erik lundegaard

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“Shit is Fucked”: How The Wire Explains Our World

I’ve been meaning to write about HBO’s The Wire since the final episode aired nine days ago but the show’s creator, David Simon, beat me to the punch.

Simon’s defense of the show’s final season carries unfortunate echoes for critics—i.e., the big picture that newspaper critics missed was how the newspaper in The Wire kept missing the big picture. But give the critics this: Simon’s Baltimore Sun is still not as interesting as his Baltimore Police Department, as his Baltimore docks, as his Baltimore political and education systems, because the best in all of those institutions are flawed while the worst still came through at surprising times. This doesn’t happen with his Sun. The good editor there is always right and the bad reporter is always wrong and the higher-ups always make the wrong play. Not enough gray area in Baltimore’s gray lady. It doesn’t surprise me that Simon used to work at the real Baltimore Sun and based these characters upon real people. In journalistic terms, Simon was perhaps too close to the story.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I just want to tell everyone to watch the show.

I started watching in January 2008 and in three months bulldozed through all five seasons, all 60 episodes. For 60 hours out of the 2,184 I lived during this period I was watching The Wire. That’s one out of every 36 hours. That 36th hour was probably more beneficial to me in the long run.

Since it’s HBO, people ask me how The Wire compares with The Sopranos and I generally answer it’s a different universe. But comparisons can be revealing. I love both shows but The Sopranos centered around one person, Tony, who was a black hole. Everything and everyone got pulled into him and either came out damaged or never came out at all. The Sopranos, a corrupt universe, inevitably collapsed in on itself. One of the arguments against a Sopranos movie is the sad question: Who’s left?

The Wire? It started out with these cops vs. these drug dealers and kept expanding: now the Baltimore Police Department; now East Baltimore gangs; now the docks and the old Greek mafia; now the political system and the education system and the media. By the end they’d created an entire city.

They also laid out how and why our world is fucked up in the way it is. Boil it down to three words: the numbers game. Every institution plays this. For police, the numbers game involves arrests, (no matter who’s getting arrested and who isn’t), and for schools it’s test scores, (no matter who’s getting educated and who isn’t), and for the media it’s Pulitzer prizes (no matter which stories get told and which don’t). Quantity over quality. As long as you have the right numbers you’re doing fine.

Those who play the numbers game get rewarded and those who don’t, don’t. And those who try to shake up the system get shaken off. The system protects itself as surely as HAL-9000 protects itself in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “McNulty, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.”

And it’s not just Baltimore and it’s not just the Police Department. It’s everywhere. It’s probably your job, your office, your boss. There’s always a numbers game being played. “What are our profits? How can we extend our profits? Who do we have to lose to extend our profits?” The Wire is infinitely relatable. It doesn’t just explain their world, it explains ours.

Team-building is a narrative device that never gets old—whether it’s cops, crooks, or samurais—and the first season of The Wire gives us one of the best examples of team-building I’ve seen. Most teams are assembled on purpose. Who’s a great safecracker? Who’s a great getaway man? Who’s a master swordsman? The wrinkle David Simon added is this: The team on The Wire was assembled by accident. Someone made too much noise (our man Jimmy McNulty, played Dominic West), complaining to the wrong guy (a judge) about a situation that he shouldn’t have cared about (murders in the projects), and it forced the institution, in the form of Commissioner Burrell and Deputy Commissioner Rawls, to act. But they acted reluctantly and spitefully. They, and other deputies and chiefs, offered up, for this special team to investigate the projects, the worst of the worst. And some were: drunks and fuck-ups who soon fell away. But many were those, like McNulty, like Det. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), who had simply tried to buck the system, who refused to play the numbers game. Real police. The institution, in other words, assembled a team of institutional rejects, but since it’s the institution that’s corrupt, it actually assembled a team of superlatives.

That’s fucking brilliant.

The show started smart and got smarter. In 2004, for a legal trade publication, I interviewed Ron Safer, the assistant U.S. attorney who led the team that brought down the Gangster Disciples in Chicago in the 1990s, and he talked about the corner kids who sell the drugs and who are usually the first ones arrested. Maybe they’re the only ones arrested. Safer knew all about the numbers game and he didn’t play it. “Those kids are there for you to arrest,” he told me. “There’s an endless supply of them. They’re the victims of the gang.” On The Wire, of course, the higher-ups often targeted these kids because they’re the easy ones to arrest. Quantity over quality. Look how many dealers we’ve arrested this week, this month, this year.

The second season of the show seemed weaker to me ... until the final episodes, when it packed a wallop I didn’t see coming. Meanwhile, the results of the smart, endless police work were never clean. Our guys never got quite what they wanted. Something, usually the short-term interests of the higher-ups, got in the way. It never felt satisfying but, in that dissatisfaction, it always felt true.

How about characters? Characters. I fell in love with Lester in the first season, while my girlfriend fell for Omar (Michael K. Williams), the gangbanger who steals from the gangs. Omar first makes an appearance and you think, “That guy doesn’t know who he’s messing with.” Then you realize he does.

I fell for Bubbles next. Plus Bunk (Wendell Pierce), and his perpetual cigar, and his great three-word description of the state of things: “Shit is fucked.” Hemingway never said it better.

Bodie (J.D. Williams), the worst of the corner kids in the first season, seemed the best of them by the fourth: last man/kid standing of the Barksdale clan. Suddenly he was my guy. By the fifth season it was Dukie (Jermaine Crawford). Where will he end up? How can he possibly survive? I identified. I grew up white and middle-class in Minneapolis and I identified.

I could go on but I don’t want to say too much. I just want you to watch the episodes. It’s worth the 60 hours of your life. I’m beginning to think it’s worth another 60 hours of mine.

What can I say? The Wire doesn’t just explain their world, it explains ours.

—Originally appeared on Huffington Post, April 2008