Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Wire, a portrait of Baltimore (re-post)

Below is a re-posted version of this piece on Livingston Patch, located here.

Not only is The Wire the best TV show I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the best pieces of art I’ve ever experienced in any form. This American drama series, set and produced in Baltimore, Maryland, showed on HBO from June 2002 to March 2008. With episodes lasting about an hour each, it ran for 60 episodes across five seasons. The Wire is a fictional but realistic portrait of the city of Baltimore.

Each episode of the show begins with a quote. Therefore, it felt fitting to put a quote at the beginning of this post. From episode five, season five:

Cutty: I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is…not everything comes down to how you carry it in the street. I mean, it do come down to that if you gonna be in the street. But that ain’t the only way to be. 
Dukie: Round here it is.
Cutty: Yeah. Round here it is. World is bigger than that, at least, that’s what they tell me.
Dukie: Like…how do you get from here to the rest of the world?
Cutty: I wish I knew.

While the show starts as a well done but typical crime drama, it becomes a portrait of an American city. As summarized on Wikipedia, each season focuses “on a different facet of the city of Baltimore. In chronological order they are: the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system, and the print news media.” Simon explains, “[the show is] about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution they are committed to.”

Creator David Simon spent his life immersed in this material, being a University of Maryland alum and former police reporter at The Baltimore Sun, where he reported in Baltimore’s ghettos for years. Even more insight came from co-writer Ed Burns (no relation to the filmmaker), a former Baltimore homicide detective and teacher. Burns taught seventh grade, which he compares psychologically to the Vietnam War. At school his most important duty was exemplifying an “adult who’s consistent, who’s always there, who always comes through with what he said, then that’s a new world for them.” After these occupations, both men worked in the entertainment industry, including once together on the Emmy-winning TV mini-series The Corner.

From Simon and Burns’ experience comes the realism of the show. Novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island), who did some writing for the show, said Simon and Burns’ dialogue is “really authentic street poetry.” The authenticity of the show elicits the believability of the material and an empathy for the characters. The Washington Post validated these claims of realism in an article in which students from the poorer parts of Maryland and the DC area discuss how the show resonated with them, discussing that they knew real-life counterparts of many of the characters. While The Wire is fiction, David Simon thoughtfully explains that “it is also fair to note that the problems themselves – politicians cooking crime stats for higher office, school administrators teaching test questions to vindicate No Child Left Behind, sensitive prosecutions and investigations being undercut for political motives, brutal drug wars fought amid a police department’s ignorance of and indifference to the forces involved – were indeed problems in the recent history of the actual Baltimore, Maryland.”

“The Wire is about the American city: How it works, or doesn't, and ultimately, what is at stake for all of us in these times. In that regard, it reflects, with precision, the Baltimore that the writers know and, yes, in a very real sense, love… Giving an honest voice to a modern post-industrial city and all of its inhabitants -- the charmed and the damned alike -- is the point.” – David Simon

Beyond the show’s sociopolitical ideas is also the common struggle between man and the system, whether that system is the school system, the government, or any other. Children depicted in a Baltimore middle school bring the most profound emotion of this struggle. We watch them struggle to fight an almost inevitable future of either dealing drugs, sitting in a jail cell, or being shot dead on a street corner. This reality beckons the question: how can we expect them to defy expectations? As Cutty and Dukie discuss in the beginning quote, these kids can’t even imagine a world outside of the crime-ridden streets of Baltimore. After all, how could they? They don’t spend their free time dreaming of being an astronaut or a wealthy executive; they spend it trying to survive, whether that be helping a drug addicted single parent pay the bills, or simply walking home without being beaten or shot. Near the end of Season One, D’Angelo Barksdale desperately pleas, “I want to start over…I don’t care where, anywhere. I don’t give a f**k. I just want to go somewhere, where I can breathe like regular folk.” This sense of desperation usually cripples individual’s attempts to overcome their situation. However, in the midst of all this unrelenting misfortune is a glimmer of hope; a few characters leave the show overcoming their circumstances. While I leave The Wire with profound sadness, I do not leave it with hopelessness. The success of certain characters and the exposure of ways for the city to overcome its problems leave me with the hope that in my lifetime or the next, the system in Baltimore (and other cities across the country, including a few in my home state of New Jersey) can be fixed. And if not that, at least give children the opportunity to dream, so they have something to hope for.

The Wire is available on DVD and HBO GO (HBO's online streaming service, available to all current subscribers).

A version of this piece was written for my blog, Bostonian on Film, in advance of an event for the Boston Book Festival in October.

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