The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television
Set in post–September 11 Baltimore, the HBO series The Wire—whose sixty episodes were originally broadcast between June 2002 and March 2008 and are now available on DVD—has many things on its rich and roaming mind, but one of those things is Baltimore itself, home of Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken, Babe Ruth, and Billie Holiday. Baltimore is not just a stand-in for Western civilization or globalized urban rot or the American inner city now given the cold federal shoulder in the folly-filled war on terror, though it is certainly all these things. Baltimore is also just plain itself, with a very specific cast of characters, dead and alive. Eminences are pointedly referenced in the course of the series: the camera passes over a sign to Babe Ruth’s birthplace, tightens on a Mencken quote sculpted into the office wall of The Baltimore Sun; “Poe” is not just street pronunciation for “poor” (to the delight of one of The Wire’s screenwriters) but implicitly printed onto one horror-story element of the script; a phrase of Lady Day wafts in as ambient recorded music in a narrative that is scoreless except when the credits are rolling or in the occasional end-of-season montage.
But there are less famous Baltimoreans throughout (local filmmaker John Waters is given an ambiguous shout-out in the final season, and he shouts ambiguously back in the DVD’s bonus features) and all are part of the texture and mythology that The Wire’s producers are putting on display both with anger and with love. The dartboard in a union boss’s office in the series’s second season features a photo of the former owner of the Baltimore Colts, who moved the team to Indianapolis in 1984; scenes shot in Baltimore churches use the actual congregations; real-life hot dog joints (Pollock Johnny’s!) now reside in The Wire’s televised amber; actual purple-walled soup kitchens and cemeteries and neighborhood corners have acquired mythic status.
More than one former reporter from The Baltimore Sun has written for the show. Baltimore heroin kingpins have cameo appearances, and one, Melvin Williams, who was arrested by producer Ed Burns when Burns was “a po-lice” (as it’s said in Baltimore), is given the role of the Deacon, which he performs arrestingly with lines such as “A good churchman is always up in everybody’s shit. That’s how we do.” The list goes on. Baltimoreans name their pets after the show’s characters. Some former members of the cast still roam the streets, now as celebrities. Young people use characters’ pictures from the show for their own profile photos on Facebook. British tourists come to Baltimore for Wire bus tours. This array of consuming response—domesticating ownership, emotional identification, and devoted pilgrimage—is only part of the very many personal reactions to the show.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.