HBO’s hit drama bypasses individualism to expose the systems that fail urban America
The American Dream is one of upward mobility, but also sideways movement. The aspiration to greatness comes with a rhetoric of self-sufficiency that causes people to move along and start again, rather than navigating existing structures. Not only was the founding event of the United States a secession, but the most traumatic moment in American history — the Civil War — was also a failed attempt at the same thing. From Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Splendid Isolation’ to the libertarian Tea Party movement, the United States has tended to view government involvement as an intrusion and to laud those who start afresh over those who try to improve what already exists.
The frontier myth romanticises the West as the place where American ideals of equality, democracy and innovation are forged. Despite 82% of the population already living in cities by 2008, the metaphors of individual freedom are still predominantly rural. The most iconic of these is the cowboy — beholden to no law but that of natural justice — who can ride off into the plains carrying nothing but his six-shooter. If you don’t like the current system, just “get out of Dodge” (a phrase made popular by Gunsmoke, the legendary television show about the settlement of the West) and start again.
This individualistic Western mythology has had little hold on Jews. For Jews in America, as in Europe, 20th century life was predominantly urban and communal. From generation to generation Jews dealt with their own existing structures, whether scriptural, legal or political. While some have, of course, rejected the community, growing up Jewish has inculcated a pervasive sense of struggle with self-governance, whether through Talmudic pilpul, fights for civil rights or communal wrangling. The urban concentrations of a community whose traditional skills were best employed in the cities and the tribal nature of a community that is both historically close-knit and closely-knit to its history has meant that completely abandoning the past and moving on is less of a simple option for American Jews. It is no coincidence that the great renewal legislation of American history—Roosevelt’s New Deal — had profound Jewish support.
Dealing with renewal rather than replacement is not an exclusively Jewish preserve. However, the systems of Jewish life have provided a stepping stone for those who want to study this. Jews have been central in questioning and revising structures of thought and society, from Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in Europe to the founders of literary, linguistic and social science in America. And, as has been often noted, even the recent theorists of foreign policy neo-conservativism were Jewish — trying to reform the world through belief in American hegemony. Most visibly, perhaps, in the world of contemporary commentary, Jewish intellectuals prominently provide insight into the systems governing respectively economics, social construction and politics. From Paul Krugman on his Nobel-powered pulpit at the New York Times to Malcolm Gladwell propagating virally from The New Yorker to the vastly influential Jon Stewart at the intersection of satire and news on Comedy Central, systemic analysis is still coming from the people who brought you Noam Chomsky and Milton Friedman.
But the American dream has always been an unwieldy admixture of the personal and the theoretical, bypassing the implementation. From the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty to the inspirational story of Barack Obama, the country leaps from an ideal to a biography without dwelling on the systems or institutions that might allow ideals to unfold into reality. Partly this is true because of the rapidly evolving nature of the nation, partly because of the increasingly vested interests in the status quo and partly because of the influence of the media. Hollywood, as its paradigm, purveys a relentlessly optimistic set of American possibilities.
The palpable atmosphere of possibility in the United States of America — the world’s first ideologically established nation — comes from this sense that if atfirst you don’t succeed, you can give up and try something different. From this impetus comes, on the one hand, America’s proclivity to waste time, space, energy and people but, on the other hand, profound freedom to create. In David Simon’s The Wire, which Jacob Weisberg of Slate called “the best television show ever,” there is no such freedom or energy: only compromise, concession, constraint and, eventually, capitulation.
Based on Simon’s experience as an embedded reporter with the Baltimore homicide unit, The Wire was an urban drama set in Baltimore that unfolded over 60 hours of television in five seasons between 2002 and 2007. The first season was based around a homicide squad that gets permission to use a phone tap — the eponymous wire — for surveillance of a drug gang they have reason to believe is responsible for a number of murders. But rather than just playing out like another cop show, The Wire evinced a deep sympathy for the social structures that created the drug dealers and their world. From the very start it showed the policemen suffering the consequences of their actions and, from season to season, it changed focus from the black underclass to neglected union workers at the docks, teachers, politicians and journalists all making their own desperate attempts to deal with the eroding social fabric.
The Wire is profoundly televisual. Weisberg praises the show though for its ability “to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.” Such literary comparisons have been widely made — The Wire is frequently painted as Dickensian by critics, but it is closer to Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine in its profound humanity, breadth of scope and realistic cast of characters whose centrality varies in any given story. Ultimately though, the comparison with literature is flawed. In Dickensian fashion, Simon’s writing is rich in social critique but television, unlike literature, has no recourse to the interiority that is the sine qua non of the literary. We never know what the characters are thinking, only what they are doing, over and over again.
