The Wire ensemble: cops, junkies, dealers, lawyers, judges, dockers, prostitutes, prisoners, teachers, students, politicians, journalists

The Wire: David Simon on location in Baltimore.

Continuities: Hill Street Blues roll call: "'Let's be careful out there."

Parallel scene: roll call on The Wire.

Continuities: case board from Homicide: Life on the Street ...

... and from The Wire.

Contrasts: crime lab from CSI ...

... and from The Wire.

Baltimore = Everycity.

David Simon: “If I had a plan, it was to grow old on the Baltimore Sun’s copy desk, bumming cigarettes from young reporters and telling lies about what it was like working with HL Mencken and William Manchester.”

The writers: (L-R) George Pelecanos, Ed Burns and David Simon in public interview at the Museum of Television and Radio.

The other America: Hamsterdam, The Wire's third season experiment in drug legalisation.


The Wire and the world:
narrative and metanarrative

by Helena Sheehan and Sheamus Sweeney

Considered by many critics to be the best television drama series ever, The Wire ran from 2002 to 2008.[1][open endnotes in new window] It was made and set in Baltimore, employing a large ensemble cast playing cops, junkies, dealers, lawyers, judges, dockers, prostitutes, prisoners, teachers, students, politicians, journalists.[2] The dramatis personae range widely, not only horizontally but vertically, from the foot soldiers of the drug trade, police department, school system and newspapers through middle management to the higher executives, showing parallel problems and choices pervading the whole society. Starting with city cops pursuing a major drugs operation, the drama moves outward, inward, upward, and downward to the docks, city hall, media outlets and schools. There are murders, affairs, bribes, trials, exams, elections, promotions, statistics, bylines, prizes, careers rising and falling, and much more.

Summing up the surface plot does not tell the real story. There is an HBO podcast called "4 seasons in 4 minutes."[3] For those who have not seen The Wire, it looks like one more hyped-up TV drama and makes the critical acclaim surrounding the series seem incomprehensible. For those who have seen it, it is ironically funny and heightens the sense of how much more there is to it than can possibly be conveyed by simply recounting its plotlines. David Simon, its co-creator, admits,

"The raw material of our plotting seems to be the same stuff of so many other police procedurals."[4]

"We're not as smart as The Wire."

Although it bears many similarities to other police procedurals, this series also marks a new departure. As the genre has evolved over the decades, dissonance, disruption and ambiguity of resolution have increased. The gap between law and justice has widened in TV drama as it has widened in social consciousness. Cops such as Andy Sipowicz [NYPD Blue], Frank Pembleton [Homicide: Life on the Street], Vic Mackey [The Shield] and Olivia Benson [Law & Order: SVU] are a different species from Joe Friday [Dragnet]. They are no longer untainted and uncomplicated agents of righteousness, but morally conflicted, psychologically complex men and women struggling with difficult personal lives as well as a crumbling social contract. They cross many a line, both ethically and legally. The Wire bears many characteristics of the best of its predecessors. Indeed some of its set-ups recall strikingly what went before. For example, the roll call scenes in the western district station, particularly in the final season, seem to pay homage to those starting every episode of Hill Street Blues.

Nevertheless The Wire represents a leap in the evolution of the genre. It has moved complexity up a level, and in the process it has opened narrative up in terms of social context, showing a social order in steep decline in which cops, judges, teachers, politicians, journalists as well as criminals are overwhelmed by corrupting forces that often prevail over all other impulses.

It has also broken from the standard narrative structure to which most cop shows still adhere. In these, a relatively harmonious status quo is disturbed by a murder, rape or assault, followed by an investigation combining elements of pavement pounding, interrogation and forensic detection. The script brings the killer, rapist or assailant to justice by the final scene and restores harmony. The Wire's narrative structure unfolds according to a much longer and less predictable story arc. It also reveals a more astute social analysis. It particularly unfolds a more intricate view of the underclass. As Simon observes:

"On shows where the arrest matters ... the suspect exists to exalt the good guys, to make the Sipowiczs and the Pembletons and the Joe Fridays that much more moral, that much more righteous, that much more intellectualized. It's to validate their point of view and the point of view of society. So, you end up with same stilted picture of the underclass. Either they're the salt of earth looking for a break and not at all responsible, or they're venal and evil and need to be punished."[5]           

Simon includes in the pantheon of standard cop shows Homicide: Life on the Street, based on his own book of narrative journalism Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, published in 1991. That book was adapted into a long-running series for NBC. While critically acclaimed, it suffered throughout its run from poor ratings and was occasionally tied in with the more conventional ratings winner, Law and Order, through crossover episodes.

