The Wire is a 60 part television series set in Baltimore, Maryland. Originally broadcast in the USA over five seasons on HBO, the series is now available on DVD and will be broadcast in Australia from August on ABC2. The Wire is compulsive watching.
The title refers to wiretaps used extensively by the police in this series to gather evidence on drug traffickers. Wiretaps also seem to be used in this series as a metaphor for the discovery of truth by outsiders in complex situations.
David Simon, largely responsible for the project, rightly describes this work as a “visual novel”. It is by television standards exceptionally dense and rich. Many consider this series to be one of the finest fictional works ever created for television. The Wire is developing an international cult status. President Obama named The Wire as his favourite television show and even identified his favourite character.
Each season focuses on a major Baltimore institution: the drug trade, the port, the city government, the school system and the local major newspaper (The Baltimore Sun). The drug trade is represented as the only vibrant economy in the series. There are few other employment options or methods of exit for the young black people we meet trapped in these depressed ghettoes. One of the drug traffickers comments “you play or you is played”. This approach seems to be common to all the areas of life we see in Baltimore.
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Vast capital accumluated from the drug trade is later recycled through major buidling developments. This is only possible because of the pervasive corruption which links all the affected instutions: the law, politics and government adminstration. The deeply compromised nature of the instututions contrasts with the valiant attempts of some individuals in all of these institutions to behave honourably despite the circumstances.
The series is enriched by being set in a particularly local framework of Baltimore. But the distinctiveness of this grim setting also helps to provide a greater universality. Baltimore, one of the twenty largest cities in the USA, is today a faded reminder of its more glorious past. It has one of the highest homicide rates of any US city. Baltimore is a poor, predominantly black city. Unusually for US television, most of the actors are black. As this series shows, Americans pay a very high price for living in such an unequal society.
David Simon was previously a police reporter on the Baltimore Sun. His co-writer, Ed Burns, was a former homicide detective in the Baltimore Police Department. This ambitious project required the assistance of a vast number of individuals. A striking feature is the astonishing authenticity of the drug traffickers, union officials, police, city government, school system and the newspaper industry. The creators received a lot of expert advice from diverse sources. The screenplay and acting are outstanding.
Kurt Schmoke, a highly regarded former Mayor of Baltimore for a decade from the late 1980s, was one of the advisors. Schmoke plays a small part in the third season as Health Commissioner advising the mayor to accept drug law reform.
I met Schmoke while he was Mayor soon after he had become the first significant US politician to publicly denounce the War on Drugs as a failed and futile policy. It has taken 20 years for Schmoke’s views to gain grudging and more wide-spread acceptance.
Earlier in his career, while a Maryland Attourney, Schmoke was responsible for prosecuting a drug trafficker who had murdered his best friend, a narcotics officer shot to death while raiding the drug trafficker’s hide out. Schmoke had to listen again and again to his friend’s wire-tap recording of the incident. This prompted him to question whether his best friend had lost his life in vain in an un-winnable war.
In this series, the irresistible force of drug law reform is obstructed by the immovable mountain of political short term-ism. Just like in real life. Opportunities for improvement in other areas in this series are also cut short. Unlike most drama created for popular audiences, this series is permeated with a rather bleak and angry pessimism. No wonder the American people in 2007 voted in large numbers for “hope” and “change we can believe in”.
The series comes highly recommended. But be warned. Watching The Wire is highly addictive.
Dr Alex Wodak is the President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.