Sunday, 2 December 2012

Some thoughts on The Wire

I had The Wire recommended to me by a couple of friends independently of each other, so I thought I'd take a look. One of them suggested that the appeal of the show might not become apparent until ten episodes in, so although the first couple of episodes didn't impress me, that's what I set out to watch.

It seems evident to me that show creator David Simon was aiming for a highly naturalistic depiction of police work, populated by psychologically credible characters with complex motivations. I think that The Wire succeeds on all these counts. If its depiction of police work is not accurate then it is at the very least convincing to a lay person like me. And most of the characters are well developed and at least somewhat three-dimensional.

However, ten episodes is all of this that I'm going to watch.

Ultimately, the show just never told a story that I was remotely interested in listening to.

While credible, I found the characters to be thoroughly and terminally boring. I never became invested to the point of caring about the fate of any of them. (Oh, OK, D'Angelo maybe). Put another way: I've just come away from watching one of the show's protagonists shot (and, I thought, killed) and it made zero impact on me.

Ultimately, The Wire is the story of a bunch of characters I never cared about, busy doing stuff I never cared about, set in what must be one of parts of planet Earth I find dullest and least appealing. There's no argument from me that it is skilfully put together, but neither is there any reason why I would be interested in seeing the outcome of that investment of skill. It's like seeing those people who build large and highly complex models out of toothpicks or matchsticks: the skill and intricacy is unmistakable, but the end result is almost never what I would consider to be a very good model.

I don't know whom I would recommend this to: probably only people who are interested in police work and who value highly naturalistic storytelling.

While fact-checking the above before hitting the Publish button, I have learned that I was mistaken about Simon's intentions for the show. He didn't see it only in terms of naturalistic police drama, but:
"really about the American city, and about how we live together. It's 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." (DVD Commentary track, quoted on Wikipedia)
Elsewhere, he says:
"It's masquerading as a cop show, but I hope it's going somewhere else," Simon said during a phone interview from Baltimore, where the series is set"
"This is a testament to middle management in an era where the stock price matters more than the product. Where an employee's loyalty or innate human value matters less than how (they) can be used or utilized." (San Francisco Chronicle)
I can clearly point to specific instances in the ten episodes I watched where this intention shows through, but they are so few and far between that I cannot regard them as meaningful. If that was indeed what he set out to do, then I think he failed. 
In my opinion. The Wire stands or falls as a cop show. 


  1. Looking forward to a Freudian analysis of the new Star Trek.

  2. "It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if this clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, "No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer."
    – Søren Kierkegaard

    That's what watching The Wire was like for me when I watched it. Every episode demonstrated the way that bureaucratic institutions force people to achieve the exact opposite of what the institutions are set up to achieve.

    Few institutions work properly in the United States. Most institutions are parasitical, feeding on the people whom they claim to help. I grew up in the United States, hearing all the good government bullshit that they feed to kids. George Washington cut down a cherry tree and he could not tell a lie to his father about it, and he took responsibility for cutting down the cherry tree. If you work hard, you will find a good job in the United States that will allow you to buy a house and provide for your family. The police are helpful, capable people interested in making sure that you are safe, and they will never threaten, harass, rape, beat, or kill you. But it's all bullshit. The truth is that the United States is owned by a small number of private businesses, and that they have been fighting imperial wars for over a century and now they see a way of making money by privatizing the prison system.