The Wire

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If you watch The Wire, you should read Mark Bowden’s essay on the show in the latest Atlantic. If you don’t watch the show, you should run – don’t walk! – out to buy the DVDs, watch the first four seasons, and then read Mark Bowden’s essay. Like most of what’s been written about The Wire by its myriad admirers, it’s a valentine to the show’s greatness; unlike most of what’s been written, though, it gets at the show's limits as a work of sociology, and the extent to which its much-lauded "realism" is undergirded by David Simon's ultimately unrealistic sense of near-despair over the state of American life - whether in the ghetto or in City Hall, in blue-collar neighborhoods or (this season) in the offices of your local daily newspaper.

Responding to the essay, Reihan and Matt both concur with this assessment, to varying degrees, but both make the point (which Bowden makes as well) that the show’s unrelenting - and therefore unrealistic - emphasis on tragic scenarios and the impossibility of self-help is a crucial part of its success as a work of art. "It’s by no means clear to me that a more accurate show would be a better show," Reihan comments; expanding on the same point, Matt writes:

... part of what gives The Wire such great power is its creator's conviction, wrong though it is, that his tragic vision constitutes telling it like it is. While departing from both reality and realism in any number of ways, The Wire is resolutely committed to verisimilitude in a way that almost no other show is. The result is the creation of a world -- Simon's Baltimore -- that feels eminently real, but is imbued with all the artifice of Greek tragedy.

In political terms it's a dark vision that, like Dostoevsky's, veers wildly between radical and reactionary and that exists, fundamentally, outside the lines of “normal” arguments about policy. Simon believes that we are doomed, and political progress requires us to believe that we are not. But aesthetically it's an extremely powerful conceit.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he believes we’re “doomed,” exactly; Simon’s vision lies outside the normal lines of politics, no doubt, and I take Reihan’s point that it’s effectively “an elaborate, moving brief for despair and (ultimately) indifference.” But I’m sure Simon himself considers it a brief for radical action of some sort. He isn’t a no-hoper; he just doesn’t place any hope in the meliorist progressivism that most contemporary liberals support (or, needless to say, in Reihan’s applied neoconservatism).

Otherwise, though, I agree with my colleagues about the relationship between the show’s sociological intentions and its artistic impact. Take the show’s second season, which Simon has characterized as a "meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class.…[I]t is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many." If it’s really supposed to be taken as a “deliberate argument,” then it’s bunk: I’m the last person (on the right-of-center, at least) to dispute the premise that the American working class has its share of problems, but I don’t think that the plight of the Sobotkas – a family of dockworkers pushed into criminality by the disappearance of honest blue-collar work in Baltimore's Locust Point – is particularly representative of the difficulties facing most working-class Americans; nor do I think that the decline of the Baltimore stevedores’ local, while sad in its way, constitutes quite so searing an indictment of the modern capitalist economy as David Simon thinks it.

But taken as tragedy rather than sociology, the fall of Frank Sobotka makes for immensely powerful theater, inspiring all that pity-and-terror business as effectively as anything I’ve seen on television. And so it is with other seasons and other narratives: America, whether in the inner city or elsewhere, is a less-hopeless place than Simon makes it out to be, but human beings struggling to make their way in a lost-cause world, pushing boulders up hills only to watch them roll back down, makes for awfully powerful storytelling. The Wire's Baltimore isn't quite as true-to-life as its more fervent fans make it out to be, but that doesn't detract from its power – any more than you have to accept Shakespeare as an authority on medieval Scotland to appreciate Macbeth.

My only caveat would be this: While Simon's mix of radicalism, cynicism and despair only strengthens the show's dramatic punch, his often-palpable sense of resentment occasionally weakens it. Upon repeated viewing, especially (I'm working my way through the early seasons in preparation for the new one), the persistent, self-serving venality of nearly every character with any sort of final authority grows somewhat wearying. The higher-ups in the police department - Rawls and Burrell - are the closest the show comes to caricature in its recurring characters; they’re entertaining at first, but then irritating and increasingly predictable. In them, and characters like them, you see the side of David Simon that's nursed abiding grudges against his former editors at the Baltimore Sun for the better part of a decade. Which makes me worry, along with Bowden, about how the Sun-centric final season will shape up: As a viewer, I have nothing but love for the David Simon who wants to make The Wire a cri de coeur against the brutalities of American capitalism, wrong though I think he is, but I'm more wary of the David Simon who occasionally seems to want to make The Wire a big screw-you to everyone who never recognized his genius.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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