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January 7, 2008

Baltimore’s Decline and the Triumph of HBO’s ‘The Wire’


This weekend marks the beginning of the end of one of television's greatest achievements, as HBO airs the first of 10 episodes that make up the final season of "The Wire." Creator David Simon's multi-faceted portrayal of an American city in decline is not only supremely entertaining, but has more to say about America in the 21st Century than perhaps any work of art of any medium this millennium. 
The genius of Simon's creation cannot possibly be overstated. Combining brilliantly written characters with gritty realism and sociological precision, "The Wire" looks at its city, Baltimore, from every angle – police, criminal organizations, politics, unions, schools and now newspapers. 
And, it does so with no particular ideological axe to grind. All those filmmakers who made awful movies about the Iraq war this year would be served by following "The Wire," which makes every point with masterful subtlety, and comes to no political conclusions other than that all of the above institutions are irretrievably broken. Simon may be as far to the left as the directors of "Lions For Lambs" or "In the Valley of Elah," but "The Wire" is no brief for socialism, as socialism requires strong government institutions. 


The show started in 2002, and initially focused on a conventional-seeming battle between police detectives and a specific West Baltimore drug gang, with police using state-of-the-art wiretap equipment (hence the show’s name). But with memorable characters, spry dialogue, and plot mechanics that often came out of nowhere, “The Wire” soon established itself as not just another “NYPD Blue.”
Created by Simon, a former Baltimore Sun crime reporter who wrote the nonfiction book that was the source of the earlier cop show "Homicide: Life on the Street," “The Wire,” early in its run, fell into a pattern of reaction that would follow it for its entire run: Huge critical acclaim, high praise from its group of fans, but thin overall ratings and little mainstream appeal. There was even a two-year gap between the third and fourth seasons, while HBO took its time deciding whether to renew the show.


Why isn’t the show more popular? There are many reasons. The show’s narrative is complicated and confusing, with dozens of characters in roles of varying sizes and a continuity that can be very hard to follow. It’s about bleak subjects, and in considering them it reaches bleak solutions. And, as Simon himself has said in interviews, it can be hard to get white audiences to fully embrace a show with a largely African-American cast. (“The Wire,” though, is heavily popular in the black community, especially among those who see a realism about their own lives rarely glimpsed in TV.)


I myself hardly know anyone who watches “The Wire,” with the exception of a couple of friends who I’ve talked into doing so. But once viewers get into it, usually by watching DVD sets of previous seasons, they often become converts themselves, recommending the shows to others with near-evangelical zeal.


And that may be the most astonishing thing about “The Wire’s” appeal. To every other television phenomenon this decade, from “Lost” to “Desperate Housewives” to (especially) “The Sopranos,” a backlash has emerged by the second season at the latest, that the show has “lost its mojo” and that the writers must have lost control of it. In these cynical times about pop culture, I’ve never seen anyone say anything like that about “The Wire.” Reading blog discussions about the show, as I do every week, just about the only thing I read is how great the episode was.


Following the first season’s look at drug enforcement, Season Two’s focus on the city’s docks and the accompanying decline of the white working class, Season Three’s targeted drug legalization scheme and Season Four’s heartbreaking depiction of city schools, Season Five goes somewhere new – the newspaper. Simon uses his experience at the paper to show the Baltimore Sun, also in decline, due to years of budget cuts, as well as people in charge who don’t know what they’re doing.


If you’re interested in following “The Wire,” the first four seasons are available on DVD, and selected episodes are available for those with access to HBO on Demand. And the new season, of course, is running for the next 10 weeks on Sunday nights. The show is a depiction of the condition of the American city unlike anything we’ve ever seen.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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