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In the Life of ‘The Wire’

The Wire

a television series created by David Simon
HBO, 23 DVDs, $249.99

The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television

edited by Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall
Continuum, 254 pp., $75.00; $24.95 (paper)
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Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Dominic West as Detective Jimmy McNulty and Corey Parker Robinson as Detective Leander Sydnor in The Wire

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.

The use of Baltimore as a millennial tapestry, in fact, might be seen as a quiet rebuke to its own great living novelists, Anne Tyler and John Barth, both of whose exquisitely styled prose could be accused of having turned its back on the deep inner workings of the city that executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore reporter, and producer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore schoolteacher and cop, have excavated with such daring and success. (“Where in Leave-It-to-Beaver-Land are you taking me?” asks The Wire‘s homeless police informant Bubbles, when driven out to a leafy, upscale neighborhood; the words are novelist and screenwriter Richard Price’s and never mind that this aging cultural reference is unlikely to have actually spilled forth from this character; the remark does nicely).

So confident are Simon and Burns in their enterprise that they have with much justification called the program “not television” but a “novel.” Certainly the series’s creators know what novelists know: that it takes time to transform a social type into a human being, demography into dramaturgy, whether time comes in the form of pages or hours. With time as a medium rather than a constraint one can show a profound and unexpected aspect of a character, and discover what that character might decide to do because of it. With time one can show the surprising interconnections within a chaotic, patchworked metropolis.

It is sometimes difficult to sing the praises of this premier example of a new art form, not just because enthusiastic viewers and cultural studies graduate students have gotten there first—“Heroism, Institutions, and the Police Procedural” or “Stringer Bell’s Lament: Violence and Legitimacy in Contemporary Capitalism” (chapters in The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television)—but also because David Simon himself, not trusting an audience, and not waiting for posterity, in his own often stirring remarks about the show in print interviews, in public appearances, and in audio commentary on the DVD version, has not just explicated the text to near muteness but jacked the critical rhetoric up very high. He is the show’s most garrulous promoter. In comment after comment, even the word “novel” is not always enough and Simon and his colleagues have compared his five-season series to a Greek tragedy (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes are all named), Homer’s Iliad, a Shakespearean drama, a serialized narrative by Dickens, an historical document that will be read in fifty years, a book by Tolstoy, and Melville’s Moby-Dick. This leaves only journalist Joe Klein to raise the ante further: “The Wire never won an Emmy?” Klein is shown exclaiming in the DVD features on the final episode. “The Wire should win the Nobel Prize for literature!”

It could have—if we’d done everything wrong—been a cop show,” Simon has said. And in its admirable and unblinking look at a cursed people—America’s largely black and brown urban underclass—it is arguably biblical, Dantesque, and (Masterpiece Theatre be damned) more downstairs than upstairs. Despite Simon’s assertions, however, the series has some origins in legal and police shows such as L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues—not to mention Burns and Simon’s own Emmy-winning The Corner (2000), a rather shapeless precursor (a faux documentary about poverty and drugs in the mostly black neighborhood of West Baltimore, filmed with a handheld camera and a blues soundtrack), as well as Homicide, based on Simon’s own book about the Baltimore Police Department, which ran from 1993 to 1999. The Wire is the polished mature version of efforts begun before; it is not entirely sui generis but it is beautifully evolved. Nor is the force of the conventional medium entirely absent. Although there are no breaks for commercials, one feels the pressure and shape of an hour imposing itself on each episode, even if the plot of each remains unresolved and the pacing broodingly languorous despite sharp-edged cutting.

The Sopranos helped prepare the way for this format as well, though the nature and mood of The Sopranos is essentially comedic, a family drama laced with amusing and operatic artifice, as is the current AMC series Mad Men. Recognizable authenticity, new and trenchant social commentary, and tragic class warfare have not really been high on the agenda of any other cable series, and it is a source of some bitterness for The Wire‘s creators that it never had the wide audience that these other series have had.

Simon uses an analogy of white flight to explain it: white people will tolerate up to 8 percent of the neighborhood being black before they begin to leave, turning the neighborhood into a black one. The Wire‘s cast is over 60 percent black and the white viewer flight was almost immediate. A teenaged actor who plays one of the middle-schoolers of the show’s fourth season and who was not privy at the time to Simon’s analysis remarks of the show’s lost viewers, “The messed-up thing is they can’t handle the truth.”

