A few nights ago, I finished what may be one of the best motion pictures of the last decade. I say "finished" because I watched the 60+ hour film piece by piece over the course of several months.
Yes, I’m talking about a television series. The Wire ran for five seasons from 2002 through 2008 on HBO. There were 60 episodes in all, but it’s easy to think of The Wire as a single story, Dickensian in its sprawling complexity.
The Wire looks at ghetto dwellers earning a living and sometimes getting rich the only way available to them–by selling heroin. It’s also about a handful of dedicated police detectives trying to bring down the drug dealers while struggling within a bureaucracy that couldn’t care less.
That’s the main thread of the show, but others come up along the way. In the second season, we meet longshoremen and a corrupt union–corrupt because there is no honest way to earn the money needed to buy political muscle. The third season brings in the obvious solution that no one will consider (legalizing drugs), and also studies city politics and a whole new level of corruption. In the fourth, we enter a public school system where the teachers and administrators have all but given up on actual teaching, and the students understand that they will have to choose between two life paths: gangster and addict. In the fifth season, the press enters the picture as the city editor of a struggling newspaper tries to do honest and meaningful work. His bosses, like those in the police department, are not interested.
In other words, it’s about urban decay, in American cities in general and Baltimore in particular. The show’s creator and (if I may use the term) auteur, David Simon, worked the Baltimore crime beat as a reporter for more than a decade before becoming a producer. He knows what he was writing about, and he knows Baltimore–The Wire’s main character.
The human characters are almost as compelling. You’ve got an idealistic and determined detective who is also an alcoholic womanizer, a gang leader’s second-in-command who happens to be a brilliant businessman, a union leader who tries to stay honest while dipping into crime for what he believes is the good of the union, a gay, swashbuckling thug who preys upon the drug lords, a cop who effectively legalizes drugs in his precinct, and a teenage boy pressured by his parents to start a life of crime. And that’s barely scratching the surface.
One rule that’s seldom spoken but which they all understand: Whether or not you can get away with murder depends largely on who you kill. Race is an obvious factor; even in a predominantly black city, the political pressure is greater to solve the murder of someone white. But that’s not the only rule. Black or white, you can’t kill someone with political power, and you can never kill a cop. But you’d have to drop an awful lot of black guys in the ‘hood to even get noticed…and even then you won’t be noticed long.
Simon and his collaborators aren’t interested in telling reassuring tales. Good deeds are often punished, and bad deeds rewarded. People you care about die in The Wire, sometimes suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.
At the end of the fifth season, The Wire comes to a satisfying ending. For some characters, the ending is happy; for others, it’s tragic. For most, things will go on as they have before. The names and faces will change, but the same power structures guarantee that, for Baltimore as a whole, victories will be minor or temporary.
If you haven’t seen The Wire, I suggest you start renting the DVDs now.