lie. The wars to maintain it are a lie. The war on drugs is a lie. Saying we don’t have the resources nor the will to house the homeless, feed the hungry and care for the uninsured is a lie.

It’s easy to get fired up by The Wire, and that art’s role in society—to challenge us, to make us think, and help us to care. On these fronts, HBO’s gritty crime drama is a huge success.