The Wire, of course, is a deliberately far cry from Adam-12 and Dragnet, the cop shows of Simon’s childhood. Its newness as a narrative art form is underscored most convincingly by its power on DVD, where it can be watched all at once, over sixty hours: this particular manner of viewing makes the literary accolades and the comparisons to a novel more justified and true. On the other hand, so engrossing, heart-tugging, and uncertain are the various story arcs that watching in this manner one becomes filled with a kind of mesmerized dread. In this new motion picture format the standard, consoling boundaries and storytelling rhythms are dispensed with—mostly. One is allowed a wider, deeper portrait, a panorama, of entrepreneurial crime, government corruption, a harassed underclass, and faulty institutions of every sort—sprawling portraiture that aims at inclusivity.

Even though its city hall has been mum, Baltimore’s Police Department has given The Wire its endorsement, as have the kids of East and West Baltimore. Moreover, the show’s themes can seem reiterated everywhere in the world, from out-of-work shrimpers and autoworkers, to the meth cookers of the Ozarks, to the poppy growers of war-torn Afghanistan (oddly, Hamid Karzai has two brothers who live in the Baltimore area). It is sometimes hard to think about the world’s troubles without thinking: “This is just like The Wire.”

In exposing the nerves, fallout, and sealed fates caused by a remorseless breed of capitalism and its writing-off of whole swathes of the populace, and by insisting on its universality as a subject, The Wire has much in common with great political drama everywhere; the plays of George Bernard Shaw (in which rich and poor are both given language) come to mind. The newly elected mayor of Reykjavik will not allow anyone in his political party unless they have watched all five seasons. The mayor of Newark is also a fan. So is Barack Obama, whose favorite character is the gay, drug dealer–robbing gunslinger Omar Little—a new hero in queer studies, one of the few characters in the show who honors “a code,” and the only one whose ongoing motivation is love for another person.

In the intricate network of The Wire the story lines derive from the worlds of street-corner drug dealers and big-time traffickers, the police of homicide and drug enforcement and “special crimes,” the in-office brass, the dockworkers who knowingly and unknowingly unload the drug shipments, the union leaders, the foreign suppliers, the public schools, the newspaper, the mayor’s office, the city council, the lawyers and judges of the criminal justice system, the prisons, the soup kitchens, the rehab facilities, and the group homes with their revolving doors. This is the metaphorical “wire” that connects all the various institutions and habitats of the city. It also refers to the high-wire act of brave policing and honest work—difficult and rare.

More literally, the title signifies the wiretap that narcotics detectives are constantly trying to get judicial consent for and then set up before the dealers—drug lords, “hoppers” (the lowest-level drug dealers), lieutenants, and other “soldiers”—get wind of it and switch to a different system. At one point, with their cell phone codes cracked, and with the detectives successfully up on the wire, the players in “the game,” as the drug business is called, are either not using phones at all or else tossing them away after every use. The wire not only demonstrates the ingenuity of dealers and detectives as they elude each other, but surveillance itself becomes the show’s metaphor for what drama does in listening in on the world. It also embraces the Wildean sense of art’s cleverness as well as its uselessness. Utility versus futility is everywhere at the center of David Simon’s own view of the show. The great waste of human spirit and endeavor is dramatized, ironically, with great human spirit and endeavor.

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Paul Schiraldi/HBO
Idris Elba as Stringer Bell and Wood Harris as Avon Barksdale in The Wire

Season One introduces us to the Barksdale drug operation headed up by Avon Barksdale, his sister Brianna, and his right-hand man, the wannabe businessman Stringer Bell. The syndicate is operated out of a nightclub and then a funeral parlor, and when Avon is incarcerated, Bell attempts to hold meetings using Robert’s Rules of Order. (The result is a kind of skit.) The business has as its primary territory housing project towers that are subsequently exploded in Season Three, an image deliberately designed to recall September 11. (Baltimore early on got rid of its old housing projects; other American cities followed.) This detonation is mostly viewed through the eyes of kids who are watching everything they’ve known reduced to rubble—and not unceremoniously.

Stringer Bell, played by the African-British actor Idris Elba, is the enigmatic Gatsby figure, yearning for legitimacy, sporting wire-rimmed glasses, and attending economics classes at the local community college. He aims to become a legitimate businessman, a fate that is finally handed over to Marlo Stanfield at series end, though Marlo (played with eerie but prideful injuriousness by Jamie Hector) doesn’t want it. Brianna Barksdale is one of several mother characters who give the lie to lip service paid to family values in a drug war–torn family by forcing their reluctant kids onto the streets to sell dope. In a white male–written show with few women, and, yes, a stripper or two with the requisite heart of gold, these “Dragon Ladies,” as one of the kids calls them, are part of a Wire subset of women marred if not mutilated by ambition.

