The HBO show is a valuable artifact from the post-9/11, pre-social media revolution era.
The Wire's first episode aired on June 2, 2002, 10 years ago this week. A decade has now passed since HBO took a chance on showrunner David Simon's grim vision of a decaying, desperate Baltimore and nearly half a decade since the iconic series ended and was enshrined as the Greatest TV Show Ever, taught at Harvard and Duke.
A decade on and 60 episodes later, the show has aged. Countless people still discover the five seasons every day, yet the main elements of The Wire remain very much a nuanced product of their time. The dysfunctions that Simon portrays in the series are chained to dynamic shifts happening in the specific years when it was set.
"We just don't have the manpower to stay on anything big," an FBI agent tells McNulty in the 2002 premiere, regarding to the agency's shift from focusing on domestic crime and drugs to counterterrorism. "Not since those Towers fell." McNulty is not pleased: "What, we don't have enough love in our hearts for two wars?" David Simon, of course, feels no need to clarify what the FBI agent meant by "those Towers" or "two wars." What the man referred to was, back in 2002, recent and real news. Al Qaeda flew two planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the effects run throughout the core institutions of The Wire. The two wars are on drugs and terrorism. Baltimore police attempt to take their case against the Barksdale drug crew to federal authorities at the end of that first season but why do they fail? The FBI insists that political corruption must be the priority if they step in, thanks to new War on Terror orders. The second season echoed the conflict, as the FBI only joined the dockworkers investigation, full of sex trafficking and drugs and violence, to pick at the corruption of Frank Sobotka's stevedore union.
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The Wire's dysfunction is all part of the changing politics and technology of the early 21st century. Yes, the War on Terror warped American law enforcement policies, apparent in the first two seasons. Frank Sobotka, union leader of the docks, spends the second season in fear (and, consequently, loses his moral compass) because his profession is dying and becoming automated, a not-uncommon shift as our machines grow all the more powerful.
Simon shows how the same struggle hits the media later on, prone to sensation amid buyouts and changing business models. In The Wire's third season, the Baltimore police engage in a statistics-driven performance review known fictionally as Comstat and in real life known as Citistat in Baltimore ("Compstat" in New York City). The brutal review process was touted as a revolution in strategic policing and responsible, perhaps, for a significant drop in crime over the last decade and a half. But Comstat, as The Wire well showed, also created unhealthy strains and subtly encouraged officers to twist the numbers. Why did Major Bunny Colvin feel pressure to create the drug sanctuary Hamsterdam? Comstat's circus combined with senseless approaches to drugs motivated Colvin to go rogue.
Similar historical pressures push teachers in season 4 as President George Bush's No Child Left Behind education plan casts a real-life shadow. When a new city teacher, formerly of the Baltimore police, hears how his school will teach test questions, the young man immediately recognizes the dilemma: "Juking the stats ... Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I've been here before."
David Simon brings a historian's sword in his analysis of urban decay, and the blade is very much one that befits the years 2002 to 2008. The era carried a specificity to its history that is worth noting and is memorialized in this iconic HBO show. The drama was a portrait of its time in the same way a show like AMC's Mad Men strives to capture the 1960s. The only difference is Simon sought to tell his story in real time. These breakdowns of institutional order emanate from the history that surrounds them, history that already feels distant to those of us rewatching episodes in 2012. To see 2002 again is jarring. Recall the hoppers' casual use of payphones? Characters' confusion at the very idea of text messaging or an Internet search in season 2? Or the lack of social media in the disintegration of journalism Simon depicted in season 5?
These details are dated in the best sense of the word. Few ever understand their present until it becomes past, but The Wire's brilliance was its understanding and articulation of contemporary life. The drama was an authentic mirror. What worked about The Wire was its very grounding in these years and in the geography of Baltimore. The show's timeless undercurrents convey the challenges of the individual versus institution and the often-futile quest for reform, but Simon achieves an examination more precise than these broad strokes. Imagine how rich the chronicle of our century's first years will seem to anyone watching another 30 or 60 years into the future. Sure, the story of post-industrial collapse could have been told in countless American cities, just as institutional dysfunction is a recurring crisis with myriad variations. But Simon successfully dramatized what the crisis looked like then and there. That's no small achievement.