No television show has the duty to make you care. Sure, most of the good ones do. So do a lot of the not-so-good ones – I care deeply about Sookie Stackhouse’s romantic endeavors and I have strong opinions about who should win Top Chef. But, ultimately, it is unfair to demand anything of our TV screens beyond a few laughs or a decent plot arc, and not too many commercials stuffed in between.
So it’s absolutely improbable – irresponsible, really, from a psychological standpoint – for a TV show to break your heart, repeatedly, without any cheap shots and minimal manipulation. And yet, for five impeccable seasons, that’s exactly what The Wire did. Creator David Simon combined his experiences writing for The Baltimore Sun with his knowledge of the lives of criminals and cops on the streets of a town lovingly referred to as Bodymore, Murderland (with the help of former Charm City policeman Ed Burns), eventually bringing in characters and storylines ranging from the docks, to city hall, to the failing school system. It could’ve been a giant, conflated mess, patting itself on the back with every “real-world lesson” and revelation about the harshness of life. But The Wire never treated itself as anything more than a simple narrative. As one fictional Sun editor says in season five describing his motives for going into journalism, “I just wanted to see something different everyday, maybe write a story about it.”
And that’s what David Simon did to Baltimore – he showed us stories with a Dickensian flair for the stark, the scathing, the sublime. The tropes – a hard-drinking ne’er-do-well Irish cop, a junkie, a gangster in a black trenchcoat – outgrew whatever archetype seemed most pressing, because, when you watch The Wire, these people are real. Sure, Det. Jimmy McNulty hates authority and cheats on his wife, but he views his cases with a desire both to solve a puzzle and perform a dead-serious civic duty. Omar Little might shoot you in the leg and take your bag of heroin, but he never acts outside of his personal morality as a .45-toting Robin Hood. Most of the “gangsters” we meet are just kids – many barely in their teens – and we spend enough time watching them learn chess and inspect home aquariums to see ourselves in them, even if we’ve never been in the back of a cop car ourselves.
The genius of the show is its constant duality: everyone from the mayor to the drug kingpin is capable of both cruel self-preservation and the broad-spanning philosophical monologue. Although just thinking about the second half of the fourth season is making my eyes tear up – if any show could spontaneously develop talons and rip out your heart Prometheus-style, this would definitely be the one – The Wire knew when to include the blackest of black comedy (like this great scene from season 1), and when to let the characters take a break, do a little work on the old miniature furniture set.
I should probably note that before I watched The Wire, I lived in Baltimore for a summer. It’s a city that’s been fractured by race and class for about as long as it’s existed. Even the accent is an ambiguous mix of the Southern drawl and the flat Boston intonation; the town was taken as a fortress for the Union during the Civil War, even though most Marylanders sided with the Confederacy. It’s where the national anthem was written, where Fitzgerald’s buried, where Poe died. Not to make The Wire out to be more than it really is – actually, fuck that, I’m going to just make it out to be what I’m pretty sure it is – but, in a lot of ways, those five seasons say more about America and the people who live there than any other work of fiction I can think of. Whether that’s a negative or a positive, I’m not sure. To abridge Avon Barksdale, I’m just a TV fan, I suppose.
–Megan Lent, Guest Writer