Still, these portrayals seem complex: emotionally ugly and specific enough to be convincing. They are eyepopping to watch, especially Michael Hyatt as Brianna, who demands of her son that he do hard prison time for the organization, and Sandi McCree as De’Londa, who exclaims loudly that her son should be put in “baby booking” where he might learn to be a man. These women, not drug-addled themselves, eat up the screen, even when they are quiet and must merely flash a look. Women who pimp their children are breathtaking in their monstrousness—absent from The Wire are any wise, reassuring matriarchs—and these bleak characters succeed in taking the viewer’s breath away. Simon is not interested in viewer comfort; the conventions of prescriptive political fiction do not capture his imagination very deeply; he is far more interested in the unholy bargains everyone makes in the maelstrom of societal injustices. For a feminist heroine the show has only the quite imperfect Detective Kima Greggs, and only because in her strength, humor, passion for work, and apparently secure hold on her biracial identity and lesbianism, she is slightly better than almost anyone else.

Each season explores an institution that has gone hollow with gamesmanship. Most of Season Two focuses on Baltimore’s dockworkers, particularly Frank Sobotka (played with a smolder and a fat suit by baby-faced Chris Bauer), a union head who stares out at Baltimore’s abandoned mills and grain piers and notes that they are now condos. His torment and lament—that this country once made things—is the nation’s own. His particular fate is a tragic one, Shakespearean in its emotional mix of small onstage relatives and large offstage forces, and his relationship with his nephew is one of several uncle–nephew relationships in The Wire (Avon and D’Angelo; Proposition Joe and Cheese) that wordlessly announce the gaping holes left in families hit by law enforcement and hard economic times. Season Three introduces the politicians and Season Four the school system and the children it fails. Season Five concentrates on the diminished and compromised role of journalists.

The most intriguing phrase Simon has used regarding The Wire is to say that it is about “the death of work.” By this he means not just the loss of jobs, though there certainly is that, but the loss of integrity within our systems of work, the “juking of stats,” the speaking of truth to power having been replaced with speaking what is most self-serving and pleasing to the higher-ups. In a poker game with the mayor, one folds on a flush to allow the mayor to win. (As opposed to the freelance stickup man Omar, who, beholden to no one, shows up at at a kingpin’s poker night with two pistols and the Dennis Lehane line “I believe these four 5s beat your full house.”) Police departments manipulate their stats for the politicians; schools do the same; newspapers fake stories with their eye on prizes and stockholders. Moreover, in the world of The Wire almost everyone who tries to buck the system and do right is punished, often severely and grotesquely and heartbreakingly. Accommodation is survival at the most basic level, although it is also lethal to the soul.

Ideas are no good without stories. Stories are no good without characters. In drama, characters are no good without actors. If the integrity of The Wire derives from the integrity of its creators, its power lies, in an old-fashioned way, in the brilliant acting of a varied and charismatic cast. Not to diminish the quality of the writing or the careful cinematography, but little of Simon’s agenda would convince without the series’s acting: this is how the humanity of various people is given its indelible life. The Wire‘s producers claim it contains the most diverse cast ever on television, and it is hard to doubt it.

What depth of acting talent we have in our contemporary world, even if so much of it is not in Hollywood. Some of The Wire‘s standout performances are from British or Irish actors who mimic American accents so impressively that their real voices in the commentaries are startling. Of course the Baltimore gloss is less convincing and sometimes even absent, but the rest of America is fooled: Dominic West, as the “true police” Jimmy McNulty, is from Britain; Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, also British, is of Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean parentage; Aiden Gillen, who plays Tommy Carcetti, the calculating politician who on occasion gets passionately if momentarily swept up in his own rhetoric, is from Ireland.

Some of the actors in The Wire are amateurs and some are pros educated at Juilliard and Yale. Gbenga Akinnagbe and Felicia Pearson, who play Chris and Snoop of the Marlo Stanfield gang, are a prime example. Akinnagbe is a professional actor and Bucknell graduate, and Pearson is a Baltimore rapper and quite literally an ex-con, having done time at the Maryland Women’s Correctional facility for a homicide committed when she was fourteen. She had never acted on screen before but was brought to the set by Michael Williams (Omar), himself a former dancer, then placed prominently and without a name change in Seasons Four and Five: her real-life nickname is Snoop.

