“I think it’s too bad that everybody’s decided to turn on drugs. I don’t think drugs are the problem. Crime is the problem. Cops are the problem. Money’s the problem. But drugs are just drugs.” This quote from Jerry Garcia, while probably meant as an endorsement of drugs, is also quite fitting as a condemnation of the people and problems present in The Wire. The critically adored, yet utterly ignored show depicted how crime and corruption are woven into our society. Each season showed a different aspect of Baltimore life. Criminal organizations were juxtaposed with schools, the media, politicians, and even the police, to show how each of them could facilitate, or be just as bad as the people pushing the drugs.
In reality it’s no surprise that criminals and toxic people can come from all walks of life. Incidents of police abusing their power often makes the news, yet there is seldom any punishment met out, even when there is video evidence depicting the brutality. So maybe that’s why we have so many cop dramas that clearly delineate those who obey the law as good, and those who break it as bad. Those shows are the ideal that we wish could be achieved in our own society.
For David Simon, the creator of The Wire, it was a loss of that idealism that eventually prompted him to start giving people a less looked at perspective on crime. He spent his career working as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, trying to give an unbiased account of crime in the city. However his growing dissatisfaction with how the publication was operating led to him taking two separate leaves of absence during his journalism career. The first time he took a year to shadow homicide detectives on the job and gain a better understanding of what they did. The second time he spent a year among a known drug community, and got to know the dealers and users in the area. As Simon spoke to those affected by drug addiction he couldn’t help befriending some of them. This made the realities of that world all the more crushing as he watched the lives of people he had come to know spiral down and end in death.
While these experiences wound up being the basis for the books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, they also irrevocably changed Simon’s outlook. No longer satisfied on just reporting on crimes for the Baltimore Sun, he wanted to take his glimpse into street life and share that vision with as many people as he could. This would become the basis for his show on HBO, which showed many aspects of crime that were glossed over by network shows, such as authentic street slang, characters played by former drug dealers who could bring sincerity to their roles, and of course cops who were only heroes until you saw what they did to achieve the results that impressed everyone.
Early in season one we see several of the main cast of cops performing a drug raid in a high traffic area, but turning up unsuccessful even after frisking all of the dealers. One of the younger dealers, sixteen year old Bodie, gets fed up with the rough handling he’s receiving from an older cop and sucker punches the man. Rather than simply put Bodie in handcuffs and arrest him for assault on an officer, he’s beaten to the ground by the other cops, getting kicked and pummeled with police batons. You can even hear one of the more moral characters of the show, Kima Greggs, telling her fellow officers to hold Bodie’s arms down so he can’t protect himself while she repeatedly kicks him in the ribs.
In contrast to many of the shows centering on police activity, The Wire never shied away from showing people from every walk of life in a negative light. The police behind the eponymous wire taps are forced to abide by the same questionable rules of life that affect the drug rings they are attempting to stop. The people at the top are looking to stay there, even if it means ruining everything that the people beneath them have worked for. The group utilizing the wire taps are frequently in conflict with the police commissioner, who for the sake of keeping up a good appearance is focused more on providing good crime bust statistics even if it means ignoring the major criminals in the city.
David Simon described this system when speaking about, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets saying, “All institutions tend toward self-preservation and the aggrandizement of those at the top of the institutions, in my opinion. All institutions, unless carefully monitored by an empowered, active democracy, tend toward the betrayal of their original missions, the people they are supposed to serve and the people who serve those institutions.”
The police in The Wire are always constrained by a higher authority limiting their ability to do the job they want to do. Few people on the show, cops or criminals, are cruel or corrupt just for the sake of it. David Simon gives his characters probable reasons for their behavior, such as in season three when the mayor is demanding the police lower the crime rate so he looks good in his upcoming election. With conventional methods not yielding any results, and the higher ups resorting to firing anyone who can’t produce a change, Major Colvin resorts to alternative means. He gradually creates a legalized area for all drug traffic within an abandoned neighborhood in the city where no innocent people will be affected by it, becoming complicit in crime to lower it. The arrest rates plummet so the mayor is happy, the police can ignore the drug traffic to focus on more serious crimes, and the dealers are happy because they can make money without fear of being thrown in jail. Everyone finally has what they want, and it comes from ignoring the law.
Yet Simon also never forgets the tragedy he witnessed when gathering research for his second book, and incorporates those experiences into the show as well. Characters who early on can be easily dismissed as pathetic junkies and dealers eventually become sympathetic people. The fourth season especially highlights how good people can be brought low as the season focuses primarily on a middle school with four young friends all in danger of straying to a life on the street just to survive. As the show progresses it becomes easier to relate to the criminals because we see some of them really don’t have any other choice, whereas the cops and other characters in power often act solely in their own interest just because doing what’s right is too hard and asks more than they’re willing to give.
Even President Obama found himself caring more about the criminals of the show than the cops. When asked who his favorite character from The Wire is, he responded, “It’s got to be Omar, right? I mean, that guy is unbelievable, right…I mean, what a combination. And that was one of the best shows of all time.” Omar Little, a fan favorite of the show, is based on a real former criminal. His character on the show is presented almost as a Robin Hood of urban Baltimore. Almost. He makes a living out of sticking up big name drug dealers for huge amounts of cash, but rather than give it to charities, he keeps it for himself. I mean he is one of the needy, but he’s certainly not benevolent with his assets. He’s also not averse to blowing off people’s knees with his trademark shotgun. Good pick, Mr. President.
With so much behavior steeped in reality, The Wire set itself apart from any other cop drama on TV. Heroic cops and malicious criminals might be easily digestible entertainment, but it doesn’t resonate with the world we live in where motives are so varied. The show spoke to an audience that saw a different reality than the one typically portrayed on TV. So can any other show ever achieve what The Wire did, and topple the critical status it now holds as a nearly perfect show? Well as Omar Little said in reference to his competition trying to gun him down, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
Photo accreditation: Keith Allison http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/5741994079/