However, even within the confines of network television, Homicide strained against generic constraints as it showed something of the world that would be explored more fully in The Wire. Many episodes did indeed center upon Detective Pembleton and his attempts to break suspects in the box (interrogation room) by virtue of his superior intellect. It also drew into the audience's purview the political wrangling whereby the least deserving police were promoted and integrity punished in a numbers game that turned detection into an annual balance sheet so that economic priorities constantly hindered effective police work. The status quo was not a harmonious one. In The Wire such resolution as there is is achieved in the face of institutional hostility and demand for media-friendly drug busts. As often occurred in Homicide, drug dealers and murderers are charged, but do not always face justice, regaining their liberty via plea bargains or investigative irregularities.

The Wire also takes aim at the seemingly omnipotent and omniscient CSI-type police procedurals, where the labor of detection is effectively reduced to a glamorized quasi-science pursued by investigators dressed like fashion models in designer clothes and hairdos and working in crime labs that look like night clubs. In contrast, an early episode of The Wire shows detectives waiting at a crime scene for forensic investigators, who are tied up with the theft of a city councilman's lawn furniture, while the corpse is decaying. On another occasion, the evidence for multiple murders is inappropriately amalgamated because a temp has failed to understand the meaning of "et al." Most consequentially, in season five McNulty contrives a serial killer scenario through manipulation of forensic evidence (after discovering that post-mortem bruising can be mistaken for strangulation) in a convoluted scheme to get funding for real police work. The crime lab itself is down at the heel and its personnel look like ordinary working people dressed for a days work not for a catwalk.

Highlighting the gulf between The Wire and more conventional cop shows is an anecdote told by actor Andre Royo (Bubbles), recounting his experience on Law and Order:

"In one scene, the cops come to my house because someone is killed and I have the weapon there. While we were shooting, I saw an open hallway and I ran out. And the director yelled 'Cut' and said, 'We’re not as smart as The Wire. On our show, you put your hands up and get handcuffed.'"[6]

The Sopranos offers another point of comparison, as an HBO production that also took crime drama into new territory, where the story unfolded in such a way as to open out into a commentary on contemporary culture. That series took moral ambiguity to a whole new level. In speaking of The Sopranos, David Simon has praised this aspect of the show and said that he himself is not interested in good and evil.[7] However, despite what he says, the series itself, as well as his other utterances in interviews, belie this. While The Wire casts virtually every character in a stance of moral compromise and shows sympathy for criminals, it nevertheless has a strong moral compass and does not seduce its audience into moral dissolution as The Sopranos arguably does. The Wire constantly raises the question of a moral code, even if along unconventional lines, and challenges its audience to moral reflection.

"Storytelling that speaks to
our current condition"

Breaking from genre norms on many levels, The Wire has gone beyond even the best of previous police procedurals. It has set out to create something more panoramic and more provocative: "storytelling that speaks to our current condition, that grapples with the basic realities and contradictions of our immediate world,"[8] that presents a social and political argument. It is a drama about politics, sociology and macroeconomics.[9]

The drama unfolds in the space "wedged between two competing American myths." The first is the free market rags-to-riches success story:

"if you are smarter ... if you are shrewd or frugal or visionary, if you build a better mousetrap, you will succeed beyond your wildest imagination."[10]

The second is that

"if you are not smarter ... or clever or visionary, if you never do build a better mousetrap ... if you are neither slick nor cunning, yet willing to get up every day and work your ass off ... you have a place ... and you will not be betrayed."

According to Simon, it is "no longer possible even to remain polite on this subject. It is ... a lie."[11] The result is an economic and existential crisis.

Much TV drama has shown the slippage in the grip of these myths but still remains in thrall to them. The Wire has broken more decisively from such a mythology as it explores the social crisis resulting from a world in which many people will not succeed or necessarily even survive, even if they are smart or honest or hard working, indeed they might even be doomed because they are. In fact, in the current atmosphere of economic crisis, such slippage will accelerate. The Wire can be read as a realization that the U.S. must come to terms with the fact of its descent in the world. Neither the nation itself nor its individual citizens can go on pretending.

"Capitalism is Zeus."

Rarely, if ever, has a television drama constructed a narrative with such a strong thrust toward metanarrative. That is, its stories point toward a larger story. Its intricate and interwoven storylines dramatize the dialectical interaction between individual aspirations and institutional dynamics. These build into the larger story of a city, not only the story of Baltimore in its particularity, but with a metaphoric drive toward the story of Every City. Every character and storyline pulses with symbolic resonance radiating out to a characterization of the nature of contemporary capitalism. While the text itself does not name the system, the metatext does so with extraordinary clarity and force. David Simon, the primary voice of this collective creation, has engaged in a powerfully polemical discourse articulating the worldview that underlies the drama. The metanarrative, the story about the story, is implicit within the drama, but explicit in the discourse surrounding the drama, going way beyond that of any previous TV drama.