Together Snoop and Chris form a duo that according to Stephen King are two of the scariest assassins ever put on the screen. Snoop bears a pretty mime’s pale impassivity; Chris’s starburst hair gives him a clown’s silhouette though his face remains stonily dour. Together, dour clown and mime, they are assassins in an escapee circus act, caught in a zombie script that would terrify not just Baltimore’s finest but Baltimore’s finest horror writer. At the beginning of Season Four they buy a nail gun that Snoop suggests they use as a weapon—the screenwriter’s nod, perhaps, to Cormac McCarthy’s cattle bolt. Snoop and Chris fill up abandoned row houses with the bodies of young black men (number one males, in police terminology) who have in some way disrespected their boss, Marlo, creating a charnel house straight out of Poe.

No one is really looking for these victims—oh, for a missing blond cheerleader, think the cops, whose budgets have been slashed (reduced wages, no witness protection funds, flat tires on their cars, DNA samples going bad in broken refrigerators)—and by the time the bodies are found there are well over a dozen. “My number in the office pool is twenty-three,” says Detective Bunk, cigar in mouth, so convincingly played by Wendell Pierce.

In the Barksdale gang, the hopper, the lieutenant, and the deputy kingpin who are killed for going their own way (Wallace, D’Angelo, Stringer Bell) are portrayed by actors possessed of especially beautiful and sensitive faces. Their deaths play viscerally and haunt the show; Seasons One and Three are largely built around them. (Almost everyone a viewer might quixotically root for is eventually killed; even if the killing is not lingered over, the show pulls no punches.) Avon Barksdale initially seems green and weak next to the handsome and charismatic Stringer, but the several layers of Avon’s manipulations are put forth with fluid skill by Wood Harris, and when we see him again in Season Five his performance has solidified into a nuanced affability made sinister by power. One of the series’s most telling scenes is in Season Three, when Harris and Elba stand on a terrace overlooking the city, anxiously disguising their characters’ mutual betrayals with sentimental memories of a shared boyhood. Here Avon’s extra layer of artifice, his hardened street-soldier smarts, triumph over the man who would like drugs to be a business rather than a war.

There is not a feeble performance in the entire show. While David Simon is achieving remarkable verisimilitude, supplying the scripts with a glossary, and making sure the writing is both on message and real (“bitch” is used mostly to describe men; only black actors use the N-word and often affectionately), the actors sometimes improvise imaginatively (often with the prop and costume people), reaching for the curious displacements of art. Lance Reddick plays Lieutenant Daniels as a princely African-American Spock aboard the starship Baltimore. Robert Chew plays the drug lord Proposition Joe, whose wistfulness for the old days is expressed in his tender repairing of broken clocks. One defiant and suspended policeman, Herc—played by Domenick Lombardozzi, whose Bronx accent is already a conspicuous and pleasingly unexplained dislocation (try not to think of Tony Curtis in Spartacus)—defiantly opens his front door wearing a Wisconsin T-shirt with the logo “Smell the Dairy Air.” Omar sports a long, waxed duster to accompany his shotgun and bulletproof vest, making him seem very much an urban Jesse James, and the lighting, editing, and quite self-conscious cinematography in various showdowns assist in this motif. (In the one episode where Omar is on a Caribbean isle, he seems so out of place the story line quickly summons him back to cowboy land.)

J.D. Williams as terminal corner boy Bodie emerges as a tremendous actor with or without his white do-rag, filched from a production of The Crucible. And the middle school quartet in Season Four—Michael, Namond, Randy, and Dukie—are a gut-wrenching ensemble, but Julito McCullum’s performance as Namond, replete with ponytail and earrings, seems singular in its range. His character is given more to do, but as an actor he is there for every moment of it. His tears before his mother, his fury at the universe, his jokes with his pals—“Yo, you must be one of those at-risk kids!” he says self-satirically to Dukie when his friend orders the turkey grease at a Chinese restaurant—all this makes Namond’s successful if narrow escape from the neighborhood one of the few bear- able outcomes in The Wire’s many stories. (And one of the only times when reaching out to a cop doesn’t result in catastrophe.)

It is a small statistic, as with the ex-con Cutty’s successful boxing club, but one of human escape amid hopelessness. As the ill-fated Dukie says, “How do you get from here to the rest of the world?” Tolstoy was wrong about happy families—it is more likely hell, or hellishness, that is of a predictable sameness. Heaven will take one by surprise, as surprise is perhaps essential to it. “Sometimes life just gives you a moment,” says Lester Freamon, played by the deep-voiced, bowlegged Clarke Peters, the gifted actor who has accompanied David Simon on his journey through The Corner, The Wire, and Treme. But with this much already under Simon’s (and Peters’s) belt, beyond, as they might say shruggingly in Baltimore, ain’t no thing. The series’s final words are “Let’s go home,” not unlike the last words spoken by the last man on the moon.

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