Saturday, March 8, 2008

el participante, volume 1 issue 3

The Wire

“It all matters,” Sergeant Ellis Carver says in season 5 of The Wire. “I know we thought it didn’t, but it does.”

Sergeant Ellis Carver’s observation about institutional neglect speaks to the success that the series has enjoyed. The Wire isn’t getting the attention at the Emmy’s or in the Nielson ratings, but critics are hailing it as the best show in television history this side of Roots. More importantly, it is very popular among the demographic it depicts: residents of the inner-city. Low ratings and accolades aside, the resonance of The Wire among urban-dwellers reveals that the gritty realism of the show captures something elemental about the violent, corrupt, and conflict ridden life of American cities.

The Wire’s low ratings indicate a disturbing truth in America. “Reality” television remains popular, but a program that portrays the harsh realities of our country is not what people seem to want to see. As The Wire demonstrates, we are all individually woven into a complex social fabric. The visceral nature of The Wire throws mainstream America’s complacent cognitive dissonance back in its face, and apparently most Americans would rather ignore systems of oppression that implicate themselves as participants. Sergeant Carver’s quote could be applied to privileged America’s overall attitude of willful neglect of “the other America.” It does indeed matter, but the media, political leaders and infrastructure, and “middle-class” Americans all act as if they think it doesn’t.

The Wire began its first season as a deceivingly simple cops-and-robbers narrative. It traced the efforts of Baltimore city detectives to infiltrate the West Baltimore drug trade monopoly using telephone-surveillance, or a wiretap, hence the series’ name. However, this was never a typical one-dimensional cops and robbers story. Avon Barksdale, the drug kingpin, was portrayed as a modern-day black “Godfather,” a family-man who simultaneously was ruthless and provided support for his entourage. Two detectives, Bunk and McNulty, are alcoholic womanizers, especially McNulty, who is a belligerent and irresponsible father and husband. Some cops commit blatant police brutality. One of the most popular characters of the show, Omar, makes a living by robbing drug-pushers and generally creating chaos for narco-traffickers. He is also homosexual. These are only a few examples of the ways that every character in The Wire is humanized and quite multifaceted.

Each subsequent season expanded in focus, incorporating other elements of the American city beyond the narrow drugs and detectives storyline. Season two incorporated the longshoremen’s unions and the dock-workers, portraying the cruelties of modern capitalistic enterprise and its detriments to the working-class. Season three brought in city politics, depicting how the mayor and city council’s personal political ambitions trump actual reduction of crime in the city. Season four dealt with the failing school system, with specific emphasis on schools’ blatant refusal to acknowledge the traumatic socialization facing black males. Season five, the current and last season, depicts the inner-workings and pitfalls of the media, as represented by The Baltimore Sun. The “wire,” then, was no longer a simple reference to wiretapping, but became a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all these institutions and how they affect and relate to each other.

There are too many complex themes in The Wire to fully discuss, but a few specific themes can help explain the show’s popularity among both critics and certain dedicated viewers. Painful relationships, such as a teenage boy who has to keep the DSS (welfare) card from his crack-addicted mother, strike a chord with anyone who has known a “crack baby.” Indeed, the line “I’m not paying you to be my mother,” is at once powerful and heartbreaking. The effects of repressive conditions on the human psyche are another common theme. A silent foster child, traumatized in ways left only to our imagination, stares blankly with no recognition of his social surroundings. His silence speaks to the silence imposed on the oppressed every day. The homeless veteran of the Iraq War, recounting the story of watching his commander lose his hands and laugh insanely during an attack in Fallujah (“It’s the laughing that I can’t stand. No hands: whatever”) speaks to the insanity war, both in foreign countries and the more intimate war on the streets of Baltimore. All these resonate deeply with those who have seen and lived these tragic circumstances.

Of course, the critics’ adoration of The Wire has more to do with the observations that the series makes about the structural failures of city infrastructure. When the schools are failing, the mayor takes money from crime-fighting units to compensate, but he, along with the rest of us, will ignore them again as soon as the media no longer has a story to put on the front page. Budget distribution is a teeter-totter of lies, pandering momentarily to the political winds, only to be taken the moment people stop caring. Perception and power are two other themes that are very prominent in The Wire. Political ambitions, whether they are to become a city prosecutor or the governor, dictate every action. Politicians and careerists are only concerned with public perception.

Even the drug traffickers are conscious of perception. If he (they are mostly men) shows any weakness or doubt, he opens the door for insubordination and competition, usually coming in the form of gun shots. So drug dealers must be cruel and heartless in their actions. Seasons four and five deal with this theme explicitly, observing a well-intentioned city councilman running for mayor with the earnest intention of changing Baltimore who, one year later, is “juking the crime stats”—altering the statistics so the are misleading, emphasizing quantity of arrests over quality—in hopes of a gubernatorial bid. Officials wielding political power do so for personal gain, not for the greater good of Baltimore. Even when a corrupt official is prosecuted, he becomes a pariah that falls to preserve the system, not end it.

But The Wire does more than observe the structural problems facing American cities. It also raises interesting questions, such as who actually has power. The police commissioner has direct control over investigations and resource distribution, and the mayor is mostly just briefed about crime-fighting. Careerist bureaucrats, more interested in numerous low-level arrests than the few leaders of the crime organizations, decide how crime is fought. It’s not just about who has the power in the political systems. The local drug lords have much more influence over youth than any local leaders or law enforcement, and young, intelligent black males (and some females) are more likely to end up on the corner, working for the drug kingpins, than in college (or even high school for that matter). Drug dealers hold sway over urban youth far more so than any political organization or detective unit. The drug trade is depicted as more efficient and rational than the bureaucratic mess downtown. They make more money, and even provide more money for youth in Baltimore, than the police can even conceptualize. The drug-pushers are, of course, ruthless, oppressive, and dehumanizing on their own and are not to be emulated, but The Wire suggests that the political, economic, and educational institutions in power hold less influence over the hearts and minds of urban denizens than the drug dealers they label as criminals. Those social institutions are simultaneously enforcing the dehumanizing conditions and are almost powerless to stop it.

The creators of The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns, know the city of Baltimore quite intimately. Simon was a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and Burns is a former police detective and teacher in Baltimore. Most of the events and themes in The Wire are based on their own experiences working in Baltimore, and Baltimore is indeed the heart of the show. The language and culture in The Wire is uniquely “B-More,” but the themes of The Wire are universally shared by urban communities, and the series provides a powerful argument for why American cities remain poor, corrupt, and dehumanizing places for their residents.

The themes in The Wire touch on problems that face every American city plagued by racist political and economic systems, the stark inequality of the post-industrial economy, and institutional failures to meet these crises. Creator David Simon himself said that The Wire is about how we are subject to institutions—political, educational, governmental, media, narcotic—that consistently fail us. There probably has never been a fictional show with more sociological and political significance than The Wire. Despite American’s preference for the farce of “reality” television, The Wire’s unprecedented broadcast on a popular network like HBO enables a large audience to finally see the inequities of American life and what is happening our cities. Perhaps more importantly, it gives a voice to people who have been silenced in America, like the foster child, the corner boys, the single mothers, crack babies, and everyone else on the block.


Danika Kellen said...

first time reading your blog. i find it difficult to read white text on a black background. perhaps you could consider changing it?

Anonymous said...

cool article, great show. nicw work paco.