Tuned In

"The Wire" Gives TV Drama a Good Schooling

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School’s in by now in most of the country, and starting Sunday
night, it’s back in for HBO’s The Wire. When it debuted in 2002, it was
described, for lack of a better term, as a cop show. And it was, as far
as that went: the first season described a single investigation into a
Baltimore drug ring, beginning to end, going deeply into the lives and
work of both the police and the gang-bangers.

But "cop show" was just a convenient handle for a series, with an
ever-more-sprawling cast, that was ultimately about just one character:
Baltimore. Each following season absorbed more institutions of the
troubled industrial city–the unions, the city government—drawing the
city, with the ambition of Balzac’s 19th-century novels of French
society, as a living, if not always healthy, organism.

Season four takes on the city’s schools–the teachers, the
bureaucrats, and especially the kids, in particular four junior-high students with varying degrees of connection to the drug gangs, for whom
school could be a way to a better life or just a pit stop on the way to
an early, violent death. These are kids on the cusp, and The Wire shows
with heartbreaking clarity all the factors that could make or break
them: peer pressure, overworked teachers, an overwhelmed school system,
parents who are struggling, absent or, in some cases, deep into the
gang culture themselves.

Meanwhile, there’s a parallel, engrossing cop story as well: after
the downfall of Baltimore’s Barksdale drug gang in season 3, a new,
young kingpin is dominating the streets. The mystery: holding on to
drug turf always means killing someone, yet the cops haven’t uncovered
a single drug murder in weeks. Where are the bodies? Oh, yeah: and
there’s a mayoral election, in which an upstart, reform-minded city
councilman is trying to become the first white mayor in ages in the
majority-black city.

This is a simple way of describing an incredibly convoluted show
whose true pleasures come from the interplay of dozens of characters
drawn over the first three seasons: jaded but dogged cops; cynical
pols; turf-guarding bureaucrats; drug bosses and their
amoral-but-philosophical midlevel soldiers; struggling junkies; and the
show’s most standout character, Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a
gay holdup artist whose specialty is ripping off drug dealers and who,
believe it or not, is the closest thing to the show’s hero. If you’ve
never seen The Wire before, professional integrity requires me to say
you’re better off watching the first three seasons on DVD first. (But
hey, by my watch you’ve got 50-odd hours before season 4 starts! Get

It sounds like PC bean-counting, but should be said nonetheless,
that The Wire not only has a mostly African American cast but features
the broadest, most complex spectrum of different black characters of
any show on TV–possibly of any show ever on TV. I don’t mean this in
the tired cop-show sense that black actors play both good guys and bad
guys here. I mean that black actors play the morally ambiguous
characters–which, really, means most of the characters–as well: the
canny politicians, the careerist police officials, the lobbyists, the
bureaucrats, the campaign consultants, the businesspeople and the
recovering addicts.

Make no mistake: The Wire is, at heart, a big old-fashioned liberal
TV show. It is intensely focused on systems and how they are more
powerful than even the strongest individuals. It is about root causes
and the circumstances that make people’s lives go bad. And it is not
shy about blaming social ills on underfunded government programs and
conservative initiatives like the Federal No Child Left Behind program
and the resulting school obsession with standardized tests.

But its liberalism is clear-eyed, unsparing and unsentimental: it
also pins blame on corrupt Democratic hacks in city government and has
intense respect for dedicated cops. It’s an old-school, blue-collar
liberalism that divides the world not into red vs. blue, city vs.
suburb, or black against white, but little guy vs. boss–whether you
work on a drug corner or a corner office, it says, that division is the
same. You don’t have to share the producers’ politics (I don’t know,
but I’d suspect, for example, that I’m more libertarian than they are)
to admire their achievement. They have done what many well-intentioned
socially minded writers have tried and failed at: written a story that
is about social systems, in all their complexity, yet made it human,
funny and most important of all, rivetingly entertaining.

One character, watching a football game, sums up what may be the
show’s guiding philosophy about the urban crime wars and the fight to
save inner cities: "Nobody ever wins. One side just loses more slowly."
That may sound like a grim, nihilistic conclusion–maybe it is–and
yet, trust me, it is also the source of The Wire’s big-hearted
humanity. The best of its characters, and for that matter even the
not-so-best, live, see and feel that truth every day, whether they work
in City Hall or on the streets. And yet they keep playing.