HBO’s The Wire Is Damn Fine Storytelling

[Originally published in Le Quebecois Libre, No 273, December 15th, 2009. This article is reproduced with permission from the author.]

A year ago, I recommended the HBO miniseries John Adams to last-minute freedom-loving holiday shoppers. This year, I have to recommend another HBO triumph: David Simon’s The Wire, which ran five seasons from 2002 through 2008. Try out the first season on DVD if you want to play it safe or have a limited budget, or get the whole series in a single box set. Either way, you and yours are in for a treat, with excellent writing and directing and a superb cast playing a host of compelling characters.

From the start, it’s clear that this is not your typical cop show. Weapons are rarely drawn, and car chases are almost completely absent. As a cable show, sex and swearing are turned up a notch, so viewer discretion is advised. Most of all, though, what makes The Wire unique is that it takes its time. Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has things to say, and he says them with story arcs that are unhurried and meticulously detailed. Each season, in fact, is built around a single case or storyline (some aspect of which involves electronic surveillance, hence the show’s title). Despite what one might expect from a show with such deliberate pacing, the drama is heightened, not diminished.

Drug War Fail

And what is it that Simon and his team of writers, directors, and actors have to say? On the largest scale, The Wire is about the decay of an American city, namely Baltimore. The main culprit, though—and the main target of Simon’s criticism—is the disastrous War on Drugs. Without preaching, Simon and company make us see the harm caused by this decades-old policy failure. With the theme skilfully woven into engaging narratives, we are shown lives ruined by drug use, yes; but far outnumbering these are all the lives destroyed or diminished by the transformation of entire neighbourhoods into war zones.

We are also given insight into why the Drug War is unwinnable. From the ever-present demand for drugs, to the endless stream of criminals willing to replace whoever gets killed or arrested, to the finite resources available for law enforcement, to the corruption great and small that is encouraged within and without the police department, to the alienation of whole communities victimized by having to live under a de facto police state—in all of these ways, we are shown, rather than explicitly told, how futile it is to try to outlaw peaceful (if potentially self-destructive) voluntary acts.

We also get glimpses into why it is so hard to abandon a policy that has so clearly failed. We are shown how career ambitions obscure the reform efforts of even well-intentioned politicians. We see how institutions can become calcified, with everyone afraid of trying something new, determined to keep doing things the way they have always done things, just because that’s what they know. And we see how the wretched public school system fails to reach many inner-city youths, leaving them with little hope but to enlist with their drug-dealing friends. As one character says in a different context, “This game is rigged, man.”

Radicals for Capitalism?

To libertarians, none of this will come as a terrific shock. Allowing people the freedom to make their own, perhaps mistaken decisions about what to put into their own bodies is of a piece with allowing them to make their own decisions about how to school their own children. Top-down edicts about what kind of educational systems are allowed will lead to bad results just as surely as top-down decisions about what kinds of drugs are allowed. And of course, throwing parents in jail for drug offences isn’t great for kids either.

But Simon and his co-creator, former Baltimore narcotics officer Ed Burns, are not libertarians. Like many critics of the drug war, they consider themselves members of the political left. In an interview with Reason magazine’s Radley Balko, Burns bemoans the loss of “manufacturing-based jobs” in Baltimore, a theme that is reflected in the show’s second season focus on underemployed dock workers. Simon, for his part, worries elsewhere about the loss of a “well-funded press” thanks to media companies caring more about share prices than about the quality of the product, a major theme of the fifth and final season.

As a libertarian, I see these kinds of economic transformations, painful as they are for some, as examples of the creative destruction by which a capitalist society constantly renews itself. I also know that when governments interfere with the market’s adjustment processes, hardship is generally increased or prolonged. Workers are slower to retrain if they are discouraged from doing so by government-funded welfare or government-empowered unions. News media will fail to build a new business model in the Internet age if they look for bailouts and become government lapdogs instead of the government watchdogs we need them to be.

Well Worth Watching

Still, as I said above, The Wire doesn’t preach. Its focus on the loss of manufacturing jobs and the transformation of the news media is more descriptive than prescriptive. And whatever their intentions, as Reason’s Balko puts it, “Simon and Burns created a show that eviscerated Democratic governance, capturing the futility and spectacular failure of local institutions. The Wire serves as a primer on unintended consequences, public choice theory, and the way politics poisons civil society. Characters showing even a hint of nobility are almost inevitably punished by indifferent, plodding bureaucrats, overly ambitious politicians, or the damaging actions of well-meaning public employees.” While they may have set out to create a rallying call for better government, to these libertarian ears at least, the clear message of this engaging and entertaining show is that it would be best if governments governed less.

Unbelievably, over its five seasons on the air, this fantastic show never won a single Emmy. Thankfully, The Wire lives on in DVD format, which is probably the best way to view it anyway: you can set your own pace, and you can switch on the subtitles whenever the street slang gets too hard to follow. If you haven’t tuned in to The Wire yet, check it out this holiday season. It may be the best thing you watch all year.

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2 Responses to “HBO’s The Wire Is Damn Fine Storytelling”

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  2. Barry Rudd says:

    The rise of filesharing and "piracy" has prompted many copyright holders to display notices on DVD packaging or displayed on screen when the content is played that warn consumers of the illegality of certain uses of the DVD. It is commonplace to include a 90 second advert warning that most forms of copying the contents are illegal. Many DVDs prevent skipping past or fast-forwarding through this warning.

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