February 26, 2008 by Marc Lamont Hill
The HBO series is the ultimate anti-cop show, a rebellion against the horseshit police worship afflicting American television.
‘The Wire’ — Why Criticize One of the Best Crime Shows in TV History?
By Brian Cook
In a recent story in The Nation, Chris Hayes used 2,200-plus words to argue why progressives should back Sen. Barack Obama. I’ll use only seven: Obama’s favorite TV show is The Wire. It’s certainly true, as Hayes noted, that Obama, like every presidential candidate, won’t be saying one word about the prison-industrial complex or the disastrous consequences of the “war on drugs.” But it’s heartening to think that at least he’s tuning in to one of the few public forums that fiercely drags such issues into our consciousness.
Throughout its five seasons on HBO, The Wire has created riveting fictional drama out of the residents living, policing and selling dope on the streets of Baltimore. Described by its co-creator David Simon as the ultimate “anti-cop show, a rebellion against the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television,” The Wire obliterates easy dichotomies of “good cops” and “bad drug dealers.” Instead, it builds morally complex characters on both sides of the law whose individual decisions are largely shaped by political and economic forces outside their control. After detailing the ravages of the drug trade in its first season, the show broadened its scope in each subsequent season, examining the city’s collapsing industrial sector (and unions), political system, public schools and, finally, journalistic institutions.
The result has been a show that can’t seem to garner enough critical accolades: “Extraordinary” (San Jose Mercury News), “revolutionary” (Entertainment Weekly), “Dickensian” (New York Times) and “the best television show ever” (Salon and Slate). And yet quietly simmering beneath this loving consensus, there have been recent murmurs of discontent and unease with the show’s portrayal of inner-city America.
In the January issue of The Atlantic, Mark Bowden cited the qualms of Yale inner-city sociologist Elijah Anderson. “I get frustrated watching it,” Anderson told Bowden, “because it gives such a powerful appearance of reality, but it always seems to leave something important out. What they have left out are the decent people. Even in the worst drug-infested projects, there are many, many God-fearing, churchgoing, brave people who set themselves against the gangs and the addicts, often with remarkable heroism.”
“This bleakness,” Bowden followed up, “is Simon’s stamp on the show, and it suggests that his political passions ultimately trump his commitment to accuracy or evenhandedness.” Bowden’s concerns have been echoed online, from both the right and left. Conservative cultural critic Reihan Salam, blogging on The American Scene, argued, “David Simon thinks he’s constructed a critique of capitalism, but in fact he’s prepared an elaborate moving brief for despair and (ultimately) indifference.” On the other side of the spectrum, at the American Prospect Online, Ezra Klein wrote plaintively of Simon’s “nihilistic, unrelentingly grim vision.” Simon himself hasn’t done much to dissuade such readings: Last year, he told The New Yorker that The Wire is a story about “the decline of the American empire,” which steadfastly maintains, “no, we are not going to be all right.”
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