Shakespearean is a term often used to describe what is perceived as quality television drama and it has been used to describe The Wire. David Simon is, however, quick to correct his interviewers with regard to its dramatic provenance:

"The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason."[12]

This larger theme recurs across numerous interviews: The Wire is not a drama about individuals rising above institutions to triumph and achieve redemption and catharsis. It is a drama where those institutions thwart the ambitions and aspirations of those they purportedly exist to serve. It is a drama where individuals with hubris enough to challenge this dynamic invariably become mocked, marginalized or crushed by forces indifferent to their efforts or to their fates. It is a drama where truth and justice are often defeated as deceit and injustice are rewarded.

Of all the forces in motion — in politics, education, law and media — most crucial are the macroeconomic forces, which underpin and determine the operation of the other institutions. For David Simon:

"Capitalism is the ultimate god in The Wire. Capitalism is Zeus."[13]

The worldview underlying ancient Greek tragedy is one in which individuals do not control the world. They are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. This is akin to Marx and Engels' anatomization of capitalism as a sorcerer who

"is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."[14]

The hidden hand of the market is as capable of "hitting people in the ass for no decent reason" as the capricious deities of ancient tragedy. It is a drama of fated protagonists, a rigged game, where there is no happy-ever-after ending.

"Balzac of Baltimore"

Literary references abound in the discourse surrounding the series. Explaining why he thinks it to be the best series in the history of television, Jacob Weisberg argues:

"No other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature ... The drama repeatedly cuts from the top of Baltimore's social structure to its bottom, from political fund-raisers in the white suburbs to the subterranean squat of a homeless junkie .... The Wire's political science is as brilliant as its sociology. It leaves The West Wing, and everything else television has tried to do on this subject, in the dust."[15]

The 19th century realist novel often comes into the analysis. The word Dickensian peppers numerous articles and reviews. Indeed within the drama itself, much irony surrounds the phrase "the Dickensian aspect" used in the newsroom to capture their aspirations for their coverage of homelessness. A corner boy, Bodie, uses the words "Charles Dickens" as a euphemism for penis. Critics have also made reference to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Zola and Balzac.

The blog Scandalum Magnatum posted an entry on Simon entitled "Balzac of Baltimore," arguing that Balzac, Marx’s favorite novelist, sought to portray society in all its aspects, always thinking of it as a whole, showing how it was falling apart at the hands of the rising bourgeoisie. As Engels observed of Balzac, although his sympathies were with the class doomed to extinction, there was more to be learned from his fiction than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together.[16] In building a whole world, The Wire rivals the breadth of vision of the realist masterworks. It too anchors its sympathies in a class doomed to extinction, living in the shadows of the "brown fields and rotting piers and rusting factories,"[17] "dead-ended at some strip–mall cash register,"[18] "shrugged aside by the vagaries of unrestrained capitalism."[19]

David Simon began his working life as a print journalist, a crime reporter on the Baltimore Sun, then wrote factual books before becoming a TV writer and producer. His principal co-writer, Ed Burns, a Vietnam veteran, became a homicide detective and then a social studies teacher. Burns teamed up with Simon in 1993 to write the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997), later made into an HBO miniseries. These two writers had a central influence on the world of The Wire. Other writers also contributed to the series' common vision — to portray "the other America."[20] Of particular note are George Pelecanos (DC quartet of crime novels), Richard Price (Clockers) and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River). Simon has favorably compared Clockers to Steinbeck’s naturalist Grapes of Wrath.[21] And concomitantly Lehane recounts his initial reaction to Clockers in terms that could equally apply to The Wire:

"It just rattled me to my core. Reading it I remember feeling ... this, right here — is literature. This is what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to go out into a part of the world … where few dare venture and return with a testament."[22]

Crucial to what makes a narrative outstanding is usually a thrust toward metanarrative. Such multifaceted works are often shaped by an intent to portray a wide social panorama at a particular moment in history. In this instance, The Wire dramatizes a postindustrial U.S. rustbelt city. The different seasons could be described as a series of linked novels. Simon himself has seen in long-form TV drama possibilities akin to those offered by the multi-point-of-view novel "where you get the whole world."[23] The scripts reflect this sense of a cumulative structure and are written as chapters, largely devoid of cliff-hanger endings. The HBO cable television model, based on subscription and devoid of ad breaks, frees The Wire's scriptwriters from having to write in fifteen-minute blocks, each segment ending on a mini-climax to hook the viewer in after the commercial. What distinguishes The Wire most of all, however, setting it apart even from other high quality HBO productions, is that it is driven by a coherent worldview, by a social and historical analysis. The series signals the return of the grand narrative to the TV screen, but at a level of complexity and nuance never before seen in a television drama.

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