Films are often too short to allow for the types of examination that systemic scrutiny demands. Although occasional cinematic epics like Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon, Mankiewicz’s 1963 Cleopatra or Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah are able to bring several hours of inspection of both people and systems, that breadth of scope is a rare exception. A season of 13 programmes has a series of rhythms and micro-rhythms, repetitions and variations that is simply not attainable in a single long-form film. These remarkable films echo down the decades but, unlike The Wire, their profundity is inexorable (a gradual unfolding) rather than incessant (a continual series of variations on a theme). The Wire has been compared to a movie because of its high production values and unremittingly intense dialogue. The comparison, though intended as a compliment, is misguided. Each of the five seasons is not a 13-hour movie, but a television series, with the driving cycles and repetitions that implies, meaning that each interaction is loaded with the weight of previous encounters. Each repetition and reevaluation is like the cyclical reading and reinterpretation of the Torah and, more universally, like the repetition of the working week.
Taking its cue from its niche on the subscriber network HBO, The Wire is deliberately dense, layered and occasionally just plain difficult. Itself a product of the new television world of the 1990s, the cable network HBO did not rely on fickle advertisers but on subscribers. The Wire took full advantage of the creative freedom to push the boundaries of verisimilitude both in characterisation and dialogue. It became famous for its constant (and, by all accounts, realistic) use of the word ‘fuck’. The script of an epiphanic five minute scene where detectives Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and William ‘Bunk’ Moreland (Wendell Pierce) revisit a murder scene is entirely, and brilliantly, made of up f-word cognates.
The show has redeﬁned the limits of televisual form and evolved a whole new language of television. Through short episode-long cameos and long multiple-season story arcs, Simon and his co-writers have created an encyclopaedic dramatis personae of nuanced, fully realised characters including black and white dockers, union leaders, lawyers, politicians, drug runners and disadvantaged 6th graders. The complex, lifelong relationship between the childhood friends who run the Barksdale drug gang in the first three seasons is no less lovingly explored for their status as murderers. Perhaps the show’s greatest achievement is giving the African-American underclass a fair voice and a realistic context.
According to Simon: “All the things that have been depicted in The Wire over the past five years — the crime, the corruption — actually happened in Baltimore.” But, as with his book Homicide, the depth of sympathy that Simon is able to elicit from his audience, is the key part of a fiction that makes you not only believe in it, but care about the situation. For example, straight-speaking Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) is a would-be reformist politician who sees with some clarity what needs to be done, but vested interests are against him and, as he observes in the fourth season, voting is deeply racial: “I still wake up white in a city that ain’t.” Carcetti wants to make a difference but the price of power is compromise and the cost of compromise is the cutting edge of reform. Despite their intentions and backgrounds, there is, in the end, little difference, between the almost comically corrupt black politician, Senator R. Clayton ‘Clay’ Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) and the newbie Italian American one. Both have learned to play the system and yet both are, in their own ways, its victims.
But, like Woody Allen’s early films about New York, the central character of The Wire is the city of Baltimore itself. Concrete power and unrealistic hope are the twin powers corrupting the city and, by extension, America. In thrall to an untrammeled local and global capitalism, the local community is victim to those in power and failsto hold either individuals or institutions responsible. At the heart of this failure lies the cursed American hope, which deludes and distracts in equal measure, suggests Simon. The advanced technology, after which the show is named, and which promises so much proves useless to the students in the under-privileged schools. Instead it is incorporated into the plans of the drug gangs on the streets, into the smugglers’ cover-ups at the automated docks, and misused in the new world of web-journalism.
By following legitimate and illegal institutions in parallel, Simon critiqued not only the democratic product, but the democratic process as it is lived in 21st century America. Teachers, lawyers, policemen and city bureaucrats are subject to the same systemic dehumanisations and temptations as drug runners and drug sellers. The difference between their motivations is tiny. That they do not end up in the same trouble is as much the result of their initial privilege as it is a result of their resolution. In its portrayal of good intentions gone bad — not least in the heart-rending depiction of Bubbles (Andre Royo) the perpetually reforming drug-addict, caretaker and part-time informant — it savages the banal, yet fatally distracting hope that lies at the heart of the American dream.
Even when concerned with something other than simple escapist entertainment, Hollywood has found it difficult to liberate itself from the personal. Whether highlighting the impact of General Motors’ factory closings in Roger and Me (1989), Reagan-era AIDS policies in Philadelphia (1993) or energy company cover-ups in Erin Brockovich (2000), health insurance in John Q (2002) or a hundred others, the critique is narrow and anecdotal. Only rarely does the corporate movie set-up address the systems that affect the success of the protagonist. In contrast, The Wire focuses explicitly on systems and institutions, from drug policing, unions, politics, education to the media in each of the series respectively. As Simon himself has pointed out:
“We are not selling hope, or audience gratification, or cheap victories with this show. The Wire is making an argument about what institutions — bureaucracies, criminal enterprises, the cultures of addiction, raw capitalism even — do to individuals.”
With movie-lite budgets, movie production values and poetic license, The Wire provides perhaps the most profound dramatic insight into the tragedy of America’s structural problems yet seen. The most damning revelation is, however, that well-intentioned people can hardly make a difference. By awarding a 2010 MacArthur Genius Award to Simon, the MacArthur Foundation added their imprimatur of approval to this dramatic insight. But, the brilliant, well-intentioned team behind The Wire seem, as they would surely have suspected, to have made no difference.